Monday, December 10, 2012

Civil Rights For All: Remember International Human Rights Day

Scene from one of the witch trials that took place in
Salem, Massachusetts Colony, in 1692.
The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the
courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott.

In honor of International Human Rights Day, I’m reprinting an article I originally wrote for my November 16, 2005, column in the Arizona City Independent/Edition and later included in my essay collection, The World I Imagine: A creative manual for ending poverty and building peace. It’s important on this auspicious occasion to remind people that all human beings have basic rights that must be acknowledged, respected, and protected.

My dictionary defines "civil rights" as "the rights, privileges, and protection given to citizens" (Oxford American Dictionary, pocket edition, 1979/1980). The book goes on to explain that the "civil rights movement" is "an organized movement to secure civil rights for blacks and other minorities in the U.S." (The italics in both definitions are mine!)

Many civil-rights activists need to check their dictionaries--and their hearts--so they can get their perspective straight on the issue of just who all those civil rights belong to. They seem to believe that only members of their minority group own the power to define which rights apply to members of other minority groups. Besides denying many rights to gays and lesbians, people involved in civil-rights movements have actually informed me, a person disabled by chronic illness, that people with disabilities have no civil rights--the Americans with Disabilities Act notwithstanding!

Sadly, this attitude is neither unusual nor new. The history of civil rights has always involved groups that fought to obtain their own rights, then denied those rights to others. Each November Americans gather around sumptuous turkey dinners to commemorate a group of religious pilgrims who left their European homeland to establish a colony where they were free to worship as they chose. Unfortunately, those same pilgrims adamantly refused to extend that right to others.

In fact, the Puritans of Massachusetts are probably best known for the witch trials of Salem, in which 19 people were executed and scores of others tortured and imprisoned when the false claims of two young girls incited the prejudices of that fanatical religious sect. And though the colony would have failed without aid from local natives, within a few years these immigrants were waging war on the same Indians with whom they’d celebrated their first "harvest festival" in 1621.

After America gained independence as a nation, abolitionists began fighting to free black slaves. On the other hand, most of the men and some of the women working for that cause refused to extend the same consideration to women, though the experience of most women paralleled that of many slaves and the earliest suffragists were also abolitionists. Thus, when the 15th Amendment was ratified, the law applied only to black men. It was another 50 years before women of any color gained the legal right to vote in national elections.

That’s why I’m not surprised that many people working for the betterment of people of color don’t understand that civil rights are inherent to every human being. Moreover, this narrow attitude is not limited to our own country.

Regarding the Third Reich, Martin Niemoeller explained, "In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."

Though he acknowledged several different groups whose rights--and even lives--were abridged by that infamous regime, even Pastor Niemoeller ignores the minority group that Hitler’s minions targeted first. Niemoeller’s statement should have opened with this sentence: "In Germany, they came first for the people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities, and I didn't speak up because I was healthy."

The sad fact is, many execution methods that were later used to murder millions of people in Nazi death camps were originally "tested" on small groups of people with various disabilities and physical abnormalities, such as dwarfism. Others with serious and even incurable medical conditions spent the war years in government "hospitals," where doctors performed cruel medical experiments that enhanced their suffering and often led to their early demise.

Those who claim that certain civil rights are the exclusive purview of their particular group and apply only to those who share a similar experience should remember the lessons of Nazi Germany. History is replete with examples of groups that were targeted, harassed, tortured, and eventually wiped out because others lacked the courage or concern to speak up for the rights of everyone.

In the world I imagine, society will protect all the inherent rights of every single human being, no matter their minority status. This can be accomplished only by eliminating the tool that people in power now use to perpetuate the conflicts between minority groups: poverty.

By limiting access to the resources that people need to enjoy a dignified existence, governments and businesses are able to exercise more control over the lives of the people in their sphere of influence. People and groups who are being manipulated in this way often view other individuals and groups who need the same resources in a competitive light, and vice-versa.

These people usually fail to understand that if people were to cooperate, and even join forces, with those they perceive as their enemies, they might be able to generate enough power to upset the status quo and spread the resources around for all to enjoy. Thus, poor people who fight among themselves for mere crumbs could become a mighty army for good and, with positive force, convince the government to help them work to end poverty forever.

Of course, poverty will end only when all the basic goods and services necessary for a dignified existence are available to every person on the planet at a cost of no more than half the amount earned by the lowest-paid full-time worker. When that becomes a reality, humans can finally begin to build a peaceful society where no one questions the rights of any other person, for the first time in the history of this planet.

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