An important book was released recently: “The Debasement of Human Rights,” by human rights activist and ardent classical liberal Aaron Rhodes. If you don’t like the United Nations, you’ll love the book. While Rhodes focuses mostly on the UN system’s corruption of human rights, his book also helps explain America’s tribalistic identity politics.
Briefly, the thesis of the book, which I reviewed here, is that the concept of human rights—once limited to core civil and political liberties like free speech, fair trials, and freedom from torture—has been so expanded by the vast UN human rights bureaucracy as to have become meaningless. The language of human rights has lost its distinction as a voice crying out for justice, and has come describe everything from domestic violence prevention to food and health care payments to employment to environmental stewardship. Preventing or promoting these things is surely important, but to speak of a “right” to health care or a “right” to live in a healthy ecosystem is to lose one’s head in the clouds.
The damage this system of thought has caused is not limited to human rights. It has also damaged politics. Environmental policy, for example, is a highly technical issue. There are plenty of pros and cons to various anti-pollution regulations, carbon taxes, and cap-and-trade systems. They might hurt industry, and thus employment, while producing other benefits. But if there is a right to both employment and a clean environment—rights that are, in theory, supposed to be more or less ironclad—the process of weighing various costs and benefits becomes a betrayal of human rights.
Spoiler alert: the political process often goes on nonetheless, making a mockery of these “rights” and, as Rhodes argues, damaging the credibility of real rights. But the all-encompassing human-rights discourse, if truly implemented and practiced as all the UN documents and treaties say it should be, obliterates the frame of politics itself.
It replaces open discussion, disagreement, and compromise with a rights-based frame in which all disagreement and compromise is an unacceptable denial of rights. In essence, a rights-based discourse turns all politics into identity politics. This is what is happening at the UN, and inside the United States. The “social justice warrior” worldview, focused on privilege, is a sort of downmarket version of the UN’s all-encompassing human rights ideology.
For example, gun control, because it will (presumably) save lives, is often seen as not a political issue but an issue of life and death. So it was that for Parkland activist David Hogg, Sen. Marco Rubio’s support for the National Rifle Association is literally the equivalent of committing murder. Seeking the repeal of Obamacare is “not just politics” but “people’s lives.”
“Not caring [about politics] is a privileged act, the same way having white skin, being a cis male, or living within a certain tax bracket is privileged,” we are informed by what is ostensibly a parenting website called ScaryMommy.
Or a student writing in a Texas college newspaper: “If you’re a person with a uterus and you have opinions on whether or not politics should be involved, you’re probably involved in the voting process. If you don’t have a uterus and you want to make that decision, that’s privilege.”
The most divisive and controversial left-wing social justice prescriptions are, apparently, not politics. Witness this entry from The Tempest, one of those odd millennial lifestyle websites where half the content is about food and wine and the other half is, well, this: “I’m just not that into politics. I had heard it so many times before, and it always made me roll my eyes. ‘I’m just not that into politics’ often means ‘I have so much privilege that politics don’t affect my day-to-day life, so I don’t care.’”
In other words, “politics” is a term used by privileged people either out of ignorance or insufficient zeal for social justice. Whether it is disagreement with LGBT politics, belief in the right of the nation-state to determine its own immigration policies, or giving the police the benefit of the doubt, there is only the right position, which expands freedom, autonomy, and human rights—and of course crushes privilege—or the wrong one. There is no legitimate way to disagree with any of the progressive left’s prescriptions.
What we end up with is a politics of mutual enmity, fear, and resentment, a zero-sum battleground where to actually engage in traditional politics is, in left-wing eyes, to render certain oppressed classes second-class citizens.
There is a silver lining: it is commendable to urge people to participate in their own self-government, which is America’s founding ideal. But fulfilling that ideal is impossible when we view mere political disagreement as an aggression and an existential threat. Perhaps it is a blessing that Internet SJWs and the UN bureaucracy have not married yet. When they do, we can expect our vicious, tribal politics to continue apace—or intensify.