Pandemic Journal (# 20): Oprah Winfrey’s Challenge to the Pandemic Classes of 2020   

On May 15, Oprah Winfrey gave an inspiring online commencement address to all graduating high school and college members of the classes of 2020, the pandemic classes. Here is what she said.[1]

“[N]ever has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy and hope.”

“Every one of us is now being called to graduate, to step toward something, even though we don’t know what. Every one of us is likewise now being called to temper the parts of ourselves that must fall away, to refine who we are, how we define success and what is genuinely meaningful. And you, the real graduates on this day, you will lead us.”

“It’s vital that you learn, and we all learn, to be at peace with the discomfort of stepping into the unknown. It’s really OK to not have all the answers. The answers will come for sure, if you can accept not knowing long enough to get still and stay still long enough for new thoughts to take root in your more quiet, deeper, truer self. The noise of the world drowns out the sound of you. You have to get still to listen.”

“Can you, the class of 2020, show us not how to put the pieces back together again, but how to create a new and more evolved normal, a world more just, kind, beautiful, tender, luminous, creative, whole? We need you to do this, because the pandemic has illuminated the vast systemic inequities that have defined life for too many for too long. For poor communities without adequate access to health care, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For immigrant communities forced to hide in the shadows, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For incarcerated people, with no ability to social distance, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For every person burdened by bias and bigotry, for every black man and woman living in their American skin, fearful to even go for a jog, inequality is a pre-existing condition.”

“You have the power to stand for, to fight for, and vote for healthier conditions that will create a healthier society. This moment is your invitation to use your education to begin to heal our afflictions by applying the best of what you’ve learned in your head, and felt in your heart. This moment has shown us what Dr. King tried to tell us. Decades ago, he understood that ‘we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.’”

“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. If humanity is a global body, every soul is a cell in that body, and we are being challenged like never before to keep the global body healthy by keeping ourselves healthy in mind and body and spirit. As all the traditions affirm, the deepest self-care is at once caring for the human family.”

We “see this so clearly with essential workers. Look who turns out to be essential: teachers — your teachers, health care workers, of course, the people stocking grocery shelves, the cashiers, the truck drivers, food providers, those who are caring for your grandparents, those who clean the places where we work and shop and carry out our daily lives. We are all here because they, at great and profound risk, are still providing their essential service.”

“What will your essential service be? What really matters to you? The fact that you’re alive means you’ve been given a reprieve to think deeply about that question. How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community and the world?”

Comments

I concur that “the pandemic has illuminated the vast systemic inequities that have defined life for too many for too long.”

It also has illuminated the many antiquated aspects of the American government that need to be eliminated or substantially reformed—the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate in which every state has two senators regardless of population, the Senate’s filibuster rule, the needlessly complex structure for voting that allows some states to suppress voting by minorities or citizens who favor the other political party from those in charge. The more specific need this year is prevent the re-election of Donald Trump and any attempt by him and his allies to subvert the election.

So too there are many aspects of the American economy that need to be substantially reformed, such as the immense differences in compensation of corporate CEO’s and the essential hourly employees. For example, the CEO of Target Corporation had total compensation of $21.6 million for fiscal 2019-20 while “essential” employees in its stores in April 2019 had their hourly wage boosted to $13 with the goal of reaching $15 by the end of 2020 and on March 22, 2020, were advised that they would receive an additional $2 per hour through at least May 2. [2]

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[1] Winfrey, Virtual Commencement Address, Facebook (May 15, 2020); Bogei-Burroughs, Oprah to Class of 2020: ‘What Will Your Essential Service Be?’, N.Y. Times (May 15, 2020).

[2] Kennedy, CEO Pay Watch: Target’s Brian Cornell made $21.6 million last fiscal year, StarTribune (April 23, 2020); Reagan, Target raises its minimum wage to $13 per hour, with goal of reaching $15 by end of 2020, CNBC (April 4, 2019); Wilson, Target gives raises, bonuses to employees during coronavirus pandemic, WTHR 13 (Mar. 24, 2020).

 

 

Prominent Republicans Unite To Defeat Donald Trump’s Re-election

 Eight prominent Republicans have formed The Lincoln Project to hold “accountable those who would violate their oaths to the Constitution and would put others before Americans.” Their mission is to “defeat President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box.” This mission is explained in its website and a Washington Post article, which are discussed below along with information about these prominent Republicans.

The Lincoln Project’s Website[1]

Like President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, “Today, we find ourselves divided again – sectionalism in the country and factionalism in government has led to ever uglier examples of how our political system is failing. President Donald Trump and those who sign onto Trumpism are a clear and present danger to the Constitution and our Republic. Only defeating so polarizing a character as Trump will allow the country to heal its political and psychological wounds and allow for a new, better path forward for all Americans.”

The Project’s Advisors  say they “do not undertake this task lightly nor from ideological preference. Our many policy differences with national Democrats remain. However, the priority for all patriotic Americans must be a shared fidelity to the Constitution and a commitment to defeat those candidates who have abandoned their constitutional oaths, regardless of party. Electing Democrats who support the Constitution over Republicans who do not is a worthy effort.”

Their Washington Post Article[2]

The article states, “This November, Americans will cast their most consequential votes since Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. We confront a constellation of crises: a public health emergency not seen in a century, an economic collapse set to rival the Great Depression, and a world where American leadership is absent and dangers rise in the vacuum.” It then criticises President Trump and praised Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Criticism of President Trump

“Today, the United States is beset with a president who was unprepared for the burden of the presidency and who has made plain his deficits in leadership, management, intelligence and morality.”

“For Trump, the presidency has been the biggest stage, under the hottest klieg lights in a reality show of his making. Every episode leaves the audience more shocked and divided. Trump’s only barometer is his own ego. The country, our values and its people do not factor into Trump’s equation”

“The coronavirus crisis is a terrifying example of why real leadership looks outward. This crisis, the deaths and economic destruction are immeasurably worse because Trump and his administration were unwilling to do what was necessary to mitigate its worst effects and bring the country back as quickly as possible.”

“We’ve seen the damage three years of corruption and cultish amateurism can do. This country cannot afford to be torn apart for sport and profit for another term, as Trump will surely do.”

“We are in a transcendent and transformative period of American history. The nation cannot afford another four years of chaos, duplicity and Trump’s reality distortion. This country is crying out for a president with a spine stiffened by tragedy, a worldview shaped by experience and a heart whose compass points to decency.”

Praise for Joe Biden

“Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee and he has our support. Biden has the experience, the attributes and the character to defeat Trump this fall. Unlike Trump, for whom the presidency is just one more opportunity to perfect his narcissism and self-aggrandizement, Biden sees public service as an opportunity to do right by the American people and a privilege to do so.”

“Biden is a reflection of the United States. Born into a middle-class family in coal-country Pennsylvania, he has known the hardship and heartbreak that so many Americans themselves know and that millions more are about to experience.”

“Biden’s personal tragedies and losses tested his strength, his faith and his determination. They were enough to crush most people’s spirit, but Biden emerged more compassionate toward the suffering of others and the burdens that life imposes on his fellow Americans.”

“Biden did what Americans have always done: picked himself up, dusted himself off and made the best of a bad situation. In the years since he first entered office, Biden has consistently demonstrated decency, empathy and humanity.”

“Biden’s life has been marked by triumphs that didn’t change the goodness in him, and he is a man for whom public service never went to his head. His long record of bipartisan friendship and cross-partisan legislative efforts commends him to this moment. He is an imperfect man, but a man who loves his country and its people with a broad smile and an open heart.”

“Biden understands a tenet of leadership that far too few leaders today grasp: The presidency is a life-and-death business, that the consequences of elections have real-world effects on individual Americans, and that all of this — all of the struggle, toil and work — is not a zero-sum game.”We asked ourselves: How would a Biden presidency handle this [coronavirus] crisis? Would he spend weeks lying about the risk? Would he look to cable news, the stock market and his ratings before taking the steps to make us safer? The answer is obvious: Biden will be the superior leader during the crisis of our generation.”

 The Lincoln Project’s Advisors

The prominent Republicans behind this Project are the following:

  • George Conway III, “a lawyer in New York City and a founding member of , a group of conservative and libertarian lawyers organized to defend the rule of law.”
  • Reed Galen, “an independent political strategist [who] left the Republican Party in 2016 and has spent the last three years dedicated to the political reform movement, creating a better system for all voters.”
  • Jennifer Horn, “a communications strategist and former Chairman of the NH Republican Party [who] was the first Republican woman in New Hampshire nominated for Federal office.”
  • Mike Madrid, “a Republican strategist and former political director of the California Republican Party [who] serves as a senior advisor to the California Latino Economic Institute.”
  • Steve Schmidt, “a national political strategist [who] previously worked for President George W. Bush, Senator John McCain and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
  • Ron Steslow, “a brand and marketing strategist and independent political consultant [who after] leaving the GOP in 2016,. . . has worked to put voters first in our political system.”
  • John Weaver, “a national political strategist [who] worked for President George H.W. Bush, Senator John McCain and Ohio Governor John Kasich.”
  • Rick Wilson, “a long time Republican media consultant and author of the New York Times bestselling book, “Everything Trump Touches Dies.”

Conclusion

These eight individuals deserve our nation’s applause. This blog already has set forth its opinion that the COVID-19 pandemic has proved the incompetence of President Trump and the need for his defeat in the November presidential election.[3]

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[1] The Lincoln Project.

[2] Conway, Galen, Schmidt, Weaver & Wilson, We’ve never backed a Democrat for president. But Trump must be defeated, Wash. Post (April 15, 2020).

[3] Pandemic Journal (# 11): Pandemic Proves Trump’s Incompetence, dwkcommentaries.com (April 14, 2020).

 

Open Letter to U.S. Senate from 70 Former Senators

On February 25, the Washington Post published an open letter to the U.S. Senate  from 70 former senators (by my count, 48 Democrats, 18 Republicans and 4 Independents), including three from my State of Minnesota (Dean Barkley (Ind.), Mark Dayton (Dem.) and Dave Durenberger (Rep.)). [1]

The Letter’s Contents

“Congress is not fulfilling its constitutional duties. Much of the responsibility rests on the Senate. We are writing to encourage the creation of a bipartisan caucus of incumbent senators who would be committed to making the Senate function as the Framers of the Constitution intended.”

“As their first priority, the Framers explicitly entrusted all legislative responsibility in Article I of the Constitution: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” To the extent that Congress doesn’t function as the Framers intended, policymaking is left to the less democratic executive and judicial branches.”

“Examples of Congress ceding its powers to the executive through the years include the power to regulate international trade, the power to authorize the use of military force in foreign conflicts and, when the president declares national emergencies, the power of the purse. In addition, the partisan gridlock that is all too routine in recent decades has led the executive branch to effectively “legislate” on its own terms through executive order and administrative regulation. The Senate’s abdication of its legislative and oversight responsibilities erodes the checks and balances of the separate powers that are designed to protect the liberties on which our democracy depends.”

“Anecdotally, we have been told by sitting members that the diminished state of the Senate has left them doubting whether there is any point in continuing to serve, and it has caused potential candidates to question whether the reality of Senate membership is worth the considerable effort and expense of running for office.”

“We do not want to give the impression that we served in some golden age when the Senate operated like clockwork and its members embraced one another as one big happy family. Of course, that was never the case. Senators have always advanced strongly held positions and have vigorously engaged in legislative combat. All of us have vivid memories of tense times with difficult colleagues. But that is just the point. By design, the Senate is the place where Americans with all their competing interests and ideologies are represented and where champions of those positions attempt to advance their causes and work through their differences. Many call the legislative process ‘sausage making.’ That is a fair assessment. Legislating is often messy, but it is America’s way of holding together a diverse nation.”

“Our concern is that the legislative process is no longer working in the Senate. Several factors may be cited: Senate committees have lost responsibility for writing legislation. Rules allowing extended debate, a feature of the Senate that is essential to protecting the rights of minorities, have been abused as the filibuster and cloture have shut down action on the Senate floor. It is now commonly said that it takes 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate. This is new and obstructionist; it takes 60 votes to invoke cloture in the once relatively exceptional event of a filibuster. Filibusters are now threatened as a matter of course, and are too readily acceded to. Neither in committee nor on the floor do rank-and-file members have reasonable opportunities to advance their positions by voting on legislation.”

“We believe a bipartisan caucus of incumbent members that promotes a fair opportunity for senators to participate in meaningful committee work as well as on the Senate floor could help restore the Senate to its essential place in our constitutional system. Its members would need to stand firm in the face of what could be strong opposition from partisans who prefer politicians who take intransigent positions over those who champion a legislative process that celebrates compromise.”

“This does not have to be viewed as a judgment on today’s Senate leadership; instead, it’s a bipartisan act of shared responsibility and accountability for how we arrived at this point. We, who once held the office you now hold and who are confident that service in the U.S. Senate is as high a calling for you as it was for us, will stand up for you against any partisan opposition. We will do so publicly and repeatedly in whatever available forums. And we are convinced that many ordinary Americans will stand up for you as well, as they share our concern for the state of our government.”

“We know that accepting this challenge may put some of you at political risk. But we are also confident that each of you chose to serve in public life to advance the cause of a “more perfect union.” Our hope is that all of you will accept this challenge to advance that timeless and higher purpose. The Senate — and the proper functioning of our republic — are simply too important to be allowed to continue on their present course.”

Comments

Thank you to all 70 of the former senators for taking this public action. As a citizen observer, I agree that “the Congress is not fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities,” that “much of the responsibility rests on the U.S. Senate,” that “Congress has ceded too much power to the executive,” that “committees have lost responsibility for writing legislation” and that there has been “abuse of the [Senate’s] filibuster and cloture rules.”

However, regrettably it seems unlikely to this citizen that during the next eight months of a presidential and senatorial election campaign that there will be the creation of a bipartisan senatorial caucus to reform various Senate procedures.

Moreover, such an effort obviously assumes no changes in the basic constitutional structure of the Senate. For this citizen, a major defect of the current Constitution is the assignment of two senate seats to every state regardless of population and hence the over-representation of land, instead of citizens. That, of course, would require a constitutional amendment. One such amendment would keep two senators for every state under a weighted voting system granting larger votes to the two senators from California, for example. [2]

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[1] 70 former U.S. senators: The Senate is failing to perform its constitutional duties, Wash. Post (Feb. 25, 2020). 

[2] See The Antiquated Constitutional Structure of the U.S. Senate, dwkcommentaries.com.(Oct. 23, 2016). See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com:  U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule Under Attack (May 15, 2012); Former U.S. Senator and Vice President, Walter Mondale, Supports Changing the  Senate Filibuster Rule (.May 15, 2012); District Court Dismisses Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule (Dec. 22, 2012); U.S. Senate Adopts Modest Reform of Its Filibuster Rule (Jan. 24, 2013);U.S. Needs More Democratization (Feb. 14, 2020); Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis (Feb. 15, 2020). 

President Lyndon Johnson’s Commencement Address at Howard University

On June 4,1965, Presdient Lyndon Johnson gave the commencement address—“To Fulfill These Rights”— at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, a private institution chartered by the federal government in1867 to provide a university primarily for African Americans. [1] This speech was affirmatively mentioned in a recent book review about affirmative action by Professor Orlando Patterson. who last November talked about freedom and human rights at the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights. [2]

The President’s Address

In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope.“ (Emphasis added.)

“In our time change has come to this Nation, too. The American Negro, acting with impressive restraint, has peacefully protested and marched, entered the courtrooms and the seats of government, demanding a justice that has long been denied. The voice of the Negro was the call to action. But it is a tribute to America that, once aroused, the courts and the Congress, the President and most of the people, have been the allies of progress.”

“Thus we have seen the high court of the country declare that discrimination based on race was repugnant to the Constitution, and therefore void. We have seen in 1957, and 1960, and again in 1964, the first civil rights legislation in this Nation in almost an entire century.”

“As majority leader of the United States Senate, I helped to guide two of these bills through the Senate. And, as your President, I was proud to sign the third. And now very soon we will have the fourth—a new law guaranteeing every American the right to vote.”

“No act of my entire administration will give me greater satisfaction than the day when my signature makes this bill, too, the law of this land.”

“The voting rights bill will be the latest, and among the most important, in a long series of victories. But this victory—as Winston Churchill said of another triumph for freedom—‘is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’” (Emphases added.)

That beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down. Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society—to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.

“But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.” (Emphasis added.)

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” (Emphasis added.)

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” (Emphasis added.)

This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

For the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance as every other American to learn and grow, to work and share in society, to develop their abilities—physical, mental and spiritual, and to pursue their individual happiness.” (Emphasis added.)

To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough. Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in—by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.” (Emphasis added.)

“Of course Negro Americans as well as white Americans have shared in our rising national abundance. But the harsh fact of the matter is that in the battle for true equality too many—far too many—are losing ground every day.”

The Causes of Inequality

“We are not completely sure why this is. We know the causes are complex and subtle. But we do know the two broad basic reasons. And we do know that we have to act.”

First, Negroes are trapped—as many whites are trapped—in inherited, gateless poverty. They lack training and skills. They are shut in, in slums, without decent medical care. Private and public poverty combine to cripple their capacities.” (Emphasis added.)

“We are trying to attack these evils through our poverty program, through our education program, through our medical care and our other health programs, and a dozen more of the Great Society programs that are aimed at the root causes of this poverty.”We will increase, and we will accelerate, and we will broaden this attack in years to come until this most enduring of foes finally yields to our unyielding will.”

But there is a second cause—much more difficult to explain, more deeply grounded, more desperate in its force. It is the devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred, and injustice.” (Emphasis added.)

Special Nature of Negro Poverty

For Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences-deep, corrosive, obstinate differences—radiating painful roots into the community, and into the family, and the nature of the individual.” (Emphasis added.)

These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe. For the Negro they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white they are a constant reminder of guilt. But they must be faced and they must be dealt with and they must be overcome, if we are ever to reach the time when the only difference between Negroes and whites is the color of their skin.” (Emphasis aded.)

“The Negro, like these others, will have to rely mostly upon his own efforts. But he just can not do it alone. For they did not have the heritage of centuries to overcome, and they did not have a cultural tradition which had been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness, nor were they excluded—these others—because of race or color—a feeling whose dark intensity is matched by no other prejudice in our society.”

“Nor can these differences be understood as isolated infirmities. They are a seamless web. They cause each other. They result from each other. They reinforce each other.”

“Much of the Negro community is buried under a blanket of history and circumstance. It is not a lasting solution to lift just one corner of that blanket. We must stand on all sides and we must raise the entire cover if we are to liberate our fellow citizens.”

“One of the differences is the increased concentration of Negroes in our cities. More than 73 percent of all Negroes live in urban areas compared with less than 70 percent of the whites. Most of these Negroes live in slums. Most of these Negroes live together—a separated people.”

Men are shaped by their world. When it is a world of decay, ringed by an invisible wall, when escape is arduous and uncertain, and the saving pressures of a more hopeful society are unknown, it can cripple the youth and it can desolate the men.” (Emphasis added.)

There is also the burden that a dark skin can add to the search for a productive place in our society. Unemployment strikes most swiftly and broadly at the Negro, and this burden erodes hope. Blighted hope breeds despair. Despair brings indifferences to the learning which offers a way out. And despair, coupled with indifferences, is often the source of destructive rebellion against the fabric of society.” (Emphasis added.)

There is also the lacerating hurt of early collision with white hatred or prejudice, distaste or condescension. Other groups have felt similar intolerance. But success and achievement could wipe it away. They do not change the color of a man’s skin. I have seen this uncomprehending pain in the eyes of the little, young Mexican-American schoolchildren that I taught many years ago. But it can be overcome. But, for many, the wounds are always open.” (Emphasis added.)

“Perhaps most important—its influence radiating to every part of life—is the breakdown of the Negro family structure. For this, most of all, white America must accept responsibility. It flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man. It flows from the long years of degradation and discrimination, which have attacked his dignity and assaulted his ability to produce for his family.” (Emphasis added.)

This, too, is not pleasant to look upon. But it must be faced by those whose serious intent is to improve the life of all Americans.

Only a minority—less than half—of all Negro children reach the age of 18 having lived all their lives with both of their parents. At this moment, tonight, little less than two-thirds are at home with both of their parents. Probably a majority of all Negro children receive federally-aided public assistance sometime during their childhood.

“The family is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled.”

“So, unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together—all the rest: schools, and playgrounds, and public assistance, and private concern, will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation.”

“But there are other answers that are still to be found. Nor do we fully understand even all of the problems. Therefore, I want to announce tonight that this fall I intend to call a White House conference of scholars, and experts, and outstanding Negro leaders—men of both races—and officials of Government at every level.”This White House conference’s theme and title will be “To Fulfill These Rights.”

“Its object will be to help the American Negro fulfill the rights which, after the long time of injustice, he is finally about to secure.”

“To move beyond opportunity to achievement.”

“To shatter forever not only the barriers of law and public practice, but the walls which bound the condition of many by the color of his skin.”

“To dissolve, as best we can, the antique enmities of the heart which diminish the holder, divide the great democracy, and do wrong—great wrong—to the children of God.”

“And I pledge you tonight that this will be a chief goal of my administration, and of my program next year, and in the years to come. And I hope, and I pray, and I believe, it will be a part of the program of all America.”

Conclusion

Thank you, Professor Patterson, for reminding us of these inspiring words of President Johnson and of our continuing, collective and individual, responsibility to address the injustices of our long history of persecution of, and discrimination against, our African-American brothers and sisters.

It also is instructive to see this presidential speech and that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 that was featured in Professor Cass Sunstein’s presentation to the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights last November as important sources of human rights. [3]

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[1} President Lyndon Johnson, Commencement Address at Howard University: “To Secure These Rights” (June 4, 1965).

[2] Professor Orlando Patterson’s Discussion of Affirmative Action, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2020).

[3] U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Meeting, November 1, 2019, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 21, 2019); Reactions to U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Meeting, November 1, 2019, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 22, 2020). 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Meeting, November 1, 2019

Here is a summary of the November 1, 2019, meeting of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights featuring  presentations by Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmaly University Professor at Harvard Law School, and Orlando Paterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University.  [1]

Chair May Ann Glendon’s Introduction

Chair Glendon “explained that the Commission is still in the very beginning stages of its task, which is to advise the Secretary of State on the role human rights play in foreign policy, with that advice grounded in America’s founding principles, as well as the international commitments the United States made after World War II. Glendon emphasized the Commission’s independence: Commissioners are obliged to give the Secretary their best advice, to be non-partisan, and to consult broadly with experts from Department of State (for example, in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL)), but also with outside activists and academic specialists. Glendon praised the speakers who participated in the Commission’s previous meeting in October.”

Commissioner’s Comments

“Each commissioner explained his/her professional background and reflected on the speakers from the last session.” Of particular note is the following comments by Commissioner  Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, who “voiced a sentiment, shared by others, that bridged the different topics and time periods the Commission will consider in its work. For Rivers, one crucial question is how to avoid repeating a ‘major failing’ at the time of the Founding, when there was a great articulation of rights (for example, in the Declaration of Independence) but also, because of the prevalence of chattel slavery and the political subordination of large segments of society, a graphic failure to live up to those principles. As she contemplates how the United States can prevent that same failure from re-occurring internationally, one focus for Rivers will be on achieving consistency in forcefully stating, and then implementing protections for, human rights.”

Professor Cass Sunstein’s Presentation

Sunstein opened by saying he would make two major points:

  • First, . . .the U.S. conception of rights [in 1776] was a historical outgrowth of a sustained attack on monarchical legacy and the notion that some people rank above others by birth. Rights, [ however,] reflected a belief in human  dignity and citizenship.
  • Second, ”’freedom from desperate conditionshad widespread support at the Founding. Although it was not constitutionalized in any sense, . . . the articulation of, and public support for, this freedom later culminated in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights. Thus, . . . there is a degree of continuity between newer, twentieth century conceptions of rights and freedoms and those from the founding era.” (Emphases added.)

Rights and citizenship: the “American Revolution is often considered to be ‘conservative,’ relatively speaking – or at least cautious and milder than the French and Russian revolutions. But, . . . that characterization is misleading, given the major break with British legacy that occurred in the American colonies in the decades leading up to the revolution. During that time period, cultural notions of republicanism were popular, which led to fresh thinking about what governments ‘do’ and the purposes for which they exist. In America, ‘radical’ republicanism entailed self-government and eliminated social class-based hierarchies of various kinds. [The] so-called ‘down look’ of the poor – a sign they ‘knew their place’ and had resigned themselves to their lowliness. This down look changed as the explosive new ideas of liberty and equality took hold on society. John Adams wrote with amazement that ‘Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride, was never so totally eradicated from so many Minds in so short a time.’ . . . [This] quote is significant because Adams’s surprise is palpable – he did not express such obvious ‘shock’ in any of his other writings. The transformation upon which Adams was remarking involved people who once regarded themselves as subjects coming to regard themselves instead as citizens, who possess sovereignty. This is a major development, . . . and to lament on what the revolution did not accomplish is to miss the remarkable social and political restructuring that it set into motion.”

Citizenship as unifying theme in Bill of Rights. Shifting to the U.S. Bill of Rights, . . . the American Founders sought, above all, to guarantee the preconditions of effective self-government. (. . .We fail to understand the Bill of Rights if we see it as based solely on opposition to government, or on a kind of laissez-faire individualism.) “

“[Among the writings [of the Founders] is a convergence of several intellectual traditions, both theological and otherwise.”

“Turning to individual provisions of the Bill of Rights, . . . the jury trial protected by the Sixth and Seventh Amendments . . .  should be thought of not only in terms of the individual legal right created. The jury trial also allows for the participation of citizens – ones, who, prior to the Revolution, may have borne the ‘down look’ – in American civil and criminal justice systems. In deciding individual cases, jurors can modify the harsh edges of law by finding defendants innocent in close cases. And in carrying out these [duties?]. jurors also receive an education in the law itself.”

“In the same regard, . . . the right to private property, which creates a [sense?] of individual control (by protecting people’s holdings against government taking without compensation) but is also necessary for the status of citizenship. Since private property provides a means for people to live and support themselves, citizens possessing it are not solely dependent on the good will of government.”

“As for the Second Amendment, . . .  it is controversial in modern times. . . .[It] is a political right, which, at a minimum, prevents the federal government from outlawing state militias. These militias perform important democratic functions – by providing a training ground for the cultivation of virtue, and a constraint on potentially tyrannical government.”

The “Bill of Rights is not only about creating a sphere of individual liberty, free of government control, but also about creating conditions that would allow for the robust practice of citizenship.”

Social and economic rights: . . . [The] Founders gave no serious thought to including social and economic guarantees in the Bill of Rights. But . . . some of the founders’ writing, while not at the constitutional level, shows a surprisingly strong commitment to such guarantees. James Madison, for example, wrote of ‘withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches.’ Madison also appeared in favor of ‘rais[ing] extreme indigence toward a state of comfort.’ Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson, while not a framer of the Constitution, exerted a strong influence during the founding period and wrote of ‘lessening the inequality of property’ by ‘exempt[ing] all from taxation below a certain point, and . . . tax[ing] the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.’ . . . [S]ocial theorists Montesquieu, John Locke, and Thomas Paine, all of whom were read by the American founders,. . . [in their writings] similarly suggest a commitment to social and economic rights. [D]uring the constitutional framing period, there was widespread support in America for legislation that would provide poor people with the basic necessities of life and that, unlike in England, where so-called ‘outdoor relief’ to able-bodied poor people was restricted, nearly all U.S. states allowed that form of assistance.“

“FDR and the Second Bill of Rights: . . . In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) delivered a State of the Union address to Congress, which connected the war against tyranny with the Great Depression and the subsequent effort to combat economic distress domestically. The speech characterized ‘the one supreme objective for the future’ as ‘security,’ a term with multiple meanings. For FDR, security entailed not only ‘freedom from fear’ but also ‘freedom from want.’ . . . FDR explicitly used the, threat from Germany and Japan as an occasion for a renewed emphasis on providing protection against the most serious forms of human vulnerability at home.”

“In his speech, FDR looked back to the framing of the Constitution and argued that the unalienable rights at the Founding had proved inadequate, since it had become obvious that ‘true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.’ That provided the justification for FDR laying out his ‘Second Bill of Rights,’ which included the right to employment, to a dwelling place, to medical care, and to a good education, among other rights. . . . Roosevelt did not mean for these rights to be judicially enforceable, and indeed . . . FDR would have ‘deplored’ this idea. In his speech, however, FDR did call on Congress to ‘explore the means for implementing the economic bill of rights-for it is definitely the responsibility of Congress to do so.’”

“FDR’s speech is significant for marking the collapse of the idea, prominent in the period before the New Deal, that freedom comes from an absence of government. It was also important because the Second Bill of Rights went on to influence the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and dozens of foreign constitutions.”

Sunstein’s Responses to Commissioners’ Questions

The Commission’s Executive Director, Peter Berkowitz: Heagreed that the jury trial right is essential to citizenship in a liberal democracy, . . . [but] that few would contend the jury right to be appropriately labeled as a ‘human’ and/or ‘unalienable’ right. Is a jury trial, Berkowitz wondered, essential to human flourishing in non-democratic regimes?“

  • Sunstein responded: “[C]ertain protections in the [original] Bill of Rights are properly characterized as unalienable; off the top of his head, he . . . [said] that free speech and property rights, for example, qualify. . . . [He] was ‘hoping and gambling that many cultures have a ‘Locke-type’ figure that provides the philosophical founding for these rights in non-Anglo American traditions. When it comes to social and economic rights, Sunstein said the situation is somewhat different. Were those rights to qualify as unalienable, what is necessary would be ‘a theory about how, if people are living in desperate conditions, a universal right is being violated.’ He said that, in some sense, the destitute living on the street without food or shelter suffer from their humanity being ‘annihilated,’ but also said he was ‘groping for right verbal formulation’ to express this notion in terms of rights.“

Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, the Director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, said that “the founders often stressed that certain rights are pre-political – like the free exercise of religion. He asked . . . if some of the other rights contained inside the Bill of Rights are also pre-political. . . . Soloveichik also asked whether the promotion of social and economic rights at the hands of government, . . .will inevitably clash with individual liberty. (By way of example, Soloveichik noted that expanding health care coverage at times has been in tension with individual religious liberty claims.)”

  • Sunstein said the following: “[T]ension between different rights is inevitable, regardless of whether social and economic rights (rather than other kinds) are involved. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision Wisconsin v. Yoder, Sunstein said that it is clear that certain kinds of rights—for example. the right to religious free exercise – prevail over others in legal disputes, and that, in order to decide, courts sometimes will look at the severity with which a right is being infringed, a question over which reasonable people may disagree. He said that clashes are an occasional but not devastating consequence of a regime recognizing multiple rights. . . . Sunstein [also] said that the majority of the rights contained in the Bill of Rights are pre-political, but that that is not at odds with acknowledging the Bill of Rights as being fundamentally ‘about’ citizenship.”

Professor Paolo Carozza, Professor of Law and Concurrent Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, where he also directs the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, asked Sunstein to elaborate on the nature of social and economic rights, and his rationale for saying that they are judicially unenforceable. . . .”

  • Sunstein “said that he had a ‘mundane’ account of why they are not judicially enforceable, and that is because allocative decisions are not well suited, institutionally, for judicial oversight. He cited the example of judges in South Africa facing severe challenges when attempting to enforce social and economic rights in that country.”

Dr. Christopher Tollefsen, Distinguished Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina,“brought up the right to a jury trial, saying that he would have thought that the notion underlying it is not citizenship, . . ., but rather fairness. Tollefsen asked if there was a more pluralistic set of directions that the notion of dignity ‘can go in’ that does not need to get ‘filtered through’ citizenship.

  • Sunstein “agreed that the jury right is most fundamentally about fairness, but he pushed back against Tollefsen’s labeling citizenship as just a ‘bonus’ in the Bill of Rights. Sunstein said that it was more like a by-product of notions central to our constitutional system. Sunstein further explained that it is hard to understand the Bill of Rights outside the context of a revolution recently fought for republican self-government. In his view, modern observers tend to read it in a way that is de-historicized.”

Dr. David Tse-Chien Pan, Professor of German at the University of California, Irvine, “wondered if, in U.S. foreign policy, any defense of human rights necessarily entailed creating republican self-government everywhere. He asked Sunstein if, in his view, there could be a . . . [more] modest role for human rights that does not necessitate regime change.”

  • Sunstein “answered that yes, the U.S. can hold republican self-government up as ideal while still working with other types of regimes. In Sunstein’s view, the writings of the American founders speak deeply to nations and peoples that are ambivalent about republican self-government, and part of the reason may be the writings’ emphasis, though never quite expressed in these terms, on human dignity.”

Dr. Russell A Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and current Senior Advisor in Policy Planning at the Department of State, “asked why FDR would have, in Sunstein’s words, ‘deplored’ the judicial enforcement of social and economic rights.”

  • Sunstein “said that FDR was not a fan of judicial ‘aggressiveness’ generally and would have been attuned to tradeoffs and difficulties inherent in economic allocation. That FDR nonetheless was insistent that social and economic guarantees be labeled as ‘rights,’ in Sunstein’s view, speaks to the president’s view that they have some sort of moral foundation. Furthermore, that FDR was willing to embrace the rights in a presidential speech, but would probably not have elected for [them to] be extensions to the Bill of Rights, may have had something to with his belief – shared by James Madison in his own day – in ‘infusing the culture’ with ideas that eventually become part of the national fabric. Sunstein pointed out that the right to education, and bans on monopolistic corporations, still widely embraced in the 21st century, show that Roosevelt really did play an enduring role in shaping our national consciousness.”

Professor Hamza Yusuf Hanson, the President of Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, and Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, Lecturer in Sociology at Harvard University, exchanged ideas regarding private property. Hanson said that scholar Richard Weaver once described it as the ‘last metaphysical right’ that people agree upon, but that, in the 20th and 21st centuries, it has not received as much attention as it did in the time of Locke and the American revolutionaries.”

  • Sunstein “said that, in Western countries, the perceived need to fight for property rights is not acutely felt, because property is relatively secure in these places. But in other countries where those rights are most needed, the idea of private property is under attack.

Rivers “segued into consideration of other types of property. She noted that the American welfare system is still weaker than in some other Western countries. Could that be, she wondered, because America has become overcommitted to protecting private property?”

  • Sunstein “described himself as a proponent of private property and saw no conflict between endorsing private property rights alongside social welfare benefits. Sunstein brought up President Ronald Reagan, for whom he once worked, saying that Reagan was on record for endorsing a right to education and other rights conventionally associated with more socially progressive advocates.” 

Chair Mary Ann Glendon thanked Sunstein for being helpful in achieving one of the most challenging parts of the Commission’s overarching task – showing a degree of continuity between the Founding and the New Deal, and from New Deal to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). She asked if the Bill of Rights leaving out social and economic guarantees could be thought of as an instance in which the founders took for granted the local associations and arrangements that would care for indigent persons.

  • Sunstein “answered affirmatively, saying that the Constitution contemplated institutional pluralism. He noted that, in the early years of the republic, the national government had a limited role and the Bill of Rights did not apply to states.”

Professor Orlando Patterson’s Presentation

“Patterson’s first main point was that the idea of rights and the idea of freedom overlap but are not interchangeable.”

“The United States has long seen itself as the ‘Land of the Free,’ and, as the global leader of the free world, its “mission” has been to ensure freedom of its citizens to a degree not enjoyed in many other countries. But Patterson said that another concept has come to compete with this notion. Especially since World War II, U.S. has come to embrace individual rights in fits and starts.”

“Patterson expanded on the distinction (freedom vs. rights) by clarifying what, in his mind, ‘freedom’’means. He referred to it as a tripartite idea.”

  • First, human persons are free, at least to the degree they are not under power of others, to make choices, to do what they want, and to achieve the desires they set for themselves.”
  • Second, they are free to exercise power to influence the world. (Patterson called this “empowerment” and cited Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen.) For long periods of human history, Patterson argued, this type of freedom was associated with power over other people. This is important to recognize because, for him, freedom is not the opposite of power, even though it is commonly held to be.”
    • “To support his argument.Patterson mentioned “the Southern slaveholding conception of freedom” in the United States, which entailed the freedom of wealthy landowners to control the bodies and labor of African-Americans and was famously discussed by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their debates.”
    • “Even though slavery has been abolished in America for many years, Patterson said that freedom as ‘power over others’ continues in the 21st century – in the form of some people controlling large amounts of property.”
  • Third, people are free, according to Patterson, to share in the collective power of groups. He referred to this as civic freedom, and as best realized through democracy.”

“Patterson called tripartite freedom quintessentially Western in origin, rather than universal. He explained that, although English philosopher John Locke held freedom to be ‘written on the heart of man’ (Patterson’s words), freedom actually involves an ancient, culturally specific, way of looking at the world. What is uniquely Western is not only the tripartite nature of freedom, but also its relative status – in other words, that freedom is valorized as one of the pinnacle values of civilization. Contributing to this prioritization, . . [was].the religion that fashioned the West, Christianity (which emphasizes redemption, sacrifice as the way to free one’s self from spiritual slavery), as well as earlier, Roman notions of liberty. Patterson compared the spread of freedom across the world to Christian missionary work, arguing that freedom became more universal over time. This, in his view, has not always been without negative consequences. Military interventions in Iraq have shown that assuming all people (and especially non-Westerners) to desire freedom can be wrong and even dangerous.”

“‘Rights’ are distinguishable from freedom. For Patterson, they represent a set of claims concerning our condition as human beings. The claims are moral in nature, and their protection is necessary to preserve our most fundamental sense of what it means to be human. Rights are inherently egalitarian, whereas with ‘freedom,’ Patterson argued, there is no such assumption of equality.”

“Patterson then commented on America’s complex relationship between rights and freedom, stressing that the American tradition differs from the European one. In Britain, Patterson said, there frequently has been skepticism about rights. The English jurist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, for example, called natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.” In the United States, there has been a stronger embrace of rights, but also a lingering uneasiness about them, according to Patterson. He mentioned that the Bill of Rights was a compromise measure that, at its adoption, few if any thought was perfect. Patterson noted that, throughout American history, there has been elite opposition to rights held by ‘the masses.’ He also mentioned the passage of the 14th Amendment and the Slaughterhouse cases as important rights milestones.”

“Patterson quoted an intellectual descendant of Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, who once described rights as a ‘fiction,’ writing that ‘belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns.’”

“Then Patterson shifted gears to discuss the U.S. ‘Rights Revolution,’ which he believes stands in stark contrast with the history preceding it. His view is that it is anachronistic to posit that rights are the most critical element of America’s founding documents. That is because, in Patterson’s view, rights did not gain currency until much later – specifically, when the horrors of Nazism during World War II shocked the world’s conscience, triggering people’s shared moral instincts that there must be some baseline that all people are owed, inhering their basic humanity. The war’s atrocities combined with anti-imperial movements across the world and other developments: Black Americans fighting for freedom and returning home, wondering what their status would be in American politics, and what they held in common with others fighting for freedom; a shift in decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court; and the social movements waged by women and other groups. These trend lines converged and culminated in the 1970s, a decade which Patterson called quite extraordinary, even though, in his view, America in many respects is still (in the year 2019) in the midst of the lingering rights revolution.”

“Patterson held that the next phase of the rights revolution, almost as important as War II in terms of focusing attention on the deprivation of human rights, began to occur in the 1980s, with the emergence of the fight against modern slavery and human trafficking. Patterson emphasized that trafficking is normally spoken about as a violation of rights, more than it is a violation of freedom. He mentioned sex trafficking, the widespread condemnation of which has led to an alliance of strange bedfellows – the evangelical right and feminist left. He also mentioned labor trafficking, and employers being unable to say ‘stay out of our business’ as various forms of on-the-job inequity are now challenged and subject to outside scrutiny.”

“Patterson gave a tip of the hat to the U.S. Department of State for publishing its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, and said that, when it comes to condemning trafficking, the Department is better off using the language of rights than it is using the language of freedom. Each year, more and more people are able to make rights claims – for example, women in forced marriages, who have been newly defined as ‘slaves.’ Patterson described the language of rights as infinitely expandable to accommodate new kinds of claims. He saw this largely as a good thing: America is leading by example, expanding rights for an ever increasing number of people. As intimated at other points during his remarks, Patterson said that although he retains great love and respect for the concept of freedom, he thinks it is a mistake for the West to proclaim it to the world and try to convert others into showing similar reverence. Rhetorically speaking, rights are more effective tools to achieve similar ends.”

Patterson’s Responses to Questions

Executive Director Berkowitz “thanked Patterson for his thoughtful talk and then explained that the Commission has heard some criticisms of rights that are very similar to ones Patterson made about ‘freedom’ – that rights are exclusively Western, for example. Berkowitz said he welcomed Patterson’s thoughts on whether criticisms are equally applicable to both concepts.”

  • Patterson “said that, in his view, the [assertion that] rights are Western’ claims are shallower than those waged against freedom. Rights have origins that go at least as far back as the Middle Ages and Reformation. Admitting that there is a complicated story of how the concept of rights evolved and influenced public discourse, Patterson said that ‘rights talk’ – while Western in origin – was, from very beginning, seen as applying to all human beings, unlike freedom. Fundamental rights, thus, were extra-territorial and extra-political.”

Tollefsen “expressed some sympathy for the distinction Patterson drew between freedom and rights. Nothing that there are articulations of freedom that can come into tension with rights, Tollefsen cited the ‘freedom to consume,’ which, when enjoyed, can sometimes mean disregarding the rights of those whose exploited labor produced goods consumers enjoy. But Tollefsen also worried that any moral concern over modern-day slavery must involve an appeal to some notion of freedom.”

  • Patterson “responded that the concepts in question (rights, freedom) definitely overlap. But he said that, when it comes to international advocacy, work on behalf of freedom does not always have the same force or effect that rights-based advocacy does. Patterson mentioned Freedom House, which honors  countries on their honoring of civil and political rights, and contrasted its work with Department’s TIP report. Patterson discussed the TIP report’s 3-tier methodology, a provided the example of Japan, where there was great consternation when the U.S. did it in its TIP report. In response to the demotion, Japan made important reforms. Patterson’s basic point was that the United States can promote liberal democracy (and thus-freedom) abroad but must remember that democracy requires preconditions in order to function successfully. He argued that, when it comes to making rights claims, those preconditions are not as necessary because people have rights regardless of what political system is in place.”

Soloveichik “acknowledged that the concept of freedom has been misused and perverted at times throughout America’s history. But then he cited the abolitionist movement, during which the concepts of freedom and rights appeared to go hand in hand. Soloveichik also mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr., one of whose most famous lines is “let freedom ring.” Soloveichik’s question was whether freedom and rights enhance one another.”

  • Patterson “responded that, yes, at America’s best moments – in some of President Abraham Lincoln’s writings, for example, during the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality, etc. – rights and freedom complement each other ‘sublimely.’ But during our country’s worst moments, the two concepts are twinned in perverted ways – for example, during the Confederacy, when southern liberty was held up as an ideal while African American slaves’ rights were openly and appallingly violated.“

Katrina Swett, the President of the Tom Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice,  said “that she had always thought of freedom and human rights as inextricably connected, but that Patterson’s writings and lecture were very challenging to her past understandings. She wondered as a practical matter if free and democratic societies do the best job of protecting rights.”

  • Patterson “said that, absolutely, they do. But then he mentioned that somewhere on the order of 70% of the world’s chocolate is (or previously was) produced by child labor. In recent years, thousands of NGOs have pressured chocolate manufacturers, farmers, and governments to change this situation. Patterson’s point was that, when it comes to protecting human rights, advocates can achieve progress even in non-democracies. (Democracies are ideal, but they are not the only regimes where rights can be protected.) In another example, he said that China has cut poverty in half. People are no longer starving – because China, though far from a democracy, in certain respects has honored the ‘right to food’ and the ‘right to life.’”

Chair Glendon concluded by thanking Patterson for helping the Commission with a problem it will have to confront – the difficulties and confusion inherent in using terms and concepts to which different groups impute various meanings and connotations.”

Public Comments

Several members of the public made comments. Here is a summary of the more substantive ones.

“A representative from the Center for Family and Human Rights spoke of the unintended consequences of rights expansion: Sometimes people have to give up certain rights in order to accommodate new definitions of rights – thus promoting a ‘competition of rights’ [and?] growing skepticism regarding the United Nations (UN) approach to protecting human [rights. The representative stressed that now is a prime opportunity for basic issues to be [reframed?]”

“Fr. Mark Hodges, an Orthodox priest. spoke about the Christian conception of rights, framework which involves concepts like universal dignity and free will. He urged the Commission to prioritize religious freedom and the right to life.”

“A representative from the Heritage Foundation said that when international bodies like the UN consider all rights on equal footing, it is worth asking whether they are confusing certain ‘desirable ends’ with human rights. He asked how long internal conflicts can persist within the global human rights movement before we reach a point of human rights paralysis, and he wondered whether the proliferation of rights does violence to the notion of unalienable rights. Commissioner Paola Carozza responded that, in international human rights law, there actually is a hierarchy of rights – some are non-derogable, and some achieve status of jus cogens, while others do not.”

“A law professor from the University of Oklahoma then asked whether the comments submitted to the Commission by various civil society groups will be made public, and suggested the Commission publish specific questions, and set specific deadlines, so that outside groups can contribute more efficiently.”

“Representatives from Human Rights Watch urged the Commission to invite ‘grassroots’ human rights defenders to come testify, saying their work is crucial but does not enter into ‘esoteric academic debates.’”

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[1] Update on U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 19, 2020).   

[2] Comm’n Unalienable Rts, Agenda (Nov. 1, 2019); Comm’n Unalienable Rts., Minutes (Nov. 1, 2019).

 

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).

U.S. Needs More Democratization

A New York Times article by Ezra Klein makes a strong argument for the United States needing more democratization in order to depolarize American politics.[1]

He starts this analysis with the assertion that the current polarization of U.S. politics is due to ideological changes: “the Democratic Party has moved left, and the Republican Party has moved right. But more fundamentally, those changes are compositional: Democrats have become more diverse, urban, young and secular, and the Republican Party has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters.”

As a result, “Democrats can’t win running the kinds of campaigns and deploying the kinds of tactics that succeed for Republicans. . . . [Democrats] can move to the left — and they are — but they can’t abandon the center or, given the geography of American politics, the center-right, and still hold power. Democrats are modestly, but importantly, restrained by diversity and democracy. Republicans are not.”

In addition, the two parties’ voters differ in what sources of information they respect and listen to. Democrats trusted “22 of the 30 sources, including center-right outlets like The Wall Street Journal. Republicans trusted only seven of the 30 sources, with PBS, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal the only mainstream outlets with significant trust.” (The other trusted sources, for Republicans were, big surprise, Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart.)

Even though Democrats have won the recent total popular vote in elections for the U.S. presidency, the U.S. Senate and the U.S.House of Representatives, the Republicans currently control the presidency, the Senate and a majority of governorships. This is due to the structure of the U.S. government which “counts states and districts rather than people, and the G.O.P.’s more rural coalition has a geographic advantage that offsets its popular disadvantage.”

This Republican advantage, however, may be temporary.  Republicans “represent a shrinking constituency that holds vast political power. That has injected an almost manic urgency into their strategy. Behind the party’s tactical extremism lurks an apocalyptic sense of political stakes.”

Klein, therefore, concludes that “one of the few real hopes for depolarizing American politics is democratization,” including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” This would compel the Republican Party to become a “more moderate and diverse party.” However, “precisely because the Republican Party sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future, it will use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.”

Without such changes, Klein argues, the U.S. will face “ a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.”

Conclusion

Klein is right to call for the need for more democratization of the U.S. electoral system.

But while mentioning the U.S. system’s favoring land and districts over people, he does not attack directly those features that do just that: the Electoral College for electing the U.S. president, the allocation of two U.S. senators to each state regardless of population and state legislatures creating the boundaries for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yes, this would require amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which may be next to impossible, but they should be mentioned.

Alex Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board, however, points out one facet of the  Electoral College: whether the individuals selected by the political parties are legally obligated to vote for that party’s successful candidate in the popular election when the 536 electors meet about six weeks after the popular election. Indeed, that very issue is now under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court in two related cases from the federal appellate court in Colorado and a state court in Washington State. In the federal case, the court held that the founders clearly intended for electors to act independently and vote according to their consciences, not to the dictates of any political party. Once a state appoints an elector, the lower court said, its power over that elector ends. They cannot punish someone, or replace him or her, for voting a certain way. This issue, says Wegman, raises the more important question, why do we have to have the Electoral College?[2]

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[1] Klein, Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, N. Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020). Klein is an American journalist, blogger, and political commentator who co-founded Vox, where he is currently editor-at-large. He was previously a blogger and columnist for The Washington Post and an associate editor of The American Prospect. He has served as a contributor to Bloomberg News and MSNBC. (Ezra Klein, Wikipedia.)

[2] Wegman, Why Do We Have an Electoral College, Again?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020).