Who knew that the crusty old warmonger John McCain was both an earnest and eloquent defender of human rights, a cause that is in what we hope is only a momentary decline here and around the world?
There he was Monday, writing in the failing New York Times and rebuking the Trump administration for writing off human rights, the defining American value for 235 years. The president's foreign policy chief, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had last week alerted the world that henceforth the United States will overlook things like torture and deprivation in depraved countries if we can get something for the United States in the bargain, whether it is with Russia, China, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. As Sen. McCain framed the Trump message to the oppressed of the earth: "If you happen to be in the way of our forging relationships with your oppressors that could serve our security and economic interests, good luck — you're on your own." The Jimmy Carter doctrine — how you treat your own people determines how we will treat you — is no more.
Actually, there is no more honest paladin of human rights than McCain, grandson of Arkansans, because he experienced mankind at its worst, after an antiaircraft missile shot him down over North Vietnam. He suffered a broken leg and two broken arms and then during 5 1/2 years of captivity at the depraved prison known as the Hanoi Hilton he was tortured and had his chest and a foot crushed by rifle butts and bayonets, all of which Donald Trump said made him a loser unworthy of honor. When Bush and Cheney wanted to justify torture in Iraq, Guantanamo and secret prisons, McCain protested that it violated a national value that had been sacred since General Washington barred torture after watching British troops savage screaming captives across the Hudson River after the battle of Brooklyn Heights. Torture doesn't work, McCain said, but it would make no difference if it did.
McCain probably didn't study Mills, Bentham and Locke at the Naval Academy or pay much attention, since he finished 790th of 795 in his senior class, but in the Times piece he evinced a good grasp of the philosophy.
"America didn't invent human rights," McCain wrote, because they have always existed from the creation. "Nations, cultures and religions cannot choose to simply opt out of them." Mill or Bentham never said it better.
Human rights go beyond our relations with foreign governments and their denial of liberties that we take for granted. The story of America, the liberal democratic tradition, is the long arc of history where we gradually give life to the ringing phrases on human rights in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the 13th and 14th amendments, by extending their protections first to slaves, then to their descendants, and to women, immigrants from every culture and race, the disabled, gays, lesbians and other gender minorities. The Supreme Court and sometimes Congress have slowly and sometimes grudgingly given life to the soaring words.
In his private thoughtful moments, I'm sure McCain comes to the defense of other individual rights recognized sometimes by his own party's leaders, like human rights evangelists Teddy Roosevelt, Robert La Follette and for inspired moments Richard Nixon, but that are now under threat — the right to medical care for life-threatening sickness or injuries, the right of every person to a safe God-given environment and working conditions, the right of individual protection from venal commerce.
It was the 20th century's contribution to the tradition that Congress and often state governments recognized all those rights, even if they did not perfect them: the protections from child labor and other scourges of the workplace, the minimum wage, worker association, safe foods and drugs, Nixon's life-saving clean air and water laws, and more.
In the '80s, a new philosophy was born, or at least began to flourish: that corporations had rights, too, and that they were ascendant, even when they clashed with individual rights. Corporations had better PR, so that now a good part of the country, including the working poor, are convinced that the Environmental Protection Agency is a socialist plot to destroy great American industries and put coal and oilfield workers out of a job, all in the service of a Chinese communist plan to falsely convince people that the planet is warming and weather catastrophes are coming.
Trump's EPA and Interior Department chiefs last month began firing scientists on the staffs and advisory boards and replacing them with industry lobbyists and dismantling restrictions on the dumping of coal ash in streams and on power-plant emissions.
We're waiting for John McCain to have another John Stuart Mill moment. Of course, Mill didn't have to contend with the wealth and power of the Koch brothers.