Fifty years ago, part of the inspiration for American civil-rights legislation was the idea that ending racial segregation would take a Cold War debating point away from the Communists. Back then, whenever Americans wanted to point to political repression in the Communist bloc, Communists or leftists in general would say something like, "But what about the blacks in your country?" In response, a short-lived bipartisan consensus emerged -- as Republicans today often like to point out, Republicans then who in no way resemble today's GOP supported the key legislation -- around the idea that we could preach credibly on civil liberties around the world only if we recognized civil rights at home. Of course, given persistent black poverty critics of the U.S. have never entirely given up the debating point. Today, in fact, here's an editorial from the English-language news site of China's official news agency deploring what it characterizes as American hypocrisy on the issue of human rights. The editorial writer points to new findings on police brutality as proof of "the real human rights situation in the U.S.," to which most American politicians and media have been "turning a blind eye" while criticizing China and other "authoritarian" or "totalitarian" countries.
The Chinese themselves have sometimes argued that "human rights" are a sort of cultural construct and that there can't be a single "universal" standard for all nations in a pluralistic world of different yet equal cultures. Yet in this case they seem to argue either that American police brutality violates a universal human right or that it contradicts Americans' own human-rights principles. In the first case I'm sure that there are many out there who can testify that the Chinese have no business criticizing other countries for police brutality. The other case is more interesting. We still have a lot of Americans who won't even see most or any of the recent highly-publicized cases as "brutality" because they hold the victims at least partly responsible for their own deaths (by resisting arrest or failing to comply with instructions) or because they believe cops (excepting that guy in South Carolina caught on camera shooting a fleeing suspect in the back) are acting within legal bounds in reasonable self-defense. Some other Americans may say that the Chinese are comparing two different things in order to get themselves off the hook. When these Americans talk about "human rights" they know what they mean: political rights, freedom of speech and assembly, all the stuff presumed absent in a nation like China where organized political opposition is still more or less illegal. Many of these same Americans are sincerely and deeply concerned about police brutality, but they may well still find China guilty of false equivalence for saying that we can't criticize their system of political repression because we have police brutality. Excessive force is one thing, they might say, and deliberate repression another -- even as a minority may argue that excessive police force is part of a deliberate system of oppression. The main idea is that most Americans won't accept the premise that police brutality disqualifies them as citizens of the U.S. from criticizing human rights violations around the world, and they'll see Chinese commentary on police brutality as just another way for the Chinese to excuse their own tyranny. Their implicit assumption will be that political repression is worse than police brutality, and they'll point to the protests over police brutality all over the country as proof of our system's superiority to China's.
But who defines human rights? Where do they come from, anyway? There are at least two ways of answering. A "progressive" view might encompass an increasing number of human rights over the course of history on the premise that an increasingly civilized society will constantly demand better lives for all its people as their due. The "natural rights" view is more likely to argue that there are a set number of human rights that can be determined intellectually and will not change in the future simply because we feel entitled to better things. The progressive view is more likely to accept that a demand is sufficient to establish a right because the right in any case comes not from "nature" but from ourselves. A third view, possibly that of China, works from a Marxist premise that rights depend on where we stand in the history of class struggle. This view is the one most likely to envision a retraction of rights on the assumption that "bourgeois" human rights are no longer relevant to, or may prove subversive of, a "proletarian" regime whose historical rights trump everything else. That viewpoint irks not just the natural-rights school but also many progressives who take a "no going back" stance on human rights. But if progressives concede that human rights depend on human will, can they assume that every human right asserted is valid for all time. Can they claim that rights are eternal with the same confidence shown by the natural-rights school? These questions matter because if we're ever to have a truly global or universal standard of human rights by which all countries can be judged fairly it will require input from all our cultures as well as a debate over whether, and if so what rights are unconditional or irrevocable. Americans may be forced to recognize rights that require greater redistribution of wealth to realize, and Chinese may have to learn that public dissent doesn't always mean turmoil. But unless you do believe in natural rights and assume that one culture knows them all, you'll have to concede that it can't just be one country or one culture's ideas that prevail over all. Until then, all nations may not be equally hypocritical, but their rhetoric about rights in other nations is all equally propaganda.