The U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights:
rights for whom? Anyone we know?

by Steven Hill

You are at a public event. The event is a presentation by a man who is lecturing about the situation in El Salvador and Central America. Until recently, this man, a Lt. Colonel in the US Army, worked for the Office of Public Diplomacy, an arm of the Sta te Department. The national mainstream press has recently revealed what people in the anti-intervention/Solidarity Movement have been saying for several years: that this Office of Public "Diplomacy," and also the State Department and the Reagan Administ ration, have been waging a domestic propaganda campaign of lies and deceit to convince the United States public that the problem in Central America is the spread of communism, and the US government needs their taxes to stop the spread of communism in Cent ral America.

This man, standing right in front of you, has been part of a concerted, well-thought out effort by the United States government to lie to and deceive the public about Nicaragua being a "totalitarian dungeon," that it is a puppet state of the Soviet Union , trying to spread its dogma and overthrow the governments of Central America, especially via its guerrilla proxies in El Salvador. You realize that this man, this propagandist, this liar, and the lies that he and his cohorts in the Reagan Administration have spread, and the military assistance that they and our taxes, your taxes, have given to certain governments in Central America, have resulted in the death of over 150,000 Central Americans in the past nine years, repression of grass-roots attempts to achieve some measure of social justice, and ecological and economic devastation for the entire region.

And this man, this Lt. Colonel, is doing it again. He is up there slickly distorting the situation in Central America, deleting important information, deftly rendering his cold war interpretation of the social, economic, and political realities of Centra l America.

You want to scream at him to stop! Doesn't he know that his words are killing people? That lies can kill? You want to yell things at him, yell things to the audience about this man's lies, but you don't dare. The urgency of this voice within you is co untered by another one, one that has incubated in you since you were very young: "This man has a right to speak." "He has a right to his opinion, and to share that opinion." "It's his free speech", that is one of our most cherished freedoms you recall, one that, as a dissenter of US foreign policy, you highly value yourself.

But does he have a right to lie, you ask yourself? He is trying to rally support for the same policies that have resulted in death and misery for whole nations of people! Does he have a right to do that, you wonder? If the presenter was Adolph Hitler o r Hermann Goerring up there, talking about the necessity of Germany conquering Europe and interning the Jews, and you knew that he was at that moment carrying forth with his genocidal pogrom, should you be required to patiently and calmly listen to him?

Your quandary pounds in your head as he continues to weave his tapestry to convince his audience of the Communist threat. You are a person of conscience, you believe in the right of free speech-- but this is ridiculous! What he is doing is worse than y elling "Fire" in a crowded theatre. He's yelling "Fire" at the people of Central America! A voice rushes up from somewhere deep within you, you cannot be still. "Not in my name!" you yell at him, and you jump to your feet. You begin yelling to the audi ence that this man is lying, you begin to explain to them how he is lying, you drown out the propagandist, he can no longer be heard. In a few minutes, you are escorted from the event by the police, and charged with disorderly conduct. It seems that, ju st as you feared, you did indeed disturb the speakers freedom of speech, and that is against the law.


We, the people of the United States, live in a country that, compared to many others in the world, offers an impressive array of individual political rights. We are proud of our democratic heritage and institutions that have been handed down to us across the arc of generations from our 18th century Founding Fathers. We consider our US Constitution, especially the freedoms of speech, religion and the press, and the right to bear arms that are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, as a model for an essential safeguard of the balance between governmental power and individual rights.

Yet, as the example above illustrates, and a further look around us at our society, there are contradictions with this idyllic formula. For instance, take the right to bear arms: to some, this means the right to own semiautomatic assault weapons like th e kind that was used recently to gun down 5 children on a playground in Stockton, California, or the kind that was used to terrorize McDonalds diners in the San Diego area a few years ago, or the kind used by Marc Lepine to murder 14 women engineering stu dents in Montreal.

Take the freedom of the press: to some newspaper publishers and television news network executives, this means the right to print or broadcast whatever they want about a particular event, whether the event is the meeting of the local Planning and Develop ment Commission or the role of US involvement in Central America, southern Africa, or BCCI; or the right to choose to not report on the event at all, such as the Persian Gulf war and Iraqi civilian casualties.

And, of course, there is our most highly cherished right, that of freedom of speech, which in the modern age is more and more synonomous with freedom of entertainment: to some, this means that pornographers have the right to sell for profit photos of nude women displayed as sex objects who enjoy their objectification, even if the women have been coerced into posing for the photos, either by economics or by knife point. Even if the photos are of children whose parents have discovered a lucrative way to ma ke a living-- forcing their kids to pose in positions of sexual display. If it is a photograph, it is speech, and if it is speech, it is protected, they argue.

It seems that we have missed something. As we proudly wave aloft the cherished banner of individual rights, we witness that it is possible to use one's Constitutionally-protected individual rights to restrict the individual rights of others. Our concept of individual rights exists in a society where not all people are born with or enjoy equal access to these rights. It is as if the nightmare of Orwell's Animal Farm, which was written as a social satire against the replacement of one type of tyranny for another, has come back to haunt us: "All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others." Translated into the 1980's, this means all people have the individual right to do what he or she wishes, yet some of us have the wealth, power, or position, and apparently the right, to do what we want more than others.

Has the 18th century "liberal" conceptualization of individual rights outlived its usefulness? Today, in the United States, the practice of individual rights has become the antithesis to the concept of social or collective rights. Pornographers and Stat e Department spokesman apparently have the right to exercise their freedom of speech, even when their act hurts someone, even thousands and thousands of people. If one owns a piece of property, one has the right to do with that piece of property whatever one wants. One has a right to buy a mountainside, if one can afford it, and clear-cut the old growth on that mountainside, or build condominiums on that mountainside and deface the ecosystem and the view that a whole community has enjoyed for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. A corporation has a right to buy up fallow farmland and build a 15 acre aerospace manufacturing complex, or even a nuclear power plant, against the wish of its neighbors.

Ironically, our own democratic ideals and traditions, of freedom, of individual rights, and of pluralism, keep us paralyzed in the face of such contradictions. In fact, the rights of one individual, protected by law, can be used to trample the rights of many other people.


In order to understand the complexity of this state of affairs, it is helpful to understand the historical legacy of our concept of individual rights. Our modern day notion of individual rights has its roots in the 17th and 18th century philosophical tra ditions of the European Enlightenment. Writers such as John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Montesquieu proposed that humans possessed certain natural rights, apart from the king or the state. These rights were those of life, liberty, equality, and pr operty. Locke especially gave very heavy emphasis to the right of property, by which he usually meant the possession of land. His philosophy gave expression to the landed classes of England in their claims against the king and the "divine right" to rule that the king claimed.

Locke and Rousseau proposed that the nature of government was a sort of "contract" of mutual obligations that was established to enforce observance of the rights of all. Locke's contract was a political agreement between a ruler or government and its peo ple. However, Rousseau, writing 70 years later, thought of it as an agreement among the people themselves. It was a social, not merely a political, contract. It was an understanding by which all individuals surrendered their natural liberty to each oth er, fused their individual wills into a combined General Will, and agreed to accept the rulings of this General Will as final. Organized civil society, including the government, rested upon the General Will.

The 18th century world of France and the 13 British colonies was aflame with this philosophical tradition. Concepts like "constitutional government," "guarantees of personal liberty," "freedom of speech and press," "freedom from arbitrary arrest and conf inement," were hotly debated and discussed by the people of all classes. They were proclaimed in such lofty treatises as "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen," "The Declaration of Independence," and "The Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine, and i n such emotional entreaties as Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death!" and the "Freedom, Fraternity and Equality" slogans of the mob who stormed the Bastille. In "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen," liberty was defined as the f reedom to do anything not injurious to others, which in turn was to be determined only by law. Law was the expression of the general will, to be made by all citizens or their representatives. The natural rights of human beings were held to be "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression."

Locke's ideas figured prominently in the ideas of the author's of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In fact, some phrases of the Declaration of Independence echo his very language. His ideas expressed the sentiments of the nasce nt bourgeoisie in both the European continent and the 13 British colonies--- the emerging class of lawyers, merchants, businessmen, landowners and such.

The bourgeoisie (and the aristocracy as well, but for different reasons) were interested in resisting the form of government of the time, royal absolutism, with its mercantilistic economic policies and its centralized professional bureaucracy and corps of paid officials. They had had enough of monarchical regulation over the sale or quantity of goods, and of royally privileged companies and other economic monopolies. Reformist economic thinkers such as Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations (1776) held that or ganized special interests, including guilds, labor unions, and aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege, were detrimental to society, and that all prices and wages should be determined by free arrangement between the individuals concerned. They believed that wealth would increase if there was a "free market" with less regulation and greater freedom for investment and for the trade and circulation of goods.

"Laissez-faire," ("let things alone") became the order of the day. The individual rights that the bourgeoisie wanted, and succeeded in wresting from monarchical control, were those political and economic rights that they needed to pursue their own "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," unbridled by the fetters of monarchical administration or aristocratic privilege. The bourgeoisie wanted to be left alone to pursue their own economic and political class interests.

The class interests of the 17th and 18th century bourgeoisie drew heavily from the ideas of the Enlightenment, especially Locke's rights of property and contractual obligations between governments and the governed. But they had no use at all for the conc ept of a General Will as proposed by Rousseau. What Rousseau had proposed was to generalize and make applicable to larger territories the common will of a small city-republic-- the sense of membership, of community and fellowship, of responsible citizens hip and intimate participation in public affairs. He was concerned with something deeper than merely a political contract between the government and the governed. He craved a commonwealth in which every person could feel that they belonged, and a state in which all persons had a sense of membership and participation. Unlike his other works, Rousseau's Social Contract (1762), was little read and almost unknown in his time.

However grandiloquent were the pronouncements for life, liberty, and equality, in retrospect it is obvious that the revolutionary "benefits" were mostly ascribed to white males. Very few philosophers, statesmen or revolutionaries at the time argued for l egal equality between the sexes or for racial equality. Rousseau himself was a horrible sexist, writing in Emile that "the girl is educated to please the man and everything that she is to learn is relative to men." Among the few who did were the Marquis de Condorcet in France, and Mary Wollstonecraft in England, who published Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792.

The drafters of the U.S. Constitution, at their best more concerned with getting a new nation off the ground than with lofty ideals, and at their worst blatantly sexist, racist, and domineering, continued to allow black people to exist in a brutal state o f forced servitude, as non-beings, yet permitted them to be counted as 3/5 a person for representation purposes; they allowed the continued encroachemnt and pilfering of indigenous lands; and they also failed to address the hypocritical inequality of wome n. In granting political rights, the French Constitution of 1791 seriously modified the abstract principles of the National Assembly's great Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Henceforth, only those males well-off enough to pay a small tax ha d the right to vote, and only those who paid a somewhat higher tax qualified as representatives. In practice, in both revolutionary France and the new United States, a white man had to have property to vote and sufficient private wealth and leisure in or der to be a representative and attend the assemblies, which met at a distance from home and for several days at a time.

In retrospect, we can see that what the bearers of freedom, equality, and liberty truly wanted was a social milieu in which they would not be bothered by anyone more powerful than they. It was a palace coup, and the result was an ideology that held aloft and brandished like a club the right of the individual as the new "divine right." But now, there was not to be one king, or a small group of aristocratic nobles; the divine kingship had been extended much further, to all propertied white males, and espe cially to the wealthiest of these (George Washington, hero of the War of Independence, the first US president and widely regarded for his leadership skills, was also one of the wealthiest men in the new country). The last vestiges of feudalism and divine monarchy had been repudiated, only to be replaced by a new order of propertied white males that continued to exclude most of the population. In the newly-created United States women were excluded, blacks were to remain physically enslaved for another 75 years, and native peoples were virtually exterminated. The succeeding years have seen a struggle by dispossessed groups to acquire the individual rights that supposedly the whole society enjoys.

Our modern-day concept of individual rights was born out of this struggle against royal absolutism, the divine rights of kings, and aristocratic prerogative. The idea of communal or social rights, borne from a common or General Will, became marginalized almost to the point of extermination. The clash between industrialization and native Americans wiped out the most successful, widespread practice of communal living. There have been many experiments with communal living in the 19th and 20th centuries, b ut the ethos of the dominant society continues to rely on the narrow interpretation of individual rights that we inherited from the 18th century revolts that were spearheaded by the bourgeois commercial classes against royal (or in the case of the 13 Brit ish colonies, royal and parliamentary) interference in the political and economic rights of their class.

It is these two strains of thought, the individual right to do as one wants unhindered by government interference, and an egalitarian vision of a community of humankind with membership and participation for all, that have rolled down to us over the subseq uent centuries. The first of these ideas coincided with the rise of the emerging industrial capitalism of the 19th century and is the antecedent of our modern-day notions of individual rights, of private ownership of the means of production, and minimal government interference. The second idea smacks of a type of communalism that has continued to be experimented with and romanticized, but has thus far failed to institutionalize itself to any great extent.

Throughout the history of the United States, these two strains of thought have showed themselves to be at glaring, contradictory odds. Whether the perpetrators have been the robber barons and J. P. Morgan-type industrial moguls of the 19th century, or KK K racists, religious fundamentalists, and rugged individualist politicians, atrocities have been committed against individuals and whole classes of individuals in the name of another individual's pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

Today, as so many multifarious groups of different nationality, gender, race, class, and ethnicity clamor for their right to their own life, liberty and happiness, a new analysis is emerging. It is becoming apparent that there are tremendous societal cos ts when an individual or group of individuals, because of their position or wealth, is allowed to exercise his or her rights at the expense of a whole group of people. A new concept of human rights is emerging that not only includes a belief in individua l rights, but balances this with an awareness of collective rights, an awareness of the rights of peoples everywhere for social justice, and the causes and effects of structural injustice.

This new concept of human rights also includes a conception of economic rights: that the fundamental goal of an economy should be to provide satisfactory employment and fair remuneration for all its members; that many different occupations are necessary to properly maintain the vitality of a society, and therefore an hour of such essential labor is approximately equal to an hour of essential labor no matter what the form of that labor, no matter if you are a lawyer, doctor, entrepreneur, corporate CEO, c arpenter, plumber, professor, construction worker, secretary, nurse, teacher, or mental health or day care worker; and that underlying all production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, and the relationships of employer to worker, of fel low worker to fellow worker, and worker to the products that we produce, are essential social relationships. The plate of food that we sit down to every evening after work has been produced by literally hundreds of hands via an interconnected web of huma nity that starts in the fields, goes through the processing line to our local grocery store, and ends up at our dinner table and at the bottom of our stomachs. To not acknowledge the social aspect of our economic system is to ignore the nature of reality . Yet this is precisely what our "laissez-faire" conception of individual rights asks us to do.

Does a State Department spokesperson have the right to hurt thousands and thousands of people with propaganda, lies and deceptions, his so-called "free speech?" And does a newspaper have the right to print or not to print whatever it wants? Numerous stu dies, as well as the testimony and research of former CIA agents and journalists like John Stockwell, Raymond Bonner, and Noam Chomsky, reveal that the mainstream press of this country has consistently and knowingly reported inaccurate information to the United States public about the situation in Central America, Indonesia and elsewhere. There is a disturbing pattern of collaboration shockingly reminiscent of Pravda, the newspaper accused of being the government "mouthpiece" in the communist Soviet Unio n. The corporate media have dutifully reported the official State Department line. Do newspaper magnates and conglomerates like Gannett or Hearst Publishing, or wire services like the Associated Press, have the right to print whatever they want simply b ecause they own the paper? Do they have the right to keep the taxpayers of the United States so confused about their government's policy that public resistance is curtailed? Do they have the right to exercise their "freedom of the press" this way, when it contributes to the death of thousands upon thousands of Central Americans? According to the paradigm of liberal individual rights, apparently they do.

Paradoxically, a person with money and power can buy more freedom of speech or freedom of the press than a person without money. They can buy magazines, newspapers, publishing firms, radio and television stations, movie production companies, etc. In fac t, in the grand ol' USA it is possible for a person with money and power to buy so much "freedom of speech" that they can limit the freedom of speech of someone else, even a whole population of people. This is becasue indivdual rights are elevated to suc h a lofty status, while communal rights have almost no legal standing at all.

As wealth and economics come to dominate our politics, it has become increasingly clear that soemthing has to give. The gap betwwen the theory and practice of individual rights has become too large to ignore. Individual rights are a means -- but not the only means -- to an end. The desired end is a fair and equitable world. Happiness. Opportunity. Yet sometimes the individual rights of one person, one corportaion, one media conglomerate, one landowner, threatend the rights of whole masses of people, of entire communities. In such cases, the rights of all must prevail over the rights of the one. It jsut makes sense, there is a balacning to be struck.

Otherwise, we end up in a dog-eat-dog world.

We must be wary of those who wield the club of individual rights in such a way as to club to death the baby seal of participatory democracy, or to make a snuff film of a democratic conception of the state and of human rights. No one person's, or any grou p of persons, individual rights are inherently more important than another group's rights, or a whole class of people's rights. Communal and economic rights are vital considerations, as is the general will and the health of the entire body politic.

Ideally dialogue, negotiations, education and consensus would be utlized to establish which rights, whose rights, are being trampled, which rights are important to reinforce, and how an egregious situation can be amended. Ideally, the entire resources of the society would be utilized to correct such flagrant violations of human rights that the institutions of racism, sexism, status and imperialism represent. But this is asking alot of a society where individual rights are for sale to the highest bidder, and where a narrow conception of individual rights is valued over collective rights.

We must ask ourselves: what happens when the discussion, dialogue and consensus breaks down, when the power-brokers with the money and the influence begin coercing, manipulating, and outright forcing their will, their individual rights down our throats? At what point do we begin to defend ourselves, and all that we hold dear? When the forests are all gone, when women and children are terrorized even more than they are now, when our loved ones are being disappeared, and the fascist state is pounding at our door, like in El Salvador and Guatemala, or at Pine Ridge Reservation and in the ghettos of our cities?

So the next time an Exxon spokesperson or local developer starts crowing about their private property rights; or the next time Rupert Murdoch or your local newspaper editor starts bellowing about the great free press in the United States and the Western w orld; or the next time the National Rifle Association, or George Bush or the KKK start proclaiming their constitutionaly-protected right to bear arms; or the next time a State Department propagandist or pornographer, or any other of the Free Speechists, s tarts harping about the sanctity of freedom of speech, think to yourself, and then turn to them and challenge: "Whose freedom and whose speech? Whose freedom and whose press?" In our struggle for liberation of all peoples, these are important questions to pose.

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