In today’s New York Times former US President Jimmy Carter calls out the current President for committing human rights violations via his drone policy. He begins the essay by recycling the arrogant and tired fiction the the US has served as a shining beacon of liberty and rights:
The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.
Not surprisingly the quote has its origin in the New Testament, in this case Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Mathew 5:14-16), one English translation of which reads:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
Though Carter has abandoned the “City upon the Hill” language President Reagan (among others) preferred, he is nonetheless building on a historical legacy in US foreign policy that invokes a 1630 sermon delivered by John Winthrop who served several terms as Governor of the Massachussetts Bay Colony, and famously wrote:
wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. [see Documents Relating to American Foreign Policy Pre-1898]
Yet, the subsequent use of this passage to suggest that the US is a beacon of liberty and freedom as envisaged by Rousseau, Locke and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights abstracts it wholly from its context. The preceding sentence is:
Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it likely that of New England.”
Winthrop’s “City upon the Hill” is one that can defend itself, with God’s assistance, against overwhelming odds (which was important for a fringe group of Puritan Christians [from whom I am descended, for what that is worth]). US Presidents are free, of course, to revise the usage (as Winthrop did!), but that does not change the fact the rhetoric aside, the US has never been a shining beacon of human rights. Indeed, we need look no further than President Carter himself for an excellent example.
The photo above shows President Carter shaking hands with Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī, the Iranian royal leader who created in 1957, with CIA support, SAVAK, a brutal intelligence agency that was world renowned for its record of human rights violations. Carter hosted Pahlavi for a state visit in November, 1977, and referred to him as a friend of the United States, champion of the Iranian people, and so on. The President was lying through his famous pearly whites, knowing full well that he was shaking hands with a man whose use of intelligence agencies and police closely resembled the use of such agencies by the leadership of the Soviet Union, Mao, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad family in Syria, etc., and made Herbert Hoover’s FBI look like a boy’s choir in comparison. Carter’s rhetoric on human rights in office was impressive, but cynical, and that remains so today. Words yes, but deeds, Mr. President, deeds as well.
Does this critique imply that I am opposed to the argument in Carter’s op-ed? I am not opposed to the critique of the drone policy as a violation of human rights. Indeed, I agree that it is. And don’t get me started on Obama’s failure to close Gitmo, his signing legislation that let’s him detain Americans without charges, and so on. However, I am definitely opposed to hypocritical rhetoric. I genuinely believe it makes us worse off to engage in transparently hypocritical rhetoric that relies upon peoples’ limited pursuit of information to be effective. But that would explain why I am a professor, not a politician; why my heroes are people like Mark Twain, George Orwell, Richard Pryor and George Carlin; and why I am so empathically–mystified by the enthusiasm (hatred) partisans generate for their political heroes (nemeses).
As a parting aside, Carter’s title, “A Cruel and Unusual Record,” is somewhat interesting. When US President Ronald Reagan signed, and then the Senate ratified, the Convention Against Torture it added a reservation that abandoned the treaty’s definition of torture and substituted the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution, which forbids the use of cruel and unusual punishment of criminals. The phrase originates from the English Bill of Rights (1689), and Carter is thus hearkening back centuries with his rhetorical selection, thus pressuring the Obama administration to live up to its own legal commitment and tradition.