Friday, November 10, 2006

Nick on Rights

This is a blog, which means we can post immediate, not-always-fully-considered reactions. If I had to write this for money, I'd spend a week screwing drafts into tight balls and lobbing them at the bin. So this is a very much top-of-my-head reaction: Nick doesn't understand rights. (Happily, I think one or two of my co-bloggers do, so they can correct me.) Norman Geras has read it [Nick's book] in draft and warmly recommend[s] it. He offers a couple of brief excerpts. This is the second of those:

If the new left of the 21st century is to be a liberal-left worth having, then it must learn from the best of the old traditions. First, it must understand that we are lucky people who have won life's lottery. An accident of birth has given us freedom and the wealth that comes with it. We don't have an obligation to overturn tyranny by military force. But we have no right to turn our backs on those who want the freedoms we take for granted. We have no good cause to scoff at them and make excuses for the men who would keep the knife pressed to their throats. The best reason for offering them support is that we can. We have the freedom to vote, to lobby, to protest, to write and to speak, and there is no point in having freedom unless you use it to a good purpose.

First, like a few of you, I'm not sure that liberals and leftists share traditions. I know this sounds unashamedly morally relativistic, because that's what I am, but who is to say which has the best of those traditions? Now I know Nick is writing rhetoric in a book with a clenched fist on the cover rather than a philosophical treatise, but he is using non-interchangeable terms much too interchangeably. We do, in fact, have a 'right to turn our backs ...' just as we have the right to do whatever else we please that is not prohibited by common judgement. He means 'it is wrong for us to...' but that is a different matter entirely. Most of us (that is, I use 'us' to mean UK voters) will turn our backs, and care more about the 'X-Factor' or what the Sun says. And that is our right. We have the right not to buy poppies; we have the right not to vote; we have the right to walk past beggars and their emaciated dogs. I'm not saying you should do these (non-) things. Someone, maybe Captain Cabernet, may enlighten me on negative rights, but I feel Nick is pointing in the wrong direction here.
I am something like a century out of time is my aestheticism: Art for art's sake is my motto. And freedom for freedom's sake while I'm here. There is no point to freedom, other than it feels right. It comes with no obligations. If it did, it would not be freedom. I've a 100% voting record, though the only time I ever voted for the victor was in 1997 (and I regret that). I'm an occasional letter-writer and marcher too, but my freedom is no better than the next slob's. Sorry.


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