After a year like 2017 many of us are hell bent to do better. What went wrong? How can we start to repair the wreckage of our national moral culture wrought by the sectarianism and secessionist policies of the sons and daughters of the Confederacy disguised in the hooded robes of so-called fiscal conservatism? How can we revive the passion for justice and equality that is the lifeblood of the Constitution? How can we combat know-nothingism expressed with the fervor of dogma that has transformed prudent spending into a jihadist assault against the very lives, property and health of not only the poor but everyone who isn’t stinking rich?
How can we help rebuild a world that is compassionate, competent and civil — a world that honors the calling to public service? One way to start, it came to me this week after reading a New Yorker piece on Partners in Health, is to invoke the memory of old heroes, of people who never gave up, and to allow them to melt our pessimism and cold exhaustion and fuel us again with a faith in effort.
For me such a hero is Eleanor Roosevelt, and all those like her, who refused to be undermined by cynicism and who worked ceaselessly for the betterment of others. Her image came to me again from a remark made in the piece on Partners in Health (PIH) by its co-founder Ophelia Dahl. PIH works to bring health care to the poorest people on earth. And when technicalities, stupidity, miserliness or enervation stands in its way, you say, as Dahl said, “I’m not going to stand for that. You push. You push, push, push.” PIH and other NGOs prove that spirit is still very much alive in our country. It’s the bedrock of our hope in the future. And one of the heroic early advocates of never giving up is Eleanor Roosevelt. She’s far enough away now, in historical perspective, to serve as a beacon and a reminder of what is possible if you don’t stop pushing.
In her tireless opposition to injustice, Mrs. Roosevelt hardly ever said “I think” something is wrong. She said “I feel” it is wrong. She worked hard to never let second-guessing, re-thinking or even reframing compromise her moral instincts. She felt racism was wrong, bigotry was wrong, hatred and slavery were wrong, enforced poverty, classism and sexism were wrong, that exploitation of workers was wrong, that ageism and cruelty were wrong, that greed and unchecked power were wrong. All forms of injustice were self-evidently disgusting and to be opposed in such a way that the ethic of resistance, gentle kindness, unwavering persistence and doing no harm would eventually take the day.
Her feelings were aligned with all impulses to empathy, generosity and the Golden Rule. When she walked into the Supreme Court and read on its walls “Equal Justice Under Law,” she felt the founders were right and built compelling arguments to explain and defend equality as she understood it.
Time Magazine, in April 1952, had Mrs. Roosevelt’s portrait on its cover and a long piece about her moral presence in American life. As usual Time’s writer and editors had to be snarky, calling her at one point the “world’s most famous widow.” But Time also wrote that “to millions in the Western World, who react with uneasiness to the U.S. atom bomb and the U.S. emphasis on material success, she is a symbol of hope, sanity, and human dignity.”
For me, Mrs. Roosevelt’s ceaseless efforts, as President Roosevelt’s First Lady and beyond, for civil rights, for decent work and pay for everyone, for a livable minimum wage, for the abolition of child labor, for aid to war refugees, for meeting the needs of the sick and wounded whatever their status, for human rights for every person on the planet — the deep magnanimity of her spirit — all speak to the power of persistence in the service of what she felt was right. She never allowed herself the frivolous luxuries of disappointment and demoralization.
Her crowning achievement, after four terms as First Lady, was her role as chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, where she helped to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which passed unanimously in the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. She called it “the international Magna Carta of all … (people) everywhere.”
The first two sections of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration are particularly inspiring reminders of what we continue to struggle for today:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world,
“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of a common people.”
The thirty articles of the Universal Declaration oppose slavery and the slave trade, cruel and unusual punishments, arbitrary arrests, detention and exile and “arbitrary interference with … privacy, family, home, or correspondence, or attacks upon … honor and reputation.”
While in many respects mirroring the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration is deeply rooted in European common law and custom. Article 19 declares that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Article 25 is especially pertinent to New Mexicans and our nation today: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Article twenty-two declares that “everyone, without discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the moral and legal foundation for most good works around the world, internationally and domestically. It represents a “feeling” for what is right and good for all of us if we are to flourish under the protection of equal opportunity and justice under law.
Eleanor Roosevelt and her life of action and commitment made it possible for many of us to see the virtue in pushing and pushing and pushing and never letting up because of momentary setbacks and disappointments. Her life is, truly, a call to action, a call to all of us to keep trying to do what we do best in the service of others, our world, and ourselves as members of the common family of humankind.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it