Look on my works, ye mighty, and Despair!
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias
I've been thinking about the philosophical premise of "unalienable rights" from our Declaration of Independence and how relentlessly this notion is ignored in common practice. For people these rights are mocked as completely and as easily as though they had been granted by Monsanto to billions of corn stalks or by Weyerhauser to each and every long leaf pine in its plantations. Economy trumps political and humanist philosophy.
But, for a moment, consider what these rights mean. Unalienable rights posit an essential, spiritual, equality --- that every created being, no matter how shortchanged and unequal by birth, class, wealth, genes, luck, privilege, should not be abused or enslaved by others. Each person, no matter how flawed or disadvantaged, owns the opportunity of liberty, the right to make the most of one's life, to find what pleasures one can, to be a part of supportive community. The assumption persists that it is morally dangerous to presume any one life more valuable than another, dangerous to presume such judgment.
Since the people who first advanced the idea of unalienable rights intended them to be a guide for maintaining a political community, they were obviously suggesting that these rights were not theirs exclusively but the inherited property of all humans in perpetuity. Knowing that adds a weighty element to anyone possessing unalienable rights --- the heft of it being that each generation is responsible for the next generation's enjoyment of those rights. If we degrade the integrity of our government or despoil our environment, we degrade and despoil the opportunity of all future people to practice their rights, to discover their happiness. Each generation inherits then a shrinking world, not smaller in the way we commonly say the world is made smaller by travel, communication and trade, but more meager morally, spiritually, philosophically and ecologically.
Where this leads is to this point: To embrace the fine, rhetorical flourish of unalienable rights is to accept wholeheartedly the burden of unavoidable responsibilities. Unless we demand our "right" to wallow greedily in the toxicity of infantile selfishness, every environmental, economic and political action we take must be made on the basis of sustainability.
One experiences a rush of pride and dignity --- and one should --- from the notion of unalienable rights. It's an idea that authenticates the unique mysterious identity of every being. Unalienable rights are to human rights what oxygen is to the lungs. They are based in the belief that if one person is, then all people are, meant to breathe freely.
Because the gift of unalienable rights demands the obligation to preserve them as equal rights to succeeding generations, it's as though one is permitted to drink from a cup but must offer it still brimming to the next in line. It's a kind of philosophical riddle: What cup must you drink from so deeply that it is equally full when you pass it on? The full enjoyment of unalienable rights, coupled with their full obligations, replenishes them. People who relish their own rights relish them for others.
Implicit in unalienable rights is an environmental ethic. If we are going to offer our descendents the right to pursue happiness, it can only be in a healthy environment. Unalienable rights are impossible when our bodies are full of toxins, our seas fished out, our water poisoned, our forests destroyed.
Looked at in this light, one can see that the notion of unalienable rights had been sullied long before it ever leapt from the quill of Thomas Jefferson. His ancestors and ours had arrived on this continent not in wonder and awe and with a desire to live in harmony with nature and natives, but to exploit and conquer. Such behaviors seem to enhance one's rights, but they enhance them only through another's loss. They are destined, as they have to be in the closed system in which we live, to come full circle --- ending rendering our desire for rights and pleasure rancid. We have ordained a marriage between exploitation and profit and forbidden them divorce. And such a union forbids a Constitution to remain true to its own principles. If the marriage of exploitation and profit demands a fixed election in the name of expediency, or demands a resource war in the name of spreading democracy, or the surveillance of its own people in the name of fighting terrorism, or the blowing up of its own mountains in the name of efficiency, so be it. One political party does not do this alone. The other has to be both docile and complicit. Remember what Frederick Douglass said, "Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong that will be imposed on them."
It should be obvious that when a government has lied to its people about the reason for taking them into war --- thus betraying its own Constitution, its soldiers, its people, its democracy, its future, everything it purports to hold sacred --- and there is no broad based call for impeachment for this greatest of all crimes, then you should realize that unalienable rights as a term is a smoke screen, a mass narcotic that induces denial and hypocrisy --- a term which is viciously defended not because it supports the truth but because it masks a lie.
In grade school biology I was taught "the great chain of being," a concept that was soon replaced with "the web of life." In the web frogs and mosquitoes, rain and clouds, birds and worms, sunlight and chlorophyll, fish and butterflies were all equally and inextricably dependent on each other for the maintenance of the system. Unfortunately our economic culture was simultaneously teaching us that we were somehow separate from that web, superior and entitled. We were part of another web, one constructed of markets, jobs, expanding economy, GNP, the euphemism of resource development, and military might. We were taught that our happiness and growth and survival depended on this second web --- that it was our reality. This economic web was an abstraction in the sense that anything that ignores the laws of nature is an abstraction. We allowed the abstract web to consume and supplant the real. How can the abstract consume the real? Well, actually it can't, but it's a web we are now stuck in and it has no interest in anyone's unalienable rights.
A political system whose primary tenet is unalienable rights has to live in harmony with nature. An economic system, whose primary tenet is profit, can't. Is the dominant one the one we invest with power? No. No economic system can take power away from nature. Nature's power is, ironically, magnified when it is exploited and abused. Storms, droughts, floods, cancers --- nature waxes malevolent. If our manifest destiny was to conquer and exploit nature, then our manifest destiny was suicide.
The great triumphs of this country should not be measured by our corporate wealth, our military might, the economic security of our middle class, nor innovation by scientists and entrepreneurs. The primary triumph of our country must be measured by how closely we adhere to our own principles, and insist that everything else must be consistent with them and follow from them. Otherwise, we become dangerous painted clowns, mugging and leering in Uncle Sam suits while we simultaneously count the money and destroy ourselves. If we can't obligate ourselves to protect our unalienable rights, nature will get us out of the way so that she can protect hers.
When I was learning about the web of life in freshman biology, I was also memorizing classic poems. One was Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It suddenly came back to me as I was writing this essay. It goes like this:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
There is some comfort to be taken in this poem because it allows us to feel that time and nature conquer arrogance and fear. It even invites us common folk to have the last laugh at the presumptions of the imperious and ruthless. We may be overrun, but so are they ---finally. Justice wins. If not man's, then time's. And, if the poem is a meditation on the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses the Great ( Shelley's inspiration for Ozymandias), it's also a warning. Not to George W. Bush --- he seems immune to warnings. And, why not? The people and the people's representatives have not held him accountable. Rather, the warning is to all of us. We are Ozymandias. We have looked on nature as righteously as Bush has looked on the children of Iraq or the prisoners at Guantanamo and said, "Despair!"
Despair, indeed. Unalienable. Unavoidable.