Are Developed Countries Decadent?

Yes, provocatively says Ross Douthat, a conservative New York Times columnist, in a recent lengthy column that deserves reflection by us all. [1}

Introduction

He starts with the assertion that in the 21st century the U.S. and other developed countries “are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, growing old unhappily together in the light of tiny screens.” In other words, we “really inhabit an era in which repetition is more the norm than invention; in which stalemate rather than revolution stamps our politics; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private life alike; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, consistently underdeliver.”

This is an overall depiction of “decadence,” which Douthat defines as “economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development .” This “stagnation is often a consequence of previous development.”

He then expands upon this opinion by examining current economic, social and political factors.

Economics

“The decadent economy is not an impoverished one. The United States [for example] is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions, and the last decade of growth has (slowly) raised our living standard to a new high after the losses from the Great Recession.”

But, Douthat says, the U.S. and other developed canopies are not dynamic. “American entrepreneurship has been declining since the 1970s. . . . [There is] a slowdown, a mounting difficulty in achieving breakthroughs [in science and technology].”

One of the sources for this assertion was a 2017 paper by a group of economists, “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” These economists asserted, ““We present a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms showing that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.”

Another source was Northwestern University economist, Robert Gordon, whom Douthat describes as “one of the most persuasive theorist of stagnation.” Gordon had concluded, “the period from 1840 to 1970 featured dramatic growth and innovation across multiple arenas — energy and transportation and medicine and agriculture and communication and the built environment. Whereas in the last two generations, progress has become increasingly monodimensional — all tech and nothing more.”

Society

“America is a more peaceable country than it was in 1970 or 1990, with lower crime rates and safer streets and better-behaved kids. But it’s also a country where that supposedly most American of qualities, wanderlust, has markedly declined: Americans no longer “go west” (or east or north or south) in search of opportunity the way they did 50 years ago; the rate at which people move between states has fallen from 3.5 percent in the early 1970s to 1.4 percent in 2010. . . . Nor do Americans change jobs as often as they once did.”

“Those well-behaved young people are more depressed than prior cohorts, less likely to drive drunk or get pregnant but more tempted toward self-harm. They are also the most medicated generation in history, from the drugs prescribed for A.D.H.D. to the antidepressants offered to anxious teens, and most of the medications are designed to be calming, offering a smoothed-out experience rather than a spiky high.”

“[P]eople are also less likely to invest in the future in the most literal of ways. The United States birthrate was once an outlier among developed countries, but since the Great Recession, it has descended rapidly, converging with the wealthy world’s general below-replacement norm. This demographic decline worsens economic stagnation; economists reckoning with its impact keep finding stark effects. A 2016 analysis found that a 10 percent increase in the fraction of the population over 60 decreased the growth rate of states’ per capita G.D.P. by 5.5 percent. A 2018 paper found that companies in younger labor markets are more innovative; another found that the aging of society helped explain the growth of monopolies and the declining rate of start-ups.”

“Sterility feeds stagnation, which further discourages childbearing, which sinks society ever-deeper into old age — makes demographic decline a clear example of how decadence overtakes a civilization. For much of Western history, declining birthrates reflected straightforward gains to human welfare: victories over infant mortality, over backbreaking agrarian economies, over confining expectations for young women. But once we crossed over into permanent below-replacement territory, the birth dearth began undercutting the very forces (youth, risk -taking, dynamism) necessary for continued growth, meaning that any further gains to individual welfare are coming at the future’s expense.”

        Politics

“From Trump’s Washington to the capitals of Europe, Western politics is now polarized between anti-establishment forces that are unprepared to competently govern and an establishment that’s too disliked to effectively rule.”

“The structures of the Western system, the United States Constitution and administrative state, the half-built federalism of the European Union, are everywhere creaking and everywhere critiqued. But our stalemates make them impervious to substantial reform, let alone to revolution. The most strident European nationalists don’t even want to leave the European Union, and Trump’s first term has actually been much like Obama’s second, with failed legislation and contested executive orders, and policy made mostly by negotiation between the bureaucracy and the courts.”

        Douthat’s Conclusion

“Complaining about decadence is a luxury good — a feature of societies where the mail is delivered, the crime rate is relatively low, and there is plenty of entertainment at your fingertips. Human beings can still live vigorously amid a general stagnation, be fruitful amid sterility, be creative amid repetition. And the decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradictions to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.”

“So you can even build a case for decadence, not as a falling-off or disappointing end, but as a healthy balance between the misery of poverty and the dangers of growth for growth’s sake. A sustainable decadence, if you will, in which the crucial task for 21st-century humanity would be making the most of a prosperous stagnation: learning to temper our expectations and live within limits; making sure existing resources are distributed more justly; using education to lift people into the sunlit uplands of the creative class; and doing everything we can to help poorer countries transition successfully into our current position. Not because meliorism can cure every ill, but because the more revolutionary alternatives are too dangerous, and a simple greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number calculus requires that we just keep the existing system running and give up more ambitious dreams.”

“The longer a period of stagnation continues, the narrower the space for fecundity and piety, memory and invention, creativity and daring. The unresisted drift of decadence can lead into a territory of darkness, whose sleekness covers over a sickness unto death.”

“So decadence must be critiqued and resisted . . . . by the hope that where there’s stability, there also might eventually be renewal, that decadence need not give way to collapse to be escaped, that the renaissance can happen without the misery of an intervening dark age.”

This Blogger’s Conclusion

The societal facts cited by Douthat are well known, and this blog has commented about the economic challenges presented by lower birth rates and aging populations of the U.S. [2] and of his home state of Minnesota. [3] Therefore, this blogger has been and is an advocate for increasing U.S. welcoming  refugees and other immigrants in accordance with the U.S. history of immigration, which should be an U.S. advantage over other countries. [4] Douthat, however, does not mention immigration. Nor does he mention the high costs of raising children in the U.S. as a deterrent to having children. This blog also has discussed declining birth rates and aging populations in Japan, China and Cuba. [5]

This societal situation is also shown by recent U.S. declines in important international socio-political indices: freedom of the press, human development, level of corruption, income inequality, global peace and social progress. These may well relate to Douthat’s thesis.[6]

I agree with Douthat’s assessment of the political scene at least in the U.S. In fact, I believe that the U.S. Constitution is obsolete in so many ways, especially in its anti-democratic U.S. Senate which gives greater weight to land than to people, its filibuster rule, its Electoral College for electing the president and to the difficulty of amending that document.

Douthat’s discussion of current economic conditions presented new facts and analyses for this blogger. As a result, I will be studying Douthat’s forthcoming book, examining the paper by Robert Gordon that is hyperlinked in the column; finding and reading the paper by an unnamed group of economists that is discussed in the column; reading the over 1,000 comments on the column published by the Times; and searching for other opinions on these issues.

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[1] Douthat. The Age of Decadence, N.Y. Times (Feb. 9, 2020). He will expand on this topic in his book: The Age of Decadence: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success (to be released Feb. 25, 2020). An earlier column provided a slice of his analysis in discussing the second decade of our current century: The Decade of Disillusionment, N.Y. Times ( Dec. 28, 2019).      

[2] ] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: More Warnings of the Problems Facing U.S. Aging, Declining Population (Aug. 14, 2019); Implications of Reduced U.S. Population Growth (Jan. 10, 2020); U.S. Needs Immigration To Keep Growing and Maintain Prosperity (Feb.16, 2020).

[3] ] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Minnesota’s Challenges of Declining, Aging Population (Oct. 2, 2019); Slower Growth Projected for Minnesota Population in the 2020’s (Dec. 29, 2019).

[4] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Report About U.S. Need for More Immigrants (Aug. 25, 2019); Japan Shows Why U.S. Needs More Immigrants (Sept. 1, 2019); Prominent Economist Says Cuts in U.S. immigration Threaten U.S. Economy and Innovation (Oct. 12, 2019); Immigrants Come to U.S. To Work (Jan. 31, 2020); U.S. State Governments Celebrate Refugees’ Accomplishments (Feb. 2, 2020); U.S. Needs Immigrants To Keep Growing and Maintain Prosperity (Feb. 16, 2020).

[5] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Japan Shows Why U.S. Needs More Immigrants (Sept. 1, 2019); Japan Implements New Law Allowing Increased Immigration (Sept. 15, 2019); Cuba’s Aging and Declining Population Continues (Dec. 13, 2019); Continued Demographic Squeeze on Japan (Dec. 26, 2019); “The Chinese Population Crisis” (Jan. 21, 2020); Cuba’s Low Birth Rate, Increasing Emigration and Declining Population (Feb. 3, 2020).

[6] Declining U.S. Rankings in Important Socio-Poltical Indices, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 19, 2019).

“The Chinese Population Crisis”

This was the title of a recent column by the New York Times’ columnist, Ross Douthat.[1]

I was expecting to read about increases in that country’s massive population.

Instead, it was about a birth rate that was below replacement level, which Douthat said was “one of the most important geopolitical facts of the 21st century.” Yes, it is true that the U.S. and many other developed countries are also experiencing declining birth rates,[2] but it was China and some other developing countries joining this “club” that was creating the crisis.

Although China has experienced amazing economic growth in recent years, “Chinese per capita G.D.P. is still about one-third or one-fourth the size of neighboring countries like South Korea and Japan. And yet its birthrate has converged with the rich world much more quickly and completely — which has two interrelated implications, both of them grim.”

“First, China will have to pay for the care of a vast elderly population without the resources available to richer societies facing the same challenge.”

“Second, China’s future growth prospects will dim with every year of below-replacement birth rates, because low fertility creates a self-reinforcing cycle — in which a less youthful society loses dynamism and growth, which reduces economic support for would-be parents, which reduces birthrates, which reduces growth.”

Moreover, as “  Lyman Stone writes in the latest National Review, the human race is increasingly facing a “global fertility crisis,” not just a European or American or Japanese baby bust. It’s a crisis that threatens ever-slower growth in the best case; in the worst-case, to cite a recent paper by the Stanford economist Charles Jones, it risks “an Empty Planet result: knowledge and living standards stagnate for a population that gradually vanishes.”

“As we contemplate the demographic challenge of the future, we should reserve particular opprobrium for those who chose, in the arrogance of their supposed humanitarianism, to use coercive and foul means to make the great problem of the 21st century worse.”

One commentator on this column said that Douthat missed an important fact exasperating China’s problem…–the enormous gender imbalance of . . .[its] ‘one child’ years. Boys were overwhelmingly favored, so there are many fewer women to birth those babies. One man can impregnate many women, but each woman can only birth at most one baby a year for a few decades (assuming she’s willing to be nothing but a baby machine, ehich is a huge stretch.”

A Hong Kong financial reporter suggests that China’s lower birth rates and aging population should increase the demand (and, therefore, higher prices and lower interest rates) for Chinese government bonds. As a result, buying such bonds now may lead to capital gains.[3]

Conclusion

We should thank Douthat for pointing out the important issues raised by China’s declining birth rate although the “Empty Planet” scenario seems absurd.

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[1] Douthat, The Chinese Population Crisis, N.Y. Times (Jan. 19, 2020).

[2] E.g., Implications of Reduced U.S. Population Growth, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 10, 2020).

[3] Bird, How to Invest in China’s Perilous Demography, W.S.J. (Jan. 20, 2020).

 

 

Continued Demographic Squeeze on Japan  

For 2019 Japan’s population declined by 512,000, the latest sign of the country’s increasing demographic challenges due to declining births (less than 900,000 in 2019, the lowest figure since 1874) and increasing deaths (1.4 million in 2019, the highest since the end of World War II).[1]

Fewer births mean there will be fewer young people entering the workforce to replace retiring workers and support them as they age. This “poses a serious threat to Japan’s economic vitality and the security of its social safety net.”

Moreover, there is no anticipated end to Japan’s declining population. Its “government estimates that the population could shrink by around 16 million people — or nearly 13 percent — over the next 25 years.”

To try to meet this challenge the Japanese government has attempted to increase the fertility rate “by increasing incentives for parents to have more children and reducing obstacles that might discourage those who want to.” But so far that has not been successful for at least the following reasons:

  • First, “marriage is on the decline. The number of marriages dropped by 3,000 year-on-year to 583,000 [in 2019], part of a steep decline over the last decade.”
  • Second, “more people in Japan are putting off childbirth — or not having children at all — either to take advantage of economic opportunities or because they worry that economic opportunities do not exist and feel that they cannot afford children.”
  • Third, parents with younger children face difficult challenges. “Demand for day care in the country far outstrips supply, making it difficult for working women to juggle careers and children. And working men who want to take advantage of the country’s generous paternity leave can find themselves stigmatized by an entrenched cultural belief that a man’s place is in the office, not in the home.”

As noted in another post, Japan is attempting to increase the number of immigrants, contrary to long-standing Japanese norms against immigration. It also is promoting the use of robots to supplement its shrinking workforce.[2]

Other countries are facing similar problems. South Korea has an even lower birth rate than Japan. And China and the U.S. also have declining birth rates.[3]

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[1] Dooley, Japan Shrinks by 500,000 People as Births Fall to Lowest Number Since 1874 (Dec. 24, 2019)  See also Japan Shows Why U.S. Needs More Immigrants, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 1, 2019).

[2] Japan Implements New Law Allowing Increased Immigration, dwkcommentaries.com Sept. 15, 2019).

[3] Impact of Declining, Aging Rural Populations, dwkcommentaries.com (May 22, 2019); Other Factors Favoring More U.S. Immigration, dwkcommentaries.com  (May 17, 2018); The Importance of a Growing U.S. Population, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 27,  2017).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.N. Security Council Discusses Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis   

On December 6, 2019, the U.N. Security Council held a meeting about the countries of Central Africa, including Cameroon. Here is an account of the U.N. Secretary-General’s report preceding that meeting and the discussion at that meeting insofar as they related to Cameroon.

Secretary-General’s Report (11/29/19)[1]

The Secretary-General stated, ”In the North-West and SouthWest Regions, violence continued to affect 1.3 million people, including over 700,000 people who were uprooted from their homes. Armed fighting and insecurity in the two regions continued to be the principal impediment to the provision of assistance and a barrier for those in need to reach areas where they could receive aid. Attacks on health infrastructure and personnel, schools, teachers, parents and children persisted. More than 855,000 children – almost 9 out of 10 – have been out of school for three years in the two regions. As of November 2019, 90 percent of public primary schools and 77 percent of public secondary schools remained closed or non-operational.”

A U.N. team recently “found that serious human rights violations and abuses, Cameroonattributed to both government security forces and armed separatists, were occurring across the two regions. [The team] received allegations of unlawful killing, rape and gang rape, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, abduction for ransom, infringement of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, forced displacement, destruction of property and attacks on schools and medical facilities, as well as arbitrary detention. There was concern regarding impunity.”

 Comments at the Security Council Meeting (12/06/19) [2]

Francois Louncény Fall, the Head of the U.N. Regional Office for Central Africa (UNOCA) and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for that subregion, opened the meeting by presenting the previously mentioned Secretary-General’s report.[3]

According to the summary of his remarks, he said that although Cameroon’s National Dialogue (September 30-October 4) had been productive, “the level of violence continues to threaten Cameroonian lives, . . .  citing reports of human rights violations and abuses attributable to all sides.  Humanitarian workers have also been targeted. . . . More than 700,000 people have been displaced by the conflict and thousands have been reported killed or injured, . . .  [He called] upon international partners to support national efforts to address humanitarian needs.  In the wake of the national dialogue, some of its recommendations have been implemented, including the release of some prisoners, but the swift implementation of all recommendations will be a significant step towards resolving the crisis” and contributing “significantly towards resolving the political and humanitarian crisis enveloping that country’s North‑West and South‑West regions.”  He also said that there needed to be “further discourse among all stakeholders in order to quell underlying tensions among marginalized communities.  The elections announced for 2020 will be a crucial test of democracy and the determination of national stakeholders to achieve genuine stability and socioeconomic development for all Cameroonians, he continued, urging all sides to step up their efforts to protect and promote human rights and to tackle impunity.”[4]

The Special Representative added that although Cameroon President Biya has announced legislative and municipal elections for next February, the leader of a major opposition party had declared that it would not participate in the election because of no suitable conditions for voting in the Anglophone region (the north-West and South-West Regions) while other opposition parties had reservations about the election. For this election to be successful test of democracy, there must be “genuine stability and socioeconomic development for all Cameroonians.” Therefore, “all actors on the ground [must] step up their efforts to protect and promote human rights and to tackle impunity.”

Most of the Council members, according to the summary, had very little comment about Cameroon or merely welcomed the national dialogue and urged the parties to the conflict to resolve differences through compromise. This was true for Equatorial Guinea, Dominican Republic, Russian Federation, Kuwait, Peru, Indonesia and China.

European members of the Council, however, were slightly more pointed in their remarks about Cameroon:

  • The United Kingdom representative expressed “concern over the strife in Cameroon” and said “all parties must do more to ensure humanitarian access.  He called for an end to human rights abuses, for the investigation of all incidents and for the implementation of all recommendations of the national dialogue, including those on strengthening bilingualism and engaging diaspora groups.  ‘Words need to be matched by actions,’ to prevent the situation from deteriorating, he emphasized, underlining the imperative need for the international community to support further peacebuilding efforts in Cameroon.”
  • The representative for Belgium expressed “concern over the strife in Cameroon” and said “all parties must do more to ensure humanitarian access.  He called for an end to human rights abuses, for the investigation of all incidents and for the implementation of all recommendations of the national dialogue, including those on strengthening bilingualism and engaging diaspora groups.  ‘Words need to be matched by actions,’ to prevent the situation from deteriorating, he emphasized, underlining the imperative need for the international community to support further peacebuilding efforts in Cameroon.”
  • Poland’s representative “welcomed Cameroon’s holding of a national dialogue but expressed concern over continued human rights violations in that country.  All incidents should be investigated and perpetrators held accountable.”
  • The German representative said “the deteriorating situation in Cameroon” suggested the Security council should “consider how UNOCA can contribute resolving the conflict, which has a negative impact on the entire Central Africa region.”

The most critical remarks came from U.S. Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet. While he  expressed gratitude for  the Secretary-General’s “work in Cameroon to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions,” he stated the U.S.has  increasing concern over the “rapidly worsening humanitarian and human rights situations in Cameroon. Credible reports detail persistent human-rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and torture, all conducted with impunity.”

This, the U.S. said, has become “a humanitarian situation requiring immediate attention. Parties to the conflict limit humanitarian access, and a worsening security situation has reportedly left as much as 65 percent of the Northwest and Southwest Regions of Cameroon out of bounds to aid workers.”

Therefore, U.S. Ambassador Chalet urged, first, that the U.N.’s Regional Office for Central Africa and “our partners to take a more assertive role in resolving Cameroon’s conflict and to continue to urge both the Government of Cameroon and separatist groups to enter into open-ended dialogue without pre-conditions, [thereby] relinquishing their focus on a military solution.” Second, the “Swiss-led mediation process between the Government of Cameroon and the separatists” should go forward immediately.[5]

These critical comments by the U.S. Ambassador echoed the words and actions of the U.S. after President Biya’s speech and national dialogue when the U.S. did not applaud the speech and on October 31, 2019, suspended Cameroon’s participation in a beneficial African trade program because “the Government of Cameroon currently engages in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights., [including] extrajudicial killings, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and torture.” [6]

Conclusion

Significantly there was no Security Council resolution regarding Cameroon at this meeting, meaning there was no additional U.N. pressure for ending the persecution of the Anglophone Cameroonians.

It also should be noted that although all of these cited documents are in the public domain, there was no discussion of them in the principal U.S. media for coverage of international affairs, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

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[1] U.N. Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General: the situation in Central Africa and the activities of the United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa (Nov. 29, 2019) [Cameroon, paras. 5-7, 23, 27, 29-32, 41, 74].

[2] U.N. Security Council, Building upon Momentum from National Dialogue Can Help Cameroon Resolve Political, Humanitarian Crisis, Special Representative Tells Security Council (Dec. 6, 2019); U.S. Mission to U.N., Remarks on UNSC Briefing on UNOCA (UN Regional Office for Central Africa) (Dec. 6. 2019).

[3] According to a U.N. website, Monsieur Fall is a native of Guinea and between 2012 and 2016 served as its Minister for Foreign Affairs after serving as its Prime Minister and as Secretary-General to the Presidency.  He also held a number of Guinean ambassadorial positions, including Permanent Representative to the United Nations and representative at the Security Council. For the U.N. he was the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Somalia, 2005-2007 and in the Central African Republic from 2007 to 2008 and as the Vice-Chairman of the Commission for the Monitoring and Evaluation of the South Sudan Peace Agreement, January to October 2016. Since November 2016 he has been the Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNOCA.  Mr. Fall holds a master’s degree in international law from Conakry University in Guinea.

[4] On September 10, 2019, Cameroon President Paul Biya in a speech recognized that the country’s crisis initially was triggered by the need to preserve the Anglo-Sacon judicial and educational systems in the Anglophone regions and that the government had taken steps to meet those needs, including the establishment of the Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multi-culturalism and a decentralization process. However, a secessionist movement have fomented violence requiring the government to respond with force. Now the country will conduct a major national dialogue to find ways to address the many problems in the country. The President will offer pardon to those who voluntarily lay down their arms. This speech elicited positive reactions from the U.N. and the African Union, but skepticism from some of the country’s opposition parties. (See Potential Breakthrough in Cameroon’s Civil War?, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 27, 2019).)

[5] See Switzerland Mediation of Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 19, 2019). The Conclusion of this post referred to a December 18 report that Switzerland had abandoned this mediation, but this blogger has not found any other reference to this alleged abandonment of mediation.

[6]  U.S. Reactions to Recent Developments in Cameroon, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 28, 2019).

 

Commission on Unalienable Rights Holds First Meeting

The Commission on Unalienable Rights held its first public meeting on October 23 at the State Department that was attended by “a few dozen U.S. officials and nongovernmental (NGO) representatives.” Its stated purpose was to discuss “topics related to human rights and the American founding.” [1]

 Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s Comments

The day before the meeting, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tweeted, ““I’m confident the Commission will advance the Administration’s unmatched commitment to fundamental human rights and extend America’s legacy as a nation without peer in upholding freedom and human dignity.”

He amplified those remarks the same day in an interview by Tony Perkins, a Commission member and the Family Research Council President, on his “Washington Watch” program. Pompeo said, “This is a commission that has a set of commissioners from a broad political perspective, different faith traditions, all aimed at something that I think every American can agree to, which is our conception that our founders put in place of the protection of human life and dignity is central to America’s wellbeing and our exceptionalism as a nation, and indeed, are a beacon for the entire world.”

Pompeo also said,”The protection of human life and dignity is central to America’s well-being and our exceptionalism as a nation and indeed our beacon for the entire world. What we’re hoping to do is to take up this idea of rights, which sometimes becomes confusing–or turns into simply personal or political preferences–and reground it in the history and tradition of the United States so that we are moored to something more than someone’s fancy of the moment.” Pompeo continued, “We’re trying to cut back to the roots to make sure that everyone is grounded in this tradition. And I will tell you. Around the world, people are watching the work that our commission is undertaking. There is a thirst for this work.”

In the tony Perkins interview, Pompeo added, “What we’re hoping to do is to take this idea of rights, which sometimes becomes confusing or turns into simply personal or political preferences, and reground it — reground it in the history and tradition of the United States so that we are moored to something more than someone’s fancy of the moment and we come to understand that these incredible cherished, fundamental rights are at the very core of the American experience.”

At the meeting itself, Pompeo stated, “It’s in the best traditions of American democracy that this meeting is a public one. One thing that makes America special is that our civic deliberations take place openly. We are not governed by the private writ of kings. We always have the debate – think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, President Wilson’s 14 Points, the civil rights movement, and many other issues.”

“It heartens me that you all are here to consider the ideas and arguments made before you. I pray they will improve our understanding and profit our nation.”

“This meeting of the Commission extends America’s unmatched national commitment to fundamental human rights. It began with the words of the Declaration of Independence, which made clear governments must honor “unalienable rights.” It continued when Abraham Lincoln – inspired by the words of the Declaration – signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt led the creation of the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights – a document that substantially drew on our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. We upheld fundamental rights in the civil rights era, when the promise of liberty and equality was realized for Americans who had previously been treated as second-class citizens, or worse. And we upheld human rights internationally in the fight against apartheid, and communism.”

“But in the last few decades, we’ve become confused about “rights.” Claims of “rights” have shaped our political debates, but it isn’t always clear whether we’re talking about fundamental, universal rights; or debatable political priorities; or merely personal preferences.”

“Claims of ‘rights’ have exploded. One research group has found that between the United Nations and the Council of Europe, there are a combined 64 human rights-related agreements, encompassing 1,377 provisions.”

“International bodies designated to protect human rights have drifted from their missions, or have been outright corrupted. Authoritarian governments often misuse these bodies. Just last week, China and Russia, for instance, voted Venezuela onto the UN Human Rights Council.  What hypocrisy.”

“And our kids aren’t taught about the role of  ‘unalienable rights’ in the American Founding – if they learn about the Founding at all.”

“So it’s time to ask some key questions:” (1)  “What are our fundamental freedoms?” (2) “Why do we have them?” (3) “Who or what grants them?” (4) “How do we know if a claim of human rights is true?” (5) “What happens when rights conflict?” (6) “Should certain categories of rights be inextricably “linked” to other rights?” (7) “How should government be organized and limited to ensure the protection of rights?”

In addition, the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon, made a statement at the meeting, but it has not been found.

Other Speakers at the Meeting

The first speaker, “Michael McConnell, a constitutional scholar at Stanford Law School and a former judge on the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, warned that the term ‘unalienable rights,’ which comes to us from our country’s protestant reform traditions, has never had a common or precise definition. The phrase identifies a philosophical concept, rather than a concrete set of rights.  And while the concept often prioritizes freedom of religion, McConnell cautioned that our founders were ultimately more concerned with freedom of conscience, which includes but is not limited to a narrow understanding of religious freedom.”

“McConnell also recognized the implicit failures of this philosophical approach.  While the term ‘unalienable rights’ makes for inspirational prose, the philosophical concept behind it embraced our country’s original sin of slavery and denied women full standing in society. Concepts of equal protection could not, and did not, exist at this time, under this philosophical tradition.”

According to the Council for Global Equality, an organization of “international human rights activists, foreign policy experts, LGBT leaders, philanthropists and corporate officials [who] encourage a clearer and stronger American voice on human rights concerns impacting LGBT communities around the world,” https://globalequality.wordpress.com/about/ McConnell’s remarks  “must have been a blow to the Commissioners, since[ Secretary] Pompeo clearly wants them to propose a new hierarchy of unalienable rights — with religious freedom at the pinnacle and the rights of LGBTI and other individuals with specific ‘preferences’ in the alienable category.  Indeed, Pompeo constantly speaks of religious freedom as the ‘first right’ from which other rights flow, proclaiming, often in messianic terms, that human rights ‘came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.’”

The Global Equality group added, “While U.S. moral leadership ebbs and flows, and our commitment to human rights institutions has been uneven over the years, it is simply wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts a limited number of political and religious rights above all others.  Indeed, this enterprise stands to harm religious freedom itself, as it gives philosophical justification to theocratic governments and religious majority populations who are, by far, the leading persecutors of religious minorities around the world. Those same oppressors also happen to be some of the leading persecutors of LGBTI individuals and other marginalized groups.”

The second presenter was Wilfred M. McClay, an American intellectual historian, a noted public intellectual, Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, and the current occupant of the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He urged the Commission to come up with “as short of a list [of unalienable rights] as possible” and to distinguish between “a small core of truly unalienable rights” and “putative rights.”

According to Alexandra Schmitt, a policy analyst for human rights, democracy and development at the Center for American Progress who attended the meeting, “McClay’s suggestions “would be a grave mistake. Human rights is not a zero-sum game whereby the protection of some rights means that others cannot be guaranteed. The commission members did not comment on his statement, but they also didn’t reject it outright—”a worrying signal for the future work of this group.” Ms. Schmitt also noted that “The only right that both presenters could agree was certainly unalienable was the right to freedom of conscience, which was understood to include freedom of religion and freedom of thought.”

Schmitt added, “It is clear that our worst fears have been confirmed and that yesterday’s meeting was the christening of Pompeo’s intensely academic attempt to justify his efforts to elevate religious freedom to a position of dominance in our country’s human rights diplomacy.  This policy shift was already foreshadowed by Pompeo’s announcement in June, marking the release of the State Department’s 2018 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, that he would strip the State Department’s office of religious freedom out of the Department’s human rights bureau, where it long has served to integrate religious liberty concerns with other human rights priorities, to a position of independence and priority in the Department’s organizational hierarchy.”

It also should be noted that several groups have announced their intent to ask the Commission to eliminate any right to an abortion. [2]

A subsequent post will discuss and analyze recent human rights comments by Chair Glendon and her recent interview as they relate to the Commission.

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[1]  Commission on Unalienable Rights; Notice of Open Meeting, Fed. Reg. (Oct. 2, 2019); Sec. of State Mike Pompeo Joins Tony Perkins on the Radio to Discuss the Commission on Unalienable Rights, yahoo finance.com (Oct. 23, 2019); State Dep’t, Pompeo Remarks, Commission on Unalienable Rights Public Meeting (Oct. 23, 2019); Lavers, State Department human rights advocacy commission holds first meeting, SFGN (Oct. 29, 2019); Pompeo’s Dangerously Misguided Human Rights Commission, Global Equality (Oct. 24, 2019); Schmitt, 5 questions About the Commission on Unalienable Rights, americanprogress.org (Oct. 31, 2019).This blog, prompted by worries that this Commission may seek to narrow U.S. commitments to human rights,  has many posts about the Commission.

[2] Pro-family groups have asked US ‘Commission on Unalienable Rights’ to fight for parental rights, LifeSite (Oct. 22, 2019); Ruth Institute, Ruth Institute President Welcomes First Public Meeting of State Dept. Commission on Unalienable Rights (Oct. 21, 2019) Concerned Women for America, Groups Unite to Support the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (Aug. 6, 2019).

 

 

 

Secretary of State Pompeo Delivers Speech at the Holy See

On October 2, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo delivered a speech in Rome at the Holy See’s Symposium on Working with Faith-Based Organizations. He also met with Pope Francis and with two Vatican officials.

Pompeo’s Speech [1]

After mentioning some of the main points of last week’s session on religious freedom at the U.N. that was organized by the U.S., the Secretary recalled, “Then-Pope – now Saint – John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan combined the moral authority of the Holy See with the prosperity and example of the United States, the freest nation on earth, to fight the evil empire [the Soviet Union].  Through patience and unity of purpose, they prevailed. Their words and deeds helped save – helped leave the Soviet leviathan on that ash heap of history.”

“More than 80 percent of mankind [now] lives in places where religious freedom is threatened or entirely denied.  Approximately 71 million people around the world are displaced as refugees.  Roughly 25 million people are caught in human trafficking situations.”

“And it’s no coincidence that it has happened as unfree societies have proliferated. Because when the state rules absolutely, God becomes an absolute threat to authority.  That’s why Cuba cancelled National Catholic Youth Day back in August.”(Emphasis added.) He also had negative words about violations of religious freedom in China, Syria, Iran and Burma.

“We must recognize the roots of religious repression.  Authoritarian regimes and autocrats will never accept a power higher than their own.  And that causes all sorts of assaults on human dignity.

On “the issues most fundamental, on the issues of human dignity and religious freedom, these issues that transcend everyday politics, on the enduring struggle of the individual’s right to believe and worship, we [the Holy See and the U.S.] must – and I know we will – march together.”

The Secretary then discussed the Second U.S. Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S.-led gathering on religious freedom at the U.N. last week and the U.S.-initiated Religious Freedom Alliance.[2]

Meeting with Pope Francis [3]

The State Department’s initial statement merely said that Secretary Pompeo had “a private audience with His Holiness Pope Francis.” A subsequent statement adced this summary: “The Pope and the Secretary “reaffirmed the United States and Holy See commitment to advancing religious freedom around the world, and in particular, protecting Christian communities in the Middle East.  The Secretary and Pope Francis also discussed the continued efforts of the United States and the Holy See to promote democracy and human rights globally.”

The Vatican, on the other hand, merely confirmed the meeting’s having taken place, but offered no details. The Associated Press added, “There was no indication that Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, sought any type of spiritual solace from Pope Francis during their meeting.”

Pompeo along with the  U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich (wife of Newt Gingrich, former Republican Congressman), also met with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher. According to the State Department, “Secretary Pompeo thanked Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher for the Vatican’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and end the suffering of the Venezuelan people. They also discussed the importance of preventing trafficking in persons and advancing international religious freedom. On the Middle East, the Secretary noted U.S. efforts to support Christian minorities, and emphasized the importance of continued calls from the United States and the Vatican to end the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.”

Conclusion

 Once again, the Secretary had lofty words about religious freedom, an honorable cause. But it mainly was a political promotion for things that the current administration is doing. without any mention of working with faith-based organizations, which was the apparent theme of the Holy See’s Symposium.  There was no humbly walking with God as Micah 6:8 reminds us: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 (NRSV)(emphasis added).)

And the Secretary could not let this speech occur without an unnecessary and misleading negative word about Cuba. Yes, the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party did not allow most public celebrations this year of National Catholic Youth Day, except they were permitted in the city of Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the island and such celebrations also took place in the premises of the church’s eleven dioceses. Moreover, the cancelation of the other celebrations could have been prompted by Cuba’s current energy shortages, a substanal cause of which is the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s shipping oil to the island. [4]

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[1] State Dep’t, Human Dignity and Faith in Free Societies (Oct. 2, 2019).

[2]  E.g., U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2019); U.S. at U.N. Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 24, 2019).

3] State Dep’t, Travel to Italy, the Holy See, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Greece, October 1-6, 2019; State Dep’t, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo’s Meeting with Pope Francis (Oct. 3, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo’s Meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher (Oct. 3, 2019); Lee (Assoc. Press), Pompeo Meets Pope francis as impeachment roils Washington, Wash. Post (Oct. 3, 2019) Assoc. Press, Pompeo Meets Pope francis as Impeachment Roils Washington, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2019).

[4] Catholic public youth day celebrations cancelled in Cuba, Christian Telegraph (Aug. 6, 2019); Bordoni, Pope encourages young Cuban Catholics to become missionary disciples, Vatican News (Aug. 1, 2019); Lopez, Be Transformed ‘Into Missionary Disciples,’ Says Pope in His Message for Cuba’s National Youth Day, Zenit (Aug. 2, 2019).