What Dreams Were Made Of

The solid foundation of basic human rights goes beyond mere legal enactments. Human rights come from within, not from without; they are from nature and natural law, not from the state.
by Stephen Dardis, LC | Source:
“I have a dream!” Martin Luther King’s glorious words of 1963 marked a momentous victory in the fight for human rights. The question remains, though: has that battle won the war? Have the last 45 years in fact revealed that dream to be more than just a dream? Or did Dr. King’s words hit home only because of his times—and not because of the fundamental truths he invoked? His memorial invites all men to appreciate that victory anew, and—particularly in a culture which appeals more often to tolerance than to truth—to recall two lessons that were then so painfully learned.

First of all, the valiant men and women who opposed these brutalities based their position solidly upon the legitimate authority of truth: the truth of the shared human dignity of all persons. The Civil War finally saw the end of slavery and its horrors, at the high cost of over 600,000 lives. The 1920’s witnessed a further stride in the ongoing struggle, when America at long last recognized the equal rights of women and men. Meanwhile in Europe, the Nazi’s vicious oppression of the Jews met with worldwide denunciation, not because Western culture suddenly experienced a sentimental fancy for the underdog, but because such abuse represented a true crime against humanity—all humanity. On the heels of these and other battles, Dr. King’s voice once more heralded this fundamental truth of human rights: their foundation rests neither upon race, sex, or creed—nor simply from government resolutions—but upon the shared humanity of every person. “All men are created equal.”

None of these voices spoke from personal opinion or sentiment, nor—at first—from majority consensus. Nor did they speak solely from their cultural or religious beliefs. Catholic fought alongside Protestant, Jew, Agnostic and Atheist, and nation fought alongside nation in defense of a universal truth—as true then as it remains today. The historical advance of human rights, contrary to today’s proponents of a cultural relativism, has not occurred through a series of equally unfounded ideological shifts in politics. It was progress insofar as it was a progressive awareness and respect for the true dignity of humanity and of each human person. Basic human rights go beyond mere legal enactments: they find their only solid foundation and defense upon this universal truth. They come from within, not from without; they are from nature and natural law, not the state.

Those who deny such a foundation—preferring the written constitution as the sole authority for legal rights—can’t see the forest through the trees. If rights arise solely from the laws of the current ruling power or the majority, and if moral principles are merely a “private thing” (both ideas popular today), then their violation becomes nothing of the kind unless recognized as such by that majority. There is no real justice or injustice. Let the “victims” therefore be silent; their appeal no longer goes beyond the will of that majority—and the slaves were not in that number. In fact, America’s leaders had tolerated such horrors so long as other factors—economic interest, the Southern states’ “freedom of choice”, or even Supreme Court precedents like the Dred Scott decision—held this fundamental truth in check. If majority rule decides what is right and who has rights (a question especially relevant for contemporary democracy), then Hitler was justified, and Lincoln was a fool—and MLK’s beautiful dream is nothing more than rhetoric or, worse, an imposition of his own Christian dogma.

We of the 21st century in particular have to learn this unpopular lesson of the past centuries: liberty is not absolute. Before the authority of truth, freedom discovers not only its legitimate boundary, but, more importantly, its greatest defense. The fight for human rights stands or falls upon a true equality of all human persons.

The second lesson regards a powerful weapon which either helps or hinders this fight: the so-called “power of the press”. Language can either reveal reality, or conceal it. With a little help from selective media bias (such as favored the plantation owners in the 1800’s and the Nazi ideology in the 1900’s), the opinion became commonplace that, for whatever reason, the “negro”—like the Jew in Germany—was an inferior being. The term itself made it easier to overlook what was beneath the color, which in turn facilitated the discrimination. “Negro” or “nigger” conjured up a significant difference between “the negro” and “the white man”. But that’s just clever wordplay. There’s no such thing as a “negro”. Rather, there are human beings whose skin is black. The term must not blind us to the reality. Yet, manipulated, language can and did halt the advance of freedom, and the brutalities went on.

That said, what about today’s attitude towards the so-called human “fetus”? First of all, if human rights come from our humanity and voters are consistent, then the question of these rights should be settled in favor of that child. Otherwise, let’s rewind the tape of history to ask pardon for the injustices committed against Southern states’ freedom of choice, or against Hitler’s government-approved cruelty towards the Jewish people. Basic human rights are due to all men and women, of all backgrounds, and of all ages, because they are human.

Secondly, let’s get beyond language games. For example, in high school biology, students commonly dissect “fetal pigs.” No one, not even the animal rights’ activist, argues whether that fetus is really a “pig” or just a “fetus” (whatever that is). That’s clever language manipulation doing its work all over again, letting voters, politicians, and judges plead “uncertainty” about exactly what (or who) is in a human mother’s womb. There is no “fetus,” but a “fetal” something—and it’s not exactly a pig. Language either reveals reality, or conceals it.

Despite the inconsistency, today’s media and politics often hide behind three pretexts. First, voters should not “impose” their personal beliefs on others—namely, the woman. But were Northerners imposing their beliefs upon this Southern lifestyle, or weren’t their motives a little more grounded? Secondly, it’s said that no one can know for certain whether a “fetus” is human. Here, medical technology itself helps enlighten what the words eclipse: abortionists now count on special vacuums to help extract the victim, dismembering arms, legs, and head from a visibly human body. Lastly, we are told that this barbaric procedure is the legal right of the mother, since she is the legal owner of that “property.” How can one respond here, besides thanking God, perhaps, for rendering such “tolerant” voices a minority during the 1860’s!

Dr. King’s vision was not merely a dream! The most disquieting portrait is an American—white or black, male or female, Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Atheist—claiming that human rights can be legislated by majority rule. American politicians need to remember what it meant to be consistent—not just with their religious convictions (this might be a point in favor of their sincerity), but at least with the fundamental truth of human rights. Voters of the 21st century would do well to learn from history the monstrous consequences of side-stepping such a truth. To waver on this issue at the polls is to cast to the winds a centuries-long struggle for human rights. All men and women share equal rights because of their shared humanity, and on this foundation alone do those rights endure. How long and hard is the fight to make this truth heard! Shall it remain stifled beneath popular propaganda and ideological pretexts? What remains before freedom can finally ring—for all, persons? Let us hope that America of 2008 still remembers what such dreams were made of.

Brother Stephen Dardis, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.

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