Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Mister Answer Man: Special Human Rights Edition
Dear Mister Answer Man: At Obsidian Wings, Charles Bird asks, “Can we agree that, no matter how the words are weaseled, putting American in the same sentence with Nazis, gulags and the Khmer Rouge has no place in civil political discourse?” Is this just another tendentious wingnut reading of Dick Durbin’s June 14 Senate speech, or is it really the morally serious question it purports to be? I can’t make up my mind. – J. Humphrey, Montreal
Mister Answer Man replies: It is a morally serious question of the first order, Mr. Humphrey. And that is why, if Mister Answer Man ever encounters someone saying, “do you know, the Americans have tortured and killed just as many people as were tortured or killed by the Nazis” or “in the gulags” or “by the Khmer Rouge,” he will declare that such sentences have no place in civil discourse. Mister Answer Man frowns menacingly at all sentences that suggest that America is exactly like Nazi Germany / Soviet Russia / Cambodia under Pol Pot.
Indeed, one of the most profound things about Mr. Bird’s question is that it implicates numerous other rhetorical maneuvers that have no place in civil political discourse. Applying the Bird Principle, we can agree that, no matter how the words are weaseled, the refusal to hold all nations to a single moral standard—for example, Article Five of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights—has no place in civil political discourse. Equally important, in light of recent events, we can agree that whenever an elected American official argues that the United States should not employ the tactics of brutal, totalitarian regimes, smear campaigns against that official have no place in civil political discourse.
After all, it is axiomatic that when morally serious persons encounter horrific crimes against humanity, they do not resort to casuistry, pettifogging, or related forms of bullshit, such as arguing that the crimes are not nearly so widespread or systemic as other crimes. Still less do they waste their time and ours by parsing the words of those who call attention to those crimes in order to try to stop them, demanding that human rights organizations and elected officials should say “a couple of bad detention centers here and there” instead of “gulags.” On the contrary, they welcome and applaud the efforts of all those who seek to uphold the ideal of universal human rights, and they especially welcome American political figures who seek to prevent the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, from engaging in behavior that undermines that ideal.
Mister Answer Man thanks you for your question, Mr. Humphrey. It was a bit naive, but perhaps greater familiarity with the work of Mr. Bird will help you think more rigorously about human rights in the future.