Friday, July 29, 2016


Some of these distances are quite long. Consider humanitarianism. You can go all the way back to the Hebrew Bible for the idea of equality before the law. The Bible demands that there be one law for the immigrant and for the native-born. Everyone gets the protection of the same laws. We still struggle to achieve this. Not to mention the Bible’s commands not to oppress or wrong the immigrant and even to love the immigrant. Lo these many thousands of years later, hatred and fear of the immigrant is still the easiest thing to whip up.

In the first century, the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus told his readers of a due process rule that Jews follow. No one may be put to death for a crime unless he has first had a trial by the Sanhedrin. We have more or less achieved that, but we don’t always follow it and sometimes when we do, it’s not exactly a fair trial that is being followed. If we did honor due process as much as we say we do, there would not be any need for an innocence project which seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted persons.

But we don’t have to go as far back as ancient Judaism to see how hard it is to advance humanitarian ideals. Let’s just go back to the 17th century and John Locke. Locke challenged the idea that state sovereignty is a sacrosanct idea. For Locke, the foundation of society was human rights, liberty, and equality. No claim to government power could be legitimate unless it honored and protected human rights. We claim to believe that, but state sovereignty has a powerful hold on us. We are reluctant to interfere with it, no matter how badly human rights are being violated by a state. John Locke pushed for the idea that force can never validate what is not right. It has been over three hundred years since Locke promoted his ideas and we are still catching up.

The need for human rights as well as understanding what they are was obvious hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. But fighting for human rights is a long distance race. It is not and never will be a one hundred yard dash to the finish line.

The same is true of seeking for reason in the study of any subject. Whatever academics in all fields may boast, achieving rationality is no easy matter. We are still huffing and puffing our way there, despite the noble efforts of so many who carried the torch long before we got here. Socrates was sprinting ahead more than two millennia ago. Have we taken it any further beyond his hopes and dreams? Socrates’s Bible was the Greek language, not the entire language, just key points in it, like words about the good and the bad, truth, usefulness, justice, state power, and more. He insisted we reason carefully, building up slowly from the evidence and taking small, careful steps towards a conclusion. It’s a dream that we have reached that ideal. Abandoning reason and leaping towards ideology is still the sacrosanct way to find truth for too many academics.

But let’s move up in time from Socrates. Let’s go to 9th century China. Zen Master Huang Po advised us to reject what we think, not what we see. That’s what a wise person would do, he said. The fool, on the other hand, rejects what he sees in favor of what he already thinks. This is a very simple and effective way of saying that we must not let preconceived ideology control the reasoning process. Let’s pay attention to the evidence. Who am I going to believe, Judge Marilyn Milian is always asking litigants when she studies a piece of evidence in her courtroom, you or my lying eyes? There is one consistent thread when you follow this line of thought over the centuries. How hard is it to follow Huang Po’s wise advice? Judging by the way most academics behave, it is very difficult.

When reason or the essence of human rights first dawned on some caveman eons ago, it must have come in full bloom. Once you get it, there it is in all its flowering. He must have thought this is so obvious, everybody is going to be thrilled when I tell them about respecting human rights or about reasoning from the evidence. He was in for a very rude awakening. Did he despair when people laughed at him or stared at him like he was crazy? Did he withdraw for a while before he returned to campaign for what he believed? Or was he executed? He almost certainly was ostracized.

Most important, would he be stunned to learn that thousands of years later, we are still fighting for the same simple propositions?

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

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