"Of course I filed charges as soon as I reached Jadamborazo. It was a simple matter to find out where I had been held and on whose orders. Of course it came to nothing; the great lie of democracy, its essential paradox, is that democracy is first to be sacrificed when its security is at risk. Every state is totalitarian at heart; there are no ends to the cruelty it will go to to protect itself. . . . "

-- Ian McDonald, The Broken Land

It seems like not so long ago, we were talking about nothing but Gaza. Now we're talking about nothing but Ferguson, Mo., and the killing of Michael Brown. But this isn't a case of the latter story bumping the former story out of the headlines. This is all one story: the story of how the creed of equality and inalienable human rights is held in contempt, routinely, brazenly and unapologetically, not only in autocratic countries such as Russia and China but in countries that we praise as exemplars of democracy, as well as right here at home.

This is the story of how some people are deemed deserving of life and others are not. This is the story of how justice is made available to some and not others. This is the story of how some are presumed to deserve kindness and others brutality. This is the story of how "accountability" reaches no farther than the front doorstep of privilege.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

-- Declaration of Independence

The creed of equality was written into this, the paradigmatic founding document of the United States. Yet from the beginning, there has been a competing worldview struggling for dominance of this country's culture and affairs.

In this competing worldview, all people are not equal. Some are born to rule, others to be ruled over. Liberty is a privilege conferred by rank: some people deserve many liberties, others deserve only a few, and the vast majority deserve none. "Equality" is a con job designed to pull the best and noblest down from their mountaintops and drag them down to the level of the common folk. Governments are instituted to safeguard the position of the rightful rulers and keep the rabble subdued through force and fear. And a commoner's life holds less value than a patrician's property.

This worldview has never gone away. It survives and thrives today. In this country, its seeds were planted in the slaveowning South, but its influence extends far beyond those boundaries. It flourishes everyplace where people hold other people in contempt, where people judge other people to be less than fully human. It lives in the Kremlin and the Forbidden City. It lives in Israel. It lives in ISIS. It lives in Ferguson. It lives in Waukesha County, Wis., and Maricopa County, Ariz. It lives on Fox News and in the Washington Post. It lives in the Supreme Court.

It is incompatible with equality. It is incompatible with democracy. It is incompatible with humanity.

It is not "conservatism": it seeks to destroy those institutions and traditions that promote and safeguard equality. It is not religion, or capitalism, or nationalism: these are simply tools that it wields and discards according to the needs of the moment. It is racist, but it is more than racism. It is rankist, but it is more than rankism. It is authoritarian, but it is more than authoritarianism. It is tribal, but it is more than tribalism. It is a wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment, a reversion to the arbitrary, unrestrained exercise of power by whoever happens to hold it -- the boss, the church, the police, the generals, the domineering majority, the anxious minority.

It does not need to justify itself to you.

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 the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law . . .

-- Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This is a watershed moment for human rights. Either we seize the wheel and steer ourselves back onto the course of reason, conscience and the spirit of brotherhood, or we watch as our societies smash into the rocks.

In this moment, equality and democracy, rights and dignity, and the "self-evident truths" of our founders lack vocal and powerful allies. Countries that once led the charge for human rights now only pay lip service to it, while countries that once paid lip service to human rights no longer bother to do even that. In many ways, it seems as though the concept of human rights has been deemed useless and discarded. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights seems to possess no more force or meaning than the agreement that established the Hanseatic League. The Geneva Conventions are considered quaint and old-fashioned if not downright eccentric, like shaving with a mug and brush or wearing a pocket watch. Our experiment with believing that political rights, economic rights, cultural rights and simple human dignity are something to which all people in all nations are equally entitled is threatened with termination; we hardly even pretend anymore.

"Show, don't tell" is the writer's mantra. All our lives, we've been told that the meaning of the United States is freedom, equality, democracy. We've been told this, but we've often been shown something else. In many cases, we've been shown the opposite. It's grimly amusing that the eyes of the nation are focused on the "Show Me State." It's showing us something, all right. It's showing us, in the incomparable words of Frederick Douglass, "the exact measure of injustice and wrong" that our lack of resistance has allowed our fellow human beings to be subjected to. Such injustice must be "resisted with either words or blows, or with both," Douglass reminded his audience. "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. . . . The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

In the face of such wisdom and eloquence, it seems impertinent to quibble, but I will do so nonetheless: The limits of tyrants are prescribed not only by the endurance of those whom they oppress but by the determination of bystanders who are willing to take the side of the oppressed and become their defenders.

Today, we must all be defenders. We must defend the rights of the residents of Ferguson -- and every other community across the country -- to be protected, not preyed upon and repressed, by their police departments. We must defend the rights of Palestinians to life, liberty, property, security, nationality, due process of law, freedom of movement and adequate standards of living. We must defend the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East who are threatened by ISIS. We must defend our rights and our neighbors' rights in the workplace and in the voting booth. We must defend the rights of legal immigrants and illegal immigrants and, yes, criminals, because that is what is meant by due process of law: that criminals are judged guilty not on impulse or emotion but by standards of evidence, fairly presented.

We must defend the rights and dignity of our human brothers and sisters even when it goes against the grain within our own political party, our own churches, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our schools. We must defend them with the vigor that we would wish for from others when our own rights and dignity came under attack.

We must call out and condemn the arguments, whether innocent or cynical, that would undermine the rights and dignity of our brothers and sisters and ourselves.

We must reweave the frayed fabric of our Bill of Rights and take meaningful steps toward instituting and upholding the more comprehensive panoply of rights articulated in the UDHR.

We must demand of our elected officials that they, too, be defenders of equality and democracy, at home and around the globe, because without reminders from the constituents at whose pleasure they serve, too many of them will be content to be bystanders -- or henchmen. We must push for the most wholehearted and sincere champions of equality and democracy in our primary elections, and only then turn our attention against the forces of domination and repression in the general.

And we must maintain this defense, day after day, at the top of our voices, until it is the opponents of equality and democracy, not we, who appear foolish and outdated.

We have already given up too much of our equality and democracy, too much of our dignity and rights. We have this moment to take them back. It will only be harder next time, if there is a next time.

Please share these words with your representatives and community leaders today and ask them to tell you where they stand -- then ask them to show you.

Read the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights here.

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