Human rights in New Albany?

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Thus far in 2015, it has been a year in which the United States Supreme Court took up same-sex marriage, and the streets of Baltimore echoed with violence. In America, we’re debating the legalities and illegalities of immigration, the pros and cons of the death penalty, and theory and practice of terrorism.

In Indiana, among other forays, a recent question has been whether intravenous drug users deserve to contract HIV for using dirty needles. In short, considerations of civil rights and human rights are very much with us … if we bother to listen to their recitation.

Civil right and human rights co-exist and are very much a part of one another. Both are designed so that people can live the lives they choose without fear of persecution, and these rights apply to every single person no matter where they live in the world.

Often in these pages, we advocate the notion of progress by design, and since 2012, New Albany has possessed a reconstituted Human Rights Commission. Since it was formed again and duly stocked with appointees, it has had very little to do, not because New Albany is a fundamentally functional utopia of tolerance and good sense, but because City Hall’s evident design for the HRC has been that it remain unused — reserved for show and public relations pronouncements, while kept hermetically sealed and out of controversy’s way.

This has disgusted me from day one, and continues to do so. It implies that “quality of life” derives solely from capital intensive building projects, and has nothing to do with fundamental human dignity. It is both cynical and cowardly to first enable a Human Rights Commission, then render it caged and impotent.

My most recent reprinting of the following column on the topic of the Human Rights Commission was on March 21, 2011. The column itself was written in 2009. Ironically, as I read the final paragraphs, there is considerable itony. We certainly did determine that the members of New Albany’s political class could vote “for” something.

Unfortunately, they seem to be content with form over content. This needs to change.

REWIND: Human rights in New Albany? (2009).

As you already know, I am running for city council at-large, and my newspaper column is on hiatus pending the outcome of the primary election in May. During my first incarnation as columnist, from January 2009 through February 2011, a total of 111 essays were published, and because many of them pertain directly to campaign issues, it seems appropriate to reprint some of them. The following appeared in the Tribune on April 16, 2009.

Human rights in New Albany?

To my delight, last week the Iowa Supreme Court defied the American theocratic establishment by affirming a non-discriminatory definition of marriage as a secular institution, existing concurrent with organized religion, but not dependent on its supernatural sanction for validity.

By doing so, the court did its own little bit to reclaim genuinely salvageable culture, correctly espousing the rule of law and exposing the fraudulence of those whose vision of America as a “Christian nation” forever requires depriving fellow Americans of basic human rights clearly enunciated during the founding. Moreover, I’m reminded of this passage written by H. L. Mencken more than 75 years ago:

“The truth is that Christian theology, like every other theology, is not only opposed to the scientific spirit; it is also opposed to all other attempts at rational thinking … Since the earliest days the church, as an organization, has thrown itself violently against every effort to liberate the body and mind of man. It has been, at all times and everywhere, the habitual and incorrigible defender of bad governments, bad laws, bad social theories, bad institutions. It was, for centuries, an apologist for slavery, as it was the apologist for the divine right of kings.”

Coincidentally, my wife and I, who were married in 2004 by the city clerk, recently had the chance to watch “Milk,” the acclaimed biopic of gay activist, politician and martyr Harvey Milk. Sean Penn, the finest actor of his generation, stars in a riveting, Oscar-winning performance as the title character. Drop what you’re doing, rent the DVD of “Milk,” and prepare to be challenged, rewarded and enriched.

While the real Harvey Milk’s principled political activism in the diverse milieu of 1970’s San Francisco specifically espoused gay rights, his focal point is inseparable from the broader context of human rights and freedoms, providing the basis for a question I won’t stop asking until some semblance of a coherent answer is provided:

Precisely which aspects of the past are organizations like Reclaim Our Culture Kentuckiana (ROCK) seeking to reclaim?

Buried deep within New Albany’s terminally neglected Code of Ordinances is a 1974 law mandating a Human Rights Commission. It existed for a time, and then was unceremoniously discarded, so today I’m embracing a custodial public service duty by reminding the community that there is statutory authority to re-energize and staff a new Human Right Commission. We should do so immediately.

The administration of Mayor James Garner displayed a keen private grasp of the moribund commission’s potential importance, but nothing happened, and if you’re looking for a nutshell summary of the Garner era, this is as good a place as any to begin. Excellent intentions were accompanied by a supreme mastery of detail, but an inexplicable absence of political acumen and simple stick-to-it-ive-ness resulted in stasis.

No matter. That was then, and this is now. I support a rehabilitated Human Rights Commission simply because I always try to put myself in others’ shoes, imagining how it must feel to do as I’ve done by publicly promoting civic improvements and espousing reforms in an effort to make the city itself a more livable and civilized place, while recognizing that even these hard-fought gains may not provide protection from discrimination and harassment owing to race, gender or sexual orientation.

For instance, consider the fundamental human act of walking.

I walk New Albany’s streets on a daily basis, and do so at all hours, seldom giving the notion a second thought. Then again, I’m a white male standing well over six feet, and weighing 270 lbs. at last reading. Naturally, in a world filled to the brim with firearms, physical stature alone neither precludes violent acts nor negates harassment … but it does have a way of reducing problems.

Even so, occasionally a passing dullard finds it amusing to bait a man my size. Imagine going out for a walk as a more vulnerable potential target: Female, or gay, or an ethnic minority, or handicapped, or all four together, perhaps leading one to forsake activities and pursuits taken for granted by others, thanks to social and cultural primitivism that extends well beyond familiar urban woes like drugs and impoverishment, into public racism, overt homophobia and violence.

Just as speeding is not an enforcement issue, but a design issue, so goes an active daily consideration of human rights. A tweaked and reconstituted Human Rights Commission, even if chronically underfunded in the sad New Albanian tradition of penny wise, pound foolish, might provide an effective bully pulpit for making this city a place that welcomes diversity and its accompanying benefits, and not views “different” as opportunities for abuse and exploitation.

Now is the time. Is there the will?

A Human Rights Commission is sorely needed in a place where topics like basic rights, diversity, and fundamental human dignity are regularly the targets of gleeful disparagement and outright malice on the part of those of dominant white, male culture, who’ve obviously never suffered institutionalized deprivation.

Furthermore, thinking back to its conceptual origins in housing discrimination, a functional Human Rights Commission might be a component of solutions to the city’s rental housing problems. Tenant rights and human rights are cut from the same bolt, aren’t they?

Are any members of our local political establishment willing to go on record as supporting the revival of New Albany’s Human Rights Commission?

Or: Are any of them willing to go on record as supporting anything?

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