Who Will We Speak for? Humanism's Role in Defending Human Rights and Civil Liberties

By Miller, Merrill | The Humanist, January-February 2017 | Go to article overview

Who Will We Speak for? Humanism's Role in Defending Human Rights and Civil Liberties


Miller, Merrill, The Humanist


FOR MANY HUMANISTS and those in the progressive community at large, these past weeks have, in some ways, felt like decades. We've seen Hillary Clinton win the popular vote for president by an enormous margin and still lose the Electoral College to Donald Trump, who is now president-elect. We've seen Stephen Bannon, who fueled the fires of racism, sexism, and bigotry in his time at Breitbart News, named as a chief strategist for the Trump administration, as climate change deniers and individuals with no respect for church-state separation (Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, for one) are being nominated or considered for other top positions. We've heard talk of legislation that would chip away at our constitutional right to free, peaceable assembly, such as Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen's bill to classify street protests as a form of "economic terrorism."

But we've also seen hordes of people ready to defend their freedoms and civil liberties, and the American Humanist Association staff is working hard to respond to a massive uptick in volunteers, donations, and memberships. And so with uncertainty and anxiety, there is also hope.

One worrisome development came in the form of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's comments this past summer on Fox and Friends about reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee. While Gingrich recently told the Washington Post that he didn't expect to hold a cabinet position under Trump, he strongly suggested that he'd be involved in the administration "to network across the whole system and look at what we have to do to succeed."

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), as many humanists likely know, is infamous for subpoenaing and blacklisting Americans for supposed involvement in Communist activity and for influencing US Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). The McCarthy era brought us pernicious Establishment Clause violations and under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, an addition humanists are still fighting to remove, most recently through the American Humanist Association's Pledge Boycott (dontsaythepledge.com). More seriously, HUAC and McCarthyism severely crippled Leftist movements and normalized violations of basic constitutional rights in ways that still haunt us today. (See The Age of McCarthyism by Ellen Schrecker, which describes how scandals like Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair can be traced to the McCarthy era.)

Humanists certainly weren't exempt from the attention of HUAC and McCarthyism, given that atheism was associated with supposedly "godless communism," and humanism has a long history with the Left. One humanist leader, Corliss Lamont (author of The Philosophy of Humanism and a tireless supporter of civil liberties), had the temerity to stand up to McCarthy. As the New York Times stated in his obituary, Lamont "won court fights against censure by Senator McCarthy and mail censorship by the Central Intelligence Agency." When he was subpoenaed, Lamont insisted upon his right as a free citizen not to answer questions about his politics or beliefs. He fought for this right in court and eventually prevailed in a major victory not only for himself but for the civil liberties of all Americans.

While Lamont's story is a triumph of the humanist movement, it's also a cautionary tale for our present times. The return of HUAC may seem farfetched, but Russia critic Masha Gessen warns in her November 10 New York Review of Books article, "Autocracy: Rules for Survival," that the first rule of living in an autocracy is to believe the autocrat. Presumably, this command also applies to those close to the autocrat. If Gingrich has Trumps ear and is talking about reviving an institution that ran roughshod over ordinary Americans' basic First Amendment rights, then we should take this threat seriously. While many news outlets and pundits, as well as sitting President Barack Obama, have attempted to normalize this most recent development in US politics, we must recognize that this situation is not politics as usual. …

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