David Elliot Cohen – What Matters


The Issue of Human Rights, Genocide, and What We Value

Bypassing the wet concrete, I watched as the sprinklers watered the sidewalk.  Almost immediately, I was astonished by the idea of waste in my country; in my home.  In so many places in the world, people are unable to find clean water.  In the places we don’t think about, people are thirsty, hungry, and might not have a reliable way of getting clean.  They suffer from malnutrition, dehydration, and disease associated with lack of sanitation; we water our sidewalk.

Now what is this mentality of “us” and “them?”  Weren’t we all born into this world with natural, inalienable human rights?  It would appear that inequality has grown to be more of a reality in the modern world than ever before, although never in time has the general American public been seemingly more emotionally and intellectually removed from this problem.  It would appear that Americans go about their daily lives completely unaffected by and unaware of the intense struggles and suffering being endured by human beings world-wide.  How could the expanding gap between the affluent and those living below the poverty line remain so invisible to those of us crossing this divide on our daily stroll to comfort and leisure?

It is evident that we, as a species, have generally become unfazed by the distress of our fellow man.  As Omer Bartov says, “Familiarity Breeds Indifference” (in Cohen’s What Matters chapter “Images of Genocide, page 83.”) No longer do we consider others when we make most of our decisions.  We have gradually become emotionally detached from our families, neighbors, communities, and even ourselves.  When we hear about the misfortune of others, we usually tune it out of our consciousness with a simple brush-off phrase or make jokes about it.  We seem to have removed ourselves almost completely from the responsibilities that used to go hand-in-hand with the choices we make in our lives.  Wasting our money has become as common as driving our cars; do we ever stop to think twice about this?

America has involved itself in a form of indirect global-genocide of anyone and everyone who might stand in its way of the quest for comfort and luxury; we have made petroleum our new deity.  “The oil giveth and the oil can taketh away.”  We kill in the name of oil more readily than we might kill for the defense of our gods in religion.  Ease and leisure have become our modern religion, and we practice devoutly.  When driving up to the pump, we curse the government for the increasing gasoline prices.  “This is ridiculous.  Do I have to starve to get some fricken gas around here?”  Yes – I’ve actually heard people say things like this.  Don’t they realize where the gas comes from?

No, not from the ground; I’m talking about our planet and the people who labor over it for our benefit.  Each time we spend a single dollar on something we are voting for and supporting every aspect of that product or service’s production.  This includes the labor of the people who will acquire the raw materials from the earth and then convert this matter into workable substances.  We are encouraging the design and creation of the product, the packaging it comes in, and the transportation costs of however it will arrive on the shelf, not to mention advertising, among many other factors.  If so much effort and time goes into the production of a simple commodity, why shouldn’t the same care and scrutiny be applied to the purchasing by consumers?

It is clear that what we fundamentally value as a nation is far different from “what we think is right.”  By refusing to acknowledge something, we have entered into a conscious denial of the truth.  Education has become something that is above us now, because obviously we know everything we would ever possibly need to know – I mean, just look at us!  We have an abundance of food, water, and essential resources in our country.  If those people in other countries are so hungry, then why don’t they just MOVE somewhere that HAS food??  This kind of ignorant and self-righteous mentality has imprinted itself among the stereotype of American lifestyle sweeping across the globe.  When exactly did we come to completely disregard the rest of humanity and when will we again awaken to find that we’re not the only people on this planet worth caring for?

In the United States of America, “human rights” are something we always claim to value extremely highly.  Every day you see or hear news of advocates fighting for the LGBTQ minority, rights for sexual preference, for women’s rights, marriage rights, rights for the mentally and physically disabled, rights for animals, rights for children, rights for freedom of speech, rights to fair wages for men and women, rights to employment, right to bear arms, right to assisted suicide, right to defend ourselves, right to dress the way we want, right to freedom of oppression by law enforcement, the list goes on and on.  In fact, you would be hard pressed to find something that someone, somewhere in this country didn’t think they were entitled to.

In 1948, the United Nations published the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in an attempt to make clear the fundamental rights that all human beings are born with.  When did these rights become exclusive to people born within the borders of our own country?  Even a quick scan of the document would reveal that these things should be obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense.  Why then do we choose to remain in the dark about the living and working conditions of the millions of people who slave – literally slave – to deliver oil to our freedom machines each day?

The photojournalism compilation arranged by David Cohen, What Matters, does a great job of illustrating these crucial points with the use of provocative images and compelling explanations.  In the chapter “Thirsty World,” the issue of attaining clean water in Ghana, Africa is addressed.  There, the search for clean, clear water is a constant battle.  We have enough surplus water here in the USA that we can afford to feed our house pets and nurture our rolled out lawns.  We can wash our cars and we flush our toilets; we can choose to order a Pepsi at lunchtime instead of a luxury “bottled water” with our fast-food to-go.  We value our water supplies so little that we openly mock and make jokes about people living in third-world countries being “thirsty” or “starving.”  We see those born into other nations as being separate from ourselves; unequal.  We value the welfare of our own interest groups and live according to that agenda, therefore subconsciously developing a mindset that justifies the taking of precious natural resources from “others” in the name of furthering the survival of our own societies.  We see and we hear stories or examples of the atrocities occurring all around the modern world, but we remain unconvinced that it’s our responsibility or problem.  Omer Bartov said it well, “The photographs have no smell; they are silent; they are far away.  They are there and we are here.  We look at them, put them away and resume our daily routine.” (What Matters, Page 93)

Floating on the surface of our country today is the worry and discontent of all those who are beginning to educate themselves about these unsettling topics.  Whether or not you choose to accept the truth that we are both directly and indirectly responsible for the mass slaughter of countless people makes all the difference when it comes to change.  Thinking of these undeniable facts, it would seem that a serious and dramatic mindset shift will need to occur in order to reassess what we value, especially in connection with human rights.  If we don’t step back far enough to see the bigger picture of the human massacre that we are endorsing, we will never be able to dive emotionally deep enough into to make the fundamental transformation that is required if we want to reduce the scope of human cruelty.  Right now, the statements of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” are just a wish-list; a set of guidelines if you will, on the ideal way to co-exist with other peoples.  Perhaps, if we allow ourselves to be involved, we can start helping to make this dream a reality.  As I always say, “One Person Can Make a Difference, Because EVERYONE is One Person.”  What better time to start?  How about right now.

<span>Works Referenced</span>

Cohen, David Elliot. What Matters. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Company, 2008.

Menzel, Peter. Material World. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1994.

United Nations, The. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” General Assembly of the United

Nations. 10 December 1948. 27 August 2010


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