P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
I’m at a philanthropy conference luncheon listening to some household names speak about social justice. They trade friendly barbs as they describe the horrors of Guantánamo and flog the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. At intervals they draw polite applause.
One of the speakers describes President Bush’s vetoing of a bill to outlaw waterboarding. ‘There should have been a public outcry,’ he chides us.
I gaze into my salad of mixed greens, my head heavy with guilt. Is there any vegetable more melancholy than kale?
I had been attending these conferences for years and had never heard such strong language coming from the dais. The speakers’ calls to conscience felt like the blows of a blunt weapon, like acts of verbal insurrection.
At the same time, there was something inescapably ironic about a plenary luncheon on human rights in which everything from our underwear to the salt shakers on our tables was made in China. If I wanted to understand what sustained human rights abuses in China, my inner voice told me, I needed only to inspect the labels on my BVDs.
This last point deserves some elaboration.
I’m attending this conference at an opulent hotel that rises like a crystal box from the banks of the Potomac. It’s large enough to have its own zip code. The inner space of the building is defined by a dramatic atrium soaring hundreds of feet above a fountain that periodically dances to recorded symphonic music. A picture window the size of two football fields looks across a sparkling river to Old Town, Alexandria.
As I sit here under the newly planted figs and paper birches, I struggle with the gauzy sense that the best I can do for human rights is vote the current pols out of office. I feel it’s me, not them, I most need to worry about. I’m fully implicated. The purchases I make, the time I devote to scanning ads, the television channels and websites I surf—all those things I do without a moment’s reflection—sustain a system of exchange that keeps some people in chains and allows others to walk free. My government does its part, I suppose, by hiding most of the bodies overseas. Sitting in this place, isolated as I am from the hurly-burly of the world, I forget that the wars we most recently waged in the name of human rights have been tied to the protection of American consumption—my consumption, and that of my family and friends.
The key to ending human rights abuses is written not only on the labels to my BVDs, but also on my paycheck—the income from investments in corporations not always friendly to their workers overseas. The key to the puzzle lies in this grand hotel that few of my poorer neighbors can afford to use.
The system is complex. Where is my place in it, as a consumer, as a citizen who wants to do right but who over-values his creature comforts? To what degree do I permit the demands of conscience to interrupt the flow of cheap goods? Each time I successfully boycott some brand or some nation, don’t my fellow wage slaves lose their jobs? The entire edifice is built stone upon stone. Pull on one stone with enough force and it appears the whole thing threatens to come down on our heads.
At the same time, I was never one to buy the stories we tell ourselves about triple bottom lines and more efficient markets. These, in my view, are self-serving fairy tales that enable us to sleep with ourselves inside these beautiful jeweled boxes we build on the banks of the Potomac.
The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, touted from the stage of the luncheon mentioned earlier, is an odd document. For starters, there’s no U.N. Declaration of Human Responsibilities to balance the publication. One has to read through to Article 29, the second-to-last article of the Declaration, to discover that we have duties to the community “in which alone the free and full development of [our personalities] is possible.” Twenty-eight articles detailing our rights. One article alluding to unspecified responsibilities.
This is a striking asymmetry. Twenty-eight articles before we reach what is for some the essence of good citizenship. And even here our duties to the commonweal are framed in terms of the free and full development of our personalities, a hint of Aristotle in a document that tries its hardest to appeal to every man and nation.