Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The right to rebel - and its flexible interpretations - especially for Exceptional Americans

This article on the situation in Ukraine articulates the democratic right of rebellion in a current context, but basing it on the classical liberal-democratic tradition. Kirill Rogov, Monopoly on violence vs. the right to rebel Eurozine 26.01.2014:

In a modern state, the monopoly on violence −− which lies behind the foundation of any state −− is checked by the concept of natural law. This means that what is lawful is not defined by whatever arbitrary exercise the legislator chooses to undertake. Instead, the law may not infringe the natural rights of citizens, which are theirs from birth. Nor may it depart from society's understanding of what justice is, because that understanding is based on the idea of inalienable natural rights. The check on state violence emerges particularly from the fact that within the framework of representative democracy, the legislator is not a source of power, but a representative of the power of the people. The notion of full people's power is fundamental to most modern constitutions, including those of Russia and Ukraine.

It follows from this that neither the Russian Duma nor the Ukrainian Rada can pass laws curtailing the basic rights of citizens. For, according to the constitution, these very citizens have endowed them with the power to legislate and rule. Limiting the powers of citizens is effectively usurpation, an anti−constitutional coup. This holds true even if this curtailment is introduced with reference to the will of a "majority" (as so often happens). A parliamentary majority cannot take a legitimate decision concerning the limitation of the rights of citizens, because the source of power lies not with the national majority but with the entire aggregate of free citizens who possess these rights from birth. That is why the concept of natural law −− that is to say the concept of the primacy of the natural rights of citizens over the right of the state to violence −− presupposes the right to rebellion (as has been noted on a number of occasions in recent days). This was formulated in the famous documents of the Enlightenment, which advanced the notion of natural law and the sovereignty of the nation: the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), the French Constitution (1793) and the US Declaration of Independence (1776).

The right to rebellion is not a call or a slogan, but a term describing a particular contradiction within the law. The essence of it lies in the fact that the state −− the nature of which lies in a monopoly on the use of force −− loses its legitimacy in the minds of citizens, if it violates natural law. Thereby, any violence to which the state has resorted ceases to be lawful as well. This contradiction is directly described in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the UN: "It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law." [my emphasis]
This is actually standard liberal-democratic theory. And it's likely to read as uncontroversial to an American audience.

But that's in part because Americans so often assume that we're Exceptional and that such considerations apply to people in countries whose governments we (i.e., our government) doesn't like.

But if you're, say, Edward Snowden leaking information to the press about actions of the NSA that sure look like they are "curtailing the basic rights of citizens," the government, leaders of both parties and the Establishment media - including some supposedly liberal commentators on MSNBC - are not likely to look at you as a defender of natural law and human rights but as a traitor and a criminal. And if Snowden gets caught by the US government, he's very likely to spend the rest of his life in a super-max prison.

I wonder how many people could get a half-reasonable account of what "natural law" even is in that context. It sounds all Bill-of-Rightsy, so members at a Rotary Club luncheon might nod in automatic agreement if a speaker used them.

For a philosophical treatment of the concept, see John Finnis, Natural Law Theories Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy 07/25/2011.

With the Tea Party and the Republicans (pretty much redundant terms at this point), we see a John Calhoun-like reactionary version of that concept, used to justify the bitterest opposition to regulations of business misconduct or measures to protect the rights of women or minorities. And the lay the political groundwork for an impeachment threat against President Obama. Here's Ben Carson, the Christian Right star of the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, carrying on in that vein: Sabrina Siddiqui, Ben Carson, Fox Commentator: Progressives Will Turn America Into Nazi Germany Huffington Post 02/10/2014.

American recognition of the right to rebel in other nations is notoriously subject to pragmatic considerations - the borderline between pragmatic and cynical is often porous in these matters - as Hillary Mann Leverett reminds us in Learning the Wrong Mideast Lessons Consortium News 02/11/2014:

On the eve of Iran's [1979] revolution, as a deep and abiding thirst for independence was sweeping through Iran, President Jimmy Carter toasted the shah, in "great tribute ... to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you."

Thirty-two years later, U.S. foreign policy elites seemed to have learned little. When similar revolutionary fervor threatened another pillar of U.S. dominance in the Middle East — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — the Obama administration appeared to be following the example of its 1970s predecessor.

Vice President Joe Biden proclaimed that Mubarak wasn't "a dictator" because he was an American ally and a friend of Israel — thereby highlighting that the only way an Arab leader can be those things is by being a dictator. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already declared "President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family."

But with security forces marauding through Tahrir ("Liberation") Square, killing nearly 1,000 people by the time Mubarak finally resigned — and drawing more people to protest, instead of repelling them — alarm set in among Washington’s foreign policy elite. Could the U.S. really lose the Egyptian pillar it had so assiduously co-opted after its Iranian pillar was tossed out in 1979?
It was hard not to think that the Trotskyist roots of neoconservatism weren't showing back in 2002-3 when the Cheney-Bush Administration was drumming up an invasion of Iraq with endless talk of spreading the blessings of democracy by war. Or, as in turned out in practice, by bombing, shooting and torturing the people of the countries we decided to so bless.

The Obama Administration clearly hasn't been as warlike as its predecessor. But they also got into the war-of-liberation act, as Mann Leverett points out:

The Obama administration’s second goal was to co-opt the Arab Awakening for U.S. purposes, by showing that, somewhere in the Middle East, the U.S. could put itself on the “right” side of history. So, when Saudi Arabia offered the Arab League "cover" to intervene in Libya and arm anti-Gaddafi rebels, President Barack Obama overrode objections by his Defense Secretary and military leaders to order U.S. forces into action.

On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council narrowly adopted a resolution authorizing use of force to protect civilian populations in Libya. In short order, Team Obama distorted it to turn civilian protection into coercive regime change. The results have been disastrous for U.S. interests and for the region: Worsening violence in Libya, a growing jihadi threat in North Africa, a dead U.S. ambassador, and more polarized U.S. relations with Russia and China.
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