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An Ode to Animal Farm

By August 31, 2020No Comments
Official Portrait of United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech on July 16, 2020, to the National Constitution Center about a report he has released from a panel he commissioned. The commission was tasked with discussing how our nation’s human rights work could, in his view, align with “the nation’s founding principles.” Reviewing his speech and looking at the report, I flashed back to an old summer reading list: George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

My recollection of the story is this: the animals, unhappy with the farmer’s treatment and concerned about the farm’s hierarchy, manage an insurrection and vow to organize themselves in a way that promotes equity and equality. “All animals are created equal!” was their rallying cry. And yet, somewhere along the way, whether by intention or circumstance, a hierarchy does develop. It is never explicitly acknowledged until the penultimate scene of the book. The pigs figure out a way to walk on two legs and parade around the farm with the following slogan firmly presented behind them: “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Credit: Carl Glover

That slogan came to mind as I read, with increasing dismay, Mr. Pompeo’s description of what our human rights policy should be. According to Mr. Pompeo, property rights and the right to religious liberty should be among the most valued of all the human rights. And, while he never explicitly states that they should be more equal than other rights, I could almost hear Orwell cackling from his grave.

The irony, of course, is this: when the Universal Declaration of Rights was first proclaimed in the wake of the Second World War, there was a resounding chorus shared by most nations — including the U.S. — that all humans were endowed with a dignity that could only be preserved by the acknowledgment and enshrinement of their rights. Whether it be freedom from torture or the preservation of life, all rights were considered equal and worthy of endorsement. The language that has since been used by the United Nations to describe these concepts are “universal, indivisible, and interdependent,” enshrining into the very foundation of our world the sense that our goal is to preserve the rights of humanity, however they might manifest.

Now, like most things that we hold dear, the implementation of these ideas has not been easy. Many of our rights can be difficult to achieve. Consider for instance, the rights of children, as embodied in the Children’s Rights Convention, which has been signed by every country except the U.S. Among the rights embodied in the CRC is the right “to play,” the right for a child to be a child. But what if a child is growing up in a family that is destitute? Should we subsume the right to play so that the family doesn’t starve?

Another issue is that our rights often conflict. The right to non-discrimination enshrined in the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S. has signed, provides that no person should be discriminated against based on their race or national origin. But, how does that align when it is so clear that we have medical practices that advantage, whether by intention or circumstance, one group of citizens over another? Do we simply abandon the health care system altogether, thus eschewing the country’s obligation to preserve its citizens right to health? Or do we struggle to find a better way? Most of us, I think, would choose the latter.

Aye, there’s the rub, Mr. Pompeo.

By prioritizing the rights of property owners to maintain their wealth, Mr. Pompeo, either by intention or circumstance, prioritizes the rights of those who are already privy to systems that the most disempowered among us cannot access. He is, in essence, enshrining a hierarchy of vulnerability in a way that assures that many victims of human rights will remain victims throughout their life.

By prioritizing the rights of those to religious liberty over the rights of women to maintain their own agency, he is prioritizing the rights of institutions that may be oppressive to women, making it difficult, for those among us who would do so, to practice our faith without the tyranny of patriarchy.

And so, I say to Mr. Pompeo, be careful what you wish for. While the pigs run the farm, others are learning to walk too. And some of them know how to fly.