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Don't turn every grievance into a question of rights

George Gerbner is director of a new study purporting to show that women and many minority groups are vastly underrepresented on television. To Gerbner, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, this is not just a bad thing. It is a serious rights violation, because it has become a "new civil right" for people "to be represented fairly and equally" on TV.

For instance, Gerbner notes that there are 43-million disabled Americans. So fair and equal representation would seem to require that one of every six speaking roles on TV go to disabled actors, instead of the mere 1.5 percent of prime-time roles they get now. Since it would apply to news programs as well, the disabled would be entitled to about 17 percent of speaking opportunities on news shows, compared with the paltry 0.2 percent found in the survey.

Chances are you never heard of the civil right to rigorous proportional representation on the tube because Gerbner just discovered it, or at least announced it, last Tuesday. But is there really a basic right to expect the evening news to be one-fifth about Catholics, 3 percent about Asians/Pacific Islanders or 12 percent about Californians because that would reflect each group's percentage of the population? Well, no. Gerbner has merely lapsed from quota talk into rights talk.

We have reached the point where it's nearly impossible to discuss any problem or desire without hearing someone declare it a right. Is inner-city crime a rights issue? Why not? Columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. reported last week that some new tough-minded liberals _ he calls them "Kojak liberals" _ "insist that crime is now a basic civil rights issue" because violence and lawlessness prevent law-abiding people from bettering their lives. The attention to people under siege in the inner cities is commendable, but what is accomplished by all this rights talk?

The same notion _ that crime can be somehow confronted by invoking "rights" against it _ is quite common on campus. Columnist Ellen Goodman writes: "The right to walk down a street, across a campus, into a fraternity house, resonates strongly among women . . ." Nobody should be mugged, but it isn't a matter of an individual right to stroll. It's a civic issue of public safety.

A battered woman, abused by her husband, wrote a moving article about her experience in the Washington Post, but at the end, she lapsed into rights talk. "Victims of this crime," she wrote, "must realize that they have the right to live in a safe, loving home . . ." She appended a bill of rights for abused women, including the right to be angry and the right to be imperfect.

Given her harrowing experience, she had the right to expect authorities to prosecute the husband. But otherwise the rights talk was all out of sync. There is, alas, no "right to a loving home." Who could enforce it, and how?

Why do so many people talk this way? Well, it's a very useful language for those demanding services. The all-time champion in this division is Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., who campaigned on the argument that if you have a right to a lawyer when accused of a crime, you should have a right to a doctor when you're sick. Many advocates believe in a "right to treatment" for addicts, a "right to housing" for the homeless, "a right to day care" or "the right to a college education." Casting all these goods as rights usually means they must be presented to rights-bearers without price tags. The question of who pays is left obscure.

Most groups that want something from the public have learned to put the word "rights" in their title: disability rights, animal rights, children's rights against parents, parents' rights against schools, grandparents' rights against parents. A ludicrous appeal to grandparents' rights was raised in the San Quentin "right to procreate" case. Fourteen killers on death row sued for their right to reproduce through artificial insemination. Their lawyer argued that the state was cruelly preventing the parents of the killers from experiencing the joys of grandparenthood.

It turns out that "animal rights" is not the last step on the path of turning a responsibility for the natural world into a system of rights. Amitai Etzioni's book, The Spirit of Community, documents some startling examples of people who believe inanimate objects have rights. For instance, law professor Christopher Stone once argued that rocks and streams should be treated legally as human beings who have rights but cannot speak. Another lawyer argues that sand has rights too.

Here's a modest proposal. Let's try to go a whole year without inventing any new "rights." Professor Etzioni, founder of the communitarian movement, has called for a 10-year moratorium on the manufacture of rights. He says the incessant issuance of new rights, like the wholesale printing of currency, causes a massive inflation that devalues their moral claims. Just so. But the prospect of 10 years without a fix might frighten away the very addicts who most need treatment. One year is surely doable. Let's try.

Universal Press Syndicate