The Mislaid Rights of Man: How We Forfeit Our Own Rights—and Those of Others

A not inconsiderable flaw of modern Western civilization is that it has never fully absorbed Article IV of France’s 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen, that we all have the same natural rights, and that our rights end where others’ begin. Too often we neither acknowledge nor observe these rights, even though they are a cornerstone of democratic life, insofar as they are “inalienable” and can’t be written out of existence by legislation. The “imprescriptible” nature of these rights is meant as a warranty against their wanton excision from any people’s charter.

These lofty sentiments seem neither to bother nor frequently occur to the ruling classes of Western society, unless they are called upon to defend them, which they can then do with great aplomb, before allowing them to sink back into oblivion. As a result of this cavalier attitude, whether or not your rights are respected tends to depend on your class or race.

Domestically, the rentier and working classes are separated not only by an economic abyss, but also by a vast gulf in political power determined by where one sits in relation to the rift. Should you find yourself amid a congeries of indigent, voiceless and largely low-wage citizenry, you have no political power, according to a definitive study by Princeton University. If you have been luckily deposited on the far side of the gulf, inhabited by an odd confection of snuffling executives and smarmy politicians, you have all the political power in the world.

Abroad, the disparity in rights is equally apparent. If you live within the confines of empire, you may be subjected to rare acts of terror, brutal but fortunately infrequent. If you live outside the walls of imperial lands, you will most certainly be subjected to a hail of bombs, economic sanctions, crippling debt, and patent restrictions on larger and larger segments of the chain of your existence, including the genetic construction and effects of seeds you plant, medicines you take, and land you till.

Nobody making any money in this country is much bothered by any of this. For those of us who profit handsomely from the capitalist system, why change it? Even as the casualties of capital accumulation stack up, here and overseas. Of course, in order to stall our aggravated consciences, we must occasionally wave our fingers angrily at the system on behalf of the have-nots. Or, in some cases, shake our heads wearily. For an instance of the latter, Paul Krugman delivers a soporific review of Robert Reich’s book Saving Capitalism. It takes Krugman 22 paragraphs to come to the possibility that inequality has something to do with politics. It evidently took Reich two massive economic treatises to come to the same conclusion. In the end, both princelings of mainstream liberalism offer up a raft of well-intentioned reforms. It’s a little like Thomas Pikkety spending 700 pages explaining that capitalism produces inequality, then suggesting a modest financial speculation tax as a remedy. These prescriptions have all the spent force of distinguished intellectuals too long cosseted in the bosom of respectability. They are enervated by that terrible ague—the infirmity of incrementalism.

The Many Uses of the Dead

But that is just it. Given the fairly undisputable reality that we live in a plutocracy, we are yet treated to the common spectacle of “liberal Democrats” celebrating a dead institution. They stump for the next righter-of-wrongs to fall off the DNC assembly line, namely Hillary Clinton, a reactionary neoconservative whose idea of democracy is to put a rich white woman in the Oval Office. Many fall for this ruse as proof of our still-pulsing republic. But this is the matador of elitism waving a red cape before the disoriented bull of populism. The cape is cultural diversity. By conceding various forms of social advancement here and there, Democrats maintain the illusion of democracy. But there’s no real democracy without economic democracy, and that issue has been “off the table” for decades.

And so back to the grisly metaphor: liberals are worshiping a corpse. They refuse to look at the rigor mortis that has set in. They hold their noses. They shroud the desiccated body of the demos in token reforms, spritz it with a few perfumed platitudes, and call it forth from the crypt. When it fails to appear, they call fresh elections, offering up a new charlatan with the same sham pearls. Perhaps the reforms ameliorate a few injustices. Yet as Irish crime writer Ken Bruen once put it, “It may be progress, but it’s not an improvement.” But this isn’t so odd. The Catholic Church has profited off the body of Christ for centuries, controlling the behaviors of millions with the threat of a perdition Jesus never promised. As the double agent Mathis told an amused James Bond in Casino Royale—as he was stuffing dead bodies into the trunk of a car to frame a rival—“Just because one is dead doesn’t mean one can’t still be helpful.”

In fact, the role of the liberal class is to “sheepdog” for the right-wing Democratic leadership, guardians of the grave. This is Bruce Dixon’s excellent analogy for faux socialist Bernie Sanders, who loves to parade the symptoms of our decline (poverty, joblessness, etc.) but won’t dare look at the disease itself (militarism). Left author Paul Street notes how Democrats have defused popular rage over and over again throughout American history:

“It is the Democrats’ job to police and define the leftmost parameters of acceptable political debate. For the last century it has been the Democrats’ assignment to play “the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially left, P.S.] segments of the ­electorate” by posing as “the party of the people.”

The Democrats performed this critical system-preserving function in relation to the agrarian populist insurgency of the 1890s, the working-class rebellion of the 1930s and 1940s, and the antiwar, civil rights, anti-poverty, ecology, and feminist movements during and since the 1960s and early 1970s—including the gay rights movement today.”

The Democrats are yesterday’s moderate Republicans, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out (ignored by the free press). Bill Clinton endorsed “entrepreneurial government.” Barack Obama dubs himself “a free-market guy.” These are euphemisms for the prioritization of capital over people. Elites speak in code, lexicons of half-truth that neatly resemble the inverted vocabularies of George Orwell’s best books. The elites—those who assemble at the G7 and the Bilderberg Group meetings and other such rarefied summits—know what they are doing. In their capacity to say one thing and do another, they seem to be practicing a form of what Scott Fitzgerald called, “negative capability,” the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in mind without coming down in favor of either. A disingenuous form of negative capability, to be sure, since their actions belie their words and indicate they’ve come down in favor of inequality, war, elitism, creature comforts, numerical wealth and status. But the appearance of contradiction can be confusing for plenty of voters. In the end, the milquetoast compromising sophist is adjudged to be a judicious compromiser who knows how to “gets things done” in D.C. This is the misperception that Hillary is banking on (as are her bankers).

Consequences of the Unpeace

Perhaps this is the society we deserve. Atomized, alienated, a shackle of corporate servitude on one ankle, the clank of debt peonage on the other. But because we live at the heart of empire, what we sanction for ourselves we sanction for other populations. If we allow a totalitarian jester like Donald Trump or a hawk like Hillary into office, we then permit the gruesome realization of their dangerous policy prescriptions, many of which would be brought to life over the horizon and out of sight. Patrick Howlett-Martin, in his excellent CounterPunch piece, “The Paris Attacks: A Chronicle Foretold,” names the consequences of these prescriptions about as well as can be done:

“The extreme violence by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) may seem less incomprehensible if we put it in the context of some hard, revealing data: an estimated 600,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed following the invasion and occupation of Iraq; 500,000 children died between 1991 and 1998 as a result of sanctions imposed against the regime of Saddam Hussein. In Afghanistan since 2003 more than 250 000 civilians have been killed. More than 130,000 people disabled, mainly because of landmines, including 40,000 amputees among the civilian population according to Afghan governmental sources, and these figures are considered to be significantly underestimated According to the United Nations, the number of Afghan children and Afghan women killed in the first half of 2015 increased by 13% and 23%, respectively, with respect to the same period in 2014. There are an estimated 5 million orphans in Iraq; 2 million in Afghanistan where 20% of the children will not live to see their fifth birthday according to a report by the World Bank. On April 30, 2015, in the Syrian village of Bir Mahli in the Aleppo Governorate, on the east bank of the Euphrates – a village I found peaceful and hospitable in 1972 when I participated in an archaeological dig at the Citadel of Aleppo – more than 50 civilians were killed by “coalition” bombs, including 31 children and 19 women. The NGOs Airwars and McClatchy have challenged the Pentagon about these blunders. And we must also add the deaths of 18 civilians in Harem on November 5 and 50 in Al-Bab on December 28, 2014; of 70 civilians in Hawija on June 2, 13 in Kafr Hind on July 28, and 11 in Atmeh on August 11, 2015. With 2,449 air attacks in Syria between September 2014 and August 20, 2015, the only civilian deaths publicly acknowledged by the Pentagon (Centcom) on May 21, 2015 were those of two 5-year-old girls. France didn´t even care to communicate on this issue.”

Isn’t this racism deployed as a pretext for rapacity? A violent acquisitive monomania wrought by a profits system beholden to a single value: money. All backed by an ideology of conquest built on a foundation of exceptionalism. What did the radical black author W.E.B. Du Bois once write?

“It is curious to see America, the United States, looking on herself, first, as a sort of natural peacemaker, then as a moral protagonist in this terrible time. No nation is less fitted for this role. For two or more centuries America has marched proudly in the van of human hatred,—making bonfires of human flesh and laughing at them hideously, and making the insulting of millions more than a matter of dislike,—rather a great religion, a world-war cry: Up white, down black; to your tents, O white folk, and world war with black and parti-colored mongrel beasts.”

That’s Du Bois, one of our greatest intellectuals. He might have penned that yesterday.

Blinded by the Right

But we are blind to Du Bois. Is it a willful blindness? Or is it rather the dirty work of a doctrinal system that pinions the average American in a warren of contradictory storylines? While the evidence of the eyes depicts a nation in decline, the prose of the pundits records a country on the rebound where every January we are told that “the state of the union is strong.” Severed from the ruddy, full-throated demos of our past, we are left with this ersatz republic, left to cadge a few crumbs from a peevish oligarchy. People around us shout the canted platitudes of patriotism. Smug philistines intellectually sated by their 140-character philosophies, fluid relativists taught by their government that any position can be rationalized, any policy given the stamp of legitimacy.

Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan conjure fresh fears. Families mourn while fleeing gunman are mowed down, granting bleak solace. In response, we fly French flags in solidarity with the fallen. Meaning what exactly? That we sympathize? Naturally we do. Who outside of ISIS-held Raqqa doesn’t? But why do we wave French flags steeped in Syrian blood? It was the French government, after all, that deposited tons of weapons in jihadist hands under the threadbare rationale that they were democratic freedom fighters, in support of the neoconservative project of refashioning the Middle East as subservient backwater, a resource depot with suction tubes running into European veins to fuel the well-lit dreams of Brussels bourgeoisie. In this vision, the Middle East is an outland of sectarian fiefdoms, inflamed by an infection of imperialism, a wasteland of emptied subterranean reservoirs and tapped-out oil rigs, a moonscape of blasted infrastructures and looted cultural patrimonies. Is it any wonder some of these terrorized Arabs and Persians become themselves radicalized and turn to terror to strike back? They strike at the durable project of capitalist imperialism, represented among others by Francois Hollande, and the planes that patrol the petrol in the name of freedom.

But things seem unlikely to change. In Paris, protests and rallies are outlawed. Climate activists are arrested. Abandoned boots and shoes are left where marches might once have passed. The riot police think nothing of it, ready to stamp out dissent or difference at the slightest provocation. The Guardian chipped in after the Paris attacks by disallowing comments that traced the attacks to Western imperialism, as keen-eyed journalist Jonathan Cook discovered in paragraph twelve of this elaborate rationale from the responsible editor. In America, the consumer calendar chugs cheerfully along, surveilled in great detail. Black Friday arrives. Vapid teens with their Colgate smiles, sense of entitlement, and sacks of glamour goods plop down in sofas and await their peppermint lattes. The President spares a turkey from the guillotine and issues his Thanksgiving blandishments. The cabinet secretaries rehearse their talking points: no criticism of Israeli brutality against Palestinians, soon to be conflated with ISIS; no mention of the budding Turkish sultanate at the edge of NATO; ceaseless reiteration of the fatuity of our 70,000 moderate rebels, wielding Kalashnikovs and dreams of caliphate; and more strident stumping for the total corporate sovereignty of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

While holiday playlists sooth the bedraggled consumer, beltway courtiers draft their caricatures of Vladimir Putin as a slavering imperialist, and of Bashar al-Assad as a nepotistic sociopath in need of banishment. Fortunately, our head-chopping, bomb-strapped moderate proxies are submerged in the fog of war, unfit subjects for portraiture. As the media cycle spins, the tranquilizer of press conference clichés and narcotic displays of solidarity lull us into a soft doze. Paris burns in the background. Baghdad burns. Tripoli, Beirut, and Aleppo burn. Nigeria, too, is on fire. But they merely add warmth to America’s distracted slumber. They look to us like a necklace of Christmas lights strewn across the East. Safer than most, we dream of forgotten rights and wave the flags of an imaginary égalité. But we don’t hear the cries from outside the fortress walls. Like snoozing courtiers on the eve of the French Revolution, we await the deluge. Unnoticed if foretold.

In The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine notes that there is, “a paradox in the idea of vitiated bodies reforming themselves.” We are such a body politic, desiccated by lies, war, and consumerism, our accounts drained and credit lines dried up. Our jobs are in China. Our wages are in the nearest TBTF stock dividend. Yet still we fall for the same tired theater—70 percent of us favor ground troops against ISIS. As Paine also wrote, some men are, “immured within the Bastille of a word.” Our word is terrorism and, like Communism before it, we will be imprisoned within in it until we wake to its true origin. So will everyone else.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at