Universal Rights and American Exceptionalism

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Over here, this is what we believe.

Yesterday, President Obama spoke in China in a town-hall type environment, bringing up several topics, including environmental issues and trade. But he also spoke of the two very different ways in which China and the United States treat their people, and of the values those two countries esteem. According to ABC News online, Obama said that “freedoms of expression and worship and access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights.” By “we,” I can only assume that he, as our spokesman, was talking about Americans collectively. The President said that these freedoms should “be available to all people […] whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation.”

By speaking of “universal rights” that rightfully belong to “all people” no matter where they reside, Obama is 1) saying that rights are not decided by cultures, but by something that transcends cultures. That is, there are some rights that are not made up–they are not culturally relative, yet some cultures have chosen to recognize these universal rights, while some have repressed them. But the conclusion of Obama’s words are plain: the rights still exist in cultures that repress them. Two, he is making it clear that some cultures are superior to others, and 3) deciding to engage in cultural warfare, promoting American ideals of liberty to the exclusion of other (inferior) ideals. This is good.

Obama himself may or may not even realize the implications of declaring certain rights to be universal. It is essentially saying that the American way is more right than the way of Communist China and their authoritarian methods of restricting information and freedoms of dissent, dialog, and religion. It is pitting one culture against another, not to compare two “equal but different” ways of life, but to choose between right and wrong. It is recognizing that rights aren’t man-made. It is appealing to a transcendent standard. But whether Obama understands these necessary implications or not, for stating clearly that certain rights are not granted, nor can be rightfully rescinded, by culture or government, but are absolute, I applaud the President.


One thought on “Universal Rights and American Exceptionalism

  1. Kate says:

    America really IS the best, for all its failures. Like Thomas Jefferson said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."

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