Egypt and "fundamental rights" -- Obama sinks to the occasion

From the time of our founding there has always been a disconnect between what we as a nation understand fundamental freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion to be and how other nations and governments see them. In today’s world that disconnect presents in sharp relief in what the Obama administration has to say about the situation in Egypt.

In his speech of January 28, 2011 Obama said: The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” http://nation.foxnews.com/barack-obama/2011/01/28/obama-makes-egypt-about-himself-when-i-was-cairo-shortly-after-i-was-elected So at a moment in history when the real nature of basic political rights as we (are at least supposed to) understand them is on the table, Obama takes refuge in meaningless and ahistorical platitudes. I understand there are more or less valid diplomatic reasons for taking this approach, but it is absolutely wrong in a moment of international crisis and confrontation to do anything other than draw clear lines of principle. In the modern parlance, this is a “teachable moment”.

Obama has abdicated the opportunity. His failure to assert anything like real leadership on this issue is not accidental; it reflects his misbegotten notions of the source of these rights and their true significance. This may seem arcane, but at a time when Democratic congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee urges that Americans have a constitutional right to health care under the 5th and 14th amendments (http://caffeinatedthoughts.com/2011/01/sheila-jackson-lee-health-care-law-repeal-unconstitutional-based-on-5th-and-14th-amendments/) it is more than current.

The simple fact of the matter is that Egypt (a Muslim nation under military dictatorship) is not going to embrace the notion that those freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights, and particularly the First Amendment, are “universal” and therefore must be recognized there. This is partly because Egypt is a dictatorship, and if history teaches us nothing it teaches us that dictators are loath to recognize that the citizens of their countries have any rights at all. That’s what makes them dictators.

So if only for this reason alone it is wrong as a factual matter to assert that these rights are “universal”. If they were, the United States would not be exceptional, and our unique respect for these rights would be merely mundane.

The concept of “universal rights” (or “human rights”) applying everywhere around the world is a great “feel good” notion, but it is wrong for a more fundamental reason: we Americans have a unique attitude toward these rights because of the core political philosophy of our nation. Any nation that does not share that philosophy will never in fact regard these rights as “universal”, much less “inalienable”.

Our Declaration of Independence broadly identifies “certain inalienable rights” with which “all men (people) are endowed by their Creator”. Simply put, these rights cannot be surrendered, taken away or infringed not because they are “universal”, nor even because our Constitution chose to acknowledge them, but because they are given to us by God.

This is reflected in turn in the language of the First Amendment to the Constitution. It does not say “Americans have the right to freedom of the press, speech, assembly and religion.” It says “Congress shall make no law” respecting these freedoms. In other words, the First Amendment does not give Americans these rights, it inoculates these “natural” rights from governmental usurpation. They are “inalienable” – they can not be given away or taken away – because they are endowed upon us by God, not granted by legislation.

Compare the language of our First Amendment with the language of Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom . . . to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (Emphasis added)” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/28/AR2011012806250.html

This is the language of granting rights, not the language of inoculating rights from governmental invasion (Article 19 does not read “no government shall make any law respecting freedom of speech …”) The Declaration expresses a pious wish but does not assert these rights as inalienable. And it is perhaps too obvious to mention that the countries in which these rights are disregarded at best and prohibited at worst far outnumber those in which they are respected as fundamental and inalienable.

When Obama calls on Egypt to recognize these rights, he too is speaking the language of rights by legislative grant, not rights as inalienable gifts from God. This is understandable enough given Obama’s repeated refusals to recite the words “by their Creator” as they appear in the Declaration of Independence.

But if these rights are not endowed upon us by our Creator (and hence “inalienable”), what then is their source? Why should a Muslim military dictatorship that rejects the Judeo-Christian God regard these rights in the same way that our country does? The short answer is that no such shared source exists. Absent such a source the rights become not natural but manufactured, not inalienable but expedient. That which a government gives, a government can take away. That is why our Constitutional treatment of these rights makes us exceptional.

It is of course a good thing to assert core democratic rights in response to oppressive measures. Nobody can argue with a good thing. But it is more than a good thing to stand tall and assert before the world whence those rights really arise and what it means in fact to protect them. Fuzzy references to “universal rights” and “human rights” obscure rather than clarify that message.

The sad reality is that Obama is simply congenitally incapable of standing up in that way. He rejects the Judeo-Christian underpinning of those rights just as he rejects the notion that America is exceptional in our Constitutional jurisprudence. And insofar as this has anything to do with our attitude toward Islamic government, he will never be able to draw any sort of clear line between their manner of government and our own, if only because he does not want to acknowledge the fundament of those differences.