Today George Will is all about rights. Rights are bad, you see:
If our vocabulary is composed exclusively of references to rights, a.k.a. entitlements, we are condemned to endless jostling among elbow-throwing individuals irritably determined to protect, or enlarge, the boundaries of their rights. Among such people, all political discourse tends to be distilled to what Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School calls "rights talk."
Witness the inability of people nowadays to recommend this or that health-care policy as merely wise or just. Each proposal must be invested with the dignity of a right. And since not all proposals are compatible, you have not merely differences of opinion but apocalyptic clashes of rights.
Rights talk is inherently aggressive, even imperial; it tends toward moral inflation and militates against accommodation. Rights talkers, with their inner monologues of preemptive resentments, work themselves into a simmering state of annoyed vigilance against any limits on their willfulness. To rights talkers, life — always and everywhere — is unbearably congested with insufferable people impertinently rights talking, and behaving, the way you and I, of course, have a real right to.
People think and speak about rights in a lot of different ways. Some rights they see as fundamental human rights, like the right to non-human-sacrificing religious expression; some rights are less fundamental, like calling shotgun or dibs. These are rights too, but people, normal people anyway, would be quick to tell you that they don't rise to the level of basic human rights. In addition to these two categories of right, there are also–perhaps unfortunately–the enumerated rights of the constitution. I say "unfortunately" because some native-born English-speaking Americans struggle with reading and so they tire out after the Second Amendment, they one that says they can keep "bear arms." The Ninth Amendment, you see, admits that one has other rights that are not enumerated in the Constitution's listing of the previous eight or eighty.
So the concept of right, even as it is used in ordinary speech, has a lot of meanings. One must be careful before one asserts that someone means the one rather than the other(s). Now of course George Will doesn't care about this at all. He never cares about honestly representing the views of people with whom he disagrees. I can tell this because of the toss-off line about health care and rights. He suggests that this unwarranted assertion of rights is the foundation of arguments pro or con. By my reading of the arguments, this comes up not very often. Even if it did come up very often, George Will ought to reference it.
Instead, the argument for the absurdity of all of this rights talk regards speed bumps in an affluent DC suburb:
Recently Paul Schwartzman, a war correspondent for the Metro section of The Post, ventured into the combat zone that is the Chevy Chase neighborhood in the District of Columbia. It is not a neighborly place nowadays. Residents are at daggers drawn over . . . speed humps.
Chevy Chase is, Schwartzman says, "a community that views itself as the essence of worldly sophistication." Some cars there express their owner's unassuageable anger by displaying faded "Kerry/Edwards" and even "Gore/Lieberman" bumper stickers. Neighborhood zoning probably excludes Republicans, other than the few who are bused in for diversity.
Speed humps — the lumps on the pavement that force traffic to go slow — have, Schwartzman reports, precipitated "a not-so-civil war . . . among the lawyers, journalists, policymakers and wonks" of Chevy Chase — and Cleveland Park, another D.C. habitat for liberals. The problem is that a goal of liberal urbanists has been achieved: Families with young children are moving into such neighborhoods. They worry about fast-flowing traffic. Hence speed humps.
And street rage. Some people who think speed humps infringe their rights protest by honking when they drive over one. The purpose is to make life unpleasant for the people who live on the street and think they have a right to have the humps. One resident, whom Schwartzman identifies as the husband of a former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, recently sat on his porch and videotaped an angry driver who honked 30 times. Other honkers "gave residents the finger as they drove by."
Can't liberals play nicely together? Not, evidently, when they are bristling, like furious porcupines, with spiky rights that demand respect because the rights-bearers' dignity is implicated in them.
Fortunately, it is a short drive from Chevy Chase to the mellow oasis of the River Road Whole Foods store, where comity can be rebuilt on the firm foundation of a shared reverence for heirloom tomatoes. And if you, you seething liberal, will put the pedal to the metal you can seize the store's last parking place. So damn the humps, full speed ahead.
Note that nothing in Schwartzman's account mentioned "rights." A mind-reading Will interjected the notion of "rights" as an explanation for why people–liberal hypocritical people of course–are rude.
But even if they were asserting their rights–they're not wrong. It is an interesting question, after all, as to who gets to determine what the street in front of your house looks like. It's a question more interesting than calling "shotgun" but less interesting than flag-burning.