Monday, September 13, 2010

The crumbling facade of "human rights"

Kenneth Anderson has a very long but excellent post on The Volokh Conspiracy, "Samuel Moyn on the history of the human rights movement", that does a remarkable job of cutting through the haze of ambiguity and flighty rhetoric that so often obscures liberal foreign policy -- particularly in this case the foreign policy of the Obama Administration -- and outlining both its real background and its current underlying assumptions.

First Anderson provides a long quote from a Moyn article in The Nation, pointing out the somewhat questionable origins of international human rights in the 40's:
From a global perspective, the brief career of human rights in the 1940s is the story of how the Allied nations elevated language about human rights as they reneged on the earlier wartime promise—made in the 1941 Atlantic Charter—of the self-determination of peoples. Global self-determination would have spelled the end of empire, but by war’s end the Allies had come around to Winston Churchill’s clarification that this promise applied only to Hitler’s empire, not empire in general (and certainly not Churchill’s). ... Human rights turned out to be a substitute for what many around the world wanted: a collective entitlement to self-determination. To the extent they noticed the rhetoric of human rights at all, the subjects of empire were not wrong to view it as a consolation prize.
Anderson, with some extensive personal experience in the international human rights field finds that this "accurately captures in my own experience as an NGO person who first volunteered to do work for Human Rights Watch in 1983". But from this he goes on to talk about a convergence of views between Moyn's more liberal-left position and Anderson's more conservative-right:
My own speculative view is that the human rights movement is in decline as the “apex values” of the international system — at least insofar as it means core individual human rights in the sense that both I and Moyn, on the basis of the Nation article, would mean. For one thing, in my view those human rights, and the universal conception of them, shelters not in the UN system but under US hegemony. The Obama administration has both diagnosed and embraced decline of the form of loose American hegemony that permits those values to be treated as “universal” by organizations like HRW, or funders like George Soros; if and as American hegemony declines (or to put it in Moyn’s historical terms, as the Allies of WWII and their enabling rhetoric fades as a tool of legitimacy) then so too human rights in that substantive meaning.
That does not mean that the rhetoric of human rights fades; rather, its content is redefined to other ends, and as a tool, it is defanged so as to ensure that — contra the vision of Moynihan — it is no longer a tool to go after bad regimes, excepting, of course, the United States and Israel. The Obama administration largely embraces that — human rights as a way of confessing that we are all sinners, and so it is not necessary to single anyone out.
So then Anderson sees two strands of foreign policy emerging in the current US administration:
In my take on the Obama administration and human rights, it has two wings, the liberal internationalist wing and the New Liberal Realist wing. The latter are those of Hillary Clinton’s general outlook — time to put aside childish things and get on with managing American decline, and with handing out the rhetoric necessary to fend off the problems of the world so that the intellectual firepower of the administration can focus on re-making the US domestically as a European social-democracy. Plus there’s that China-creditor problem.
The former wing, the liberal internationalists, however, who might otherwise have been thought to incline to more stern idealism, are comfortable with that for three reasons, I’d suggest. One is that they have a further belief that a weaker America — given its tendency to elect non-liberal-internationalist presidents and Congresses, and the general atavism of the American people — is better for liberal internationalism....
Outside the US, and perhaps outside the West generally, the future for "human rights", even with the scare quotes, looks increasingly dim:
My guess is that the future transcendental value, the apex values language of the UN system particularly, will morph very gradually from human rights to some version of global welfare, development, human security, income transfer, and all sorts of terms that do not carry baggage for the developing world, or the rising new great powers, in terms of obligations.
But “human rights,” in the hands of the NGOs like HRW and at the UN, seems to me likely to gradually convert over to a version of global religious communalism claims; a language of individual human rights gradually shifted over into a language for the protection of religious communalism, and Muslim global sensibilities in particular. The leading human rights organizations, Amnesty and HRW, already seem to see themselves in something like that role (global New Class managers of group identity relations, to put it in Telos-ian shorthand), positioning themselves as guardians of communalist sensibility as against Western publics.
But these excerpts can't do justice to a detailed and complex analysis -- in this case especially, you really need to read the whole thing.

At any rate, at some point the present managers of American, and by extension Western, decline and their cynically idealist counterparts will be gone. We can only hope that those who take their place will once again bring with them some awareness of America's exceptional origins, and some self-confidence in the cultural value of the individual and the rights thereof that America once stood for, and may still.


  1. Sounds a bit cynical metamorf. The International Declaration of Human rights (started after WWII) has been agreed to by most countries in the world (tho a few muslim countries have not agreed to the charter). It continues to advance, however slowly. Amnesty Int. does pretty significant work in this regard.

    The philosopher AC Grayling has done important work with the IDHR document, especially in China. He battles against both rightist theocrats (of all types) and marxist-multiculturalists, such as those who would have us believe genital mutilation of girls (as often happens in africa) is just another cultural practice).

    Some libertarian "rights" types don't really mean human rights in the sense of Due process, a right not to be tortured, etc. They mean, like, a right to set up Walmarts, or McDs, Apple sweatshops, etc. A rather different issue.

  2. Well, there's a line between cynicism and realism, and it looks to me, if you read his whole post, that Anderson has stayed pretty much on the realist side. There is considerable cynicism, certainly, in his reading of the way in which "human rights" becomes just a tool with which to club the US and Israel, and is simply brushed off everywhere else -- but that too seems a realistic assessment (see, e.g., Iran's election to the UN Commission of the Status of Women).

    Libertarians, btw, support the rule of law, due process, and other such Lockean rights, including the right to property, which would include the right to set up Walmarts, MacDonalds, and Apple sweatshops -- all part of the exact same issue.

  3. Debatable. Locke did allow for property rights, but he was arguing from the POV of the commons, ie, the non-aristocrats. Read that chestnut carefully and yll note that he actually wants limitations on the massive estates, and also discusses the division of labor. So, while libertarians read it as merely a justification of property rights, the older, liberal Lockeans (including someone like Jefferson, or even...Rousseau) read it in terms of entitlement and/or slightly socialist terms, ie being able to claim the fruits of one's labor, on one's own farm (and/or making trades/contracts when needed etc), instead of working for the lord or baron. Or something like that.

    Ergo I don't think Lockean political theory offers much if any support of a Walmart conglomerates, tho' of course Locke wrote before the growth of the global corporation. Either way, Locke while capable of hypocrisy (as was Jefferson) was not a pal of the rich and powerful--he sounds nearly .progressive at times.

  4. Wealth and power per se are not the issue, and weren't for Locke either -- legitimacy was and is. The only society without wealth and power is an imaginary communist la-la land, and the only people who have a problem with wealth and power as such tend to be embittered, envious losers for whom resentment is a character trait. They're the very opposite of "progressive" in any meaningful sense of that term.

  5. Your usual quasi-Machiavellian errors, Metamorf. Locke was for the losers, of a sort---his thinking on rights is based on the social contract, not...the will to power (or bare knuckles capitalism for that matter). Locke's political schema is ...classical liberalism, not Aynnie Randism, except to the delusional, small business types, ie American libertarians (and the few dozen canadians who love 'em), who need something to prop up their greed and avarice (instead of say the social darwinism they used a few decades ago). At least be an honest machiavellian and/or RealPolitik-er, m. Even H-mac and her quasi-nihilist cronies do that.

  6. Locke was for the losers, of a sort

    That's your fundamental error, J -- "commons", meaning presumably common people as opposed to the aristocracy, are not equivalent to losers of any sort, not in my terms and not in Locke's. By "losers" (and I could probably have chosen a better term), I simply meant those who resent anyone who does better than them -- i.e., they're losers in their own minds. That's really more of an affliction than anything else, and it's much more debilitating, on both a personal and social level, than greed and avarice put together. But I'll agree that Locke's "political schema" is classical liberalism, and to my mind that provides a start toward a cure.

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  8. your comments on resentment sound nearly like something a PoMo might say, metamorf. Some poor people or middle class do resent the wealthy and powerful, but not without some reason. Say Esmeralda goes to college to become a nurse and after years of struggling, she becomes an RN and a job (or imagine teacher, technicians, engineers,etc). Bill Gates or Stevie Jobs on the other hand finishes a semester or two and due to family connections, being in the right place at right time, becomes a multi-millionaire in a few years, without any real technical know-how; even on standardized tests--math, bio-chem, etc-- Esmeralda will probably outscore them. Same for producers or porn kings. Or, worse case, Paris Hilton, or other rich heiresses, kids of celebrities, etc simply inherit millions. So...many might feel bitter or slight rage at the unmerited wealth--not necessarily resentment. I don't begrudge a successful doctor or engineer. I do begrudge the merely clever shark, finance type, or hustler of whatever type. Larry Flynt doesn't symbolize the American dream (that may seem a bit off-topic but the average libertarian generally supports porn and prostitution...)

  9. So...many might feel bitter or slight rage at the unmerited wealth--not necessarily resentment. I don't begrudge a successful doctor or engineer. I do begrudge the merely clever shark, finance type, or hustler of whatever type. Larry Flynt doesn't symbolize the American dream

    No he doesn't, but so what? Look, here's the thing: it doesn't help Esmerelda or you or I to go around harboring resentment or bitterness or rage, however slight, at Bill Gates or Larry Flynt or Paris Hilton or kids of celebrities, or even people who just happened to be born better looking or smarter or taller or whatever. In fact, at best it just wastes time, energy, and pointless emotion. At worst, it can twist your whole personality. Resentment, or call it what you will, of the luck of others is just a dead end. I know this is a cliche, and may sound naive or pollyannaish, but all any of us can do is make the best of what we have, regardless of who has more.

  10. Obsession of whatever sort is not good, but that's not really what's its about. People oppose Bill Gates because his wealth seems obscene or injust; or because Microsoft corporate power (and that of other IT giants) seems close to tyranny. That doesn't necessarily entail approving of maoism as an alternative, but does seem to entail questioning casino-capitalism, at least for those who believe in something like justice.

  11. Okay, we can at least agree that obsessing over those who have more than you isn't good.

    Why Gates' wealth seems unjust or "obscene", why Microsoft seems close to tyranny, what "casino-capitalism" may be, or how it differs from just capitalism, and what the definition or concept of "justice" would be that leads to these kinds of beliefs -- all that isn't clear. But no doubt there'll be other chances to clarify it.

  12. Im not especially pious, but for starters check say St Matthew for some thoughts on Justice, and its relation to usurers, moneylenders, and the wealthy in general.


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