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Economic crisis and basic human rights

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, September 22, 2008 15:52 EDT
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Stories like this, more than anything, expose how much of a lie it is when Republicans go on about how they’re the party of “family values”. At bare minimum, what families need to be valued is steady employment and reasonable cost of living, both things that have been snatched away from Americans in a frenzy of feed the rich deregulation and other lobbyist gravy trains. I think that’s what really bothered me about PortlyDyke’s scolding us to remember that some kids in China don’t have vegetables to eat. In trying to make people feel bad because they’re mocking the very same super-wealthy people who brought this on us for losing their planes or their expensive mistresses, she reminds us that having a house with four walls is considered rich to some people.

I think that’s a little off-base, actually. Having a house with four walls is a basic human right, and that some people don’t have their basic human rights doesn’t mean those of us who do are lucky so much as those of us who don’t are oppressed. I refer to a document all Americans would be wiser to familiarize themselves with, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25:

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, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The right to have a life worth living, i.e. with opportunities for pleasure and self-development, is enumerated elsewhere, in amendments guaranteeing leisure time, cultural expression, and the right to develop your own family.

What I’m getting at is that I think the UDHR is why PortlyDyke’s “you’re rich to someone” scold misses the point. The American working and middle class, if things are going well, live a life that’s outlined in this document as the minimum standard of human rights the entire world should aspire to gain for all citizens. The fabulously wealthy—-who, don’t forget, got us into this mess by buying up our democracy—aren’t rich to “someone”. They’re rich by the measures of this document laid out in the days after WWII, when the need for real peace and investment in humanity seemed a lot more obvious. Those of us who have a job, a house or apartment, a reasonable work week, a TV and a stereo and nights out on the town, marriage and children who are entitled to an education, and health insurance are not rich to someone so much as living a lifestyle that should be guaranteed to everyone.

Mary Elizabeth Williams’ story inclines me to wonder if this current economic crisis is going to affect not just the rate of homelessness and joblessness, but also to the divorce rate and almost surely the abortion rate. But it’s also a good example of how the “everything’s relative” measurement doesn’t make as much sense as weighing hardships against a basic litany of human rights, such as the UDHR. The choice that Williams feels breathing down her neck—get divorced and risk losing the house or stay married and risk losing her soul—is the sort of thing that falls into the zone of oppressive loss instead of mere loss, such as losing your chartered plane. Sure, someone else out there is feeling even more severe oppression. But while accepting that there’s relative levels of oppression, I think we make a judgment call on what is or is not oppression.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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