Great Oracle,why are you staring at me,
do I baffle you, do I make you despair?
I, Americus, the American,
wrought from the dark in my mother long ago,
from the dark of ancient Europa--
Why are you staring at me now
in the dusk of our civilization--
Why are you staring at me
as if I were America itself
the new Empire
far greater than any in ancient days
with its electronic highways
carrying its corporate monoculture
around the world
And English the Latin of our day--
Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries,
Awaken now at last
And tell us how to save us from ourselves
and how to survive our own rulers
who would make a plutocracy of our democracy
in the Great Divide
between the rich and the poor
in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing
O long-silent Sybil,
You of the winged dreams,
Speak out from your temple of light
as the serious constellations
with Greek names
still stare down on us
as a lighthouse moves its megaphone
over the sea
Speak out and shine upon us
the sea-light of Greece
the diamond light of Greece
Far-seeing Sybil, forever hidden,
Come out of your cave at last
And speak to us in the poet's voice
the voice of the fourth person singular
the voice of the inscrutable future
the voice of the people mixed
with a wild soft laughter--
And give us new dreams to dream,
Give us new myths to live by!
Spoken to the Oracle by the author at UNESCO's World Poetry Day, March 21, at Delphi
The drumbeat now begins, as it always does in time of war: We must accept limitations on our liberties. The FBI and CIA should be "unleashed" in the name of national security. Patriotism means uncritical support of whatever actions the President deems appropriate. Arab-Americans, followers of Islam, people with Middle Eastern names or ancestors, should be subject to special scrutiny by the government and their fellow citizens. With liberal members of Congress silent and the Administration promising a war on terrorism lasting "years, not days," such sentiments are likely to be with us for some time to come.
Of the many lessons of American history, this is among the most basic. Our civil rights and civil liberties--freedom of expression, the right to criticize the government, equality before the law, restraints on the exercise of police powers--are not gifts from the state that can be rescinded when it desires. They are the inheritance of a long history of struggles: by abolitionists for the ability to hold meetings and publish their views in the face of mob violence; by labor leaders for the power to organize unions, picket and distribute literature without fear of arrest; by feminists for the right to disseminate birth-control information without being charged with violating the obscenity laws; and by all those who braved jail and worse to challenge entrenched systems of racial inequality.
The history of freedom in this country is not, as is often thought, the logical working out of ideas immanent in our founding documents or a straight-line trajectory of continual progress. It is a story of countless disagreements and battles in which victories sometimes prove temporary and retrogression often follows progress.
When critics of the original Constitution complained about the absence of a Bill of Rights, the Constitution's "father," James Madison, replied that no list of liberties could ever anticipate the ways government might act in the future. "Parchment barriers" to the abuse of authority, he wrote, would be least effective when most needed. Thankfully, the Bill of Rights was eventually adopted. But Madison's observation was amply borne out at moments of popular hysteria when freedom of expression was trampled in the name of patriotism and national unity.
Americans have notoriously short historical memories. But it is worth recalling some of those moments to understand how liberty has been endangered in the past. During the "quasi war" with France in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts allowed deportation of immigrants deemed dangerous by federal authorities and made it illegal to criticize the federal government. During the Civil War, both sides jailed critics and suppressed opposition newspapers.
In World War I German-Americans, socialists, labor leaders and critics of US involvement were subjected to severe government repression and assault by private vigilante groups. Publications critical of the war were banned from the mails, individuals were jailed for antiwar statements and in the Red Scare that followed the war thousands of radicals were arrested and numerous aliens deported. During World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans, most of them US citizens, were removed to internment camps. Sanctioned by the Supreme Court, this was the greatest violation of Americans' civil liberties, apart from slavery, in our history.
No one objects to more stringent security at airports. But current restrictions on the FBI and CIA limiting surveillance, wiretapping, infiltration of political groups at home and assassinations abroad do not arise from an irrational desire for liberty at the expense of security. They are the response to real abuses of authority, which should not be forgotten in the zeal to sweep them aside as "handcuffs" on law enforcement.
Before unleashing these agencies, let us recall the FBI's persistent harassment of individuals like Martin Luther King Jr. and its efforts to disrupt the civil rights and antiwar movements, and the CIA's history of cooperation with some of the world's most egregious violators of human rights. The principle that no group of Americans should be stigmatized as disloyal or criminal because of race or national origin is too recent and too fragile an achievement to be abandoned now.
Every war in American history, from the Revolution to the Gulf War, with the exception of World War II, inspired vigorous internal dissent. Self-imposed silence is as debilitating to a democracy as censorship. If questioning an ill-defined, open-ended "war on terrorism" is to be deemed unpatriotic, the same label will have to be applied to Abraham Lincoln at the time of the Mexican War, Jane Addams and Eugene V. Debs during World War I, and Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, who had the courage and foresight to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.
All of us today share a feeling of grief and outrage over the events of September 11 and a desire that those responsible for mass murder be brought to justice. But at times of crisis the most patriotic act of all is the unyielding defense of civil liberties, the right to dissent and equality before the law for all Americans.
At the close of every great and violent social conflict comes due a bill of rights. Following the barbarism of World War II, the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with the Nuremberg trials, overturned the doctrine, which held sway among Western nations, that there are no rights
other than those conferred by states. Individual liberty and the guarantee of a decent and secure life, the declaration proclaimed, were rights bestowed not by blood or borders but by universal human dignity.
From the terrors of the cold war came the hope that the promise of the UN declaration would be fulfilled, that resources consumed by the superpower contest would be put toward human needs and that repression would no longer be tolerated in the name of national security or sovereignty. But more than a decade into our post-cold war world, these hopes remain largely unrealized. While politicians who commit atrocities within their own borders can no longer confidently hide behind diplomatic immunities, the declaration's hope for the "advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want" remains a compelling but nonetheless chimerical ideal in light of deepening global poverty and inequality and concentrating corporate and military power.
In A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mary Ann Glendon argues for a new, post-cold war interpretation of the declaration's vision and unfulfilled potential. While stressing the declaration's ongoing relevance--calling it the "parent document" of all subsequent international human rights treaties--Glendon believes that we have lost sight of the charter's true significance. The declaration did more than simply add social entitlements to the individual freedoms found in the US Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. By synthesizing individual and social rights in a way that made them mutually dependent, the declaration presented a "vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and guarded by the rule of law. That vision was meant to protect liberty from degenerating into license and to repel the excesses of individualism and collectivism alike."
But the cold war drove a wedge through the declaration's "organic unity." The two superpowers "could not resist treating the Declaration as an arsenal of political weapons: each yanked its favorite provisions out of context and ignored the rest." The United States and its allies stressed political freedoms, while the USSR and other socialist nations emphasized guarantees to education and healthcare. "What began as expediency hardened into habit, until the sense of an integrated body of principles was lost." The task at hand, Glendon writes,is to "reunite the sundered halves of the Declaration" and to re-establish the link between liberty and social security.
Glendon centers her story around Eleanor Roosevelt, whose longstanding support for social justice made her a compelling envoy of New Deal hopes abroad. Following FDR's death in 1945, she was appointed as a delegate to the newly established United Nations (considering that she probably would not be confirmed by today's Senate, it is remarkable that then only one senator voted against her) and was elected chairwoman of its Commission on Human Rights, whose first task was to draft an international bill of rights.
As the commission raced against the dawning cold war, Roosevelt's ability to disarm potentially deal-breaking political and philosophical conflicts proved indispensable. One of her major contributions to the declaration's passage was to argue for the deferment of enforcement mechanisms, thus giving countries unwilling to compromise national sovereignty an opportunity to support a broad, nonbinding proclamation. Roosevelt's domestic and international prestige served to contain an increasingly hostile State Department, and she repeatedly used her syndicated "My Day" column to make her case directly to Americans, often strategically evoking FDR's memory to shore up wavering US support for social and economic rights: "My husband always said that freedom from want and freedom from aggression were twin freedoms which had to go hand in hand."
A Harvard law professor, Glendon too believes in the interdependence of political freedom and economic security, but unlike the Roosevelts, who knew that the extension of equality would always require conflict, she argues that the best way to achieve both is through consensus.
Glendon is best known as the author of the previous Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, a sharp critique of a legal culture that frames interests and identities in individualistic terms at the expense of community and civic responsibility. She reserves her harshest criticisms for the kind of politics, like that of the pro-choice feminist movement, that is based on the right to privacy, which, in her view, exalts individualism at the expense of community. For Glendon, rights are best achieved when they resonate, rather than clash with, common social values: "Our rights talk," she has argued elsewhere, "in its absoluteness, promotes unrealistic expectations, heightens social conflict, and inhibits dialogue that might lead toward consensus, accommodations, or at least the discovery of common ground."
Considering that Glendon has devoted her career to defusing the explosive potential of "rights talk," it is curious that she would now choose to celebrate Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt firmly believed that the best way to achieve justice was through the expansion and strengthening of the New Deal state. While she may have often used the cant of compromise favored by many of today's communitarians, she did not shy away from confrontation, according to her biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook (Roosevelt was fond of repeating that if you "have to compromise, be sure to compromise UP"). Cook writes that Roosevelt, closely connected to and influenced by the great early-twentieth-century feminist, antiracist and working-class movements, held an "abiding conviction" that "nothing good would happen to promote the people's interest unless the people themselves organized to demand government responses."
A World Made New claims Eleanor as the mother of all third-wayers. Far from the politically and emotionally passionate writer, politician and activist who emerges from the pages of Cook's biography, Glendon's portrayal stresses Roosevelt's pragmatism and her willingness to temper demands for equality out of concerns for a greater social good. While Glendon acknowledges Eleanor's intelligence and political commitment, she often depicts Roosevelt as a cross between Dale Carnegie and Lucille Ball, whose "legendary people skills" permitted "cross cultural understanding" while her equally notorious cooking ability cemented male bonding among the commission's draftees:
It was not the food that made her salon a popular gathering place.... John Humphrey [a Canadian member of the commission] recalled one evening when she served "the toughest roast beef I have ever eaten." On another occasion she beamingly asked [the French delegate] René Cassin to uncork a musty bottle of wine that had been in the cellar of her uncle Theodore Roosevelt. Humphrey... recounted that Cassin "opened it with great ceremony, proposed a toast and we all lifted our glasses. The wine had turned to vinegar. But none of us flickered an eyelash--and Mrs. Roosevelt never knew what she had given us."
All that's missing is Desi Arnaz rolling his eyes.
The refusal of Glendon, like many communitarians, to pay attention to power has led her to provide an incomplete account of the origins and limitations of the declaration. Most of the action in her book takes place behind closed doors,amid the bons mots and philosophical sparring of the delegates. Despite references to the fact that following World War II "soldiers and civilians alike had become aware that the way things had been was not necessarily the way they had to be," Glendon gives no sense that the declaration's draftees--nearly all of them social democrats of one stripe or another--were responding to real political and economic demands made by threatening social movements.
For instance, while Glendon acknowledges the influence of the Chilean Hernán Santa Cruz, a friend and colleague of Salvador Allende, on the drafting of the declaration, she makes no reference to the fact that he was influenced by one of the strongest union movements in Latin America, a movement led by Communists and Socialists that forced successive governments to create one of Latin America's most democratic social welfare states. Neither does Glendon mention that between 1944 and 1946, Communist and non-Communist trade union leaders from fifty-three countries held a series of conferences to help secure a role for labor in the new postwar international system. They not only demanded that the UN incorporate economic rights into its charter but requested, yet did not receive, a union delegate in the UN's Economic and Social Commission.
Glendon's criticism of both the cultural and moral relativism of a handful of academics and Third World despots, which she identifies as the chief threat to the declaration's universalism, obscures the real obstacles arrayed against the fulfillment of its promise. While she notes in passing that Santa Cruz fled Chile in 1973, Glendon ignores the role of the United States in the destruction of Chile's welfare system and the installation that year of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Nor does she note the failure of the United States to support fully the prosecution of Pinochet. (Although Glendon's book was written before George W. Bush's assault on internationalism, the installation of John Negroponte as ambassador to the United Nations--as US ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, Negroponte coordinated contra activities and covered up the murderous activity of a Honduran death squad--underscores the shallowness of Glendon's analysis as to why the declaration's promise has not been realized.)
In A World Made New, Glendon finds corroborating evidence among traditional societies to support her case against an excessively disputatious understanding of rights. She points out that the UN declaration was more influenced by the social democratic rights tradition of continental Europe and Latin America than by "the more individualistic documents of Anglo-American lineage." The declaration also better reflects the values of traditional, non-Western societies, with their purported emphasis on reciprocity and obligation, than it does those of the anomic United States. The subject of the declaration, according to Glendon, is not the autonomous individual of Hobbes, Mill and Locke but a person enmeshed in a web of "mutual dependency: families, communities, religious groups, workplaces, associations, societies, cultures, nations, and an emerging international order." It is "perhaps regrettable," Glendon suggests, that the declaration framed economic security in the language of entitlements rather than "in terms of a common responsibility," which "might have resonated better than rights in most of the world's cultures."
Richard Wilson's The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State provides a needed contrast to Glendon's argument that the potential of the declaration could best be achieved through compromise and harmonization with traditional cultures.
Like the story of Cain and Abel, the history of the UN declaration and South African apartheid are inseparable. Months prior to the commencement of work on the declaration, a multiracial South African delegation led by the African National Congress joined Indian delegates in 1946 to push the UN to condemn white rule in South Africa, resulting in one of the General Assembly's first decisions limiting the inviolability of national sovereignty. Just months after South Africa abstained from ratifying the declaration in 1948, it passed the first in a series of laws that institutionalized racial rule. In the following decades, South Africa, with its brutal mining economy, white supremacist government and vicious anti-Communism, came to represent the antithesis of the declaration.
After decades of national resistance and international pressure, as the Berlin wall fell, apartheid crumbled. Nelson Mandela left prison in 1990 and, in 1994, became the country's first president elected by a multiracial vote. The new South African Constitution is a direct descendant of the UN declaration, adding environmental and cultural protections to political and social rights, and extending them to all citizens, regardless not only of race and gender but of sexual orientation as well. Yet the radical vision of the Constitution was dampened when, in negotiations with the outgoing National Party, the ANC settled on a transition strategy that emphasized national reconciliation and amnesty for political crimes committed during apartheid and left largely untouched an economic system that was designed to benefit the white minority.
Like Glendon, Wilson is highly critical of "rights talk." But where she believes that an inordinate attention to individual rights frays the social ties that are best able to provide humans with security and dignity, Wilson argues the opposite: that the subordination of individual claims to justice in the name of reconciliation cheapens the value of liberal rhetoric. Many political leaders of fledgling democracies, Wilson writes, found in "human rights talk" a way to "create a fully-blown moral-ethical code, to forge a moral unity and to legitimate the new democratic order." But when it was used to justify not only amnesty for war criminals but also the silencing of demands for economic redistribution, as it was in South Africa, this talk came to represent for many a retreat from the promise of social equality that fueled the ANC's struggle against apartheid.
Wilson focuses primarily on the work and impact of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Established in 1995 to investigate human rights abuses committed under apartheid, the TRC, in its public hearings and its published final report, told the story of political violence through a narrative of struggle and liberation. Yet it tempered the radical potential of this story with a Christian ethos that both demanded a forsaking of vengeance and insisted on national reconciliation through collective acts of forgiveness. In the absence of either prosecutions or economic redistribution, writes Wilson, this "religious-redemptive" approach, embodied in the persona of the TRC's chairman, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was the only one that had any hope of "reshaping popular legal and political consciousness" among the majority of South Africa's disfranchised population.
Not unlike Glendon's attempt to move our understanding of rights away from conflict toward notions of reciprocity, obligation and community, Tutu repeatedly invoked the African word Ubuntu , which refers to values that supposedly governed African communal life, to argue against prosecutions: "Retributive justice," says Tutu, "is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative--not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew."
Wilson describes a notion of community at play in the townships that contrasts with Tutu's Ubuntu , one that is "male and martial, and committed to the values of valor, honor and revenge." Local courts, armed gangs and activists from the ANC Youth League and African nationalist parties advocate a different, rougher notion of justice, "less concerned with restoration of social bonds than it is with the punishment of wrongdoers who have violated correct values as defined by the community." The TRC, with its uncompromising language of compromise, proved utterly incapable of working with these local authorities, of establishing mechanisms of conflict resolution that could lead to meaningful reconciliation. In response, many dismissed the TRC as hollow and continued to pursue vengeful, not retributive, justice.
The failure of the South African state, Wilson writes, to take seriously popular demands for justice, to move a desire for revenge toward an acceptance of proportional retribution, has greatly delegitimized human rights in the eyes of many, often the most marginalized, South Africans. There is evidence that soaring crime rates in places like Sharpeville are related to the state's failure to prosecute human rights violations that took place under apartheid.
A story that appeared last year in the Wall Street Journal supports Wilson's argument that true reconciliation can come about only through retributive and redistributive justice enacted by a strong state. In the mid-1980s, at the height of the antiapartheid movement, the police shot, tortured and blinded Lucas Sekwepere. After finding some emotional relief in telling his story to the TRC in 1996, Sekwepere, unemployed, impoverished and still blind, believed, wrongly, that the state would pay to remove the bullet fragments he still carries in his face and provide him with job training. Instead he received a check for $700. "Not much," Sekwepere says, "for someone who has been hungry for 15 years." "It is easy for me to get cross these days," he goes on. "Since the commission opened up my wounds, I haven't heard anything more. Is that justice?"
It is one thing to admit that the ancien régime is still au courant and therefore that it is impossible to prosecute violations conducted in its name, and, as Wilson points out, another thing to mask its persisting power with the language of reconciliation and national unity. But in the case of South Africa, what is the ancien régime? Unlike in Argentina and Chile, where the military still exercised a formidable influence and threat following the restoration of democracy, the ANC had control of the government, the military and the police, and was wildly popular among the vast majority of South Africa's population. Why could it not execute a legal strategy that was more attuned to the desire of the majority and to the norms of international jurisprudence?
The answer lies to a large degree with the ancien international régime. With the end of the cold war, Third World political and economic nationalism was no longer a viable development strategy. In many countries undergoing a transition from repressive cold war regimes to democratic rule, the primary threat of instability came not from the barracks but from the markets. In South Africa, the ANC and, to a lesser degree, the Communist Party were quick to adjust their strategies and expectations to a post-cold war world, embracing liberal democracy and suppressing larger challenges to the economic system. Whites remain in firm control of the national economy, subject more to the pressures of international capital than to the dictates of the new government.
Tracing the history between the UN's declaration and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission reveals the ambivalent legacy of the cold war vis-à-vis human rights, a legacy more complex than Glendon describes. While throughout much of the non-Communist world entrenched interests used anti-Communism to beat back threats to their power, in many cases superpower rivalry actually allowed for the fulfillment of many of the rights embedded in the declaration. The civil and economic reforms promoted by the United States, both at home and abroad, can be understood only in relation to its struggle against the Soviet Union. It was not until after the Soviet threat had been eliminated that we saw a full-scale retreat from the declaration's economic and social provisions, as witnessed by the dismantling of the welfare system in the United States, the weakening of social democracies in Europe and the demise of autonomous models of Third World development. South Africa may have the most progressive constitution in human history, but half of its population--19 million people--lives in poverty and has little recourse to the justice system or other state institutions. Pinochet may now be subject to democratic justice, but the economic system he helped install is as unassailable as was Louis XIV behind the walls of Versailles.
Or is it? The promise of the declaration continues to resonate, not in the flat timbre of transitional governments but in the diverse and vibrant chords of the anti-corporate globalization movement. While having multiple agendas and interests, the groups that make up this movement share all the values Glendon rightly finds in the declaration: human dignity, social responsibility, local autonomy, a vision of individual freedom rooted in social solidarity. Glendon, who hopes the declaration could be an "entryway to a better world," would perhaps be dismayed to realize how much she sounds like that favorite of WTO protesters, Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, who believes that the task currently at hand is to "create a world in which a better world can be imagined." If the UN declaration's promise is to be fulfilled, then Davos may well be our Bastille.
This review was written before September 11. Its optimism has now been drowned by cries for an avenging war against terrorism. It seems as if we have been suddenly hurtled back to a world prior to the Universal Declaration, a world turned old with hatred, militarism and xenophobia. If Pearl Harbor begat Hiroshima, one shudders to think what terrifying deeds the attack on the World Trade Center will provoke. But in the midst of rising blood lust, the declaration's vision of economic justice, tolerance and freedom is, as we fight for a sane foreign policy, more urgent than ever.
It was in Peshawar, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, as the Red Army was falling apart and falling back. I badly needed a guide to get me to the Khyber Pass, and I decided that what I required was the most farouche-looking guy with the best command of English and the toughest modern automobile. Such a combination was obtainable, for a price. My new friend rather wolfishly offered me a tour of the nearby British military cemetery (a well-filled site from the Victorian era) before we began. Then he slammed a cassette into the dashboard. I braced myself for the ululations of some mullah but received instead a dose of "So Far Away." From under the turban and behind the beard came the gruff observation, "I thought you might like Dire Straits."
This was my induction into the now-familiar symbiosis of tribal piety and high-tech; a symbiosis consummated on September 11 with the conversion of the southern tip of the capital of the modern world into a charred and suppurating mass grave. Not that it necessarily has to be a symbol of modernism and innovation that is targeted for immolation. As recently as this year, the same ideology employed heavy artillery to destroy the Buddha statues at Bamiyan, and the co-thinkers of bin Laden in Egypt have been heard to express the view that the Pyramids and the Sphinx should be turned into shards as punishment for their profanely un-Islamic character.
Since my moment in Peshawar I have met this faction again. In one form or another, the people who leveled the World Trade Center are the same people who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated two of the translators of The Satanic Verses and who machine-gunned architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry what they may intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced by advanced techniques. Just a few months ago Bosnia surrendered to the international court at The Hague the only accused war criminals detained on Muslim-Croat federation territory. The butchers had almost all been unwanted "volunteers" from the Chechen, Afghan and Kashmiri fronts; it is as an unapologetic defender of the Muslims of Bosnia (whose cause was generally unstained by the sort of atrocity committed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians) that one can and must say that bin Ladenism poisons everything that it touches.
I was apprehensive from the first moment about the sort of masochistic e-mail traffic that might start circulating from the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter, and I was not to be disappointed. With all due thanks to these worthy comrades, I know already that the people of Palestine and Iraq are victims of a depraved and callous Western statecraft. And I think I can claim to have been among the first to point out that Clinton's rocketing of Khartoum--supported by most liberals--was a gross war crime, which would certainly have entitled the Sudanese government to mount reprisals under international law. (Indeed, the sight of Clintonoids on TV, applauding the "bounce in the polls" achieved by their man that day, was even more repulsive than the sight of destitute refugee children making a wretched holiday over the nightmare on Chambers Street.) But there is no sense in which the events of September 11 can be held to constitute such a reprisal, either legally or morally.
It is worse than idle to propose the very trade-offs that may have been lodged somewhere in the closed-off minds of the mass murderers. The people of Gaza live under curfew and humiliation and expropriation. This is notorious. Very well: Does anyone suppose that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan? It would take a moral cretin to suggest anything of the sort; the cadres of the new jihad make it very apparent that their quarrel is with Judaism and secularism on principle, not with (or not just with) Zionism. They regard the Saudi regime not as the extreme authoritarian theocracy that it is, but as something too soft and lenient. The Taliban forces viciously persecute the Shiite minority in Afghanistan. The Muslim fanatics in Indonesia try to extirpate the infidel minorities there; civil society in Algeria is barely breathing after the fundamentalist assault.
Now is as good a time as ever to revisit the history of the Crusades, or the sorry history of partition in Kashmir, or the woes of the Chechens and Kosovars. But the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there's no point in any euphemism about it. What they abominate about "the West," to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don't like and can't defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state. Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content. Indiscriminate murder is not a judgment, even obliquely, on the victims or their way of life, or ours. Any decent and concerned reader of this magazine could have been on one of those planes, or in one of those buildings--yes, even in the Pentagon.
The new talk is all of "human intelligence": the very faculty in which our ruling class is most deficient. A few months ago, the Bush Administration handed the Taliban a subsidy of $43 million in abject gratitude for the assistance of fundamentalism in the"war on drugs." Next up is the renewed "missile defense" fantasy recently endorsed by even more craven Democrats who seek to occupy the void "behind the President." There is sure to be further opportunity to emphasize the failings of our supposed leaders, whose costly mantra is "national security" and who could not protect us. And yes indeed, my guide in Peshawar was a shadow thrown by William Casey's CIA, which first connected the unstoppable Stinger missile to the infallible Koran. But that's only one way of stating the obvious, which is that this is an enemy for life, as well as an enemy of life.
My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. She tells me I'm wrong--the flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. In a way we're both right: The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now. In New York City, it decorates taxicabs driven by Indians and Pakistanis, the impromptu memorials of candles and flowers that have sprung up in front of every firehouse, the chi-chi art galleries and boutiques of SoHo. It has to bear a wide range of meanings, from simple, dignified sorrow to the violent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry that has already resulted in murder, vandalism and arson around the country and harassment on New York City streets and campuses. It seems impossible to explain to a 13-year-old, for whom the war in Vietnam might as well be the War of Jenkins's Ear, the connection between waving the flag and bombing ordinary people half a world away back to the proverbial stone age. I tell her she can buy a flag with her own money and fly it out her bedroom window, because that's hers, but the living room is off-limits.
There are no symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs--equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence. The red flag is too bloodied by history; the peace sign is a retro fashion accessory. In much of the world, including parts of this country, the cross and crescent and Star of David are logos for nationalistic and sectarian hatred. Ann Coulter, fulminating in her syndicated column, called for carpet-bombing of any country where people "smiled" at news of the disaster: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." What is this, the Crusades? The Rev. Jerry Falwell issued a belated mealy-mouthed apology for his astonishing remarks immediately after the attacks, but does anyone doubt that he meant them? The disaster was God's judgment on secular America, he observed, as famously secular New Yorkers were rushing to volunteer to dig out survivors, to give blood, food, money, anything--it was all the fault of "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians...the ACLU, People for the American Way." That's what the Taliban think too.
As I write, the war talk revolves around Afghanistan, home of the vicious Taliban and hideaway of Osama bin Laden. I've never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World, but it is a fact that our government supported militant Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The mujahedeen were freedom fighters against Communism, backed by more than $3 billion in US aid--more money and expertise than for any other cause in CIA history--and hailed as heroes by tag-along journalists from Dan Rather to William T. Vollmann, who saw these lawless fanatics as manly primitives untainted by the West. (There's a story in here about the attraction Afghan hypermasculinity holds for desk-bound modern men. How lovely not to pay lip service to women's equality! It's cowboys and Indians, with harems thrown in.) And if, with the Soviets gone, the vying warlords turned against one another, raped and pillaged and murdered the civilian population and destroyed what still remained of normal Afghan life, who could have predicted that? These people! The Taliban, who rose out of this period of devastation, were boys, many of them orphans, from the wretched refugee camps of Pakistan, raised in the unnatural womanless hothouses of fundamentalist boarding schools. Even leaving aside their ignorance and provincialism and lack of modern skills, they could no more be expected to lead Afghanistan back to normalcy than an army made up of kids raised from birth in Romanian orphanages.
Feminists and human-rights groups have been sounding the alarm about the Taliban since they took over Afghanistan in 1996. That's why interested Americans know that Afghan women are forced to wear the total shroud of the burqa and are banned from work and from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a male relative; that girls are barred from school; and that the Taliban--far from being their nation's saviors, enforcing civic peace with their terrible swift Kalashnikovs--are just the latest oppressors of the miserable population. What has been the response of the West to this news? Unless you count the absurd infatuation of European intellectuals with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of fundamentalist warlords (here we go again!), not much.
What would happen if the West took seriously the forces in the Muslim world who call for education, social justice, women's rights, democracy, civil liberties and secularism? Why does our foreign policy underwrite the clerical fascist government of Saudi Arabia--and a host of nondemocratic regimes besides? What is the point of the continuing sanctions on Iraq, which have brought untold misery to ordinary people and awakened the most backward tendencies of Iraqi society while doing nothing to undermine Saddam Hussein? And why on earth are fundamentalist Jews from Brooklyn and Philadelphia allowed to turn Palestinians out of their homes on the West Bank? Because God gave them the land? Does any sane person really believe that?
Bombing Afghanistan to "fight terrorism" is to punish not the Taliban but the victims of the Taliban, the people we should be supporting. At the same time, war would reinforce the worst elements in our own society--the flag-wavers and bigots and militarists. It's heartening that there have been peace vigils and rallies in many cities, and antiwar actions are planned in Washington, DC, for September 29-30, but look what even the threat of war has already done to Congress, where only a single representative, Barbara Lee, Democrat from California, voted against giving the President virtual carte blanche.
A friend has taken to wearing her rusty old women's Pentagon Action buttons--at least they have a picture of the globe on them. The globe, not the flag, is the symbol that's wanted now.
The blow against the United States has landed. As we go to press, the counterblow is awaited. Those deciding what it will be face a devilish conundrum. A great injury seems to call for a great response--a "response commensurate to the horror," in the words of Cokie Roberts of ABC News. Unfortunately for the satisfaction of this impulse, a proportional antagonist is not always available. It is a perplexing but inescapable fact of our time that great crimes can be committed by puny forces. The obvious example is assassination--an experience branded in American memory by the assassination of President John Kennedy. The gigantic shock of that event seemed to require a gigantic explanation. The mind recoiled at the idea that a single anonymous person could affect the lives of so many so deeply. Many found their satisfaction in conspiracy theories. The government of the day, however, felt it had to resist these temptations. It was the office of the Warren Commission to tidy up the affair, even at the cost of many overlooked suggestive facts, many unpursued leads. During the cold war, the stakes were judged too high to indulge in endless investigations that might undermine the already tense relations of the two hostile superpowers, ready and able to blow each other up in half an hour.
September 11 also presents a maddening disproportion between cause and effect. To be sure, the assault was not the act of an individual; yet at most a few score were directly involved. Behind them--if current speculation is correct--might be a few hundred potential co-conspirators; and behind them, perhaps, some thousands of active supporters. These forces present a dim, vague target. A direct, immediate response against them cannot possibly be "commensurate" with the horror--not only because they are few but because they are dispersed and hidden. That has left the Administration searching for larger targets, and it appears to believe it has found them in its determination to, in George W. Bush's words, "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." The deliberate erasure of the distinction between perpetrators and supporters obviously has opened the way to an attack on one or more states--targets that, whatever their level of responsibility, would indeed be commensurate in size with the horror. It was in pursuit of such a target, of course, that the United States in effect dispatched a team of Pakistanis to the Taliban government of Afghanistan to persuade it to yield up its "guest" Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of masterminding the attack.
The Taliban have indeed sheltered bin Laden, and an effort to end that support makes sense. However, a military strike against the Taliban or any other regime is full of perils that--hard as it is to imagine in the wake of the recent tragedy--are far greater than the dangers we already face. Civilian casualties, even in retaliation, stir indignation, as we now know so deeply. Anger is the best recruiter for violent causes, including radical Islam. There is a distinct danger of self-fulfilling prophecy. By striking indiscriminately we can create the "commensurate" antagonist that we now lack. The danger takes many forms. In the first place, moderate Muslims who now dislike US policy toward their countries but who also oppose terror may begin to support it. In the second place, by attacking radical regimes we may undermine other, conservative regimes. One is the repressive, monarchical regime of Saudi Arabia, possessor of the world's oil supplies. Another is Pakistan. Its leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is a military dictator with a tenuous grip on power. His most powerful opponents are not the democrats he overthrew in his military coup but Islamic militants, who honeycomb his army and could, if angered enough by the humiliation of his regime by demands from the United States, possibly overthrow it. Pakistan, of course,has been a nuclear power since May 1998. Will the United States,in its fury at a terrible attack that was, nevertheless, on the "conventional" scale, create a fresh nuclear danger to itself and the world?
It's rightly said that in the face of the attack, America must be strong. Its military strength is beyond doubt, but strength consists of more than firepower. The strength now needed is the discipline of restraint. Restraint does not mean inaction; it means patience, discrimination, action in concert with other nations, resolve over the long haul. We live, as we have since 1945, in an age of weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, chemical and biological. During the cold war there was one ladder of escalation that led to oblivion. Now there are many. Now as then, escalation is "unthinkable." It must be avoided at all cost.
The composition of the UN's Commission on Human Rights changes annually, since a third of the seats are up for grabs each year. Elections, which take place in the spring, determine which countries will be granted new three-year terms and which will cycle off come December 31. Ever since the body was founded in 1947, however, there have been three constant firmaments in this otherwise ever-changing galaxy. There have always been seats held by India, Russia and the United States. But this tradition will come to a halt next January 1: India's and Russia's representatives will still be there, but an American one will not.The United States was voted off the Commission on Human Rights this past spring. It also lost its place on the UN body that monitors the international drug trade.
Whenever there is a break from a long-standing pattern, it is tempting to focus on short-term causes. Critics of the new Administration are eager to see these two votes as a negative judgment on its unilateral approach to the arms race, cold war nostalgia and reversal of course on the Kyoto Protocols on global warming. Defenders of President George W. Bush, meanwhile, stress bad timing: The UN elections came while China was upset about the Administration's "tough" (though,to some hawks, not tough enough) handling of the spy-plane incident and while tensions in the Middle East were rising--something that presumably encouraged Arab states to join Beijing in voting against the United States.
However, one thing that the books under review make clear, each in its own way, is the need to place the issue in a long-term perspective. For example, Oxford-based diplomatic historian Rosemary Foot reminds us in Rights Beyond Borders that tensions between China and the United States were playing themselves out in Geneva, where the Commission on Human Rights meets, long before the term EP-3 became known to the American public. Moreover, as Robert Drinan (a Jesuit priest and former Democratic Congressman) and Noam Chomsky show in The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States , respectively, too much can be made of the novelties of the new Bush Administration's policies.
Before going any further, let me stress that I do not mean to suggest that Drinan, much less Chomsky, is a fan of George II's approach to international affairs. Even though The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States were completed before George W. began exerting influence in foreign policy, after all, there is plenty of criticism in both of an Administration that contained some of the same key players and was motivated by the same guiding principles as this one: his father's. For example, Drinan laments that during the "twelve years of the Reagan-Bush administrations," the United States was not "aggressively proactive" in the "defense of human rights." Chomsky is blunter: It is odd, he claims, that though Reagan and Bush liked to think of themselves as "guardians of global order," both had "unusually warm relations" with dictators, including some, such as Saddam Hussein, they would eventually come to call "mass murderers."
In other words, tempting as it might have been for Drinan and Chomsky to place the blame for the commission votes at the feet of the new President, neither would do so if given the opportunity, nor would they even say that only Republican administrations have been at fault. Why? Because both see enduring flaws in Washington's approach to human rights, flaws that transcend the Democrat-Republican divide. Drinan, not surprisingly, has more positive things to say about some Democratic leaders of the past than does Chomsky. Drinan praises Jimmy Carter, for example, for delivering speeches on freedom that "gave hope and inspiration to countless dissidents" and helped "the idea of human rights to enter the political and moral coinage of the nation and to some extent of the world." Nevertheless, Drinan, like Chomsky, argues that for decades there has been too little consistency and too much hubris in the American handling of human rights no matter who has occupied the Oval Office.
The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States are, of course, very dissimilar books, as anyone familiar with the careers of the authors would expect. They differ in style: The former is more personal, the latter more extensively documented. They differ in emphasis: Drinan has more to say about religious freedom. And they differ in terminology: Only Chomsky says that the label "rogue state" can be logically applied to the United States as well as countries such as Iraq. Chomsky's basis for this provocative claim is that, in its "literal" as opposed to merely "propagandistic" sense, the term "rogue state" refers to those that feel free to override the directives of international bodies and "do not regard themselves as bound by international norms." By this standard, the Reagan Administration behaved like a "rogue state" regime when it denied the validity of a world court decision favoring Nicaragua, and the Clinton Administration did the same when it claimed NATO was free to act independently of the UN in Kosovo. Chomsky cites other past instances of military intervention in Southeast Asia and the Middle East as further evidence of a US tendency to take unilateral action that has far too often run amok. Drinan, though also critical of unilateralism, stops far short of calling the United States a "rogue state."
Still, when it comes to US Human Rights policies, there are important points of convergence between the two authors beyond a shared conviction that both Democratic and Republican administrations have erred. And they differ in emphasis: Chomsky says much more about military intervention, less about religious freedom.
For example, neither Drinan nor Chomsky accepts the notion all too commonly taken for granted here (though not in Europe, let alone China) that Washington's vision of human rights has always been that articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Each stresses, on the contrary, that Washington frequently shows disdain for two central tenets of that great UN document. First, that social and economic freedoms, on the one hand, and political and civil rights, on the other, should be accorded similar status. Second, that the Universal Declaration represents many different rights traditions, hence no single nation has a special claim as its main progenitor. Washington has flouted these ideas by signing covenants dealing with political and civil rights but refusing to do the same for ones dealing with social and economic freedoms, and by treating the Universal Declaration as just an updated version of our Bill of Rights.
To appreciate fully these criticisms by Drinan and Chomsky, it is useful to supplement their discussions of UN documents with those of Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School. I am thinking here of her elegant new study, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and of her pathbreaking 1998 Notre Dame Law Review essay on the subject, which Chomsky draws on in Rogue States. Glendon stresses that the first incarnation of the Commission on Human Rights, which was responsible for creating the Universal Declaration, was a cosmopolitan group, the members of which were influenced by and spoke for diverse traditions. On the commission were not just an American social reformer and former First Lady but also a Confucian intellectual, a French legal scholar and a Lebanese philosopher. On it also sat Mehta Hansa, the female delegate from India who convinced the group to avoid gendered language and refer to the rights that "all human beings," not just "all men," deserve.
Glendon stresses that the UN's 1948 document champions a holistic vision of human rights that owes much to the precedents set by the declarations of 1776 and 1789 but is not reflective only of Anglo-American and French traditions. She also emphasizes the concerted effort Eleanor Roosevelt and others made to insure that protection of "second generation" rights (for example, to shelter and decent working conditions) was considered a central feature of their document.
Drinan and Chomsky both find much to admire in the Universal Declaration's holistic approach to rights, something taken still further in the Vienna Declaration of 1993, which emerged from a conference the former attended as a delegate. To be sure, Drinan's optimism and Chomsky's pessimism concerning contemporary political conditions colors their comments on the Universal Declaration. Drinan calls it "the most important legal document in the history of the world" and celebrates the fact that the ideals proclaimed in it and in other UN documents have given rise to an "astonishing dream." Despite the horrors of the past half-century, he writes, "the progress and advancement in the area of human rights since 1945 has actually been more spectacular than might have been expected or even imagined." Chomsky strikes a more somber tone in a pair of essays, reprinted in Rogue States , that were written to mark the Universal Declaration's fiftieth anniversary. For example, he begins one by saying that so many people continue to suffer unjustly that admirers of the document should think of the famous Confucian adage that described the Master as the sort of virtuous person "who keeps trying although he knows that it is in vain."
There is no disagreement between these two authors, however, when it comes to the importance of the Universal Declaration's refusal to relegate social and economic rights to a secondary status. Both insist, like Glendon, that the United States has failed to live up to the spirit of 1948 by unduly privileging, in its practice and rhetoric, those political and civil rights that loom particularly large in the American tradition. Drinan and Chomsky also take issue with US resistance to the idea, which many in other countries argue is a direct extension of the logic of the Universal Declaration, that the "right to development" is fundamental. Each might also have stressed,as Glendon does, that downplaying material concerns marks a divergence from the ideals propounded by the husband of the best-known drafter of the Universal Declaration: Freedom from want was one the "Four Freedoms" Franklin Roosevelt described in a famous speech.
A different sort of American inconsistency also worries Drinan and Chomsky: Washington's tendency to use different criteria when judging the records of allies as opposed to enemies or competitors. Chomsky is at his best when elaborating on this theme, detailing the many abuses that have been committed by countries supported by or working with the United States to which US political leaders turned a blind eye. Always on the lookout for diplomatic double standards, he finds much grist for his mill here, particularly where Latin America is concerned. He continually contrasts criticisms leveled at Castro with things left unsaid about nearby right-wing authoritarian regimes.
Drinan uses Latin American examples to similar effect. A central theme, for instance, in his discussion of the Fraser Bill is that this admirable piece of mid-1970s legislation, which called for human rights concerns to be made more central to American foreign policy decisions, was inspired by anger over the 1973 coup in Chile. According to Drinan, hearings on the US role in the fall of Allende and rise of Pinochet led members of Congress to feel "embarrassed that the United States in its struggle to stop Soviet aggression ended up arming dictators because they were enemies of our enemy."
These Latin American contrasts work well, but East Asian ones could have done the same rhetorical job. Take, for example, the very different US responses to the Kwangju massacre of 1980 and the Beijing massacre of 1989, events that had much in common. Whether Washington responded vigorously enough to the latter is an open question, though my own feeling remains that the decision to send informal envoys to China within a few months of the June 4killings undermined the efficacy of the first Bush Administration's 1989 censure of Beijing. What is unquestionable is that more was done to show displeasure with the Chinese Communist Party leadership than had been done nine years earlier vis-à-vis South Korea's right-wing authoritarian government.
The contrast relating to the Olympics is particularly stark. In the early 1990s some American politicians insisted that the honor of hosting the 2000 Games should not go to any country that did not hold free elections or had leaders whose hands were stained by the blood of a massacre. Whatever the merits of this argument--a variation of which was heard again in recent months in debates over China's successful bid to host the 2008 Games--it is worth noting that every part of it would have applied to South Korea in the early 1980s. Yet no senator or representative seems to have been troubled then by the idea that Seoul was being considered to host the 1988 Games. In this kind of contrasting response to similar acts of brutality and the assumption that Washington should determine where the Olympic Games are held, even though an international body makes the call, we get a sense of why the recent UN votes went as they did. It is definitely true, as some commentators have noted, that many countries that are much less free than this one will have seats on the Commission on Human Rights next year. At voting time, however, a country's domestic record may matter a good deal less than patterns associated with its handling of international issues.
After reading either The Mobilization of Shame or Rogue States, it becomes abundantly clear that pride certainly went before this particular fall, as did sharp divergences between rhetoric and practice. And the United States has other Achilles' heels as well where human rights are concerned. For example, with China, we are among a dwindling number of countries that conduct executions, something many people in Europe and elsewhere consider a human rights abuse. And even though a central part of human rights ideology is that all lives are of equal value, we often seem disproportionately concerned with the plight of those victims abroad with whom we can most easily identify. Hence the frequent misremembering of the Beijing massacre as an event in which those who died were students lobbying for democracy and carrying banners emblazoned with GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH and similar slogans. In fact, the majority of those killed were workers who had turned out to support the students, largely because of a shared disgust at official corruption.
Should we then see the latest vote for the Commission on Human Rights as a long-overdue wake-up call for a country with a distorted national self-image as a global champion of human rights and clearsighted interpreter of the Universal Declaration? There is something to be said for this notion. And yet, as Rights Beyond Borders shows, there is at least one good reason to lament the loss of a US presence on the commission: While Foot is no apologist for Washington, she does draw attention to the positive things that have come from US efforts in Geneva and elsewhere to bring pressure to bear on Beijing over its record of human rights abuses.
Foot's main interest, unlike Drinan's and Chomsky's, is not the United States, I should stress, but China; so policies and rhetoric emanating from Washington become relevant to her only through the way they are understood in or affect Beijing. Still, in her discussion of China, Chinese-American disputes relating to human rights loom large. Her overall argument, though made with considerable subtlety, can be summarized as follows. Even though the Chinese Communist Party continues to perpetrate many abuses, positive developments have taken place in recent years that, when taken together, mean that many citizens of China now live more freely than they formerly did. Helping these changes along has been Beijing's increasing "enmeshment" in an international human rights regime. And US criticism has facilitated this enmeshment.
Foot sees in China a nearly perfect test case for the proposition that acceptance of international norms really does matter. Few people outside the Chinese Communist Party's inner circle would dispute the claim that serious human rights abuses continue to occur in China. It is also, however, clearly a country that has undergone a dramatic transformation of late where the discourse of human rights is concerned. Twenty-five years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the official line was still that this was a bourgeois document designed to cloak the predations of capitalists and imperialists. To speak positively of renquan (human rights) was to risk being dubbed a lackey or a traitor. By 1998, however, the Universal Declaration's fiftieth anniversary was treated in Beijing as a moment for celebration and reflection on the state of an international human rights project of which China considered itself a part. Foot argues that this discursive shift matters. It helped improve some lives and, perhaps more significant in the long run, was accompanied by institutional developments.
One thing she finds promising is that Beijing has shifted from denouncing the Commission on Human Rights to seeking a vigorous voice within it. This is a clear indication that Beijing "has moved--or been shoved--along a winding and bumpy path" toward full integration into a global human rights regime. The diffusion of "human rights norms is neither linear, nor incapable of being periodically halted," she admits, but when "viewed over the longer term, and despite the recent political chill in China, global criticism of China's human rights record" has had positive effects. For example, an "infrastructure that can help to protect human rights has begun to be built, and it stands ready to be drawn upon in the advent of progressive political reform."
American pressure on China has played a role in the growth of this "infrastructure," according to Foot, and has sometimes led as well to specific positive moves, such as the release from prison of prominent dissidents and the signing of UN accords. Once Beijing accepted international human rights standards--even with caveats regarding China's supposedly special status as a less developed country that subscribes to "Asian values"--the ground began to shift beneath the Chinese Communist Party's feet. The government has been forced to develop more sophisticated excuses for its failures, train more specialists in fields like international law, translate more Western works on human rights into Chinese, and so forth. This, at least, is Foot's argument, and she makes it very well. The United States cannot take all the credit for these changes, but Washington's role in doing such things as sponsoring motions in Geneva calling for censure of Beijing has been significant. This is true even though such motions have always been defeated in the end, and even though one result of China's "enmeshment" has been that Chinese counterattacks on the United States as a land of inequality and racial injustice have become much more sophisticated.
Foot's study, though it makes important points and manages to be both scholarly and readable, is marred by one thing: It focuses almost exclusively upon political and civil rights. This choice is understandable. When the global community has criticized Beijing, the tendency has been to emphasize issues like the limits placed on speech, political dissent and religious behavior. Nevertheless, paying more attention to social and economic rights would have made Foot's book even better in two significant ways. It would have put it more in sync with the spirit of 1948, and it would have helped us come to terms with a major new issue: namely, more than two decades into Beijing's Reform Era, during which the government has been slow to replace old social welfare mechanisms with new ones, some of the biggest human rights problems concern social and economic freedoms.
All this suggests that the human rights challenge brought into focus by the recent UN vote is a multifaceted one. In the United States there is a need to find ways to criticize Beijing (and other governments with abhorrent human rights records) that are less hypocritical, patronizing and self-serving. Doing this may even help us regain representation at the Commission on Human Rights. Meanwhile, other countries must pick up the slack in insuring that China continues to be pushed along the "bumpy" road leading to full enmeshment. And Americans concerned with Chinese affairs might do well to follow the lead of NGOs like Human Rights Watch and start paying more attention to social and economic issues. We would do well to combine pleas for the release of persecuted dissidents and Falun Gong members with expressions of outrage over the mistreatment of other vulnerable groups. The most notable of these, perhaps, are the many migrant workers who have poured into Chinese cities only to find themselves in the ironic predicament of being exploited and treated like second-class citizens in a land where the proletariat was supposed to reign supreme.
Woods Hole, Mass.
Katha Pollitt is my favorite Nation columnist, but guess what, Katha, you've got my objections to cloning embryo stem cells all wrong ["Subject to Debate," July 23/30].
Maybe now that it's public knowledge that researchers have been buying women's eggs so they can make human embryos for research, you may be getting the point. But if not, let me explain. Human eggs don't grow on trees. They are embedded deep inside women's bodies; not easy to get at, like sperm. To collect more than one at a time means you first have to give women hormones to shut their ovaries down. You then have to hyperstimulate their ovaries with hormones of another sort so that many more than the customary single monthly follicle and its egg mature. At the right time, you then puncture each follicle and suck out its egg. Sound good for women? Steptoe and Edwards, the scientific "fathers" of Louise Brown, didn't give her mother hormones because they feared it wasn't safe. They waited patiently for a follicle to mature and then collected the egg that eventually became Louise. But the fertility industry doesn't have time for such niceties. Now it's hormones and mass production.
The concerns Pollitt imputes to me are not what worries me. I worry about what this new "need" for human embryos will do to women. And do you know what? We may never know the answer, because in countries with proper healthcare systems where proper health records are kept, people are not permitted to buy and sell body parts. "The enemy isn't the research," Pollitt writes, "it's capitalism." Wrong again: The enemy is research under capitalism.
Professor emeritus of biology Harvard University
Board member, Council for Responsible Genetics (www.gene-watch.org)
It's unfortunate that the usually perceptive Katha Pollitt completely misses the point about human cloning in her column on this subject. Kids produced by in vitro fertilization are one thing: They are made from the standard starting materials--an egg and a sperm. The donor of either may request anonymity, but the resulting infant is guaranteed to be a full-fledged member of the human species, biologically speaking (as well as socially and legally, although these connections are rapidly being eroded in the current environment--see Lori Andrews, The Clone Age, Henry Holt, 1999).
A clone is quite a different animal, however. It is constructed of parts of cells (an egg missing its nucleus; the nucleus of an adult cell) that never meet in the course of reproduction. Evolution has never had to deal with, and arrive at correctives for, the errors introduced into the developmental process resulting from this atypical combination of cell parts. No wonder virtually all attempts at animal cloning have led to fetal deaths, multiple birth defects or severe health problems later in the lives of even the most sound-looking clones. This is not a set of problems that can be worked out in mice before confidently being attempted in humans; it is probably too complex to be fully controlled, and in any case, each species presents unique complications.
A Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technologies, has announced that it is now producing clonal human embryos as a first step in producing donor-matched therapeutic stem cells. And now biotechnology industry representatives have begun to make common cause with some of their anti-choice beneficiaries in Congress in trying to define such embryos as "not true human embryos" in order to thwart laws against their production and manipulation. Indeed, if Pollitt's blasé attitude toward the production of full-term human clones becomes prevalent, we can look forward to the day when the not-quite-natural, not-quite-artificial products of human cloning experiments (disconnected, as they would be, from any social network other than that defined by ownership rights) are also redefined as "not true humans." This would open the way to their finding use as sources of transplantable organs,experimental laboratory models or perhaps, for the most presentable examples, wounded hero status in the march of reproductive technology. Would Pollitt flip off concerns about "threats to 'human individuality and dignity'" in this not very distant brave new world?
STUART A. NEWMAN
Professor of cell biology,
New York Medical College
Board member, Council for Responsible Genetics (www.gene-watch.org)
On the question of human cloning, Katha Pollitt's usually reliable political insight has failed her. She dismisses the pro-choice statement calling for bans on human cloning--signed to date by more than a hundred women's health and reproductive rights leaders--on the grounds that the pending Congressional bills to prohibit cloning are the "brainchildren of anti-choice Republican yahoos."
But that's precisely the point: Human cloning and genetic manipulation are feminist-liberal-progressive-radical issues. We leave them to the anti-choice crowd at our considerable peril.
The recent deluge of news about stem cells has generated a great deal of confusion about cloning. Two clarifications are key: First, opposition to cloning can and does co-exist with support for research on embryonic stem cells, using embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures. Stem cell research and embryo cloning intersect, but they are technically distinguishable--and vastly different politically.
Second, looking at human cloning through the lens of abortion politics blurs and distorts its meaning. The prospect of cloned or genetically "enhanced" children is ominous because it could so easily trigger an unprecedented kind of eugenics, one implemented not by state coercion but by upscale marketing campaigns for designer babies.
Pollitt thinks this scenario unlikely. I invite her to reconsider. The marginal figures she mentions--the Raelians and the cowboy fertility doctor Panos Zavos--are not the only champions of human cloning, and they are far from the most dangerous.
Already biotech companies are jockeying for patents on procedures to clone and manipulate human embryos. And for several years now, a disturbing number of influential scientists, biotech entrepreneurs, bioethicists and others have been actively promoting human cloning and genetic redesign. Some are open about their ambition to set humanity on a eugenic path and to "seize control of human evolution."
One example among many is Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver. In multiple appearances on national television and in the newsweeklies, Silver has plugged the "inevitable" emergence of a genetic caste system in which the "GenRich" rule and the "Naturals" work as "low-paid service providers." Like others of his persuasion, he seems quite ready to abandon any pretense of commitment to equality--or even to a common humanity.
Pollitt is right to caution against accepting wildly overblown claims about the power of genes to determine everything from sexual orientation to homelessness. But it would be foolish to overlook the rapidly expanding powers of genetic manipulation, or to dismiss the possibility that the advocates of a "posthuman" future will achieve enough mastery over the human genome to wreak enormous damage--biologically, culturally and politically.
Free-market eugenics is not science fiction or far off. It is an active political agenda that must be urgently opposed.
Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies
New York City
"It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's...Superclone?"--my column on cloning--was probably the most unpopular "Subject to Debate" ever. Clearly this is a vexed subject, with many aspects, some of which are noted in the letters above.
The hormone-stimulated ripening and extraction of eggs, which Ruth Hubbard vividly describes, are, as she notes, the basis of much assisted reproduction, including now-routine procedures like in vitro fertilization with one's own eggs. Indeed, many college newspapers advertise for egg donors, and many students are willing to go through the extraction process and to take on its risks in return for substantial fees. Cloning would expand this market--how much, we don't know--but the market already flourishes.
While I, too, am troubled by so many women undergoing procedures whose long-term safety is still unknown--I mentioned this in my column as a fair objection to cloning--the fact is that every day all sorts of people take risks for money, or knowledge, or pleasure, or survival. What makes eggs so sacred? And would Hubbard approve of cloning embryos if the eggs were obtained in the "patient," old-fashioned way?
Stuart Newman and Marcy Darnovsky raise "brave new world" scenarios that to me do indeed sound farfetched and wild, and not even all bad--why would it be bad to "design" healthy babies, cloned or not? In any case, cloning seems like an odd place to begin worrying about a society divided into classes destined from birth for different levels of health, wealth and personal development: We live in that society now!