Progressives, Truth-telling, and Human Rights Issues

Revised version:

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald’s mentions of my Jan. 6 post on this site, and thanks to the readers who stopped by, as well as to those who left comments.  After watching the Greenwald-Pollitt bloggingheads clip that aired yesterday, my concerns from that post remain. I want to respond to a couple of points:

First, Greenwald asks for Pollitt’s response (19:24; Pollitt’s answer at 22:10) to my argument that the war on terror viscerally impacts men and women of color and their children. In fact, I argue that it has eviscerated significant segments of the Iraqi civilian population, the reproductive systems of women, and Afghan population, as well as citizens and foreign nationals who are Muslim/Middle Eastern/South Asian (MEMSA) in the United States. I insisted these were not insignificant side issues, and that progressives and Democrats have the privilege of not having to be affected by them.

Pollitt’s response: “If she is right, then Black people and people of color would be voting for Ron Paul in droves. Are they?” She clarifies that she said that “Leftish women and people of color” were silent, not that every person was silent. Fair enough to the second point. But to her first response—she assumes the very thing that is under question, namely whether folks –white or non-white—should vote for Paul.  I can be right without African-Americans or Latino Americans or other citizens of color deciding to vote for Ron Paul.  In fact, Ron Paul’s candidacy is a moot issue, and even if it weren’t, I do not  want to suggest that folks should vote for Ron Paul. What I would like, however, is to engage in some serious truth-telling of the variety that Arthur Brisbane and NYT might want to pursue one day:

President Obama didn’t offer a racist presidential campaign in 2008. But he did promise to expand the number of troops he sent to Afghanistan; he was on record as being against gay marriage; against the constitutional protections of privacy (signing up for the renewal of FISA while on the campaign trail, giving telecomm corporations immunity for collaborating with the government); in favor of the 2006 renewal of the USA Patriot Act (which he renewed again last year); in favor of the death penalty (although he wanted to reform it); in favor of immigration reform (on the order of a guest worker system), and in favor of closing Guantanamo (briefly creating the impression that he wanted to extend civilian trials to detainees), and in favor of the protection of reproductive rights–a promise that he’s broken.

Once in office, President Obama continued to send US troops to decimate Iraq and Afghanistan, even with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate until the mid-term elections. That is not a compromise; it is an assertive, decisive uncompromising action.  This Administration, the Department of Homeland Security worked actively to promote to deport nearly 400,000 migrants from the US annually for the past three years.* The claim that he is a feminist or liberal does not ring true when we examine the current President’s refusal to make the “morning after” pill available over the counter, or when we look at the abortion restrictions in the 2010 healthcare bill. The Healthcare program that was endorsed and passed under the current Administration is a spin-off of the Romney health-care plan in Massachusetts, and which includes a penalty against those citizens who are poor but not too poor.  These are not feminist acts. These are not anti-racist acts. These are not liberal acts.

I’m not sure that Pollitt understood the basis of my comments in my Jan. 6 post. My frustration emerged from what appears to be an accepted distinction between the rights of US nationals and those of “international Others.” Those Others include foreign nationals in our midst (from Gitmo detainees, the tortured, and undocumented migrants) and international populations who’ve been the victims of US-led wars. Not only does there appear to be divergence, but among progressives, there seems to be a prioritization of the rights of US nationals at the expense of international Others.

The war on terror, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (where we still have 15,000 “contractors”/troops), should be on every single feminist and liberal and progressive table where politics are being discussed (e.g., Democratic fundraisers, Occupy movements across the country, etc.).  The question of due process for US citizens (white, African American, Latinos or other populations), but also for foreign nationals are crucial—whether they are or aren’t MEMSA’s.

Civil protections such as due process, habeas corpus, the right to a trial, right against warrantless search and seizure, are not only political safeguards: they are protections for folks who are vulnerable to violence or exploitation. When such states or organizations can act against vulnerable populations (whether US minority communities or Muslim foreign nationals) by removing these, then the extinguishing of civil protections becomes a human rights issue—regardless of national borders.  If so, then we have moral—not just political—but moral obligations to international populations. Greenwald, describes a similar mandate from Martin Luther King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech:

King notably added another reason why he felt compelled to prioritize issues of war: “another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission.” As he put it: “ This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.” (my emphasis) If only that award were similarly understood today. His essential point was that nothing good could possibly happen in America so long as it continued on its path of warfare and bombing and invading foreign countries, and it was therefore necessary to prioritize protests against the war on at least equal footing with every other issue.

Like Martin Luther King in 1967, I don’t think we can trade in the human rights of foreign nationals for the rights of US nationals (and lucky for us, under the current Administration, we don’t really have to make this choice anymore)—not without a seriously blighted conscience about the fates into which we force international Muslim populations.  I’m going to end this post with a quote from Hannah Arendt, one of my favorite philosophers, but I will talk about this division in a new post tomorrow.

Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.” Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), ch. 9.

*The earlier version of this post incorrectly reported 46,000 deportations of migrants. In fact, 46k represents the number of parental deportations of migrants who had US born children, from the six month period of Jan-June 2011, according to Seth Wessler, who reported the original story in Colorlines.


Author: Falguni A. Sheth

I'm a philosopher and political analyst who writes about all kinds of things, from national security, US politics, race, terrorism, miscegenation, feminism, philosophy, and whatever else captivates my attention. My views are idiosyncratic. I'd like to believe they're carefully considered, and I'm not particularly interested in following crowds.

6 thoughts on “Progressives, Truth-telling, and Human Rights Issues”

  1. Beautifully said, Falguni. You are a real pleasure to read.

    A word about Pollitt’s lack of comprehension: She understood your point. How could she not understand such a “common sense” argument? But addressing it directly would mean having to give up rhetorical territory, so she did what well trained political professionals always do when in a bind. She punted by disingenuously making it about Ron Paul, instead of what you actually said. That’s just misdirection. The fact is, she didn’t have a good response and there was no way she was going to admit she was either wrong or thoughtless in her own piece. Hers was a bit of a hit-piece based not in intellectual honesty, but rather mere Social Dominance technique. This seems to be an increasingly popular theme with The Nation.

    Witness Melissa Harris-Perry’s piece misusing polling data in a manner egregious of a political scientist, to claim declining “white progressive” support for Obama was simply race-bias. She waved aside any reasonable historical and policy context in order to simply smear a bunch of people as racist in a remarkably dishonest fashion.

    Witness another Nationite, Chris Hayes, when spending all of three minutes discussing Obama’s new indefinite detention powers with the simple fob off, claiming “society is to blame.” This is one of the more popular elitist tropes the Nation is known for. For even though there is some truth in it (we did collectively vote for these moral cripples, after all), that’s no reason not to hold those in power responsible for what they actually do in office.

    So I’m afraid we’re going to read a great deal more of this kind of crap going forward. Of course, that is why I just cancelled my subscription. If I want to be attacked for deigning to criticize Dear Leader, then I’ll just tune in to cable “news” for five minutes and get my month’s quota of abuse.

    It seems Right-Wing Authoritarianism isn’t just for Republicans anymore. It also seems Leo Strauss is alive and well within the Democratic Party apparat. I think this is what is beginning to terrify a lot of progressives who aren’t establishment tools. I also think this explains the current obsession with the rights of US nationals. It’s not to deny the outsiders their agency as much as it is a realization that we are now in so much jeopardy that home issues will have to play out before the global situation can be properly addressed. I think this is fairly normal. One’s own survival will usually come first.

    That aside though, its been clear for some time now that the moral rot has fully extended into the Party apparat. The mindless militarism, the complete disdain for the rest of the planet, the complete corruption in terms of human rights and even global warming… all the way down to supporting terribly destructive economic policies. All of these add up to a Democratic Party bereft of any First Principles aside from self-enrichment. Torture was bad under Bush, but it’s just fine when Obama is doing it. How can any meaningful debate occur under such circumstances, when the whole system is essentially rigged?

    We are becoming a totalitarian society.

    1. How sad that in expressing truths, one has to write in fear. What an indictment of the state of affairs in this country. What an indictment of those who would excuse those affairs.

      Perhaps a day will come when people can write without fear. Any number of signs would point to such a day. In addition to a trip to Arizona, for example, a president of the United States might travel to the funeral of a girl in Afghanistan and talk about her dreams cut short by U.S. weapons and a U.S. war. He might acknowledge that her death was not a necessary sacrifice, but rather a crime. It did not make his daughters’ lives or mine any safer or better. In fact, without her dreams, our daughters’ lives have now become impoverished.

      In telling the truth, you, I’m sure, already know the company of kindred spirits you keep from the distant past to the present. It’s good company. You can draw strength from it, as others can draw strength from your work. You, I’m sure, know why you write, in spite of the fear.

      As alway, in gratitude,

  2. Household chores can serve at least two roles. First, one can take a (perverse? Buddhist? privileged!) pleasure in them, a pleasure in their simplicity and in an awareness of one’s present moment. And second (but mostly to the exclusion of the first), one can simultaneously accomplish other things for which one would otherwise not have enough time. When I saw the link to the talk between Pollitt and Greenwald yesterday, I was not going to take almost an hour out of my day to listen to it. Ah, but then there were the baskets of family laundry to fold. As a result, I did, while folding laundry, manage to listen to the whole conversation.

    I am unable to contribute anything to your laser-sharp analysis of their conversation. But I just might add a word of gratitude for your work and its contributions to our understanding of our world. It cuts right through all the noise in my mind and helps me focus on what is essential. More importantly, it fires a true hope that we can work for a better world.


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