Human Rights vs. Civil Rights

The expansion of civil rights in the 1960s did not fundamentally change the dynamics of American life. It did not—it could not—eliminate the exclusion at the heart of American life. Exclusion is not a mere by-product of our social order but is its mode of operation and its goal.

A key function of America’s meritocratic system was and still is to create and preserve an American version of social classes by restricting admission to full participation in American life. The American system is designed to exclude rather than include people. Calling the system meritocratic—claiming that those with ability will find open opportunities for success—can not change the fact that the basic function of the system is to exclude most individuals, not to include all.

In a meritocracy, even success fails to provide security, for a meritocracy values only our successes, not our humanity. That principle was embodied in the hero of the novel that established the Western as America’s national narrative, Owen Wister’s The Virginian.  In an important discussion about equality with his lady love, the Virginian insists that “a man has got to prove himself my equal before I’ll believe him.” That is our model: the individual is excluded until evidence proves that he or she deserves to be included. We are all outsiders until we prove individually that we deserve to belong. And the proof is never durable. It must be offered up freshly every day.

The Civil Rights Movement fell into the trap of setting out to prove that individuals of certain excluded classes—non-whites, women—in fact deserved to be included. They did not challenge the system but rather sought to join it. They identified the achievement of civil rights with equality, a way of thinking about equality that has trapped us in intellectual positions which are no longer creative. By identifying civil rights with equality, the Civil Rights Movement exaggerated our natural tendency to think of equality as an end rather than as a means or a first principle of life. Equality, however, is not the goal or end of government. It is the belief about human life on which the idea of democratic government stands. Equality is the very ground of society and government. To the degree to which we think of equality as an end, we trap ourselves in an irresolvable conflict. No one wants a ruthless leveling out of all inequality. As an end, equality becomes an undesired and unachievable will-‘o-the-wisp, and the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal is reduced to a pious fiction that cannot be taken seriously

Civil Rights rhetoric identified equality with the achievement of civil rights. Human equality, however, is a much broader conception than civil rights. Civil rights, as the name implies, are rights of citizens, rights created and protected by the state. In the language of the Declaration of Independence, by contrast, the equality of all men is a first principle, a cosmic reality which precedes the state. Equality is inherent in and inseparable from our humanity, an endowment from the cosmos, not from the state. 

The Declaration also asserts as a first principle (“endowed by their Creator”) the idea of “certain unalienable rights,” and it asserts that “among these [rights] are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In the political philosophy of the Declaration, it is to secure these basic human rights that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Human rights precede government, and therefore “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government . . . .”  In the philosophy of the Declaration, the legal enforcement of equality—of basic human rights—is the central function of government. The nation’s police and military powers, and its capacity to treat with foreign powers, are ultimately justified by their usefulness in securing to each American those rights which are ours by virtue of our humanity.

When we focus our social ideas on civil rights rather than the broader human rights described in the Declaration, we reinforce tendencies which have become destructive in American life. Civil rights emphasize the claims of the individual against all others. They strengthen the self-reliant individualism that we celebrate as an unqualified good. By doing so we blind ourselves to the negative power of individualism, which is its inevitable tendency to isolate the individual.

The separation of women and men so obvious in our writers of the early nineteenth century—Cooper, Emerson, Hawthorne in particular—has become a social fact of almost crippling power. Modern American culture tells each of us repeatedly that relations with others will inevitably limit our ability to experience our individuality to the fullest. We are taught that relationships get in the way of being ourselves, that it is foolish to allow loyalty to another to restrict us. In business there is immense pressure to cut to the chase, to simply pursue money without regard to any connection to others through the creation of valuable goods and services. Good people feel these pressures, and they find little in our culture to support efforts to live in ways that affirm our ties to other people. 

At one time individualism, like Calvinism before it, was a creative counter to the stultifying force of the involuntary associations of hierarchical orders. After several centuries of development, individualism has in turn become a stultifying force. In the United States the Civil Rights Movement has carried individualism beyond its capacity to enrich human life. With the passage in 1990 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), civil rights as an intellectual construction capable of enhancing our lives exhausted itself. In recognizing formally the rights of the lame, the halt, the blind, the alcoholic, and the mentally impaired, we’ve gone as far as we can go. The idea of civil rights now exhausts itself in the pursuit of ever purer refinements, reaching for theological niceties of individual rights whose subtlety would warm the heart of any medieval churchman.

Our focus on civil rights has reinforced the anti-social and anti-democratic potential of the American Revolution. It highlights the significance of the absence from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of any equivalent of the third member of the French revolutionary trinity, “Liberte, egalite, fraternite.” “Fraternite” translates roughly as “brotherhood,” but American English has no true equivalent. The French term honors relations among men as a value as fundamental as liberty and equality. Social life, in that view, is as important as the freedom and equality of the individual. American life focuses on individual liberty and equality, but it never has seen social life as basic to human life. We have created a world in which individuals can live alone much more easily than they can live with each other. Civil rights so magnify what separates each of us from others that society becomes an impossibility, a mere phantasm.

 As E.J. Dionne, Jr. said, “Both [Republicans and Democrats] constantly invoke individual ‘rights,’ then criticize each other for evading issues involving individual and collective responsibility. Each side claims to have a communitarian vision but backs away from community whenever its demands come into conflict with one of its cherished doctrines.”  (Why Americans Hate Politics,(Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991 p. 13). 

 Human rights, on the other hand, emphasize what is shared. In a time when developments are forcing us to acknowledge our connection to peoples around the world, the concept of human rights can forge not only a sharper sense of national community but also a recognition of ourselves as a nation among nations rather than a nation apart. Human rights—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—bind us to others. They emphasize not only my right to distinguish my individuality but also the fact that all people have as great a claim as I have to clean water and 2000 calories a day. 

Intellectually, philosophically, logically, emotionally, and psychologically it is easy to progress from human rights to more detailed individual civil rights. The reverse is not true. We cannot work our way from insisting on the priority of our individual rights to an assertion of human rights. As the Counter-Revolution of the 1980s has demonstrated, narrow insistence on individual rights leads not to richer social life but to social fragmentation. Continuing to pursue individual rights as we have can only exacerbate our problems by intensifying the individual need to win and the sense of exclusion inevitably related to it. The pursuit of individual rights has a corrosive effect on social experience. It cannot provide a sense of social inclusion. On the contrary, such a pursuit can only emphasize the extent of our exclusion. 

The Revolution of the 1960s and the Counter-Revolution of the 1980s have both failed us. We need not reach back all the way to the Declaration of Independence for direction, however. In the 1960s we had leaders who knew that the next step for America was to grapple with economics. Martin Luther King knew that civil rights were not enough, that human rights were our proper concern, and that those rights had to deal with economic justice. Lyndon Johnson, after noting the great wealth accumulated by the nation during its first 150 years defined our future challenge as “whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.”

A vision of civil rights can not provide such wisdom. Only an understanding of human rights broad enough to embrace economic rights can save us from the crisis in which we now flounder.


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