Traditionally, “social justice” issues have been the domain of non-profit watch dog groups. As those guardians have become partisan or worse, and abandoned their balanced role, the mantle of guardianship is naturally following the way of the information age. Every day citizens are picking up the job.
Where did the “justice” groups come from, in the first place, and who anointed them?
Time was, for people in need only the local churches helped them. Every frontier town had a church, and its doors were always open to the needy. In a frontier society, the needy are ever-present. Over time, America grew, and seeking America’s promise, the needy increasingly arrived. Are you hungry, do you need clothes? A local religious group was there to help you or your family. Bethesda Mission, Hebrew Free Loan Association, a myriad of Catholic charities, all served increasingly robust communities and then whole populations of American immigrants.
That model of bare-bones, volunteer-driven organizations advancing and increasingly advocating for the rights, needs, and interests of everyday shlmiel citizens is a uniquely American development. That safety net for newcomers released their potential, increased the opportunity that awaited them, and enhanced their ability to become integrated, productive Americans.
Over decades, mirror image organizations evolved out of more refined social expectations, like human dignity and individual rights, wildlife habitat, environmental protection, and consumer protection. Out of this distinctly private and mostly religiously-based effort came public commissions, bureaucracies, laws, and then government mandates, with increasingly complex goals and symmetrically mixed results. Public health offices aimed at cholera, orphans, and clean water were useful; Prohibition spawned the Mob. Beating Jim Crow in the South began in the late 1950s, and infused other movements. Responding to the Cold War, international causes became popular in the 1960s, spawning Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others.
Many of the groups eventually morphed into highly tuned political machines with sophisticated interest groups, grassroots armies, funders, political backers, friendly media outlets, and crafted messages, arriving at their final destination and most recognizable form in the 1960s and 1970s. Those two decades were also the turning point in American public political activism. Gun control, animal rights and welfare, gay rights, etc. all followed, a laundry list now long and well known. Today, the political lines are now well drawn in the sand.
What impelled and set the original “founding” interest groups above, apart, and beyond their original surrounding circumstances was a powerful, convening clarion call that coalesced universal conscience: The moral claim.
The moral claim was based on a distinct and publicly recognizable difference between what was common practice at the time, on the one hand, and what was obviously needed to elevate and fairly improve the human condition, on the other hand. The moral claim was a non-partisan standard that appealed to nearly everyone, rallying and focusing fair-minded citizens from across religious, economic, racial and regional boundaries.
One of the most famous examples of the moral claim is King’s I Have a Dream speech. Dead people in coffins have been widely documented to sit up and cry when it’s replayed in their presence, because it is undeniably powerful medicine for a nation designed for freedoms it hadn’t yet delivered.
Similarly, when the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire, advocates for environmental quality had one hell of a moral claim, and legitimately aimed at ending a long tradition of egregious pollution that privatized profits and socialized the costs. Three decades later, River Keeper was shutting down the last industrial pipes bleeding privately conjured PCBs and other chartreuse-colored ooze into the Hudson River’s very public waters.
But times change, and thankfully, the vast majority of the moral claims have been settled. The problem is that the well-oiled machines that got those moral claims over the goal line are still running on high octane, and they have to keep going, or die. So they stay in their groove, well worn over decades, and the growing differences between their goals, methods, and reality is now making hypocrites out of many of them. Hypocrites do not make good standard bearers.
For example, here in Pennsylvania this past January, purported environmental activists (self-appointed keepers of the green moral claim) banged drums and shouted into bull horns, doing everything possible to disrupt Governor Tom Corbett’s inaugural speech, occurring three hundred feet away. What was the issue that impelled them into their most moral rage? Why, it was the very most moral issue of natural gas drilling. And not just any gas drilling, but hydrofracturing deep gas wells. You’d think from their behavior that gas drilling is a moral issue found directly in the Constitution and the Bible, or that terrible crimes are occurring.
But it’s not a moral issue. Gas drilling is an every-day issue like plastics or peanut butter, arising from modern social needs, demands, and industrial processes that environmental activists themselves help perpetuate in their own individual daily lives. It is subject to scientific analysis, assessments of risk-benefit tradeoffs, and regulations, both sufficient and insufficient. It is not a matter of principle.
But once Tom Corbett became governor, the activists turned gas drilling into an artificially manufactured issue of principle. Invoking the moral claim, protestors complained that the new Corbett administration, in office for exactly two minutes and thirty eight seconds, was environmentally immoral.
Uhhh, where were these folks during the eight-year tenure of the immediate past governor, Ed Rendell? You know, the same governor who handed out gas drilling and hydrofracking permits like they were potato chips, for years before Corbett was even a candidate? Rendell got a free pass from these purported keepers of the flame, apparently because he was of a political party that the activists otherwise generally concur with. Holding Corbett accountable for something he hasn’t yet done, while giving a free pass to Rendell who done a lot, makes them partisan, makes the gas drilling issue partisan, employs a double standard, makes the activists hypocrites, which terminates their moral claim.
Looking farther abroad, human rights groups that were once the arbiters of international behavior, the sole lifeline to political prisoners in authoritarian gulags around the world, today have abandoned their impartiality. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch disproportionately criticize democratic countries where press freedoms, free movement, and economic comforts make it easy to get access to friendly advocates and information, like Israel and America. And they ignore egregious violations among the harder targets, like Saudi Arabia’s all-encompassing barbarism, China’s crushing occupation of Tibet, Iran and Syria’s mass executions of peaceful protestors, and Turkey’s ongoing genocide against the Kurds.
Saudi Arabia, that epitome of cruelty and discrimination, in fact, has recently become the actual benefactor of Human Rights Watch, and apparently bought off the group. Getting access to authoritarian countries is hard, and if the masters of all things human rights play hardball with authoritarian regimes, they get tossed out. So they withhold full criticism, and instead criticize the enemies of the worst brutes, just to keep the machine running. And they take the brutes’ money, too.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and other supposed watchdog groups, are now such giant hypocrites that their misdeeds have spawned watchdog groups to hold them, the self-appointed human rights organizations, accountable to their own purported standards. Groups like NGO Monitor (www.ngo-monitor.org) and UN Watch (www.unwatch.org), which is “tasked with measuring the UN by the yardstick of its own charter,” are playing backup to maintaining the moral claim, and not allowing it to be watered down in the name of convenient politics.
Internationally, certain pet issues predominate, monopolizing press exposure and the focusing supposed moral claim. For example, despite a nearly two-to-one ratio of Jewish refugees from Jerusalem, Hebron, and Arab and Muslim countries, versus the number of Arab refugees from Israel in the same time period, today we hear only, hypocritically, about the Arabs. Compensating Jewish refugees, whose farms, homes, religious sites, and businesses remain under Arab colonialist occupation, is not a vogue subject.
Similarly, Turkey’s still-smoldering genocide against the Armenians, its ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, its illegal occupation of Cyprus complete with an Islamic Apartheid wall, and its officialization of Islamic imperialism all get no media juice. Being a NATO member has its benefits, I suppose, but where oh where is the moral claim to correct these problems? Hypocrites all, the Human Rights Watches of the world. They are focused on tiny, democratic Israel.
In conclusion, if a group abdicates its self-appointed role and abandons the leadership helm, which had been based on a universal standard, and instead becomes a hypocrite, then their moral claim has been badly cheapened or lost. Since the beginning of modern social activism, public deference was automatically given to those who made the moral claim, who rallied us all around a universal conscience. No longer. We are in the beginning of a historic shift of moral authority away from partisan establishment grievance groups and back into the hands of wired up, dialed-in citizens, whose blogs aggregate and focus public wrath on the official failure du jure. Tunisia one day, Egypt or British Petroleum the next, shifting and diffusing power back into the public venue is an inevitable and necessary cog in the evolution of social activism. Who knows what beautiful things will come out of it? Hypocrisy won’t be one of those things, because it doesn’t pass the public’s sniff test, and the public is where social activism all began.
Photo by William Murphy
Powered by Facebook Comments