Monday, July 8, 2013

Whose rights are they, anyway?

Today we have another of those letters that seem to come in every other week on the same old subjects, making the same old arguments in the same old eye-crossing ways and drawing the same old tail-chasing comments. Perhaps the reader will indulge me a comment in hopes of a slightly different perspective.

Carl Fishel wants the world to understand, if I may paraphrase, that our rights as Americans came from the imagination of his version of the Supreme Being, and our Founders only took dictation, presumably from some celestial speakerphone at Independence Hall that has since vanished with the original shorthand.

These screeds inevitably cite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which of course has no standing in law, but has entered the sacred canon somewhere between Judges and Ruth, beside the Second Amendment, as the Received Word of Gad rather than Mr Jefferson and his buddies.

Like most of the stories Xtians revere, this version of history takes a pretty firm push on the self-delusion lever to hang together. The argument against it isn't difficult, but it requires some basic understanding of historical context.

With the Declaration, the 13 vassal colonies of George III set out to build a system of self-government, a concept that ought not to be controversial now. Then, it was a new idea. As such, in declaring independence, the Founders had to build a legal argument for it that would convince the world outside merry old Blighty to recognize them.

The idea of self-government was every bit as new and frightening in Germany, Italy, France and Spain as it was in Britain, so the argument had to not only furnish evidence of the justice of our cause, but show to a paternalistic and superstitious world that the new States we were creating would act in an adult manner.

Every feudal monarchy since time began justified its claim to power as coming directly from a supreme being, just as the churches did. So regardless of the religious views or divine inspiration of the Founders, reference to a supreme being would be obligatory in this context. The other governments simply wouldn't have taken seriously anything other than an appeal to the only power higher than the English king, who up to that moment legally owned us.

(Tangent: If we posit that gad did grant rights, why would he single out a gaggle of irregular little backwaters on the wrong side of the planet when His Truth Had Been Marching On for over a thousand years in Europe, over the backs of serfs, peasants and various other cannon fodder who never had a right to anything other than endless poverty and death in squalor? Why didn't they get the rights too? Do the dominionists imagine that the Declaration was equivalent to Luther's leaflet and the founders started their own religion called America? That must be hard given how our proto-republic was received by the churches. [hint: not well])

What bothers me most about this ridiculous gad-given argument is that it minimizes the accomplishments of the Founders in embracing a set of radical ideas and seeing them through.

The most radical of those ideas is that human beings are not only all equal in principle, but simply by existing we own ourselves and our dignity. That idea alone is enough to smash the bonds of class and strip the aristocracy of all legitimacy. These men were expressly moving away from the world of superstition and into one of new, more rational social structures, and doing it at great risk and cost to themselves.

They agreed that it didn't matter how we individually believe we came to exist, rather it was existence itself  that endows us with human rights.

Finally, notice that when it came down to defining those rights and structuring this new society, in writing the Constitution they dispensed with supernatural references and expressly forbade us for ever from operating our government on superstition.

How much evidence do you really need?