Of Dignity and Want

President Obama's statement on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese political prisoner Liu Xiaobo is being derided as another example of his narcissism, in the Washington Examiner and elsewhere.  However, I think most pundits have missed a more troubling aspect.   Our President wrote:  "We respect China's extraordinary accomplishment in lifting millions out of poverty, and believe that human rights include the dignity that comes with freedom from want." 

Do we now?

Have you ever met someone who was free from want?  I personally have never met someone completely free from want, but my experience is that the farther one gets from want the less dignified one becomes.  From the silver spooned rich kids I knew in college, to the judgment proof debtors living on welfare I deal with in legal practice, it appears to me that freedom from want is actually quite detrimental to one's dignity. 

On the other end of the spectrum, when I think of the most dignified person I know, I think of my grandmother.  Her 90 years of life have included both want and dignity in ample proportions.  Starting off in a dirt-floored farm house, she raised nine children and buried two others.  She endured sickness, toil, and what today we would call poverty.  Through years of hard work and determination she quietly ensured four generations of progress in the educational, financial, and moral condition of her family.   A heart attack took her husband and a stroke took away her ability to speak and eventually to walk.  You could say she wants for a few things.  Yet she is dignity personified.

And let's see where Liu Xiaobo fits in on the dignity and want scale.  I think it's fair to assume that, in the bowels of a communist prison, Mr. Liu is also in want.  Does he therefore have no dignity?  If, as foreseen by Tocqueville, he was living "irrevocably fixed in childhood" with the government providing for his security, foreseeing and supplying all his needs, and guiding him in his principal affairs, would we really call that dignity?  Would we find that worthy of the award which occasioned the President's remarks?

The President's remarks illustrate a decades long attack on the definition of human rights, human freedom, and the American identity.  They also illustrate which side of that conflict he is on.