an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘internationalism

The Epoch Times and the ‘CCP virus’

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a man lies dead in the street in Wuhan in late January – this image was also used on p3 of The Epoch Times

Jacinta: So something unusual arrived in our letterbox the other day – a newspaper of sorts. Made out of paper.

Canto: Weird. Haven’t read one of those for a while.

Jacinta: Yes, nowadays we read those things on tablets, just like the Flintstones of yore. It wasn’t a big newspaper – an 8-page broadsheet – but it was unusual in other respects. It was all about China, or rather the Chinese government – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And none of it was positive.

Canto: Yes, the newspaper is called The Epoch Times, and has an ‘about us’ column on page 2, which tells us it’s ‘dedicated to seeking the truth through insightful and independent journalism’.

Jacinta: ‘Standing outside of political interests and the pursuit of profit, our starting point and our goal is to create a media for the public benefit, to be truly responsible to society’. All very commendable of course, but the whole paper is devoted entirely to criticising the CCP, highlighting its nefarious tactics and giving a voice to silenced, and sometimes disappeared, Chinese citizens, and also to Australian critics of the CCP.

Canto: So it’s Australian-based, operating out of Hurstville, a southern suburb of Sydney. Apparently founded back in 2000, it also states ‘we stand against the destruction wrought by communism, including the harm done to cultures around the world’. So, what do you think?

Jacinta: Well… we’re no admirers of so-called communism (which is always dictatorial or oligarchical rule in fact). We’re into open, progressive and collaborative societies. So, while I’m sympathetic to the cause of this newspaper, here’s a criticism. It’s interesting that we’ve had this in our mail now, from this 20-year-old organisation. It comes at a time when the CCP is undoubtedly weakened by the spread of SARS-CoV-2, and will be scrambling to improve its reputation and to limit the economic damage done to China by this disaster. It’s a bit like these China critics and journalists, many of them of Chinese backgrounds themselves it seems, are ‘going in for the kill’ against a weakened adversary. All very ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. And of course I sympathise to a degree, but note that I mentioned ‘collaborative’ before, and in our last post we talked about not playing the blame game at this time. The Epoch Times has an editorial on its second page, entitled ‘Giving the Right Name to the Virus Causing a Worldwide Pandemic’. Their decision is to call it the CCP virus, a name they use throughout the newspaper. I respectfully disagree for a number of reasons. First, it would be a step backward to the Spanish influenza days. As we know, the Spanish flu didn’t originate in Spain, but much of the early reporting of it came from there, while other nations, still engaged in the HSW (Horribly Stupid War) of the period, suppressed the news to maintain morale. This was unfortunate geographical nomenclature, as many people still confusedly believe it came from Spain. Today we wisely use scientific names which refer to the type of pathogen – coronaviruses have their characteristic s-proteins, hepatitis viruses affect the liver, from the ancient Greek root hepat-, etc. This helps make clear that viruses and other pathogens have no nationality and know no borders. It also helps to internationalise science. Second, while we need to know the precise origin of this virus, and to try to shut down what at this stage looks to be the passage from bats to humans via one or more intermediaries, the priorities right now are to stop or reduce its spread, to reduce its effect on human bodies, and ultimately to develop a vaccine to stop it in its tracks. Only after we’ve achieved these things should we be looking at causes and blame.

Canto: Right, like when the Titanic’s sinking, it’s no use wasting time on causes or human failings before the event, all your energies should be spent on saving lives, getting others to collaborate on rescue efforts, and getting the hell away from there. Those other enquiries come afterwards.

Jacinta: Right. Now China is apparently trying to help with supplies of PPE and with its own clinical trials of antivirals and vaccines. Obviously there are political motives there, but if it’s providing effective assistance we shouldn’t reject it. Now, there’s a massive amount of journalism being produced as to the CCP’s motives and its effectiveness in, for example its assistance to Italy, with which it has had long-standing relations, and we shouldn’t be naïve about the CCP’s misinformation campaigns, its dubious politicking, and its cyber-warfare activities, and all of that should be reported on, but in my view, the reporting should always have this question in back-of-mind: Is it (I mean the reporting) helping or hindering the spread and/or defeat of Covid-19? That s the one and only priority at the moment. If the CCP is saving lives and reducing suffering in its own country and elsewhere at the moment, that’s a good thing, and should be welcomed.

Canto: Misinformation costs lives too though. It’s interesting that both Hong Kong and Taiwan, two regions that have reason not to trust anything coming out of the CCP, have performed far better than most in combatting Covid-19. Many Hong Kong residents have been wearing masks since the SARS outbreak of 2003, and the people themselves were ahead of their own government in wanting shut-downs. They’ve experienced only four confirmed deaths – an amazing feat. It really pays – and saves lives – not to trust the CCP, it seems.

Jacinta: So let me give a third reason. China is an economic giant, keen to expand its economic impact around the world. Twenty-five percent of Australia’s manufactured goods come from China. China is the largest customer for our Australian exports, by far. Successive Australian governments have been trying to diversify our trade relations, but it seems that market forces are moving us to an ever-closer reliance on China. So we know that too-strident criticism of the CCP, however deserving, may have a severe economic impact. It places us in a delicate position. The question then becomes one of leverage – finding ways to criticise from a position of amity, or at least some kind of partnership.

Canto: Good luck with that. And we need to show them that we know what’s what, and that we’re not weaklings. And join and participate in international forums that promote human and minority rights, and lend our weight to international criticism.

Jacinta: Yes, and with these caveats, I do want to endorse what The Epoch Times is doing. It’s important that people hear from and about the dissident voices within China, their courage and their suffering. Knowledge is power, and much anger and outrage is thoroughly justified. What has happened to Fang Bin? To Chen Quishi? To Li Zehua? To Ren Zhiqiang? How does the CCP justify its treatment of the late Dr. Li Wenliang and of Dr. Ai Fen? This will not be forgotten, nor will the CCP’s self-interested, deceitful, incompetent and bullying mishandling of the early stages of this outbreak. The party needs to be brought to account, by international forces, in the aftermath of the pandemic.

References

The Epoch Times, April 20, Special Edition

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_pandemic_in_Hong_Kong

https://www.australiachinarelations.org/content/understanding-australias-economic-dependence-china

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fang_Bin

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Zehua

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chen_Qiushi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren_Zhiqiang

https://www.ijidonline.com/article/S1201-9712(20)30111-9/fulltext

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ai_Fen

Written by stewart henderson

May 10, 2020 at 12:51 pm

random thoughts on human rights

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Over the years I’ve had arguments and discussions with people, and semi-disputes online, about the status of human rights, and rights in general. Some have been quite dismissive of their ‘mythical’ nature, others like Scott Attran have described them as a crazy, transcendental idea invented by a handful of Enlightenment figures back in the day, and boosted by the reaction to world wars in the 20th century. There have been objections by certain states claiming they don’t give sufficient cognisance to ‘Asian values’, and Moslem countries have argued that they need to be amended in accordance with Shar’ia Law.

The first point I would make is that, granted that rights are a human invention, that doesn’t make them ‘unreal’ or in some sense nugatory. Tables, chairs, buildings, computers, bombs, democracy and totalitarianism are all human inventions, but very real, if not all of equal value. To describe human rights as a form of transcendentalism also doesn’t make sense to me. Certainly if you say ‘God has granted certain inalienable rights…’ you’re using transcendental language, but that language is, I think, superfluous to the idea of rights, which, I would argue, is grounded in both empiricism and pragmatism.

I would also argue, no doubt more controversially, that human rights make little sense if based entirely on the individual. They are principally about human relations, and so imply that each individual is part of a larger social entity, within which they may be accorded ‘freedoms from’ and ‘freedoms to’. Aristotle puts the point well in his Politics:

the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.

It follows that rights must be under the guardianship of states and enshrined in and upheld by their laws. This is vital because individuals often have competing interests, and it’s sometimes the case that particular individuals don’t recognise or understand that there’s a common, social interest beyond their own. This is the difficulty with rights – because we often think of them as my rights or my freedoms, we fail to understand that these rights, though granted in some sense to individuals, must be based on the thriving of the wider social sector, whether we’re referring to village, tribe or state. And it is to these larger social entities – states, or civilisations – that we owe our phenomenal success as a species, for better or worse.

This raises a question of whether the best human rights should flow from the best states, or vice versa. Interestingly, Aristotle and his students collected some 150 constitutions from the world of Greek poleis or city-states in order to devise the best, most ‘thriving’ city-state possible, which of course should have involved comparing the constitutions with the situation on the ground in those city-states. We don’t know if any such comparison was made (it’s very doubtful), but it does suggest that Aristotle thought that the state, via its constitution, was the engine of a thriving citizenry rather than the other way around.

Turning to rights in the modern world, the unfortunate claim by Tom Paine in his Rights of man (1791) that ‘rights are inherently in all the inhabitants’ of a state, has helped to create the confusion about rights being ‘natural’ to humans, like having two legs and a complex prefrontal cortex (the latter being largely the result of living in increasingly complex and organised society). If we’re to take human rights seriously, we need to be honest about their a posteriori nature. They need to be seen as the result of our understanding of how to create an environment that best suits us, as the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. In that respect, we’ve come a long way, not only from Aristotle (who excluded women and slaves from his citizenry), but also from the the late eighteenth century revolutionaries (who executed Olympe de Gouges for daring to even suggest adding women to the rights-owning citizenry of her own nation). Indeed, examining the issue of rights historically should remind us that they need to be updated on the basis of our ongoing advances in knowledge. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by this understanding, should certainly not be fixed in stone.

My views, of course clash with ‘natural law’ notions of human rights, which tend to be based on the individual an sich, and have claims to be outside of social or temporal considerations.

If we try to think of rights as ‘natural’ or self-evident, rather than something we construct to help us understand what we owe to, and might expect from, the best of civil states, we might well agree with Alasdair McIntyre’s view that there’s nothing natural or self-evident, say, about allowing people, by right, the freedom to express or live by their religious views. Many religious views are notoriously idiosyncratic and sometimes offensive from an outsider’s perspective, and adding the ‘no harm’ principle doesn’t suffice to smooth things over. The jury is very much out as to whether religion is, or has been, a benefit to society, but it’s well known that some religions have, in the past, engaged in human sacrifices. And even today new religions might crop up which may involve practices that the majority would find inimical both to individual and social well-being. And of course the very definition of religion is far from being self-evident. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

However, it makes no attempt to define religion, and in the same Article it claims the right of all to ‘manifest his… belief…in practice and observance’. This, if taken literally, is absurd, as a person might hold a belief that slave-owning is okay, and is given the green light by this Article to ‘manifest that belief in practice.. and observance’. No doubt my criticism doesn’t capture the liberal ‘spirit’ of the Article, but it does highlight an obvious problem. People do act on beliefs, and many actions, based on those beliefs, can be harmful, and subject to criminal prosecution. The law, of course, prosecutes acts, not thoughts, so we know that we’re free to think what we want – we don’t need a ‘right’ to protect this. I won’t try to define religion, but at least it seems to involve both beliefs and actions. Actions will be subject to civil and criminal law, so it might be argued that rights don’t find a place there. Beliefs are private unless and until they’re acted on, in which case they’ll be subject to law. So there’s a question whether rights have a place there also.

The more I look at human rights, the more difficulties I see. Let me take, more or less at random, Article 21 of the UDHR:

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Section 3 here reads like a directive, but I agree that every member of a state should be allowed at least the opportunity to cast a vote for government. In Australia, voting is compulsory for eligible parties, as it is in some 22 countries (though enforced in only 11). It’s questionable whether compulsion accords with human rights and freedoms, but given the socially constructed nature of humanity, voting should definitely be encouraged as a duty, at the very least. The ideal, of course, would be that everybody is aware of what they owe to the state, and their interest in creating and maintaining a state that is beneficial to the whole and so to themselves as a part.

There is no doubt in my mind that participatory democracies make for better states than any alternatives, and if this can be bolstered by human rights language that is fine, though I think that interest and duty (what we owe to ourselves and others) makes more sense as an argument. The ‘Asian values’ objection here (revisited recently by the Chinese oligarchy) is bogus and self-serving, as evidenced by the success of democratic nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. There is a tendency in Asian nations to be more collectivist in thinking and behaviour than in many European nations, and especially the USA, but this would make them more attracted to participatory democracy, not less.

Concluding remarks – the more I look at rights, the more questionable I find them. I would rather encourage a neo-Aristotelian way of thinking. We’re now political animals more than ever, in a wider sense than Aristotle saw it, because civilisation itself is political, and civilisation is hardly something we can opt out of. I don’t advocate world government – that was an impossible if admirable ideal – but I certainly advocate intergovernmental co-operation as opposed to zero sum nationalism. We need to make an all-out effort to improve our state structures and understanding between them for the sake of all their members (and the rest of the biosphere).

Written by stewart henderson

August 31, 2019 at 8:44 am