The Debasement of Human Rights: How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom
By Aaron Rhodes
Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Where do our laws come from? From God. We have been created in the image of the Lord (imago Dei). Each and every one of us derives his dignity from Him. Our dignity demands respect because of its Divine source. This is congruent with natural law, which also stems from God.
God is Logos, Reason. That means that His commands must be Good because they derive from Reason. And Reason dictates Good, not Evil. Ergo, human rights gifted by Him to us as the essence of each soul’s dignity are Good. Faith dictates thus. Then it is the union of both Faith and Reason, which unveils the mystery of human rights. My friend and mentor, Alberto Piedra, put it best in his Natural Law: The Foundation of An Orderly Economic System (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004): “The essence of human rights lies in those rights that belong to the human being as such… They are the rights that man is entitled to and not what society, the state, or any other international agency is willing to bestow on him. By the mere fact of being a man, man has these inalienable rights which are valid even if society would no longer consider them as legitimate rights” (p. 42).
For over two millennia, Christians have believed so. However, the belief came under serious fire first during the so-called Enlightenment some three hundred years ago. Leading intellectuals resolved to secularize the dominant narrative, including the concept of human rights.
Immanuel Kant argued – basing himself on the Stoics – that “pure reason” dictates that each of us is endowed with natural rights. But Kant simultaneously and contradictorily insisted that each of us can seek his own truth, and, thus, there exists a multitude of “truths.” Each one of them was as good as any other. In medieval times championed by the likes of William of Ockham and his nominalist followers, its Kantian variation helped elevate moral relativism to secularism’s altars. Soon the relativistic poison would begin to undermine human rights.
A colleague of mine at the Victims of Communism Foundation, Aaron Rhodes, has summed all this up neatly in his latest treatise on The Debasement of Human Rights: How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom (New York and London: Encounter Books, 2018). He argues that there has been not just runaway inflation, but, indeed, a bastardization of human rights. The reason for it is the politicization of the concept. But stemming from natural law, the idea should be above politics and parties.
Rhodes is a classical liberal. He endeavors to defend human rights deriving from natural law, as expressed by the Stoics and Enlightenment philosophers. He stresses that freedom is an essential factor of natural law that animates human rights. The author rarely invokes religion, and when he does, it is for functional and not spiritual purposes. For example, he recalls ancient Hebrew prophets, who stood up to kings and other potentates about Good and Evil. But we hear of no lessons for human rights deriving from the faith of the prophets.
Arguably, the issue of human rights surfaced on the international forum for the first time in the wake of the Second World War. But the way they were formulated resulted from a rotten compromise with Stalin. While Western powers stressed the formula of the universalism of freedom grounded in natural law, the Soviet Union and its puppets insisted on the primacy of positive law. That means that the law is created and mandated by the state. As far as the Soviets, of course, freedom stemming from natural law was repugnant. Instead, they championed social and economic rights established via positive law. In congruence with totalitarian custom, the state was to guarantee “progress.”
In this shrewd way, the Kremlin attempted to balance, counter, and, ultimately, discredit Western appeals for Communist dictatorships and their Third World allies to respect natural law and freedom. To the complaints about persecuting the minorities, or dissidents, Moscow would respond self-righteously by listing its alleged great economic and social successes. Each General Secretary of the Communist party would lecture us deceitfully on how there was no unemployment in the Soviet bloc. For instance, to this very day, Cuba boasts about universal access to medical help by its pseudo citizens, aka slaves of the Castros. Hardly anyone dares to point out its inferior quality. Instead, we hear unwarranted praise from leaders such as Barrack Obama.
This false image of allegedly successful social and economic “rights” under socialist dictatorship results from years of Communist propaganda and infiltration of totalitarian narratives of the American elites’ mentality. I remember when at Columbia University, Professor John Hazard, a specialist in Soviet law, turned to me and said: “Wunderkind! What are you moaning about the Soviet Union for? They have a great social safety net there.” I responded: “Yes, a net made out of barbed wire.” He burst out laughing.
In time, the Soviet narrative about economic and social “rights” attracted supporters from beyond the Communist bloc and its allies. The process metastasized not only because of the Soviet example but also, and perhaps mainly, of the discourse of moral relativism paralyzing the West. For example, the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has claimed that it practices human rights in harmony with its culture regulated by the sharia. Hence, a thief has his hand amputated, and a murderer or adulterer has his head lopped off. The Islamic Republic of Iran has nodded its head in consent and added that homosexuals are hanged based on the same culture. But both Iran and Saudi Arabia immediately point out a variety of economic and social rights, including generous welfare allotments inherent in the sharia and positive law, which render completely superfluous any musings on natural law inspiring human rights “allegedly” grounded in freedom.
Such trends pushing for the expansion of the meaning of the definition of human “rights” waned paradoxically after 1989. After the so-called “collapse” of Communism and the “transformation” of the Communists and the implosion of the USSR, Western leftists appropriated the Soviet inheritance. They comprehensively infiltrated human rights institutions, including leading international organizations, like the United Nations.
Partly, it was a function of our failure to trumpet our victory triumphantly over Communism abroad and to extricate its roots with fire and sword at home. This would have entailed smashing false arguments about so-called economic and social rights. Further, it would have required employing political means to halt undermining natural law’s essence, which gives life and meaning to human rights. Moreover, the end of the Cold War meant that the followers of Communism and Marxist solutions did not need to hide them anymore because the opprobrium of treason was no more. No one could call them traitors or Soviet agents anymore. Because anyone can invoke one’s truth, they took advantage of the gimmick to preach socialist truth in its post-Soviet guise. Since in a democratic setting, one could always invoke freedom in defense of noxious ideas, and everything was deemed “relative,” so they thrived.
The leftists claimed the ownership of the old Kremlin formula and deployed it in an extremely flexible way. Nowadays, so-called human “rights” are the right to abortion or transgenderism and such things as the allegedly universal “right” to water. Hardly anyone points out that those are not human rights, but issues of public policy. In a democracy, it is legitimate to argue one’s point, whatever it may be, and try to institutionalize it through elections. Still, such policy issues usually have nothing to do with the loftiness of human rights inherent in our dignity as individuals and blessed by natural law as mandated by the Creator.
It is evident in this context that an inflation and bastardization of human rights have taken place. Aaron Rodes appeals to return to the original meaning of human rights. Good luck. A powerful international bureaucracy exists that controls and spreads the insanity on behalf of alleged human “rights” grounded in policy and positive law. The bureaucracy is under leftist control. Thus, they institute their preferred order under the guise of enforcing human “rights.” This takes place not only on the international field but also within nation-states. And to put the intractable, like Rhodes, in their place, the tolerant ones unleash political correctness or economic blackmail.
Let us hope they shall not overcome. And others, besides Piedra and Rhodes, stand up to them. Enough is enough.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 23 August 2020