The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

Here are some highlights from this 2010 book by Samuel Moyn:

* Historians of human rights approach their subject, in spite of its novelty, the way church historians once approached theirs. They regard the basic cause—much as the church historian treated the Christian religion—as a saving truth, discovered rather than made in history. If a historical phenomenon can be made to seem like an anticipation of human rights, it is interpreted as leading to them in much the way church history famously treated Judaism for so long, as a proto-Christian movement simply confused about its true destiny. Meanwhile, the heroes who are viewed as advancing human rights in the world—much like the church historian’s apostles and saints—are generally treated with uncritical wonderment. Hagiography, for the sake of moral imitation of those who chase the flame, becomes the main genre. And the organizations that finally appear to institutionalize human rights are treated like the early church: a fledgling, but hopefully universal, community of believers struggling for good in a vale of tears. If the cause fails, it is because of evil; if it succeeds, it is not by accident but because the cause is just. These approaches provide the myths that the new movement wants or needs.

They match a public and politically consequential consensus about the sources of human rights. Human rights commonly appear in journalistic commentary and in political speeches as a cause both age-old and obvious. At the latest, both historians and pundits focus on the 1940s as the crucial era of breakthrough and triumph. High profile observers—Michael Ignatieff, for example—see human rights as an old ideal that finally came into its own as a response to the Holocaust, which might be the most universally repeated myth about their origins. In the 1990s, an era of ethnic cleansing in southeastern Europe and beyond during which human rights took on literally millennial appeal in the public discourse of the West, it became common to assume that, ever since their birth in a moment of post-Holocaust wisdom, human rights embedded themselves slowly but steadily in humane consciousness in what amounted to a revolution of moral concern. In a euphoric mood, many people believed that secure moral guidance, born out of shock about the Holocaust and nearly incontestable in its premises, was on the verge of displacing interest and power as the foundation of international society. All this fails to register that, without the transformative impact of events in the 1970s, human rights would not have become today’s utopia, and there would be no movement around it.

* The best general explanation for the origins of this social movement and common discourse around rights remains the collapse of other, prior utopias, both state-based and internationalist. These were belief systems that promised a free way of life, but led into bloody morass, or offered emancipation from empire and capital, but suddenly came to seem like dark tragedies rather than bright hopes. In this atmosphere, an internationalism revolving around individual rights surged, and it did so because it was defined as a pure alternative in an age of ideological betrayal and political collapse. It was then that the phrase “human rights” entered common parlance in the English language.

* To give up church history is not to celebrate a black mass instead.

* there is a clear and fundamental difference between earlier rights, all predicated on belonging to a political community, and eventual “human rights.”

* If the state was necessary to create a politics of rights, many nineteenth-century observers wondered, could they have any other real source than its own authority and any other basis than its local meanings?

* what happened for human rights to seem like the only viable kind of universalism there is now.

* “Who will dare to avow that his heart was not lifted up,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe exclaimed in 1797, “when the new sun first rose in its splendor; when we heard of the rights of man, of inspiring liberty, and of universal equality!” Unlike later human rights, however, they were deeply bound up with the construction, through revolution if necessary, of state and nation. It is now the order of the day to transcend that state forum for rights, but until recently the state was their essential crucible.

* [The human rights crusade emerged out of] “the distrust of utopia together with the desire to have one anyway.”

* Amnesty International’s origins in Christian responses to the Cold War had been unpromising, however, and its slow transformation into a celebrated human rights organization makes clear the necessity of distinguishing among the creation, evolution, and reception of such groups. Thanks to its founder Peter Benenson, AI emerged through an interesting and productive improvisation on earlier Christian peace movements. Together with Eric Baker, a Quaker, Benenson intended to provide a new outlet for idealists disappointed by Cold War stalemate, and especially after socialism had been revealed as a failed experiment. After AI’s inaugural May 28, 1961 Observer spread, “The Forgotten Prisoners,” Benenson recorded that “[t]he underlying purpose of this campaign—which I hope those who are closely connected with it will remember, but never publish—is to find a common base upon which the idealists of the world can co-operate. It is designed in particular to absorb the latent enthusiasm of great numbers of such idealists who have, since the eclipse of Socialism, become increasingly frustrated; similarly it is
geared to appeal to the young searching for an ideal. . .” Quite strikingly, in private Benenson went so far as to conclude that the outlet AI would provide to idealists made its effects on victims unimportant: “It matters more to harness the enthusiasm of the helpers. . . The real martyrs prefer to suffer, and, as I would add, the real saints are no worse off in prison than anywhere on this earth.”

* Whether or not such activism made a difference on the ground, or in the larger process of constructing international norms, it succeeded first of all in giving meaning (as Benenson once hoped) to engaged lives. It was engagement of a sort whose minimalism was its enabling condition and source of power when other post-1968 alternatives were dying. Though she would go on to help found Helsinki (later Human Rights) Watch as the decade closed, Jeri Laber recalled that in the early 1970s she had never heard the phrase “human rights.” Trained in Russian studies, it was not Soviet activism that hooked her but a searing December 1973 New Republic essay written by AI activist Rose Styron on the renaissance of torture around the world. It led Laber to “do something about it.” Having been a parttime food writer for the New York Times shortly before, Laber placed an op-ed piece in that newspaper based on AI information—the first published—within a year of joining the Riverside Amnesty chapter. “I had found a successful formula,” she noted in a memoir. “I began with a detailed description of a horrible form of torture, then explained where it was happening and the political context in which it occurred; I ended with a plea to show the offending government that the world was watching.”

* why are this concept and this movement the ones with which many people affiliated at the time and have affiliated since? If human rights have made any historical difference, it was first in their competitive survival as a motivating ideology in the confusing tumult of 1970s social movements, as they became bound up with the widespread desire to drop utopia and have one anyway. And their substitution of plausible morality for failed politics may have come at a price.

* Today it seems self-evident that among the major purposes— and perhaps the essential point—of international law is to protect individual human rights. “At the start of the new century,” one observer writes, “international law, at least for many theorists and practitioners, has been reconceived. No longer the law of nations, it is the law of human rights.”1 If that transformation is one of the most striking there is in modern law and legal thought, it is even more surprising that it really began only yesterday. Not only did the prehistory of international law through World War II provide no grounds for this development; for decades after, there would have been no way to believe or even to guess that human rights might become the touchstones they are today. Neither drawing from the humane spirit of founders centuries ago nor the recoil to World War II’s atrocities, human rights for international lawyers too are rooted in a startling and recent departure.

* one of the most fascinating testaments to the breakthrough of “human rights” in the late 1970s is the response of philosophers, who after a moment of confusion about their novelty assimilated them to natural rights principles that were themselves being revived.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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