Tuesday, January 5, 2016

America: Where Property Rights > Human Rights

The right to private property is a decisive theme in American history. English colonists disparaged Native claims to land in part because such claims did not align with European conventions of property. Deeds to land, fences, European-style cultivation--all these signaled the arrival, so the English thought, of civilization itself. If the right to private property implied civilization, the right to a particular kind of property (in human beings) marked its owners as free people. In attempting to turn people into chattel, White Americans demonstrated in no uncertain terms the value they placed on private property, and the lengths they were willing to go to secure their own liberty, as they understood it. After the Civil War, property in people may have been (partially) abolished, but property in land remained as vital as ever. The federal government honored the land claims of former Confederates over the demands of freedpeople. Private property--even of those who made war against the state--was sacrosanct; the value of human lives less so. For the next century and beyond, the promise of the so-called American Dream was always, at bottom, a promise of property. It was a promise that people of color, seeking to claim, frequently found wanting. In a country where Whiteness itself became a kind of property, America's obsession with private ownership played out along hierarchical racial lines.

From a Christian perspective, private property in American history has been nothing short of an idol in the mosaic sense--a false god that leads the hearts of the people astray. The idolatry is all around us as we speak. Exclusionary zoning, gated communities, flight from public schools--all these hurt the poor, but serve the interests of property holders. The idolatry infects our moral reason too. I encountered a startling example of this reasoning in response to two recent news events.

David French, a writer at National Review magazine, has offered his take in recent days on the Tamir Rice grand jury decision and on the militia standoff in rural Oregon. You already know where this is headed, but let me share with you the title and an excerpt from the respective pieces. First, the Tamir Rice case: "The Grand Jury Made a Defensible Decision not to Indict in the Tamir Rice Case."
It was not the officers’ fault that they rolled up on the scene without that key piece of information [from the 911 call]. Thus, the officers were reasonably on a much higher state of alert. Then when Rice didn’t put his hands in the air despite shouted commands to do so — but instead seemed to reach into his waistband — their decision to open fire is rational, not criminal... 
[I]t’s difficult to second-guess a grand jury who sees no basis for subjecting those officers to a criminal trial.
Second, the Oregon militia: "The Case for Civil Disobedience in Oregon."
Deranged militiamen spoiling for a fight against the federal government make for good copy, but what if they’re right? What if the government viciously and unjustly prosecuted a rancher family so as to drive them from their land? Then protest, including civil disobedience, would be not just understandable but moral, and maybe even necessary... 
I sympathize with the ranchers’ fury, and I’m moved by the Hammonds’ plight. According to multiple accounts, they are good American citizens... 
They are victims of an all-too-common injustice. Ranchers and other landowners across the country find themselves chafing under the thumb of an indifferent and even oppressive federal government. Now is the time for peaceful protest. If it gets the public to pay attention, it won’t have been in vain.
(For the record, as far as I can tell the prison terms meted out to the Oregon ranchers are absurd and unjust. The Federal Government seems to be wrong here.)

The Oregon militia protest is more extreme and threatening (they're armed and occupying a federal building!) than any Black Lives Matter protest thus far. Its proximate cause is a convoluted property dispute. The stakes (of property) are much lower than those (of life) that stirred Black Lives Matter protests, yet the militia's tactics are more militant. Nonetheless French, a good law and order conservative, finds a way to sympathize with this militancy.

There are a lot variables at play in French's writing. He may be influenced by a sense of ideological and racial affinity, and both cases have heavy political overtones. The mistake is in thinking that any of these variables are fully separable from the American obsession with property. I'm not here to beat up on Mr. French. His thought is emblematic rather than exceptional. He represents an American tradition: the peculiar faith that ownership of private property is a supreme good, even if securing that property comes at the cost of human life.

For French, an overzealous enforcement of federal property protection laws is a grave injustice worthy of armed (but peaceful) civil disobedience. He is "moved" by the ranchers' sufferings and can "sympathize" with their anger. Landowners are at the mercy of an "indifferent" and "oppressive" federal government. But when state employees slaughter a twelve year old boy without practical warning and refuse to render medical aid (Notice French couldn't even be bothered to give an accurate accounting of the event), French serenely assures us that their behavior was "rational." The state has killed a twelve year old boy, but it would be "difficult" to second-guess a rigged grand jury process.

French's words of support for the ranchers are ten times more generous than anything he's been willing to concede in his many critiques of Black Lives Matter, and a hundred times more empathetic than the shallow dehumanization he offers for victims of state-sponsored murder. 

The engrained idolization of White property ownership allows writers like French to casually express dehumanizing racism and remain members in good standing of the respectable pundit class. And we enable it when we scrutinize every slip of the tongue and poorly-conceived joke ("Gasp! A racist! Get 'em!") but fail to probe the deeper idols and systems that implicate us all. What role does property play in my life? Do the righteous demands of my fellow human beings take precedence over my grasping desire to own, control, accumulate? Every battle over public housing in my neighborhood or tax increases for public schools compels me to consider whose interests come first. Every time I don't want to invite that person into my house again because last time they broke something, I'm grappling with the idolization of property over people. Every commute, every wary smile and mumbled "sorry" as I pass the homeless man on the corner, should impress on me these questions.

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