Commentary Magazine


The State Department vs. America

As the diplomatic arm of the world’s greatest power, the U.S. Department of State has many, and widely varied, responsibilities. In 1992, the Bush administration added one more: by agreeing, after the country had held out for sixteen years, to sign the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it placed upon the State Department the responsibility for the preparation of an annual report on the condition of human rights in the U. S.

On September 28, 1994, the first such report, a closely printed document of 213 pages, was submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee. As might be expected, this report was undertaken under the supervision of the State Department office formerly known as Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and now, for some reason, called Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The major obligation of this office in the past was to submit to the Congress annual reports on human rights around the world, country by country. Now it is obligated to report to the world organization on its own country as well.

The format for reporting to the UN is carefully prescribed. It demands coverage of the country’s treatment of a whole range of rights and protections, from something as straightforward and simple as the right to a fair trial or the right to freedom of movement, to issues as multifaceted and controversial as the rights of women, the protection of the family, and the rights of minorities in the areas of culture, religion, and language.

In accordance with this prescription, the U.S. report, after a general introduction to the country’s demography, economy, and political institutions, consists mainly of a compendium of statutes, federal and state, as well as an account of case law dealing with what the UN defines as human-rights issues. It has clearly been an enormous, and enormously painstaking, job to produce this document; many man-hours in the State and Justice departments, along with other agencies, must have gone into it.

It would seem, however, that while Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck supervised the preparation of this report, in the end he himself was disappointed with the result. Or possibly he found the prescribed format too limiting to encompass his own view of the subject. In any event, in early September, he deemed it advisable to tack on to the body of the report a special introduction intended to add some further clarification about the state of human rights in the United States.

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Mr. Shattuck begins his introduction with a brief but heartfelt historical survey of human-rights law in general, whose antecedents, he tells us, stretch back “to natural-law traditions, the ethical teachings of the world’s great religions—both East and West—Greco-Roman law, and the pioneering philosophical work of Hugo Grotius and John Locke.” The concept of universal rights, developed in the 18th century, both “nourished international law” and “set the stage for American constitutionalism.” Then, the creation of the League of Nations following World War I provided a major articulation of international human-rights law. And finally after World War II the Allied powers undertook to inscribe Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms into international law, an effort whose capstone was the establishment of the UN and the adoption of its Charter, followed by its two major covenants of international human rights. “Human rights,” says Mr. Shattuck, “have come to be recognized as the universal birthright of every man, woman, and child on this planet.”

The commanding power of this faith in inalienable human dignity, he continues, resides in the fact that it is not anchored in any particular philosophical, religious, or ideological foundation. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, “achieved inclusiveness precisely because it did not lodge these timeless principles in any specific, and thus inevitably debatable and partial, political program.”

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Having thus provided a sketchy general background, the introduction gets down to the case at hand—the United States. While the American Constitution laid out a blueprint for the realization of the idea of civil and political rights, Mr. Shattuck is eager for us to understand that building the institutions to embody this blueprint has been a long, slow process involving many generations of citizens, “and the task continues to this day.” The main body of the report demonstrates that, in Shattuck’s own words, U.S. law “provides extensive protection against human-rights abuses by government authorities.”

Indeed, the broad conception of rights that has evolved in the course of American history has come to serve as the basis for much of international human-rights law, “and, ironically but fittingly, to set the standard by which the United States is judged by other members of the international community.” We must not, then, forget that “Over the course of its history, America has experienced egregious human-rights violations. . . .”

Primary among these violations, Mr. Shattuck reminds us, have been the “enslavement and disenfranchisement of African Americans and the virtual destruction of many Native American civilizations.” This history, too, he traces briefly, pointing out how the injustices to blacks persisted after their emancipation and how the heroic and dogged work of the civil-rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s helped to shape both the interpretation and the implementation of constitutional law. “Those efforts to undo the bitter legacy of slavery,” he concludes, “continue today.”

As for Native Americans, they

have suffered a fate similar to that of many indigenous civilizations: destruction and displacement of their cultures and societies. The lessons of those injustices . . . are also central legacies of American history.

Nor, in Mr. Shattuck’s view, are African and Native Americans the only minority groups to have suffered injustice in the United States. America is largely a nation of immigrants, he informs us; annual immigration to the U.S. even today surpasses 900,000; and both socially and economically, these new ethnic minorities often meet with discrimination. And we must also bear in mind the “ongoing struggle for full realization of the rights of women . . . a central feature of the human-rights process in America.”

Summing up these dark aspects of the American experience, Mr. Shattuck explains that since the U. S. tends to address its most difficult and divisive human-rights issues through the courts, there are now many areas in which new legal ground is being broken, such as “gender discrimination, the death penalty, abortion, police brutality, and language rights.”

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An interesting phenomenon, Mr. Shattuck’s little essay. But first, a textual problem: what does he mean when he writes that new legal ground is being broken in such areas as the death penalty, abortion, and language rights?

As to the death penalty, is he implying that it is a violation of human rights and should therefore be abolished? If so, what does this say about the President at whose pleasure he serves, and who is so fervent a supporter of capital punishment that as governor of Arkansas he refused against much pressure to stop the execution of a retarded man? Is Bill Clinton to be condemned for a crime against human rights? And how can the President sign a document taking such a position on capital punishment?

As for abortion, does Mr. Shattuck regard it as a human right? If so, what new legal ground remains to be broken? To make it available on demand, and at government expense, under any and all circumstances?

Most puzzling of all is Mr. Shattuck’s mention of “language rights.” With bilingual education already rampant in the U.S., what new ground does Mr. Shattuck want broken here? To ensure that every ethnic group in America is educated, and also helped by government to carry on a good deal of life’s business, in the language of its country of origin?

Another practical question one feels impelled to ask Mr. Shattuck about his introduction is to whom it is addressed. At one point he indicates that he wishes the report, presumably including his introduction, to be given wide distribution in order to “foster human-rights education in the United States.” Forgetting about whether it is quite proper for the State Department to undertake a domestic educational campaign of this kind, why is it necessary? Is there anyone left in America who does not know that until 30 years ago the blacks had a most unhappy history in this country? Is there anyone, at least anyone who goes to the movies now and then, who does not know full well about how the white man wiped out the Indian’s way of life? (On the other hand, in the interest of Mr. Shattuck’s own “human-rights education,” it might not be amiss for him to read, or maybe reread, the works of the great American historian Francis Parkman on how human rights fared among many of the Indian tribes themselves, particularly with respect to the treatment of captives, who were tortured as a matter of course and always with fiendish glee.)

Perhaps, then, Mr. Shattuck’s introduction is intended after all for the UN Human Rights Committee, at virtually every meeting of which down through the years American delegates have had to endure moral instruction from the representatives of tyrannical, if not downright criminal, governments. Perhaps he has added this introduction to the report in order, to borrow his own words, “to set the standard by which the United States is judged by other members of the international community”—members like Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, not to mention several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps, as the man in charge of the bureau called Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Mr. Shattuck thought it might be democratic, humane, and supportive of all those bureaucratic laborers in the international vineyard to help them, in current parlance, feel good about themselves.

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But of course Mr. Shattuck’s introduction really has nothing to do with educating the American public or even with consoling his country’s detractors. It springs from the same moral and intellectual source as the declaration, in song and story and schoolbook, during the celebration in 1992 of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage of discovery, that the arrival of Europeans in the New World was nothing less than a major human tragedy. A more recent example of the same kind of thing was the Smithsonian Institution’s effort to depict the Japanese as the victims of American aggression and cultural imperialism in World War II. (Can the poor Nazis be far behind?)

What accounts for a state of mind in which certain citizens—and even high officials—of the freest society visible to the naked human eye find it morally attractive to demean, denigrate, and even vilify that society on every possible occasion (even if, as in the case of the Smithsonian, doing so requires the telling of outright lies)?

A common answer to this question is idealism: John Shattuck and his ilk seek a never-ending process of social improvement. Another, related, answer often given is guilt: the felt need to atone for past injustices. But it hardly serves any ideal purpose to make an invidious judgment of a decent society in the face of the massive torture, murder, and manufactured starvation going on in so many other societies. And so far as guilt is concerned, the “we” who most loudly proclaim it always turn out to be talking not about their own wonderful selves but about everyone else, especially you and me.

The real answer, I believe, is greed. Not material but spiritual greed, the lust (as the feminists say in a different context) to have it all: to be freer than anyone has ever been and at the same time to go about trumpeting the ways in which one’s freedom is intolerably restricted; to be privileged and yet to claim the pleasures and moral prerogatives of victimization.

It is not easy to understand how American society has come in recent years to stir so much spiritual greed in the souls of so many of those into whose hands it places great social and cultural—and even political—power. Nor is it easy to understand how we have come to tolerate public officials who see nothing wrong with attacking their own country in an international forum, and who seem to believe that there is something positively noble about acts of national self-abasement.

Must one conclude that ingratitude increases as privilege does? If that is the case—and Mr. Shattuck’s essay on human rights suggests that it is—then maybe what this country needs is a little more of that process known to the sociologists as the circulation of elites.

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