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Tag Archive: Human Rights

Dante Meets the Moralists

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2012 (1:20 am), by John W Gillis


Somehow summoning the wherewithal to ping my poor, neglected blog, and recalling in particular (if vaguely) my next-to-last entry, I implore anyone out there regretting not taking the time to study Dante to get on the stick before the moralists of the Order of Perpetual Outrage crush your obviously sadistic fantasies in the name of tolerance. Why?

The Guardian is reporting that the UN-related Italian “human rights” advisory group Gerush92 is calling for Italy’s school system to eliminate Dante’s Divine Comedy from its curricula, claiming that it is “offensive and discriminatory”. Among other unpardonable sins, the epic poem suggests that Islam is heretical. Oh my.

FWIW, this group’s web site ironically defines racism as the “negation of biological and cultural diversity”. Say what? Assuming that phrase is intended to be intelligible, I must ask: what does it mean? I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it seems to me the only way to “negate biological diversity”, at least as it relates to “race” (a phony construct to begin with), would be through massive miscegenation. Do they really think that would be racist? And how exactly do you go about negating cultural diversity except by suppressing cultural expressions that differ from the spirit of the age? Oh my.

HT: FirstThoughts

Same-sex marriage violates the right of the family to protection by society and the state

Posted: Thursday, January 5, 2012 (4:23 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Thursday, January 5th, 2012.

Douglas Farrow, from an outstanding piece in the new (and terrific-looking) issue of Touchstone, entitled Why Fight Same-Sex Marriage? Nail-head, meet hammer:

[W]e should observe also that when a family of some description is founded by a same-sex couple, it is always founded by violating the natural parent-child bond that marriage is intended to nurture and protect. It deprives the child, whether in the same way that divorce does or in some more innovative technological way, of its prima facie right to its own father and mother. But we should notice something else as well, and not merely parenthetically—something too little noticed either by the detractors or by the champions of marriage. Same-sex marriage violates the natural parent-child bond in every family, and the right of the family to protection by society and the state.

How so?

In Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII rightly described the family as “a society very small . . . but none the less a true society, and one older than any State,” with “rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.” This society, “founded more immediately in nature,” is what the Universal Declaration has in mind when it speaks in article 16 of the family. The family’s status as “natural”—that controversial adjective is deployed only in this one specific article—allows it a certain priority over civil society and the state. The latter share an obligation to protect the family, but the family is not at their disposal.

Same-sex marriage dispenses with all of that, however. By excising sexual difference, with its generative power, it deprives itself of any direct connection to nature. The unit it creates rests on human choice, as does that created by marriage. But whether monogamous, polygamous, or polyamorous, it is a closed unit that reduces to human choice, rather than engaging choice with nature; and its lack of a generative dimension means that it cannot be construed as a fundamental building block.

Institutionally, then, it is nothing more than a legal construct. Its roots run no deeper than positive law. It therefore cannot present itself to the state as the bearer of independent rights and responsibilities, as older or more basic than the state itself. Indeed, it is a creature of the state, generated by the state’s assumption of the power of invention or re-definition. Which changes everything.

I have little to add except that I can happily cross “write a short but cogent defense of marriage from an anthropological perspective” off my to-do list – I can simply point people to Farrow’s article, which is far better than anything I would have come up with. Next time some sneering cynic asks you “How is your marriage ‘damaged’ by same-sex marriage?”, share this link. Marriage matters like nothing else matters in human society, and Farrow knows why. And he knows why contraception lies at the root of the breath-taking collapse of the institution over the past century – and especially the past half-century. Required reading for any morally serious person.

Mobilizing Useful Idiots Around the World to Take Up the Cause

Posted: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 (6:30 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Wednesday, January 5th, 2011:

Stephen Kinzer, writing in The Guardian on December 31, on the professional Human Rights movement’s loss of direction since its emergence some 40 years ago or so:

The actions of human rights do-gooders is craziest in Darfur, where they show themselves not only dangerously naive but also unwilling to learn lessons from their past misjudgments. By their well-intentioned activism, they have given murderous rebel militias – not only in Darfur but around the world – the idea that even if they have no hope of military victory, they can mobilise useful idiots around the world to take up their cause, and thereby win in the court of public opinion what they cannot win on the battlefield.

This is an interesting article, and one that is commendable at the very least for its ability to infuriate both America-hating lefties, and pro-Western gunboat diplomatists of either military or cultural ilk.

Although Kinzer treads dangerously close to broadly condemning human rights interventions as inherently neo-imperialist, he makes some great points about the narcissism (my term, not his) of the human rights movement, and the extent to which its self-important nobility can be – and are – played as tools by some of the world’s worst characters.

I’m not sure if the movement has changed as much as Kinzer thinks it has, or if he has simply outgrown it. I asked myself the same question several years ago, when the shiny “Save Darfur” posters started appearing on the lawns of the guilt-ridden wealthy in the snazzy suburbs I spend my days in, and I knew instinctively that I could no more trust the hand-wringing advocates for “justice” in that conflict than I could trust the hand-wringing advocates for sillier and sillier global warming solutions in humanity’s last great battle for land to live upon!

This is not to say that there aren’t real problems in the world, which call for solidarity, and even military intervention. But identifying problems, and understanding problems well enough to construct useful treatments, are very distinct matters. Kinzer identifies the problem as a deficient definition of human rights, and suggests a hierarchy of rights to clarify priorities. I don’t disagree on either count, but would place the root of that deficiency in a widespread refusal to recognize the origins of human rights in our Creator God.

Human rights are a Western construct? Well, yes and no. They are a product of Western civilization, because they are practical outgrowths of the Judeo/Christian theology that forms the foundation of Western civilization. Stripped of their roots – that is, stripped of their true meaning – they surely can become fodder for fools, as well as anything else can.

Body/Soul Dualism, the Commodification of Man, and the Contradiction of Death

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2009 (11:16 pm), by John W Gillis


As a rule, I like Jeff Jacoby’s columns, but every now and then he comes out with something I find downright unconscionable. His July 5th Boston Globe op-ed promoting the marketing of human organs is an unfortunate example. The recent liver transplant of celebrity tech guru Steve Jobs having roiled again the waters of the debate over the “fairness” of our current organ donation system, Jacoby has added his voice to the rising tide of liberal, utilitarian opinion promising free market “solutions” to the “problem” of death.

I’ve read a number of these proposals over the years, and they all seem to involve the same three basic errors. As can be surmised from the title of this piece, I see these errors as involving misunderstandings of the nature of man as a being both physical and spiritual, in ontological unity; the fundamental and unique character of human subjectivity in differentiation from other material objects (or ‘what are people for?’ – to steal a phrase from Wendell Berry); and the inability of mankind to cheat death (or “what is not given to man” – to steal a phrase from Leo Tolstoy).

The premise of these proposals is that there are currently many people dying from organ failure who could be spared death if more organs were available for transplant, and that the economy of transplant organs would produce at least part of the requisite supply if it were freed from legal constraint, to function more or less unimpeded in the liberal model of supply and demand, therein saving lives. The thinking is that everything else is for sale, after all, including all the other products and services involved in actually transplanting an organ – the organ donor is the only non-compensated person in the entire chain, and that not only introduces market inefficiencies, but may even be unjust.

The most fundamental moral or ethical dilemma that arises from these proposals stems from the fuzzy — and yet now widely appealed-to — notion of human dignity, which itself has its origins in the recognition of the sacredness of human life. Meanwhile, sacrality is a concept that is all but alien to modernity (my spell-checker didn’t even recognize it as an English word when I typed it!). Jacoby, like most any writer promoting blasphemy, marginalizes the matter of sacrality, conflating the transmission of human organs with the broad vista of “medical care” ( a concept which does not share with organ transmission the very characteristic at issue), and substituting utilitarian arguments about “needless” deaths.

Ethical concerns also arise around the prospect of the rich and powerful exploiting the poor under such a system. Jacoby, ironically, writes these off as resulting from misguided altruism (but see, for example, this column from University of Minnesota Bioethicist Jeffrey P. Kahn, discussing a JAMA article on organ sales in India, where it is legal). Though I am convinced that Jacoby is actually the one suffering here from a misguided altruism (and am not in the least surprised by the realities come to light in India, as per the linked article), I am not particularly interested in this angle of the argument, as it is clearly a secondary issue: the unjust character of any specific policy implementation is wholly subordinate to (and inevitably predicated upon) the immoral nature of the proposal in and of itself (in other words, it is secondary because there is simply no right way to do a wrong thing, so there’s not a lot of point in harping on method, or even consequences).

Both of these areas of ethical concern refer directly to the second area of error I am pointing out: the commodification of man; the failure to adequately distinguish between the human being himself, and those things which are produced by man. When the term “human dignity” is used properly, it refers precisely to the ontological distinction between the human person (a subject) and an objective reality that lacks subjectivity, or personhood, or a spiritual soul. The dignity that humans distinctly possess within the material world derives from our unique spiritual character, which is the capacity to love rationally – or to choose love. The violation of humanity consists in asserting that that subject can be objectified, and treated as a thing.

The idea of the wrongness of treating people as things is widely acknowledged, even among people who don’t put a lot of thought into moral issues. That does not mean that it can’t be (and isn’t often) trumped by utilitarian arguments, but at least the notion is readily available to most people. So when folks like Jacoby argue that the human being (or human parts) should be a commodity, because everything else is for sale, the argument runs against the grain of an intuitive sense that it is wrong to treat people as things. Or, to be more precise, even if we allow that everything should be for sale (a dubious proposition in and of itself), people are not things.

This is the moral or ethical problem with the human parts market proposal, but it is not the root of the problem, because the moral error is itself grounded upon an inadequate understanding of human nature, or what it means to be a human being. It is furthermore, in this case, driven by a culturally pervasive but irrational view of death, but that is a point to be taken up later. It can be clearly demonstrated by example how the “commodification of man” proposal fails the moral test by noticing how the “everything else is for sale” argument not only meets intuitive resistance to treating people as things, it also runs smack into the fact that, no, not everything is for sale – or at least it shouldn’t be.

peopleforsale1 For examples, we have only to look at slavery and prostitution to see that society does not accept as morally licit the notion that anything can be bought and sold: people cannot morally be bought and sold. Sure, there are those who will argue that prostitution should be legal, just as there have been many who never flinched at legal slavery, and we have our chorus today calling for the buying and selling of human body parts, but civilization has come to see that people cannot morally be themselves reduced to commodities, and this insight is the genius behind the modern ideas of human dignity and human rights, being long anticipated in the ancient idea of tsedaqah (righteousness), or what we owe one another as fellow beings created in the image of God.

If someone who despises slavery promotes the marketing of body parts (whether for medical purposes or sexual purposes), he most likely has fallen into one of the two popular errors concerning the nature of man: naturalism, or (much more commonly) dualism. In a follow-up post, I will explore how slavery, prostitution, and organ sales share a common mode of unrighteousness in the degradation of the self, properly understood. This is no trivial matter, as it is the unrighteousness itself, not this it that particular expression of it, that is a growing menace to a human civilization that has largely succeeded in forgetting that righteousness comes from God, and is rooted in right relationship with Him. We must not allow our “misguided altruism ” to feed the beast of unrighteousness.

Human Rights and the Right to be Human

Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2008 (1:28 am), by John W Gillis


BlogCatalog.com is organizing a campaign today, May 15th, to encourage bloggers around the world to help raise awareness of human rights issues by blogging about them. I think it’s a terrific idea, and was more than happy to sign up to join the campaign.

Human rights is a concept that speaks to the need for each of us to acknowledge the common humanity we share with the rest of the race, and to recognize the duties that we all inherently and inalienably have toward each other in the light of the particular dignity we each possess as human beings. Simply put, we are all brothers and sisters with a responsibility to have each other’s backs.

This is a fine sounding concept, but historically, societies have had an awful lot of difficulty living up to such a vision, even those societies that would embrace it conceptually. Someone always ends up getting the short end of the stick- or worse. We witness the injustice that society’s true prophets have always railed against – and it can take diverse forms, from economic exploitation, to limiting access to society’s goods, to slavery, to some even truly grotesque perversions.

In thinking about what kind of post I would write for this campaign, I thought it would be appropriate to look, not in some far-flung gulag halfway around the world, but in my own backyard; at my own society. I decided that I should write about the most grotesque form of injustice and offense against human rights being practiced right in my own hometown.

As I see it, there are basically two ways of subjectively understanding one’s own participation in the commission of human rights violations. The first would be to know it to be criminal. In this scenario, the culprit is entirely cognizant of the unjust nature of the violation he is inflicting upon his victim(s). He knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he does it anyway, because he has a disordered desire of some sort or another that trumps the weak voice of conscience. This may be, and in all likelihood is, a recurring pattern, but the point is that the violator has a bad conscience: true criminality involves a bad conscience, a guilty conscience, the knowledge of wrongdoing (even if the criminal is indifferent about it).

The other understanding is one that I struggle to come up with a good name for. Our criminal justice system calls it insanity – which may be accurate, but if it is, then I fear the world might be full of mostly insane people. It is the stance that calls injustice by the name of righteousness. It’s the approach that permits people to do terrible things to other human beings with a perfectly clear conscience, or at least with a repressed conscience. It involves a denial of the unjust nature of the offense, which is almost always – and perhaps absolutely always – facilitated by dehumanizing the victims. The violator sees the victim as some lesser kind of creature, as something sub-human. This conscience-evading self-delusion is essentially voluntary insanity.

Voluntary insanity can only thrive in a culture of complicity, because most people cannot hang onto insanity for long in the face of reality. Without a network of co-denial supporting a mutual self-delusion, most people are forced into either a (self-acknowledged) criminal choice for evil, or acceptance of the moral good – however reluctantly accepted. The conscience eventually confronts the will, and either it fails or succeeds to compel a moral response. Either way, there is basically full acknowledgement of responsibility on the part of the individual as a moral agent. People just aren’t usually that stupid, except as part of a mob.

Without meaning to downplay the brutality of criminality, it seems to me that the great violations of human rights are generally of the second order – they are carried out in a culture (or sub-culture) of insanity – if that’s the right word, and I’m not sure it is. There is a dehumanizing of the subjected class, who are then seen as means to the ends of the perpetrators. We end up with second-class citizens, with slave classes, with social groups selected for extermination, with classes of human beings whose very humanity is denied. And at the very, very bottom of human degradation, you end up with abortion. If "Human Rights" means anything at all, it has to begin with the right to be human.

There are many reasons abortion is the greatest social evil and violation of human rights in our day, and even a nominally educated hack like me could go on and on in explicating them, but I just want to make what I think is the very obvious point that abortion is such a great human rights crisis in our age precisely because it is so often not recognized as a human rights violation at all.

Now, that fact usually strikes pro-lifers as entirely bizarre. But that is because pro-lifers recognize that children – human beings – are intentionally killed when abortions are performed. If a pro-lifer were to be materially complicit in an abortion, it would be a criminal act (not, of course, according to current criminal law in the US, which happens to be insane, but according to the subjective distinctions I made above between criminality vs. insanity).

But like any great violation of human rights, the abortion machine is driven primarily by insanity, not by a rational criminality. It is utterly dependent for its perpetuation upon widespread complicity in the self-delusional denial of the simple truth that mothers really do go into abortion clinics to have their children killed (and of course that, in most cases, fathers are either materially complicit, or couldn’t care less – and in other cases are coercively responsible for the killing).

They may come to their senses later – many do, in great grief – but the vast majority of people involved in abortions – either directly or through political support – are engaged in the age-old practice of dehumanizing their victims in order to avoid confronting the reality of the evil they are committing. They are insane, if that’s the right word. Despite the rather obvious reality that each one of them was at one time a fetus, they deny with all their might that a fetus is in the same way one of them, one of us; that a human fetus is a human being.

I’m sure there’s a better word for this than insanity, and I wish I could put my finger on it. Hannah Arendt famously called it banality, but she, whatever her intentions, ended up exploring evil more at its roots – exposing how ordinary people can make horrific moral choices without batting an eyelash – whereas I’m simply trying to show how such a mechanism works in our current historical and social context. Nonetheless, Eichmann in Jerusalem just might be the best background reading available for understanding the moral underpinnings of the modern abortion debacle. I should probably mention that Arendt would likely protest my use of the word insanity in this context. I understand that; it is voluntary,I maintain, though that may not convince her of the word’s usefulness here.

I think this insanity factor is not often grasped by pro-lifers. Hence, they tend to project criminal intent (in my usage of the term) where it doesn’t really exist. They find it unfathomable that people involved in abortion don’t know perfectly well what they are doing. That is understandable, and at a certain level they are right (I do not propose that what I call voluntary insanity mitigates moral culpability), but I think they fail to perceive the power of human self-deception. I recall an adage that goes something like: Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence. Here’s a case in point I came across very recently.

Out at UCLA, there is a quarterly called The Advocate published by a small group of student pro-life activists that has put considerable effort into exposing the ugly face of the abortion industry. In particular, they have collected some very damaging information on Planned Parenthood locations in various parts of the country.

They are alleging racism on the part of Planned Parenthood, based on undercover operations that repeatedly demonstrated that the organization was more than willing to take donations from individuals who were expressly requesting their contributions be used to kill black babies, because, they complained, there are too many black babies in the world. There are transcripts and actual audio tapes of phone calls available as links from the site – but they are very creepy; not for the faint of heart.

As much as I admire the spunk of these young defenders of the defenseless, I think they are overstating the case against Planned Parenthood – damning audio tapes notwithstanding. What these kids are not grasping is the insanity factor. Those folks at PP are not accepting donations because they are specifically targeted to kill black children (that would be criminal), they just couldn’t care less, because they don’t acknowledge what is going on in their clinics (that is insanity). These workers might be made temporarily uncomfortable by the wacky telephone caller, but they really just want to collect more money to do what they consider their good work, and it doesn’t dawn on them to honestly consider the morality of how they are going about accomplishing the "social improvements" that give their professional lives meaning. Freedom is a powerful elixir, even when it’s sham facade for violence – just ask the French, who remain the standard bearers of the need to discriminate between liberty and lunacy. The bottom line is that these workers have too much at stake in keeping the moral blinders on, and focusing on the dreadful "benefits." Voluntary insanity.

This, then, is the true face of human rights violators. For every sadistic monster who fills our imaginations with righteous indignation, there is a platoon of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmanns: unremarkable folk living respectable work-a-day lives while wallowing in moral infantilism, oblivious of the evil they perpetrate in the name of social convention- a study in banality and cluelessness. Evil is most insidious when it dons the mantle of righteousness.