The enterprise of writing the history of human rights has become a widespread activity only in the past decade. Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights is its most prominent result so far, identifying the Enlightenment and the age of democratic revolutions as the moment when the cause was born. Yet if human rights history is now chic, it is also confused. A few months ago the president of the main American professional association of historians announced to all students of the past–whatever the place and time and subject of their research–that they “are all historians of human rights.” But what could such a claim possibly mean?
The most troubling shortcoming of the contemporary attempt to give human rights a history is that it distorts the past to suit the present. And in this gambit, it is late, fatally late: The current wave of human rights history is the tardy fruit of the fashion of human rights in politics, and contributors to the genre clearly set out to provide backstories to the vogue of human rights just a few years ago, when they exercised a literally millennial appeal. But the vine withered as the fruit ripened. The sad fact is that historiography has not caught up with history, and even the professionals–especially the professionals–are still providing the prologue to Clinton-era idealism.
The shift in political debate has been impossible to miss. Even those who retain an investment in human rights cannot treat them as an unquestionable good, mainly because the America that once seemed to many enthusiasts to be the prospective servant of universality abroad all too quickly became the America pursuing low-minded imperial ambitions in high-minded humanitarian tones. The effect on human rights as a public language and political cause has been staggering, and it is not yet clear whether they can recover.
If radical apostasy is the sign that times have changed, then the ideological journey of the writer David Rieff provides the most spectacular evidence. Once a paladin of human rights–and a champion of American humanitarian intervention–Rieff has now turned on the politics he once embraced. For Rieff, human rights, far from the universal panacea he and writers such as Michael Ignatieff and Samantha Power once considered them, now stand revealed as an ideology perfectly designed to cloak the “military humanism” of empire. Agree with him or not, Rieff’s evolution shows that Communism is not the only god that can fail.
The conversion of Tony Judt has been less radical but more interesting. He made his name excoriating French left-wing intellectuals for their failure to champion rights–a failure he saw as rooted in their nation’s revolutionary tradition, especially when measured against Anglo-American political wisdom. Rights have an “extrapolitical status,” he wrote thirteen years ago, diagnosing as French pathology the error of making them “an object of suspicion.” Now he says that universalistic invocations of rights often mask particular interests–and never more so than in America’s current wars–even though he once chastised opponents of rights who took this very position. Formerly treating them as an intellectual talisman, Judt now complains in passing about “the abstract universalism of ‘rights’–and uncompromising ethical stands taken against malign regimes in their name.” He warns that such abstractions can all too easily lead those who invoke them to “readily mistake the US president’s myopic rigidity for their own moral rectitude.” Of course, Judt still understands himself to be a committed liberal intellectual, at a time when he thinks practically all other liberals have disappeared. But not just the world has changed; he has too, and most strikingly in his acknowledgment that his old standard can hallow many causes.