The UDHR Is 70. America Needs to Do Better in Following It.

This language from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights echoes that of the Declaration of Independence. And yet, America still struggles with upholding these global principles. (Photo Credit: Jordan Lewin/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

On the U.S. version of The Office, tasked with picking a health care plan for Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Dwight Schrute, assistant to the regional manager, prided himself on slashing benefits “to the bone” in an effort to save the company money. He rationalized his decision-making with the following thought: “In the wild, there is no health care. In the wild, health care is, ‘Ow, I hurt my leg. I can’t run. A lion eats me and I’m dead’.”

Dwight Schrute is, of course, a fictional character, and his attitude is an extreme one. Nevertheless, his mentality reflecting the notion that health care is no guarantee and the idea he needs to select a plan for his Scranton office at all are indicative of a very real issue facing Americans to this day. If health care is a right, why does it feel more like a jungle out here?

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of its signing, Tom Gjelten, NPR’s Religion and Belief correspondent, penned a piece concerning the “boundlessly idealistic” Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR, across its 30 articles, elaborates the central premise that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

To this point, the Declaration speaks against discrimination based on any identifying characteristic. It opposes slavery, torture, and unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the courts. It asserts that all persons have the right to a nationality and to seek asylum from persecution. They also possess the right to marry, the right to their property, freedom of expression/thought and religion, and freedom to peaceably assemble and participate in government. Other stated liberties include the right to work for equal pay, the right to leisure, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to appreciate culture.

What is striking to Gjelten and others is how the UDHR is designed to be applicable across cultures, political systems, and religions. It is truly meant as a universal set of standards, one with secular appeal. That is, it is a human document, not a God-given list of commandments.

Then again, in some contexts, this last point might be a bone of contention. As Gjelten explains, Saudi Arabia abstained from the original unanimous United Nations Assembly vote because of issues with the Declaration’s views on family, marriage, and religious freedom, in particular the idea that one can freely change religions, which can be considered a crime. In general, some of the strongest objections to the language of the UDHR have come from the Islamic world, though this does not imply that Islamic law and these rights are incompatible.

There were others who abstained from the vote in 1948 as well, though. The Soviet Union and its bloc states were part of the eight abstentions, presumably because of the stipulation about people’s right to freely expatriate. South Africa, a country then predicated on racial segregation, was also part of the eight. Even some American conservatives at the time had their qualms about the UDHR’s wording, convinced the sentiments about economic rights sounded too socialist. Actually, that probably hasn’t changed all that much. In certain circles, socialism is indeed a dirty word.

The thrust of Gjelten’s piece is more than just admiration for the Declaration’s principles and the work of Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the UN commission responsible for drafting the document, though, deserved as that admiration is. 70 years after the fact, America’s commitment to upholding its articles is not above reproach. Furthermore, in an era when a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to “globalism” pervades politics here and abroad, the UDHR’s spirit of universality and international fraternity is seriously put to the test.

Gjelten cites two areas in which the country “still falls short” as a subset of the “struggles for civil and political rights that were yet to come” subsequent to the UDHR’s approval vote. One is equal pay for equal work, a topic which deserves its own separate analysis and, as such, I’m not about to litigate it at length here. Suffice it to say, however, that I—alongside many others—believe the gender gap is very real. It also disproportionately affects women of color, occurs across occupations and industries, and is frequently mediated by employer practices that rely on prior salary history as well as policies enforced in individual states designed to specifically disenfranchise female earners. Do with these thoughts as you will.

The other area in which the U.S. has fallen short, as alluded to earlier, is universal health care. Article 25 of the Declaration states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

As a fact sheet on the right to health from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization elaborates, the right to health includes access to health care and hospitals, but it’s more than that. It includes safe drinking water, food, and adequate sanitation. It includes adequate housing and nutrition. It includes gender equality, healthy environmental and working conditions, and health-related education and information.

But yes—it does include the “right to a system of health protection providing equality of opportunity for everyone to enjoy the highest attainable level of health.” It doesn’t say this is a privilege only for those who can afford it.

This is an essential point in the health care “debate.” Should health care be a right for all? While you’re entitled to your opinion, Mr. or Ms. Schrute, if you say no, it’s hard to know how to continue the conversation beyond that. This applies both for naysayers on the left and on the right. Don’t hide behind the idea “we can’t afford it.” Don’t hide behind the Affordable Care Act, which is no guarantee to survive given repeated attempts to sabotage it. If you believe health care is a human right, let’s work backward from there. I mean, all these other countries have some form of single-payer health care. Why shouldn’t we—and don’t tell me it’s because we spend too much on our iPhones


Tom Gjelten’s piece is more concerned with the history behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its formation. Like any good historian, though, he’s got a mind for the Declaration’s larger implications and its potential impact in the years and decades to come. Getting back to that whole growing nationalism thing, Gjelten notes how playing identity politics often draws strength from ethnic or religious conflict.

To be clear, this trend in increasing strife between different groups isn’t just an American phenomenon. Around the world, political leaders have risen to power by aggressively promoting division and/or appealing to a sense of national pride through brutality and curtailing human rights. Rodrigo Duterte. Xi Jinping. Narendra Modi. Viktor Orban. Vladimir Putin. Mohammed bin Salman. The list goes on. There will be more to come, too. Jair Bolsonaro was recently elected president in Brazil. His mindset carries with it a promise for a regressive shift in his country’s politics.

Still, even if we’re not the only ones coping with societal change, if America is truly the greatest country in the world, we should be setting the best example in terms of adherence to the UDHR’s principles. Meanwhile, even before Trump, our country’s commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been uneven.

Criminal sentencing/policing disparities and states’ insistence on use of the death penalty. The lack of a universal health care infrastructure. Failure to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, including women/girls, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community. War crimes overseas and at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Surveillance of global communications. And since Trump has taken office, our performance on these fronts has only gotten worse, notably in categories like foreign policy, the rights of non-citizens, and safeguarding First Amendment rights. If this is “America First” and “making America great again,” there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.

A lot of this may sound a bit too SJW for some. We should all respect one another’s rights. Everyone should be afforded the same opportunities to succeed. Let’s all hold hands and sing songs together around the campfire. I get it. There are practical considerations which complicate implementing solutions to global ills as well. Agencies and nations have to be willing to work together to achieve common goals, and who pays what is always a bother. On the latter note, I tend to think some cases are overstated or represented in a misleading way by politicians and the media. Cue the myriad “Bernie/AOC doesn’t know what he’s/she’s talking about” articles. Let’s all move closer to the center because it has worked so well for us until now.

The thing is that many of the principles covered by the UDHR reflect policy directions voters want and can agree on. When Republicans came to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, they were unsuccessful in part because of the public outcry in support of the ACA. Turns out people like being able to afford health care—who knew? Regarding equal pay for equal work, that shortfall for working women is one that whole families could use if given a fairer salary or wage. Not to mention it’s, you know, the morally right thing to do.

Though we may be susceptible to the words of political figures that would keep us at odds with each other (and secretly may even like it that way), we must continually put the onus on our elected officials to authentically represent all the people within their jurisdiction. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good place to start. As suggested before, let’s consider the change we hope to see before capitulating or saying “no” outright. A more equal America is one which will benefit all its inhabitants—from top to bottom and over the long term. 

The Alt-Right Isn’t Alright

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Stephen Bannon, one of the faces of the alt-right movement. Not pretty, is it? (Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert/AP)

To me, Alt-Right sounds like some sort of keyboard shortcut that allows you to move to the next page in a Microsoft Word document or scroll across on a webpage or something. Unfortunately, speaking in political/social terms, the so-called “alt-right” movement is not a helpful keystroke, nor does it seem to be particular useful to society. In fact, from the recently-built consensus on this loose assortment of activists and theorists, the forces behind the alt-right might actually portend the coming of a battle against deleterious influences within the American electorate.

So, why the hubbub all of a sudden about this element, one for which I will readily admit I was not aware a name actually existed until recently? Well, a big reason likely lies in the fact Hillary Clinton just referenced the alt-right in a fiery speech denouncing its core motivations and tenets. Here’s a snippet from her latest anti-Donald Trump tirade in Reno, Nevada this past Thursday:

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, Breitbart embraces “ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the “Alt-Right.”

Alt-Right is short for “Alternative Right.” The Wall Street Journal describes it as a loosely organized movement, mostly online, that “rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity.” The de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump Campaign represents a landmark achievement for the Alt-Right. A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party.

This is part of a broader story—the rising tide of hardline, right-wing nationalism around the world.

As I’ve made abundantly clear through my posts here, I am not a fan of Hillary Clinton, but give the devil wearing Prada her due, she’s spot-on here, which partially explains why outlets like CNN were practically having an orgasm over how strong Clinton seemed in delivering this diatribe. The Republican Party, led by Trump and touched by crazies, has more or less been hijacked by this ilk, alienating high-ranking members, including past presidents, in the process. As for the rise of “hardline, right-wing nationalism around the world,” HRC is correct on this assertion as well. As we’ve seen throughout Europe, be it with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party in Austria (jeez, these nationalists sure like their freedom, don’t they?) and, perhaps most notably, in the machinations of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party resulting in the Brexit referendum and the eventual vote which decided the United Kingdom would leave the EU, rabid anti-immigrant nationalism and xenophobia are alive and well in places other than the United States of America. And while he claims no allegiance to or even knowledge of the alt-right, Donald Trump has seemingly embraced its kind and the same principles set forth by the know-nothings across the pond. In fact, Trump has even envisioned himself as some sort of “Mr. Brexit.” If by this, he means that, like the decision to exit the European Union, he is hated by young people and feared to destroy the country’s economy, then sure, Mr. Brexit it is.

Let’s go a little deeper into the nature of the alt-right in an attempt to further facilitate understanding, though. Sarah Posner, writing for Mother Jones, profiles Stephen Bannon, chairman of Breitbart Media and newly-enlisted head of the Donald Trump, as someone more unabashedly supportive of the alternative right and someone with yet more pronounced fingerprints on the movement’s origins. In doing so, she, as so many journalists have had to do in apparently scrambling to cover the abstract concept of the alt-right, pursues an operational definition of the term:

Exactly who and what defines the alt-right is hotly debated in conservative circles, but its most visible proponents—who tend to be young, white, and male—are united in a belief that traditional movement conservatism has failed. They often criticize immigration policies and a “globalist” agenda as examples of how the deck is stacked in favor of outsiders instead of “real Americans.” They bash social conservatives as ineffective sellouts to the GOP establishment, and rail against neo-conservative hawks for their embrace of Israel. They see themselves as a threat to the establishment, far bolder and edgier than Fox News. While often tapping into legitimate economic grievances, their social-media hashtags (such as #altright on Twitter) dredge up torrents of racist, sexist, and xenophobic memes.

Posner, like many, acknowledges that painting the alt-right with a broad brush, or at least panning it outright, as with most movements, has it perils. Establishment politics on both sides of the political aisle in the U.S. is being decried by more extreme factions within the Democratic and Republican Parties; on the blue side, Bernie Sanders and other more progressive candidates have taken Hillary Clinton and other mainstream Dems to task for abandoning working-class Americans and preserving a status quo characterized by massive income and wealth inequality. Trickle-down conservative economics are also well worthy of criticism, as is the country’s pandering to Israel’s agenda in Gaza and the West Bank at the expense of legitimate Palestinian claims and interests.

This notwithstanding, it is the methods of many self-identifying members of the alternative right that threaten to undermine any more cogent arguments to be made within. Sarah Posner speaks to recurrent themes of racism, sexism and xenophobia in alt-righters’ online communications, and along these lines, bullying, hate speech and targeted attacks have become a modus operandi of sorts for individuals like Milo Yiannopoulos and his followers, as the persistent harassment of Ghostbusters (2016) and Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones serves to indicate. Not to mention there are additional policy stances held by the alt-right and mentioned by Posner in the above blurb that are not nearly as well-regarded by the national and international communities, chief among them the vehement antipathy toward immigrants and others perceived to be “outsiders” or otherwise not “real Americans.” Not only would some argue this is sentiment is decidedly un-American, especially since the backbone of this nation and the source of much of its character is immigration, but the sheer notion of what constitutes a “real American” and how elusively subjective that definition is further detracts from the alt-right’s credibility.

Concerning Stephen Bannon’s role in the promulgation of alt-right rhetoric, Sarah Posner gives salient examples of how his views and those of Breitbart readers coincide:

Bannon’s views often echo those of his devoted followers. He describes Islam as “a political ideology” and Sharia law as “like Nazism, fascism, and communism.” On his Sirius XM radio show, he heaped praise on Pamela Geller, whose American Freedom Defense Initiative has been labeled an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bannon called her “one of the leading experts in the country, if not the world,” on Islam. And he basically endorsed House Speaker Paul Ryan’s primary challenger, businessman Paul Nehlen, who floated the idea of deporting all Muslims from the United States.

Posner also underscores how Bannon has utilized Breitbart Media as a mouthpiece against black activists, especially those identifying with Black Lives Matter, suggesting those killed by police brutality likely deserved it, and that certain people—he doesn’t say African-Americans, but you know he totally means it—are predisposed toward aggression and violence. And when Stephen Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and others aren’t being overtly bigoted, misogynistic or xenophobic, which seemingly doesn’t happen often, much of their behavior still qualifies as bullying. It’s as if followers of the alt-right know deep down that they can’t win on the strength of their viewpoints alone, so they gang up on people, aiming to badger or frighten them into submission, thereby winning on a technical knockout, if you will, rather than a convincing string of logical arguments delivered on respectful terms. Toward the end of her piece, Sarah Posner provides yet another illustration of the sort of corrosive, abusive language that appears to be a hallmark of the alt-right:

On Thursday, in the Washington Post, [former Breitbart editor-at-large Ben] Shapiro upped the ante, describing the alt-right as a “movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism,” and Breitbart News as “a party organ, a pathetic cog in the Trump-Media Complex and a gathering place for white nationalists.” The reception he and another conservative Jewish Breitbart critic, Bethany Mandel, have experienced in the Bannonosphere is revealing: In May, when Shapiro, who became editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire after leaving Breitbart, tweeted about the birth of his second child, he received a torrent of anti-Semitic tweets. “Into the gas chamber with all 4 of you,” one read. Another tweet depicted his family as lampshades. Mandel says she has been harassed on Twitter for months, “called a ‘slimy Jewess’ and told that I ‘deserve the oven.'”

After Shapiro called out the anti-Semitism, Breitbart News published (under the byline of Pizza Party Ben) a post ridiculing Shapiro for “playing the victim on Twitter and throwing around allegations of anti-Semitism and racism, just like the people he used to mock.”

Back at the RNC, Bannon dismissed Shapiro as a “whiner…I don’t think that the alt-right is anti-Semitic at all,” he told me. “Are there anti-Semitic people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. Are there racist people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. But I don’t believe that the movement overall is anti-Semitic.”

Holocaust imagery. Demeaning foul language, and stubborn denial of the hate it encourages. Accusing others of falsely playing “the victim.” What passes as political discourse by much of the alt-right is a mix of puerile remarks and threatening epithets that in most cases amounts to nothing, but in a country like the United States replete with lethal weapons and even in nations with stricter gun laws, that one or more of these peddlers of death threats and threats of other bodily harm might actually seek to act on their anger and prejudices is enough that the rest of us can’t simply disregard the potential for tragedy. What’s more, while authorities may be able to intervene in time in the case of a telling social media post, in so many instances, the warning comes too quickly or not at all, such that someone may walk into a building or up to a person on the street and just start firing, with the target more or less completely unaware of the threat that looms. It’s scary, but this is the reality of life in 2016. Call it the “new normal,” if you must, but the possibility, however slim, statistically speaking, is ever-present.

If, perhaps, the alt-right’s most outspoken voices lack genuine conviction in their system of beliefs, it is their unshakable confidence in the inviolate permissiveness of free speech and their thinking that political correctness is a deleterious force in today’s domestic and foreign policy which are most striking. Before knowing full well of the extent of what the alternative right comprises, I wrote about Milo Yiannopoulos’ directed, targeted abuse at Leslie Jones that ended up getting him banned on Twitter. This is not merely to toot my own horn, I assure you, but to recall how Milo didn’t exactly take this perceived affront by Twitter et al lightly, and furthermore, framed his reaction with respect to what he and others like him envision as a larger conflict of ideals. From his response on—where else?—Breitbart:

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

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Milo Yiannopoulos’ latest salvo on Twitter. Oh, wait. (Image retrieved from theblaze.com.)

Because we had so much fun the first time, let’s dissect this bold talk from everyone’s favorite British-Greek “journalist” once more, shall we?

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans.

Milo Yiannopoulos certainly doesn’t lack for high opinion for himself, does he? But he may be right on aspects of his rhetoric, in particular, the notion that permanent Twitter bans and bombastic Clintonian speeches lend legitimacy to the alt-right movement and give them free press. In fact, as Rebecca Harrington of Business Insider reports, alt-right thinkers were “practically giddy” that Hillary had done their work for them, so there may be something to the “bashing us only drives up our ratings” claim.

The other points are more debatable. Certainly, the concept of the “totalitarian” left is not a new one, with articles like this one from The American Thinker slamming modern liberals as enthusiastic about diversity along demographic lines but not about diversity of opinions, and essentially being one step away from fascists. In Milo’s case, however, not only was he violating Twitter’s terms of service by encouraging Leslie Jones’s harassment at the hands (fingertips?) of his fans, but he afterwards made a false connection between an alleged instance of overreach by Twitter’s censorship and the supposed unmitigated sanctity of the First Amendment. As I suggested in my aforementioned earlier post, free speech is all well and good, but it doesn’t entitle you to be a complete and total asshole. There are limits, and you just cried about totalitarianism because Twitter refused to give in to you like a mother does to her spoiled-brat child.

As for the “regressive left” mantra, this also is not a new idea. Critics of liberal policymakers and thinkers have long considered, for instance, the refusal to use the term “radical Islam” as pandering to Muslims and diversity at the expense of America’s security. Like with the “totalitarian” charge, however, this characterization falls into a logical trap. Apparently, since America hasn’t closed the door on the War on Terror, and political correctness has marked much of the White House’s relationship with this initiative as a subset of relationships with the Muslim community in the United States, it must be that a more delicate, nuanced handling of the situation is ineffective. By this logic, once again, being an asshole is evidently the correct way to approach these matters, and measures such as banning Muslims are supposed to reverse our fortunes. Even though terrorism experts insist that this is having the exact opposite effect. But what would they know?

We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

The phrase “culture war” implies that there are two sides intent on the other’s destruction, and while this sentiment definitely applies for Breitbart and its readers, the reverse, I would argue, does not hold as true. Liberalism in the United States, broadly speaking, tends to focus on civil liberty and equality, and thus fighting for Americans as a whole, rather than fighting against someone or something, as in the amorphous notion of “the Left.” Moreover, while liberalism certainly can err on the side of failing to assign responsibility to groups or individuals for their role in economic, moral and social shortcomings, perhaps explaining in part the rise in popularity of the alt-right, to say that it is “winning” the culture war is a stretch, to say the least. After all, when media types find themselves writing articles about what the alt-right entails because they themselves don’t know what that is, let alone their readers, it’s hard to argue you’re winning anything, let alone making much of a dent in the national consciousness.

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

Like I said in my previous piece, Twitter seems to be doing just fine without you, Mr. Yiannopoulos. And speaking of the alt-right, if Donald Trump is seen as a key figure in this movement—whether he recognizes it or not—he, for one, has been given free reign to use social media as a soapbox, or to hit back at his detractors like the petulant child he is deep down. The fact of the matter is Twitter is a business, and unfortunately, it likely has to deal with the more unsavory aspects of some people’s behavior, or else ban them and risk seeming like the “totalitarian” institution alt-right sympathizers envision them to be. Again, though, I submit, it’s not a question of free speech—it’s that the alternative right’s bullying ways impinge upon the First Amendment rights of other users, namely those of wanting to have certain material remain private and of wishing to feel safe in the online environment. These wants are not unreasonable, and should not be negotiable, what’s more. So, Milo, when it comes down to it, it appears it’s just you and a select few other poor sports who are not welcome on Twitter. Congratulations on this dubious distinction.


Linda Stasi, writing for the New York Daily News and obviously taking Leslie Jones’ online harassment quite personally, recently clapped back at her would-be aggressors and others that seem to fit the alternative right mold:

Instead of doing anything to improve yourselves, you waste your lives online spewing hatred, misogyny and racism. How ’bout getting off your asses and doing something to improve the world?

You have declared open warfare on women like Jones because she’s black, a woman, accomplished. But you really hate her because you aren’t any of those things.

Because you aren’t, you instead insult women by calling them by body parts, and by using ugly sexual references.

You are such dimwits that you think it’s clever to post nonsense like telling women who’ve accomplished much in life to get a life. News flash: If their lives were any bigger, they’d explode. Meantime, you’re the ones writing hate mail to celebrities you’ve never met. Seriously, losers: Time you all got a life.

It may be a bit of an oversimplification to depict the anti-SJW crowd in this way—as jealous, lazy, sexually frustrated, whiny white guys who hide behind their keyboards. As is the nature of many stereotypes, though, they exist because more often than not, they are true. And while some delicacy might be warranted with members of the alt-right because of the remote possibility they might represent a physical or other danger to the people around them, this should not be taken as a sign of defeat. If anything, it might actually be advantageous to Hillary Clinton and those outside the alt-right to let them think they’ve won something, only to emerge more confident and determined in promoting progressive ideas in the future. So, no, in short, the alt-right isn’t alright, nor are they, in most cases, right. And until they, by and large, learn to express themselves in ways that command respect, they should not receive it.