John Donne wrote some of the most powerful words on community in the English language. He was recovering from a serious, near-fatal illness and wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Number XVII in his Book of Meditations. I have loved John Donne since I was a teenager and was introduced to his poetry, but his powerful prose trumps poetry in this essay. This is only a small portion of this wonderful essay, but most of you will recognize it.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
When it comes to our basic human rights – the right to life, liberty, to pursue our happiness, the truth of these words hold a powerful warning for us. Too often we look away in silent disregard when we see someone’s rights diminished and eroded because we are not the group who is affected. When the police and the courts diminish people’s Fourth Amendment rights, we shrug and sat they’re probably guilty anyway. When foreign nationals are imprisoned without charge or trial, we yawn with boredom over anyone caring about the rights of foreigners. When zealous politicians attack the legal personhood of women, we assume that won’t happen to us. When politicians exploit racism, we vote for them anyway because that’s just one issue – and it’s not our issue. When bigots and homophobes pass laws to limit the hopes and dreams of LGBTIQ people, we sigh and go about our business, because it doesn’t really affect us.
Except that is does. Why do you think that the widespread increase in reactionary policies that erode our liberties and freedoms, from eliminating habeus corpus petitions to warrantless wiretaps, to trying to eliminate insurance coverage for contraceptives to banning gay marriage are happening all at once? It’s because we are not an island, when we let one right be washed into the sea for one group of people, we put all our rights in jeopardy. When we allow these bigots to put any of our rights up for a vote – dependent on majority rule – we accept the proposition that our rights are not inalienable. We agree that our rights are not something we get as a birthright, but are mere privileges granted by the majority who can take them away any time they feel like it.
I have a vested interest in this fight. Professionally, I have worked in support of gay rights and campaigned against anti-gay initiatives. The first initiative campaign I worked on was the successful opposition to Oregon’s Ballot Measure 9. I have been sent to other states to help fight other anti-gay ballot measures, even door-knocking in Idaho in support of gay rights. By the way, Idaho defeated Ballot Measure 1 by 3,000 votes. I know how painful it is for people in the gay community – even in victory – to have their rights placed in the hands of voters as though their rights are not as inalienable as mine are. Victory is bittersweet when the question should not even be asked in the first place. Defeat is devastating.
I also have a personal interest. I have two nephews who are gay. Both are “married” and I hope the day will come when those quotes can be erased and they can be married as fully in the eyes of society as they are in the eyes of their family and their children. For me, their rights are an absolute.
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Beautiful and so true.
Donne, declaration of rights, beauty , wisdom ! Could one ask for more ?
I made a small hommage à Cajsa on my own little blog, mostly because I to my horror noticed that we were wearing almost exactly the same thing.
Just felt that I should mention it – and thank you for your beautiful blog that fills me with pleasure every day