Is A Movement for Global Justice Possible?

by Wayne McCormack – 

This poignant statement from Bill Moyers is 10 years old but should resonate powerfully today:

Ideas have power – as long as they are not frozen in doctrine. But ideas need legs. The eight-hour day, the minimum wage, the conservation of natural resources and the protection of our air, water, and land, women’s rights and civil rights, free trade unions, Social Security and a civil service based on merit – all these were launched as citizen’s movements and won the endorsement of the political class only after long struggles and in the face of bitter opposition and sneering attacks.

 – Bill Moyers, The Progressive Story of America (June 4, 20/03)

One curse of legal training is the temptation to pick apart a grand statement into its procedural and substantive components. His procedural point seems to be that you chew the world one bite at a time, or as our former Dean Walter Oberer was fond of saying, “Yard by yard, life is hard; inch by inch, it’s a cinch.” The substantive point is that society needs communal values.

However one sorts the details, the fundamental truth is that at this moment in the U.S., cultural values of selfishness (embracing homogeneity, acting with intolerance, tolerating if not glorifying an ever wider wealth disparity) are dominating over cultural values of community (embracing diversity, acting with compassion, ensuring that all have adequate food and shelter and medical care).

Two questions occur to me: (1) Is the dominance of selfishness entrenched or more of a speed bump on the historical road toward communal progress? (2) Is there still a middle-ground political will to whom we can appeal and how do we organize to do it? These are questions related to Global Justice for many reasons, not the least of which is that the world is waiting to see how the U.S. will respond to the many scenarios playing on a troubled world stage.

On the first question, I have no doubt that multi-culturalism or pluralism is the driving force of this world for the next millennium. The momentum is just too great to be controlled. Ironically, the very people who are pushing global economic policies today are the same ones who drove the most recent U.S. elections to the right. You would think that big business would view jingoism as a threat to the global marketplace, but in the short run it helps by just keeping their folks in power. Jingoism and patriotism are useful for stifling debate in the same way that an appeal to revealed truth can be manipulated to accomplish conformity.

On the second question, the political ideals of communal responsibility need to be laid out clearly in response to the rhetoric of individualism. The moderate left should be able to persuade the middle of the wisdom of communal responses to economic and social problems. A pluralistic agenda includes embracing globalism, rather than tilting at windmills by fighting against it. We should be working toward sensible policies of fair labor conditions and environmental protection in a global community, which means a well-regulated fair-trade economy not a head-in-the-sand resistance to global trade.

The organizing principles of today, contained in a variety of international conventions and declarations, are basically the same as the principles of a century ago: fair labor practices, nondiscrimination, environmental protection, respect and compassion for those who are different from us. The principles of globalized free trade are the same as the principles of the interstate commerce clause in the U.S. – that goods and services can move freely across borders so long as they are not produced by exploitation or unsafe practices.

For decades now, the Left has confused voters by seemingly inconsistent political stances – insisting on personal autonomy for social preferences while pressing for communal responses to economic issues. The Left needs to realize that we don’t want to leave everyone alone, not in the labor-economic arena and not when those others are trying to control us. We do want to control labor practices, environmental practices, and discrimination. We do not want to control private sexual behavior or religious belief. We do want to act with respect and compassion for all. It is time for the Left to get to work and promote its values: respect, compassion, dignity, liberty.

Meanwhile, the Right has done the same confusing dance (as they say about Ginger Rogers’ performances with Fred Astaire, “backwards and in high heels”). The Right wants to control our social choices while leaving the economic arena free to personal entrepeneurship (or what some would term control by greed). The result has been debilitating deregulation of markets while the Tea Party presses for even less control of labor and economic practices.

Toward that end, I suggest that we in the moderate left state clearly our agenda. To get this effort started, here is a list from which to build an agenda, most of which are already clearly stated in such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ten Organizing Principles of Pluralism:

  1. cultural pluralism
  2. respect for human dignity and privacy
  3. freedom of religion and expression
  4. fair labor practices
  5. equality of opportunity
  6. universal education and health care
  7. environmental protection
  8. fiscal responsibility
  9. corporate integrity
  10. multilateral foreign policy

In recent months, I have been engaged in a series of e-mail conversations with a variety of colleagues over the question of what can be done to address the debacle of US policy in the last 12 years and our apparent future direction. Our options as individuals are limited.

One option as a society is universal conscription (a civilian service corps could do a lot of good). We can write op-eds and letters-to-editors (and we academics have other pulpits available). It is tempting to wave these off as whistling in the wind (after all, what can one little person do in a great big world). But great movements begin somewhere, and I see a lot of agitation these days for changing the way the world does business.

My friend and colleague Amos Guiora says we are complicit if we stand and watch. I remember the 1960’s mantra “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I will keep writing my academic stuff that has only minimal effect here and there. (And I will even disagree with Amos over some specifics, but I will learn in the process.)

The tragedy of the last decade is that on September 12, 2001, the U.S. was in a unique position in all of human history. We truly had the option of revamping the world of geopolitics. Everyone was ready to move against the idea of willful destruction of innocent life, to build a coalition for justice that would last into the future. But instead we chose to squander that position with occupation of two countries in which we had no business beyond the cleaning out of the training camps (which I hasten to add was perfectly appropriate). Why did we do this? for the benefit of a few wealthy individuals and their government contracts? For the oil in Iraq? To keep our friends in the Gulf sheikhdoms happy? To prove that this generation was just as good as Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation?”  I suppose there are various mixtures of reasons but they add up to a willful refusal to reshape global politics and to further alienation of the non-sheikh Arab world in the process.

Wayne McCormack is a Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Counter-Terrorism, International Criminal Law, Torts, and Civil Procedure. From 1997-2002 he coordinated the University of Utah’s involvement with the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and that experience led to security planning for major events and interest in international legal issues, including the law related to terrorism.