Sunday, February 22, 2009

Human Rights and Solidarity: The Soft Underbelly of the Obama Administration

Amnesty International is shocked at Secretary of State Clinton’s statements about human rights in Seoul this week (here). Clinton told reporters that the United States will continue pressing China on human rights issues, “"But our pressing on those issues can't interfere on [sic] the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”

T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA (rightly) regards the stance as a sell-out. He notes, “The United States is one of the only countries that can meaningfully stand up to China on human rights issues.”

Yes. And I am not shocked.

This is the point I’ve sought to make in posting after posting about the soft underbelly of the Obama administration, and about the pallid commitment of American liberals to solidarity and human rights (here) and (here). The commitment of liberal individualists to human rights is strategic. It is not principled—not in the sense that the commitment to human rights for all persons everywhere at all times is an overweening moral principle driving political decisions and agendas.

Liberals commit themselves to human rights struggles only when they have calculated that, in this or that discrete struggle, they are likely to win—and to further their own self-interest and that of their friends. This is what Clinton means—and is stating frankly and clearly—when she subordinates the quest for human rights in China to the global economic, climate change, and security crises. Human rights take a back seat to those pragmatic issues. We will deal with human rights only after we have dealt with the “really” pressing issues before us.

This is why I have insisted from the time the new president took office that this presidency may well turn out to be a disappointing sojourn for gay Americans. Running through this administration, there is not a strong and overriding commitment to human rights and solidarity. There is, instead, a commitment to calculation and political expediency that subordinates questions of human rights to pragmatic considerations.

This is not new. It is not unique to Barack Obama or to Hilary Clinton. It is what we experienced with President Clinton. It is why he was able to take our money during his campaigns and depend on our votes, and then throw us under the bus immediately with don’t ask, don’t tell—and then with DOMA and the truly vile ads Mr. Clinton placed in the “Christian” media at that point in his presidency, trumpeting his commitment to the sanctity of marriage.

Such behavior is about calculation, not principle. Liberals do not see themselves in those to whom they deny fundamental rights when they refuse to make solidarity with the oppressed. If they did see themselves, their own faces, the faces of their family and friends, among the oppressed, they could hardly stand aside and counsel patience while “real” problems like the economic crisis are solved, as human beings struggle with the continued denial of their claims to basic justice.

Solidarity sees things differently. It does not envisage the body politic as a set of competing interest groups in which the strongest naturally win and the weakest fall by the wayside. It sees that we are all in it together. Denying rights to you undermines my own claim to rights—and to humanity. Undermining your rights or standing by in silence while they are being undermined threatens my human rights and frays the ties that bind us in the body politic (not to mention the human community).

Liberal individualists are kissing cousins to neoconservatives. We have, in the American two-party system, only two options that are essentially mirror images of each other. We have two versions of individualism that are both classically liberal, in that they maximize individual freedom and achieve social harmony by playing interest against interest as they seek to manage and mitigate the conflict that arises in such clash of interests.

Both ideologies arise out of an individualist social philosophy in which competition is everything, and in which “winners” and “losers” reflect the divine stamp of approval on the final outcome: the strong and righteous prevail and the weak and immoral fail, with the sanction of nature and God. The primary difference between these two ideologies has to do with the extent to which they believe in governmental controls on the rapacious behavior of the “strong” vis-à-vis the “weak.” That, and their penchant for either a “natural” (classic liberalism) or a religious justification (neoconservatism) for their belief that the rapacious behavior of the “winner” is praiseworthy and morally justifiable . . . .

To see our society through the optic of human rights and solidarity would call for a radical reconfiguration of many of the most fundamental preoccupations of our culture. It would require a commitment on the part of our federal government to serve the common good by giving priority to human rights in all contexts, in all places and all times. This reconfiguration would entail a re-ordering of our church life, such that churches refuse any longer to serve as ideological fronts for an immoral economic and social philosophy that permits the powerful to trample down the powerless in the name of God.

Such a profound cultural revolution needs to be signaled from the top, by the leaders of our federal government. Mrs. Clinton’s statements in Seoul signal, instead, that we can expect business as usual, when it comes to human rights and the Obama administration. And that expectation should be of serious concern to gay citizens of this nation and anyone standing in solidarity with those citizens in their question for justice.