Comment, Comics and the Contrary.
Current right-wing Labour politics appears to misunderstand just what ‘rights’ are, and more importantly, what ‘rights’ are for
. We hear members of the Government arguing that the various new legal constructs that they propose that will restrict civil liberties are protections of our ‘Human Rights’ from ‘the terrorists’. But this thinking is not only muddled, it is completely the wrong way round.
Human Rights exist to place a check on the activities of legitimate
powers; governmental, institutional, corporate or otherwise. Legitimate powers are those actors that are able to act within the law to shape the lives of individuals. Human Rights are inventions that allow us to restrict the effects of these legitimate powers on individuals without necessarily having to make each possible form of action individually illegal. If a government uses its legal powers to interrupt my Human Rights, it is though these legal devices that I seek redress. If, say, my employers, a legitimate power, sought to use their power to restrict my Right to Free Expression, I would use the language of Human Rights to defend my freedoms in court.
On the other hand, when illegitimate
powers act, redress is sought through straightforward criminal laws. If, say, I receive threatening letters telling me to ‘shut up, or else…’, then this is a criminal case of the standard, well-established kind. Criminal acts may well restrict my freedoms, but it is a mistake to talk about this situation as an offence against my Human Rights. Not just legally, but politically. When Government spokesmen cloak their affronts to Human Rights by describing them in the rhetorically popular language of protecting Human Rights – when what they mean* is that these changes are ‘strengthening’ of criminal law – they cut away the very foundation of the legal constructs that are one of the key principles of the protection of the citizen in a liberal, capitalist state dominated by legitimate, but not necessarily benevolent, powers.
*When I say ‘mean’ I am offering my most generous interpretation of the rhetoric of the Government; that there pronouncements involve little thinking and reflection. Of course, I could be that the case that when the authoritarians in Government are chortling and their wonderful strategy of using the language of Human Rights to undermine their power to work effectively in pursuit of their correct purpose. It would, after all, be such a hilariously ironic way to persuade people to back authoritarianism.
Round-a-bout, I get to a particular misunderstanding of ‘rights’; that of Nick Cohen in The Observer. Of the ‘March for Free Expression’, he wrote; “I think it's fair to say that previous generations would be astonished that their descendants would have to take to the streets to demand such a basic right, but after the death threats against cartoonists, it seems we do.”
Can you see what Cohen’s problem is yet? Well, let us begin with his ahistoricism. Is he really saying that ‘previous generations’ enjoyed more extensive rights to free expression than we, in 2006? That is, simply, nonsense. Which previous generations enjoyed the glory days of free expression and would look on the situation facing us, their descendents, as one of, comparably, freedom threatened? Those living in the Victorian Era? The peasants of Medieval England? When? This ahistorical nonsense is a real problem for the pro-War ‘left’; they do not understand that ‘universal Human Rights’ are a political assertion, a statement of how we would like the world to be. They are not a description of how the would is. We can see how insensible the pro-War ‘left’ has become when Jack Straw, a Government Minister, says that ‘a desire for democracy burns in the heart of every person’. Democracy is an invention. It is a good invention. But is clearly does not burn in the heart of every person. We might want it to, but to manage an aggressive foreign policy of the basis that it actually does is madness.
On from ahistoricism and the corollary misunderstanding of universalism, we reach Nick Cohen’s misunderstanding of rights. Our ‘basic right’ to free expression has not been threatened by death threats. Death threats are the actions of illegitimate powers. The individual cartoonists are protected by the workings of criminal laws that prohibit the making of death threats. Cohen might be arguing that it is not individual rights that are the issue, but our collective rights. The problem here is that if we take the death threats to individuals to be a threat the right of all of us to free expression, then there are far bigger fish to fry. The obstruction of a Right is an affront to the idea of Human Rights even if, or more accurately specifically when, the obstructing actor is legitimate. Over the past few weeks we have seen two straightforward offences against free expression; the New York run of My Name is Rachel Corrie was cancelled and the statue of Winston Churchill in a straight-jacket removed. The Danish cartoons, by contrast, were reprinted across the world. There was no obstruction of free expression, but there was a criminal offence. Will the March for Free Expression carry banners demanding that the play is run after all, and placards urging the erection of the statue?
No, they will not, because the whole cartoon affair has been an exercise in racism from the very start. Free expression is obstructed every day. In the case of the Danish cartoons, popular racist expressions were not obstructed. In fact, the cartoons were seen around the world. So why, as Nick Cohen does, suggest that the threat to free speech comes from the dangerous brown people? And that this threat is new, and special? It is not, it is ahistorical to suggest that it is new, and it demands a perhaps unconscious acceptance of a racist ideology to believe that it is special. I do not think that Nick Cohen is a racist. But I do think that he is buying into the very clever racist rhetoric that presents itself, pace Pim Fortuyn, as a defence of liberalism and tolerance.