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Human Rights

The Myth of Universal Human Rights — Part 4

Rights, Respect, and Responsibility

“I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way.”
– Robert Frost

Nature’s Law and Murphy’s Law

In his 1992 book, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character, Charles Syke analyzes the consequences of America’s decline into a “no-fault” and “no-pain” society. The cultural decline in America, Syke concludes, has produced a revolt against the ethics of personal responsibility. He argues that individuals should first be able to control their passions and emotions; that is, exercise self-restraint. People should defer immediate gratification and focus on goals – education, career advancement, savings. They should also accept the idea that the world owes them nothing and accept the responsibility for their bad decisions and mistakes just as they want to be rewarded for their own successes. Finally, Syke argues that respect for others should include the idea that a good and civil society requires that all members respect the rights of others. And, participation in the voluntary activities that serve to maintain and improve the quality and character of their community should be encouraged. When those attitudes ensue, then, according to Mr. Syke, the result will be a healthy society. In short, he seems to be saying that “tough love” works better than the promise of entitlements without responsibility.

But Mr. Syke is not alone in promoting responsibility over entitlements. In her book “Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa,” Dambisa Moyo, a former economist at Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, posits that foreign aid provided to most of the sub-Saharan African nations as humanitarian relief has been a monumental fiasco. From her article, “Why Foreign Aid Is Hurting Africa,” published in the March 21, 2009, issue of the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Moyo writes

  “. . . evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment. It’s increased the risk of civil conflict and unrest (the fact that over 60% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under the age of 24 with few economic prospects is a cause for worry). Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.”

So, to the extent humanitarian aid can be equated with the effort to protect and promote human rights, then Dr. Moyo’s findings in Africa only underscore Charles Syke’s admonition against creating more victims and enlarging the welfare state. In fact, Dr. Moyo’s prescriptions for improving the lot of Africans pretty much parallel Syke’s tough love approach to taking on personal and communal responsibilities. Like the old saying goes, “If you give a man a fish, he can eat for a day. But if you teach a man to fish he can eat for a lifetime.” (Of course, if you teach a man to fish, buy him a rod and reel, supply him with a boat, build a jetty on the harbor, and lower taxes on the fishing industry, you will stimulate the economy of the whole world!)

And what of the rather severe problem created by growing human populations and declining resources? In his classic 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin argues that if families were solely dependent on their own resources for survival such that those families which were less respectful of the environment would see their own children starve, then over-breeding would be corrected by nature and there would be no need for the welfare state. Dr. Hardin cautions that:

 “To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.”

Or, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, “Freedom without responsibility is anarchy.”

Tribalism, Pluralism and Geronimo

As workmen were attaching the plaque with Emma Lazarus‘s poem to the pedestal of the new Statue of Liberty – the one that reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – Americans were celebrating the end of the Indian wars. The lone holdouts, lead by the Chiricahua Apache Chief Geronimo with his threatening band of 16 warriors, 14 women and six children, had just been captured by General Nelson A. Miles and 5,000 of his troops. This, notwithstanding the obvious irony that the Apaches were also tired and poor, and no doubt “yearning to breathe free.”

Millions of immigrants have passed by Lady Liberty, most with the hope of achieving the American dream. But history has shown that they would rather have the dream without the “American” part. This is evidenced by the fact that neighborhoods with specific cultural identities populate most major cities – the African-Americans, the Jews, the Italians, the Greeks, the Muslims, the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, not to mention the large enclaves of Hispanics, and many others. Although there has been some integration between and among these groups, mostly in the workplace, in sports, and in schools, America’s “melting pot” looks more like a salad bowl, with each ingredient retaining its own unique identity.

To this point, Harvard’s Robert D. Putnam, back in the dark ages of 2000, published his comprehensive study, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” This was a massive study based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people in 41 communities across America. In his August 5, 2007, review in the “Boston Globe,” titled “The Downside of Diversity,” Michael Jonas commented that Putnam’s study,

 “. . . has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study . . . found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.”

But clearly, here in 2011, it’s obvious that Professor Putnam’s study didn’t go far enough. We are witness to a growing animus and the lack of civility in our political parties, between labor and management, among the have’s and the have-nots’, the capitalists and the socialists, the whites and the non-whites, the liberals and conservatives, the religionists and secularists, even the Dodgers’ fans and the Giants’ fans.

Dr. Putnam’s findings have been borne out In numerous international studies comparing measures of social health by country where the United States rarely makes into the top ten, and, too often, not even in the top twenty. For example, in the 2005 World Values Survey, the U.S. came in 13th in “Net Happiness,” and 114th out of 143 countries in the 2005, Happy Planet Index. In the Economic Freedom of the World, 2010 Annual Report, we went from 1st in 1980, to 22nd in 2008, under the “Legal Structure & Security of Property Rights” rankings of 141 countries and territories.

The chief restraint to our success as a society, I think, is the ages-old institution of tribalism. Therein lies our identity, our history, our values, our worldview. The tribe is an extended family, protective of its own, suspicious of outsiders. And tribal loyalty, as professor Putnam found out, gives rise to the mistrust of others, sometimes intolerance, and even war. Too many tribes sharing the commons slows the advance of civilization.

Emma Lazarus wanted to give a warm welcome to those in flight from their dystopias. She forgot the importance of homogeneity and, thereby, the unintended consequences of mixing cultures and exacerbating tribalism.

Geronimo would understand. And he wasn’t even an immigrant.

These findings add further support to the above referenced observations of Charles Syke and Dambisa Moyo that reliance on a welfare state and the imposition of entitlements based on the notion of human rights actually reduces the quality of life rather than enhances it.  The “Can’t we all just get along?” plea for peace, harmony, and political correctness is manifestly unworkable.

The Fragility of Human Rights

Of course, social and cultural disharmony are observable not just in the U.S., but all across the globe. Consider the ongoing conflicts between India and Pakistan, China and Tibet, Israel and Palestine, Muslim Sunni and Muslim Shia, Turkey and Kurdistan, Russia and Chechnya, Iran and Iraq. Civil wars are still underway in Columbia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Chad (Darfur), among others. The news media have been filled with stories of alleged human rights violations in these conflicts, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Iranian writer and women’s rights activist Azam Kamguian’s speech at the 16th World Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 2005, describes this dilemma more succinctly:

 “Human beings are worthy of respect but not all religious and cultural traditions and practices can or should be respected. Cultural traditions do change with time and in response to criticism. In celebrating the differences that divide people, multiculturalism sets itself against universal moral claims of equal dignity and individual freedom.”

It is a mistake, I believe, to assume that Human Rights exist as anything more than an intellectual concept. Consider, for example, the looting that goes on after a natural disaster or the riots that occur when the “wrong” verdict is handed down, or an outright revolution. And if a near-extinction event occurs –  a meteor strike, a nuclear war, a pandemic – Human Rights for many survivors might well be at risk. A global catastrophe could easily release the ugly side of human nature, especially when it comes to the driving need for survival.  The lawless hoodlums roaming the planet that are commonly described in science fiction could easily become fact under the right circumstances.


Continued in Part 5 – The Business of Human Rights


One thought on “The Myth of Universal Human Rights — Part 4

  1. Jim Wheeler – Joplin, Missouri – U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.

    You make a very good case, Herb, for the deleterious effects of cultural diversity on civic peace. I submit, however, that the triumph of a single religion or ethos would lead inevitably to authoritarianism, e.g., Nazi Germany or religious states like Iran ruled by Sharia law.

    Interestingly, I found today that there’s an Oxford professor of evolutionary psychology who hypothesizes that the evolution of religion may be the only reason why humans have been able to cooperate in large groups, large enough to make airplanes, fly to the moon and blow things up. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

    Posted by Jim Wheeler | February 27, 2017, 10:16 AM

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