Thursday, July 17, 2008

There's a question I've been toying with for a while. Which is to say that I ask myself the question, think, "Huh, that's really interesting, I wish someone would write a book about that" and then go on my merry way and don't examine it.

The question, like so many things in my intellectual life, is provoked by Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. Since I don't carry this book around with me at all times (contrary to popular belief), I can't quote it exactly, but in it she wrote something which was worded differently but basically meant this:

What it ultimately means to be deprived of human rights is to have the events that befall you depend on what you are rather than what you do. Your opinions are irrelevant, your acts without consequence or effectiveness. Your life is determined by race, class, gender, nationality, etc. rather than by those things that you do--unless you commit a crime.

(The crime part is because those actions are already codified as criminal and there is a prescribed process and series of events that follow criminal acts. So by committing a crime you enter yourself into that system. That is the only action that one who has been deprived of their human rights and humanity can commit that is fully and properly connected to consequences.)

Now, I think this is a powerful definition because it gets at what human rights are really about: humanity. Being treated as an equal being. Not being generalized, stereotyped, discriminated against.

So here's the thing I've been thinking about. The people who have been running the country of late--the white, male, Christian Republicans, in the White House, the media, and the megachurches--are, by this definition,lacking in human rights. They do badly or are demonstrably incompetent, and yet they continue to rise in stature (William Kristol somehow got a job at the NYT despite being, well, wrong about everything ever) or suffer no consequences (President Bush, Michael "heckuva job" Brown, Scooter Libby, etc. etc. etc.). Their actions have no relation to their fates; rather, their fates are tied to their positions in life--being a certain kind of person born into a certain kind of family.

At the same time, can you really say they don't have their human rights? I mean, they're doing pretty well for themselves up there.

The question that follows is: Do they keep acting so egregiously badly, in the case of the government types, in some kind of weird effort to get their "normal being" status back by becoming criminals? Is it sort of the equivalent of a tantrum/cry for help, since they live in worlds of such profound unreality? Or is it less personal than that--more that every form of extremism inevitably oversteps itself, and is righted by the backlash?

I suspect that if I were to examine enough backgrounds, the applicability of the definition might break down--George Bush and, maybe, Bill Kristol, are the only ones here who were quite literally born into this situation--but it might be interesting to apply to monarchs of the past.

The larger question here is this: Is it possible for this particular human rights knife to cut both ways? If your actions have no consequence on your fate in a "positive" rather than negative way, are you still lacking your human rights? Do we care? Do you?

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