Saturday, June 04, 2005

Too Early To Think

There's a lot of news happening today, especially regarding NY and the stadium, but I'll leave that to others who are more informed.

Here is an eerily apt quote from Thomas Paine, that could relate to today's Supreme Court in ways he hadn't thought about.

Those who have quitted the world, and those who are not yet arrived at it, are as remote from each other, as the utmost stretch of mortal imagination can conceive: What possible obligation then, can exist between them: what rule or principle can be laid down, that of two non-entities, the one out of existence, and the other not in, and who can never meet in this world, the one should control the other to the end of time? - Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man 1791

Now, I think that "pro-lifers" might read this as saying that the authors of the Constitution should not be able to "choose" to kill the "unborn" and see it as justification of their wacko ideas. However, it makes more sense to read it, even narrowly, to argue that the dead and what they wanted - or what we think they would have wanted - can't dictate to the living. Paine is not speaking about the "unborn" as they've entered our current political discourse, but interestingly, lumps them with the dead into the category of non-existence. His larger point is that rights can only be held by the living, not by the dead, and I would extrapolate from the importance of "living" over "life" as the basis of rights in general, that only the living have any rights to speak of. The implication of the connection between the already dead and the not-yet-born is that neither group actually is alive and living in the world. Paine makes it very clear that it is up to people actually living in the world to make the laws according to their present conditions.."the circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it."
And take that, you "originalists."

I have way too much to do today to really blog, but I just wanted to thank Jill of Brilliant at Breakfast for posting the pic below on her blog.
If you can stand being awake and upright at 6am and in you're in the city, it's worth seeing Marc & Mark of "Morning Sedition" in person. The guests are more hilarious in person than on the radio, and Marc M. seems to be more at home with a big audience - the "stand-up" vibe is much more obvious than on the radio.


Anonymous said...

That only the living can have rights has a reciprocal proposition: That only the living can have obligations. One of the planks in Burke's anti-revolutionary platform has relevance for progressives. If the living acknowledge no obligation to the dead or to those not yet born, where do their sustaining values come from? Before you answer think of the question's rhetorical utility against millinarians who would use up all the resources now, 'cuz the Rapture is a-comin'. We need a rational basis for an ethical system everybody can agree to live by; why not tap into the deep emotional feeling most peoples have for our connection with our ancestors and our yet-to-be-born children? Apologies to Paine, but i'd call that common sense.

reb said...

I thought about this too....Since our current constituion is so under threat right now. Nonetheless, since the past already influences us through the institutions, practices, etc. that we live in and under, it seems to me that we don't actually need to be worried about excessive revolutionary fervor, as much as we do about doing things "the way we've always done them."
I also think there's a better basis for ethics than following tradition - which is Burke's argument. If we had followed the values of the past, we would still respect hereditary authority and reject egalitarianism.
The argument against radical changes to our current Bill of Rights, for example, is not that it is an outrage to some abstract past, but that it is an outrage against people currently living. As for obligation, the argument against the living making foolish changes based on short-term personal gain is more easily made in the context of the present and the future than in the past. While capitalist fundamentalists foolishly insist that it is "unAmerican" to regulate fuel, we have to argue that the generations before us didn't understand, and didn't face, the kind of immediate environmental problems that we do. Thus, we have a right to do things differently. We shouldn't be bound by an obligation to waste, etc. just because previous generations did so. Later in the same section, Paine does argue that it's appropriate to feel obligated to the future than to the past, but still, he argues, we won't be alive in the future, and can't presume to dictate to the next generation. It would still be within the rights of the people of the future to change the laws if they need to.
As for the radical and revolutionary nature of the current theocrats, I still think that their mission is a at is base a counter-revolutionary rejection of the values of the 1960s revolutions in gender and race and a call for a return to an imaginary set of "traditional values." While the America they envision is less free than the society set up in the constitution, and we could argue this, I still think that most people are more likely to be convinced by an argument about what they owe themselves than they are to be convinced by what they "owe" some imagined past.