Why the West is concerned about victims
December 30, 2004
With death arriving in southern Asia in such numbers that we are reminded of genocide, it is perhaps a good time to think about why we in the West are concerned and why the heroic effort to help the victims grows out of the Euro-American world.
It is simple: We believe in human rights. Along with that belief is our feeling that we have a moral duty to do for others whatever we can in emergencies.
None of that washes away corruption in city, state and federal government. It doesn’t mean that there is not a good deal of superstition in action, almost all of it wearing the mask of subtle or overt bigotry in the worlds of color and sex.
But when you get down to it, we are not only battling our demons and expanding our sense of freedom, we are also responding to the horrors of life in the world beyond us.
I say that because we so often experience a crisis of confidence in our system or values and end up neck-deep in gloom. All that is tiresome, because it does not get to the essence of the issues at hand and the things that we must face if we are to continue forward with any authority.
Our great contribution to the world comes from our formulating the conception of human rights. That came out of Europe and America in the 18th century. It was not a gift from the Middle East, Africa, Asia or the indigenous groups of the Western Hemisphere. It came out of Christian countries, the very same ones that were profiting from the slave trade or busy slaughtering local groups that got in the way of colonial ambitions. A split identity of high-mindedness and imperialism is behind much of our history.
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Western science first upheld racism, taking the position that humankind began in different places that produced either superior or inferior people. Interestingly, the idea of a human community was pushed by believers in the Bible, because the existence of Eden meant that all people began in the same place. That sense of the basic dignity of all humankind underlay the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Eventually, Western science helped prove that the differences are almost exclusively on the surface. But the visionary concept came from Christianity.
Christianity might have a good deal to answer for, but being at the root of a belief in human rights is not one of them. That belief took on a special significance in the secular world and was essential to the dismantling of slavery, the bettering of labor conditions and the liberation of women from second-class citizenship (an effort that is still going on, by the way).
It also underlay the forming of the International Red Cross and the many variations on it we call NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that respond to human needs beyond the dictates of politics and economic systems.
Earthquakes, waves taller than two-story buildings, floods, droughts and even the results of genocide are all addressed by these organizations. They came to fruition in the Western world, but they give help to the world at large.
No matter how bad the Western record might be, its concept of human commonality has inspired many to do all they can for those suffering natural disasters that know no politics and have no concern for color or religion or sex. Those disasters only make the distinctions of the quick, the lucky and the dead.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.