I like Ellen Degeneres. She’s hilarious. And what I know of her social views and her advocacy for LGBT rights and a host of other things I generally agree with. But when I saw this clip from her show in April 2016, I was very disappointed, because she gets it totally wrong. And what Ellen gets wrong here is the same thing that many people —most people— get wrong. (You need to watch it now. I’ll wait.)
No, not her opinion that Mississippi’s so called “religious freedom” law is a poster child for discrimination, because that part’s true. But at about 45 seconds in, she says “this is not politics, this is human rights” and that’s where I disagree. Because human rights IS politics. And politics IS human rights.
I get what Ellen means: she’s a comedienne, and she’s not in the business of making people angry or uncomfortable by bringing up divisive issues. But on the other hand, where does she think human rights come from? From some magical place where they’re thrown out like candy at an Easter parade? Surprise: They come from the political process. That process makes the law that’s written by someone, that includes details of how much and for whom, and no doubt there’s compromise and negotiation involved, and it gets voted on by other people and signed by someone else, and that process determines whether or not someone gets to enjoy those human rights. And in Mississippi, politics decided that the answer was “no, LGBT people don’t.” And THAT is politics.
We were taught that politics is one of those things that polite people don’t talk about. It’s divisive and it makes people uncomfortable. And people just generally don’t like it. They don’t like to talk about it, and they don’t like to hear about it and they sure don’t like to read about it, because it’s something people disagree about. And also because it’s boring and complicated and frustrating. It’s either gridlock, or lying, or someone making promises they have no intention of keeping, or scandal, or backroom dealing. So they don’t pay any attention to politics.
But while our political process does seem to produce a lot that’s bad, ugly, and boring, it also gives us all of our laws. All of our rights. All of our policies. And it also sometimes takes away our rights and gives us laws that are not in our best interest.
Philosophically, you might argue that our rights don’t come from our government, they come from God (“We were endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights…”), or that they come from our social compact with each other or with our government. But in practical reality, the fact of whether we get them, or what form they come to us in is determined by the laws that are passed by our elected officials and by the manner in which they are enforced. Think about North Korea, for example. Same Creator, same inalienable rights; totally different outcome. So the government and the political process really matters.
The fact is, everything that you care about comes from politics. Are we at war, or at peace? Politics. Your child’s education? Politics. The quality of the air you breathe and the water you drink? Politics. Your access to health care, medicine, life saving prescription drugs? All determined by the political process. The food you eat, the quality of your neighborhood, how many parks there are nearby, the roads you drive on, how safe your car is, how safe the school bus that you put your child on in the morning is, these are all things that are determined in one way or the other by politics at the local, state or federal level.
The basis for how nearly everything you interact with in your life can all be traced back at its most fundamental level to something that has happened somewhere in the political process.
That’s why if you care about whether someone can deny people services or other fundamental rights, if you care about anything from your child’s schools to your family’s health, from guns to bike lanes and everything in between, you need to pay attention to politics.
It all comes down to politics. And it’s time to talk about it.