Brett Williams's Reviews > Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse

Rights Talk by Mary Ann Glendon
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it was amazing

Portentous subtleties of modern American language and law

Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon provides one of those rare insights into why we are the way we are, exposing what is patently aberrant when externally viewed, axiomatic by force of habit, and an educational system catering to consumerism. Central is our language, that way to the soul of how we view our world and us in it, through rights talk. American rights talk is stark, simple, polarizing, legalistic, excessively bestowing the rights label with exaggerated insular absoluteness of hyper-individualism expressed as unbounded wants and desires with utter silence on personal, civic or collective responsibilities (that's a mouthful). Nearly every social controversy is now framed as a clash of absolute rights with self-correction denied and compromise unlikely in our winner take all arrangement. What Hamilton said would happen, happened, and with a vengeance. While the Bill Of Rights (he opposed) was to clarify what the federal government would not do, it has been transformed as a route to governmental expansion via what government must do for us. “Rights” are now paramount and the touchstone of legitimacy. (Just listen to the list of rights we never knew we had in our current political debates.)

Glendon illuminates a turn taking place in the 50’s when the principle focus of the Court was not personal liberty but the division of authority and allocation of power between States and the national government. Congressional legislation (subject to the people’s will) during the New Deal shifted to the Supreme Court (protected from the people’s will) and their creation of new or expanded rights with the stroke of a pen – a fundamental swing away from the people, and in the process of our governance. The “test case” became a replacement for time consuming political engagement. The results of which might go either way depending on the Court’s composition – liberal or conservative - a tyranny of nine instead of one that Madison warned against as a tyranny nonetheless.

Glendon elucidates our legal system’s inability to extrapolate long-term effects of their decisions, or recognizing entities other than individuals, corporations and States, i.e. communities are invisible. Not infrequently, opinions of justices sound as if from another galaxy not bothered by common sense. America’s emphasis of Locke’s property language is contrasted with Europe’s Rousseauian (though equally idyllic) perspective (Rousseau wasn’t any more complete than Locke), making all the difference, with Europe often appearing a good deal more rationally conditional than absolutist America. Interestingly, ideas in political philosophy can be seen to display creative inventiveness not unlike that found in science and technology, allowing new results from old principles or discoveries of alternate ways to interpret them. And like technology’s creation of penicillin or the atomic bomb, outcomes are not always positive. To this reader it was a shock to find rights do not deserve the altitude they’ve acquired in America. An excellent book every politician and lawyer should take intravenously, before they bury us all.
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Finished Reading
April 9, 2014 – Shelved

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