A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
There’s been a lot of talk recently about rights. Just who has rights? What are they? Why are some people being physically restrained from exercising their rights while others seem to have the right to rob us at every corner? It doesn’t matter which side of the heated discussion you’re on; you probably see the other folks claiming rights they aren’t entitled to while simultaneously trampling all over yours. This is a natural phenomenon when you deal in “them” and “us.” However, let me let you in on a big secret. You’d better sit down because this is going to blow your bonnet off. You have no rights. None, zip, bupkis — and I’m not just playing with semantics here. It’s an absolute, etched in stone, shout-it-from-the-rooftops fact. And while we’re at it, you don’t have any privileges either; that’s just a word people use when they’re pissed off at dissidents. As in: “Freedom of speech is not a right; it’s a privilege.” Load-a-crap is what it is. The only reason we can say what we like about Barack Obama (or anybody else for that matter) is that our society has a bunch of heavily armed young people who say we can. But before you think you’ve landed in Hyperbole Heaven and gear up to take a run at the appalling “police state” tyranny we supposedly suffer under, that’s not what I’m talking about. In fact, the quote/unquote police state everyone is so fond of invoking is one of the institutions that allows us to practice those things we mistakenly call rights.
Here’s the truth; like it or not. Those things we call rights are nothing more than an ad hoc collection of laws that haven’t even been agreed on yet. They are not inalienable, and they are certainly not universal. How do I know this? It’s quite simple. In our society, two hundred years ago, I had the “right” to wander down to the local slave market and buy another human being to help me do the dishes. I owned that person: they were my property. Not only that but a hundred years ago, not one female in North America had the “right” to vote. Actually, in my country, it wasn’t until 1929 that women were even considered “persons” under the law. Historically speaking, there are tons of examples just exactly like this — temporary habits mistaken for universal rights and privileges. Yes, those were “a relic of days more barbarous than ours”* but so is every moment of history before this morning. Nobody is going to convince me that, in a mere 5,000 years or so of written history, we have reached the pinnacle of human achievement and awareness. Nor, that in 2011, we finally understand the human condition so thoroughly that we can now pronounce what our rights should and always will be. That’s just 21st century arrogance. Honestly, if this is the peak, we are in trouble! So all those rights everybody keeps yipping about are simply temporary accommodations that may (or may not) change, depending on the circumstances.
These days, we’re spending so much time demanding our nonexistent rights that we’re forgetting how we got them in the first place. Our society is based on a very few generally accepted principles, guaranteed by the generosity of a whole lot of strangers. For example, we, as a group, believe you, as an individual, have the “right” to worship your neighbour’s cat if you so choose. We are willing to make contributions (in fact or in kind) not to you directly, but to the group as a whole in support of that “right.” Also, we are willing — on occasion — to forego some of our own freedoms to ensure you have that “right.” This is because it doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to all of us.
However, this guaranteeing generosity is not an infinite commodity, nor is it eternal. It breaks down quite easily and with surprising regularity. In times of crisis, it disappears entirely. And as we have seen throughout history, once it’s gone, it’s very difficult to get back. Depending on the kindness of strangers only
works as long as the strangers are kind: just ask Blanche Dubois. Therefore, the only way we can maintain a continuity of liberty to think, speak and act as we please is to maintain the society which nurtures that liberty.
Without the institutions to back them up, our much heralded rights are just an illusion. Until we understand that, all we’re doing is jacking our jaw or playing
around discussing how many rights can dance on the head of a pin.
*British Privy Council October 18th, 1929