If you thought the Founding Fathers blessed you with all the rights you need, you're wrong. I bring good news. The first 10 amendments and the next 16 haven't filled your quota. That is, not if you live in my neighborhood and shop at my supermarket, whose walls are graced with a huge poster proclaiming the "Consumer Bill of Rights."
There, I discovered, you are endowed with certain inalienable rights among which are the right to "be heard" (above the Muzak?), "to redress" (without petition), and "to choose" (and what, faced with 11 varieties of noodle, was I entitled to before the Bill?) These are yours by walking in the door. No social contract here. No need to pledge your life, your fortune or your sacred honor. You don't even need a validated parking ticket. Pick a pepper and you're endowed.
Rights have been busting out all over, and I have started collecting them. A couple of months ago during a hospital stay, I discovered that I was the beneficiary of a "Patient's Bill of Rights," promising all the things one has just learned to live without in hospitals. The first thing you notice about the "right to every consideration of . . . privacy" and "right to expect that within its capacity a hospital must make reasonable response to the request of a patient for services" is the clever drafting: these rights are designed for nonenforcement. And besides, what are you supposed to do? Call for a hearing in X-ray?
I'm not complaining, of course, about the lack of rights, but about the pretense. A hospital is a place to get well, and if you want to benefit from the wonders of modern scientific -- impersonal -- medicine, you've got to expect that your rights, like your trousers, will be left at the door. To pretend otherwise is silly, and telling. The proliferation of rights always signals the loss of the powers and prerogatives of the individual. It is precisely because hospitals have become so stark and impersonal that the poor soul marooned on a bedpan and ringing frantically for a nurse is supposed to make do with his paper rights.
All this rights talk is undoubtedly part of the current mania for seeing everything in legal, adversarial terms. It is evidence, too, of the fallen state of political language. Rights once meant the claims of the individual against the state. In the postwar era the notion has been stretched to include benefits demanded from the state: a job, medical care, "welfare rights."
Thus stretched, the idea of rights thins. It would be in better shape if, for example, the United Nations (in its 1967 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and the American Catholic Bishops (in their 1984 draft Pastoral Letter on the U.S. economy) did not insist on calling economic needs rights. Nevertheless, work, medicine, even welfare are legitimate demands. Call them supplementary rights perhaps. In contrast, what you find on display today at the supermarket or hospital is junk rights.
And as with junk bonds and junk food, you get what you pay for. "The Father Book," a best-seller at my local maternity shop, has some available for $8.95. On page 20: "A Bill of Rights for the Father-to-be," including the right to "determine what is best for you" and to "express or withhold your feelings about the childbirth experience." Ah, the land of the free. Is there anything that cannot qualify as a right?
Rights language, however, is not the only political language to be debased. Raids on the lexicon of democracy are not new. Normally, however, the raiders are foreigners, and their purpose -- disguising tyranny -- lofty. Take the word "democratic." The most unfree governments won't let their name be uttered without making you pronounce the word. At Olympics time, Jim McKay will always respectfully say German Democratic Republic when he means East Germany. Among the few countries less democratic than East Germany are Cambodia and South Yemen. When the roll is called, alphabetically, at the U.N., these workers' paradises come under "D," so insistent are they on being Democratic Kampuchea and Democratic Yemen.
Or take "president," a nice word that once had democratic implications. Haiti has just elected its oxymoronic "president for life" by the comfortable margin of more than 2 million to 449. Which brings up the state of the word "election." Albania held one in 1982 and the official tally was a Communist Party victory of -- I kid you not -- 1,627,959 to 1. (The one has not been identified. They are still looking.)
If hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, language theft is a compliment that tyrants pay to democrats. That's what makes the debasement of political language by dictators tolerable.
But by supermarkets? Litter the newspapers, the U.N., the Olympics with Orwellian euphemism, if you will. But at the frozen-meat department give me peace, not rights.