16 June, 2014Issue 25.4HistoryPolitics & Society

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Something Fishy: the Politics of Human Rights History

Ardevan Yaghoubi

Samuel Moyn
Human Rights and the Uses of History
Verso Books, 2014
160 pages
ISBN 978-1781682630

The slaughter of whales for their blubber strikes us as ethically wrong. The benefits of whale fat as a cheap energy source does not justify the nasty business of extracting it. A basic moral intuition against cruelty to animals seems to be at the root of the prohibition on whaling today, and a historical narrative might be used to chart the transition from the initial moral belief to the cessation of the practice.

Such a history might begin with Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). An historian might interpret Melville’s novel as an early exposure of the immorality of commercial whaling, fueled by Ahab’s obviously misguided bloodlust. In response to the documentation of moral impropriety, reformers realised that the mighty sperm whale had been deprived of its rights, and so they organised social movements and anti-whaling campaigns to change the laws. Today, we can celebrate the historical advancement that, by and large, whales are no longer killed to light lamps in human homes.

In this hypothetical historical narrative, moral epiphany drives politics. The problem, however, is that this narrative is also false. In 1851, the year of Moby Dick’s publication, whalers caught approximately 4,400 sperm whales. In 1951—a century after Melville’s moral insight—the number was 18,000. The nineteenth century never saw more than 8,000 sperm whales killed in a single year, whereas between 1956 and 1976, an average of more than 20,000 were caught annually. The point, however, is not only that this moral history of whaling is false. It also distorts how we should understand the present as a field of action if we want to liberate other forms of life from undue suffering.

That moralistic histories can distort our understanding of the present is Samuel Moyn’s thesis in his new book, Human Rights and the Uses of History. Ahab and Ishmael pop up at important junctures in several of the essays in Moyn’s book as a reminder of the slipperiness of the impulse to read history in these moralising terms. Moby Dick, according to Moyn, “explores how human dignity ultimately depends on (and comes from) a theological principle, not a political or social one alone”. This is his central, though largely unstated, bone of contention: the elevation of a secular liberal Kantian theology of human rights over political reality.

Moyn’s 2010 book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History argued that human rights did not gain political efficacy until the 1970s, well after the horrors of the Second World War and the signing of the United Nations Charter. While The Last Utopia falsified this progressive, or Whig, understanding of history, Human Rights and the Uses of History builds on those arguments to show how that history confuses our present understanding of politics.

According to Moyn, popular notions of the origin of human rights resemble the above narrative of whaling; they are too teleological and self-congratulating to examine critically how morality became practice and whose interests were served in the process. Human rights—like the rights of whales not to be slaughtered—are not “timeless” facts to which people are inherently entitled, but rather have been taken up by specific actors, at various historical moments and for particular ends. Moyn belies the idea that human rights are “somehow insulated from history—as if they were a set of beliefs analogous to heliocentrism or relativity, needing only discovery and acceptance…[and] not people thinking and acting on their convictions”.

Human Rights and the Uses of History tackles contemporary dilemmas in foreign intervention, war, torture, and international criminal law. Moyn’s task and title (which he borrows from Nietzsche) refers to the idea that the “uses” and “abuses” of human rights history might meaningfully be distinguished. It is mostly the latter that interests him, though, and one feels that the book ought to have been entitled “Human Rights and the Abuses of History”. Through the eight essays, bookended by an insightful preface and epilogue, Moyn takes on a dizzying number of abusers with suitable aplomb: historians, philosophers, lawyers, and not least politicians are all subject to his “critical impulse”. Though most of the essays were originally published as reviews for The Nation magazine over a four-year period, Verso’s collection is tidy, coherent, and invigorating. Human Rights and the Uses of History functions as a guide to several thorny present-day political controversies, and Moyn is undoubtedly correct to assert that ignoring the dark side of human rights ideology is both irresponsible and dangerous. But Moyn’s political realism, even the sophisticated version practised in this collection, has its limits.

Moyn clearly revels in cutting up his opponents. First among them are the human rights historians. “If human rights history is now chic, it is also confused”, he remarks on the first page of the opening essay, responding to the historian Lynn Hunt. Human rights histories not only misrepresent the actual history—Moyn relies at points on his conclusions in The Last Utopia—but are also ignorant of the side effects of human rights discourse. “There is a relationship between George W. Bush’s justification of the Iraq War as a humanitarian campaign against ‘torture chambers and rape rooms’” and the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib, he writes. Similarly, Moyn is skeptical about the attempt by Stanford’s legal historian, Jenny Martinez, to show how “the fight against slavery undergirds the principles and actions of today’s international human rights regimes”, and he preserves an acerbic attitude towards political scientist of the Kennedy School, Kathryn Sikkink, whom he accuses of ignoring “the darker reasons why morality can shine forth, and why some moralities succeed in attracting powerful backing while others do not”. Human rights enthusiasts not only view their subject through rose-tinted glasses; they’ve forgotten they’re wearing glasses at all.

The point, Moyn stresses, is not that rights are mere empty vessels for an insidious programme of conservatism; it is rather that “one cannot embrace rights in the past without acknowledging” their potential uses in the future. After all, “if humanitarianism had been purely rhetorical high-mindedness for Britain or human rights were simply an apology for American power, they would never have become the highly mobile and contested categories they remain today”. Rights have won important victories, and much of the world continues to clamour for more, not less. For instance, Moyn’s complaint that economic and social rights are overshadowed by human rights violations with more explicit “visible forms of cruelty” is arguably changing for the better. Emerging world powers like Brazil have a seat at the proverbial table, if not yet a vote on the Security Council. That human rights are a valuable political tool has been observed by even the most critical of thinkers; as Jürgen Habermas wrote over two decades ago in Between Facts and Norms, rights are “janus-faced”, not one-sided.

Moyn’s opponents—of whom there are too many to list here—have in many cases left themselves vulnerable, and his criticisms range from the convincing (Gary Bass’s history of humanitarian intervention, Freedom’s Battle) to the less so (Jeremy Waldron’s reflections on the “leveling up” of mankind in Dignity, Rank, and Rights). But Human Rights and the Uses of History goes beyond intellectual sparring and tries to develop a programme for the “future of human rights”. Moyn is well placed to recognise that just as human rights were not discovered but invented, so too can they be forgotten or actively put aside in favour of another “language and strategy”:

Obama’s initially surprising caution toward human rights remains useful: it suggests that the faith in the notion may be less deeply rooted than we thought, and not at all indispensable. The real question is what to do with the progressive moral energy to which human rights have been tethered in their short career. Is the order of the day to reinvest it or to direct it?

History will not answer that question for us. It is “a task beyond interpreting the past: crafting the future”. It is relatively surprising to read Moyn, a historian, write that “[t]here is no historical basis in international affairs for this program” of universal human rights. The implication is that history is not a safe guide to present-day politics. These concessions are to his credit—Nietzsche’s titularly referenced essay, after all, warned that too much history “will do harm to the living”.

The weakness in Moyn’s thesis is located in its unquestioning endorsement of the political theory known as realism. Realism, whose most prominent proponents are said to include Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Henry Kissinger, considers politics an art or technique and not an exercise in applied ethics. The view is neatly summarized by Moyn, who does not pause to consider its credentials: “[P]olitics becomes a battle, hopefully waged through persuasive means from advertising to arguments, to gain power and enact programs”. Moyn’s clearest strategic suggestion for the future of human rights is to advocate for “politicizing world affairs”, echoing well-worn ideas about agonism, contestation, and disagreement. “We can and should risk the development of more openly partisan enterprises in international affairs. The choice is not between whether to have them or not, but whether they are explicit or not”. The insistence on truthfulness in political strategy reaches its apotheosis in Moyn’s opaque call, following Engels, to make “human rights more scientific”. On this point, Nietzsche—and The Republic, for that matter—are more skeptical than Moyn about the idea that politics is really improved by exercises in “explicit” truth.

Nonetheless, realists have even bigger fish—though not quite whales—to fry. Reducing politics to a battlefield, “the geopolitics of contest”, doesn’t explain what side we should be on. “[I]f the human rights movement does not offer a more realistic and politicized utopia, something else will take its place”, Moyn writes. That sounds right, but realism provides few good normative reasons about why that should motivate us one way or another. The perils of an existentialist political theory centred on die Entscheidung should be clear at this point, Putin’s minority opinion notwithstanding.

Let the whales, more pacific creatures than we, be our guide. A progressive history of morals won’t explain why more whales died in the twentieth century than in Melville’s. So what did stop the killing? Ultimately the International Whaling Commission, under the auspices of an International Convention, issuing a moratorium in 1982 to cease commercial whaling. The Convention has largely been a success, and the number of sperm whales caught annually is less than 1,000 today.

At one point, Moyn rhetorically questions the historically recent proliferation of interest in human rights and the idea of universal human dignity upon which it is founded: “what is in the water—other than fewer whales than in Melville’s day?” The extended analogy between universal human dignity and Melville’s sperm whale is revealing. In both cases, we run up against limits to our knowledge. For one thing, we don’t actually know for certain whether there are fewer whales living in our waters today than in Moby Dick’s time. Because they spend most of their lives submerged, exact numbers are difficult to know and current population estimates for the sperm whale range from 200,000 to over a million.

The lesson is that the reach of human affairs apparently doesn’t go that deep below sea-level. Maybe Ahab—and by extension, the modern dignitarian—was onto something after all in the hunt for “a theological principle, not a political or social one”.

Ardevan Yaghoubi is a reading for an MSt in Legal Theory at New College, Oxford.