Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rights and all that stuff

I can't recall a single thing Goethe ever said about the concept of human rights. His political inclinations cannot be divorced from the time in which he lived, but it was also the time of Tom Paine and even the more moderate Founding Fathers. Goethe did have some interest in America, though not as a nation of new political experiment. Until the end of his life he was more interested in the fortunes of European lands, for instance, the fate of the Greek independence movement, which he followed quite closely.

W. Daniel Wilson, in his book Das Goethe-Tabu: Protest und Menschenrechte im klassischen Weimar (1999), provoked considerable controversy by claiming that Goethe had a bad record on human rights. Scrutinizing Goethe's activities as a government minister, Wilson found that Goethe did not conform to the "constitutional and liberal tendencies of the early 19th century" and that he was alienated from the intellectuals of Germany who did display such tendencies. (For one of my postings on Goethe and politics, see this entry from last year.)

In some ways I think Goethe must have felt, especially in the last decade of his life, that he and all that he cared for had been left behind by the "velociferic tendencies" of the modern age. It's pretty hard in any case, at any time, to know where things are heading, politically.

One of the most fascinating movements of the present time, for me any way, are the ongoing protests in Iran. People are not marching for health care or against global warming. The protesters are "anti-government," which means they are protesting for "rights," most important of which being the right to assemble, the right to speak out against government, the freedom of the press. The Iranian protesters are showing us that, if people want rights, they have to fight for them. Former president George W. Bush may have been correct in saying that everyone desires to be free, but, as a wise person once said, "God does not wash windows." People have to make things happen for themselves. We did that in the West; our problem is that we have so internalized our rights and our freedoms that we believe they are universal and can be legislated by some kind of international charter.

The protesters certainly can't expect any assistance, indeed not even any signs of encouragement, from the present administration in Washington, D.C. During the Cold War, there were lots of intellectuals who spoke out on behalf of those trapped behind the Iron Curtain. No more. Intellectuals are instead bogged down in ideological battles with ordinary folks in this country, about health care, about global warming, and so on. The fight for freedom goes on. The mass protests of the Iranians, however, are a bit too reminiscent of youthful and not so youthful Westerners making havoc, years ago in Vietnam and these days at climate or economic conferences. I have no idea what the strategy must be in Iran, but I wonder if the powers that be in Iran are really frightened by even tens of thousands of young men marching and waving the "V" sign. A few dozen policemen seem to have no difficulty beating them back. Women may be the key to making a difference in the Islamic countries. They may have to put themselves on the line.

Picture credits: Big Picture; RightPundits

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