Universal Rights are Not Just American

Obama issued a new statement on Iran today, saying that the United States stands with those who seek to exercise the “universal rights to assembly and free speech.” While this seems like exactly the sort of thing the Republicans have been urging the President to say all along, there are nevertheless some who are ready to take offense at the very idea that Iranians might value the same freedoms we do.

Just this week, for instance, Charlotte Hays took a swipe in the National Review at Obama’s “tepid response” to events in Iran, arguing that the President is “unaware of the historical sources of America’s moral strength.” This is because

the president hailed democratic process, freedom of speech, and the ability to select one’s own leaders as “universal values.” But they aren’t. A quick glance around the world’s totalitarian regimes, including most especially that of Iran, should convince anyone of that.

Only a very quick glance indeed could convince anyone of Hays’ argument. But let’s take a closer look. It’s downright odd to argue that human liberty is not valued under repressive governments because repressive governments suppress human liberty; or that since our ideas of democracy and freedom come “ from America and the West,” there can be no other, competing ideas of human freedom and democratic politics. Haven’t the people of Iran done enough in the past week to prove that they, too, aspire to self-determination?

In fact, as Afshin Ellian points out in a piece that appeared this week in the Wall Street Journal, the current regime in Iran represents a betrayal of the “basic freedoms” and values for which a previous generation of Iranians fought: “the basic freedoms of Azadi-e Baian, Azadi-e Qalam, Azadi-e Andish-e: freedom of speech, freedom to write, and freedom of thought.” Those are the values of an open society. It is myopic, chauvinistic and ignorant to say they are ours exclusively.

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