Election Day draws ever closer. For the past few months I’ve been attending City Council meeting and Candidate Forums for local city elected candidates as a way get more involved with my new community, to meet people, and to understand the issues coming up on our ballot. In southwestern Oregon, elections are still done via paper ballots that come to our mailboxes. I find it strange after 20 years of electronic elections on the East Coast.

“Our Rights” have been a major topic in all forms of media lately, including the discussion over whether rights are merely privileges or if it’s all a big smoke screen and doesn’t actually exist. Here’s my take on the critical nature of supporting everyone who stands up for their rights and privileges.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a Right as “something that a person is or should be morally or legally allowed to have, get, or do”. A Privilege is “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others”. In that respect, one can be born an “other” or one can become an “other” when it’s convenient. We’ve seen it happen when it comes to race, gender and even national origin when looking at the Japanese-American treatment in the 1940s and the treatment of Arab-American, and those perceived as Arab, today.

An article written about rights versus privileges states that a Right is something that “you as an individual own”; whereas a Privilege is something that “another entity owns who then grants you the ability to do something”. However, even that doesn’t hold true as many people lose the land that they “own” for expansion, wars and such. Property that you “own” can be taken based on the power of eminent domain, where the government can take private land for public purposes.

I personally lost my first childhood home so that a school district could be expanded. We were given a choice of settle for “fair compensation”  or get nothing. The land was going to the school regardless. That isn’t considered a “choice” from where I stand. We had no right to our land. We didn’t know if there was anything we could do. So we settled. I still look at the place where our house stood every time I drive past.

It is the same Dakota Pipeline which is scheduled to go under the Missouri river and threatens to damage a water supply needed by humans and wildlife in the area. Eminent domain is how these pipelines go through. A country who started out as 13 colonies with ideals of a “land of the free”, open to whoever wanted to live in freedom (slaves excluded), quickly became a land of commodity to be broken up and sold for profit. Freedom was given to the highest bidder. The movement now goes far beyond the pipeline and clean water, but a demonstration of a people’s will, a resistance, a unified stand to do right by the indigenous people, a support that is long overdue.

It is a harsh reminder that just because one has a right today, doesn’t mean it won’t become a privilege tomorrow. And once it becomes a privilege, it can be easily taken away.

When we look at the “right to vote”, it sparks all kinds of emotions. The U.S. Constitution did not define who was eligible to vote and left that definition up to each state. From the start voting was a privilege given to some people but not others. Since then many have fought hard to win the “right to vote”.

Even today, voting rights vary from state to state. Some states don’t allow voting for individuals who are incarcerated for a felony conviction, others do. Some allow citizens to re-register to vote after being released from incarceration, others don’t. The very act of requiring registration to receive our “right to vote” defines voting as a privilege since it is not automatically given.

For those who have the right TO vote, it currently includes the right in HOW we vote, whether it is a particular ballot measure, topic, party, candidate, or write-in of our choice. And we also have a right to NOT vote. It would be a mandate, not a right or a privilege, if we are FORCED to vote.

This element is discussed in the case of Dixon v. Maryland State Administrative Board of Elections Laws, 878 F.2nd 776 (4th Cir. Md. 1989) “It is apodictic that a vote does not lose its constitutional significance merely because it is cast for a candidate who has little or no chance of winning. Nor do we think it loses this character if cast for a non-existent or fictional person, for surely the right to vote for the candidate of one’s choice includes the right to say that no candidate is acceptable.”

This same discussion can be used in the right to choose one’s own religion, which includes no religion; the right to own and carry guns as well as the choice not to; the right of expression by not standing to honor a flag or celebration of an independence of a country, exercising their freedom of conscience, even for a country that you are a citizen of, that has condemned a race, a religion, an entire population of indigenous peoples.

Exercising one’s “Right” can bring a multitude of problems including upsetting others with differing perspectives, unflattering publicity, loss of a job, even loss of a life. So it takes real guts to stand up for our rights. It’s bravery at its peak.

If we don’t stand up for our rights, and support others who stand up for their rights, we can easily lose them.

First it is a Right, then it becomes a Privilege, and then it’s a Crime.

Dixon v. Maryland State Administrative Board Of Election
Rights Versus Privileges
“An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Merriam-Webster Dictionary for Right and Privilege

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