‘DOUBLE-ENTRY MORAL BOOKKEEPING’
New York City
Sam Moyn is correct. It is indeed tempting to tell a tale of human rights in isolation: to excavate the origins of our current fascination with rights, illustrate their growing acceptance and application, structure the resulting story as a Whiggish narrative of progress–and call it history. I have no idea whether Lynn Hunt succumbs to this temptation (I have not yet read her book), but she certainly wouldn’t be the first [“On the Genealogy of Morals,” April 16].
However, I would like to offer two minor amendments to Professor Moyn’s account. The first concerns his description of my own “conversion.” I did not once upon a time excoriate French left-wing intellectuals for their “failure to champion rights.” I could hardly have done so–they actively defended the rights of others on many famous occasions. I did, though, charge Sartre and many of his contemporaries with double-entry moral bookkeeping. When they looked West they saw repression, exploitation and the inexcusable violation of inalienable rights; but when they looked East they saw only the collateral damage of Historical Necessity. This seemed to me both ethically inconsistent and politically irresponsible. It still seems that way to me today. Indeed–fifty years on–André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut, Pascal Bruckner and other prominent contemporary French intellectuals have uncritically acclaimed Washington’s war on Islamic Fascism, displaying the same taste for dogmatic abstraction over local knowledge that I diagnosed in their predecessors. Surely Moyn would agree?
Second, I have never supposed that “rights talk” alone could constitute a sufficient language of politics. In 1988, well before I made my name “excoriating French left-wing intellectuals” (!), I wrote (in Eastern European Politics and Societies II, ii) of Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, George Konrád and others that if they wished to be taken seriously in a post-Communist world they would have to abandon “antipolitics” and begin to “think politically.” The extent to which some of them have failed to do so may be seen in their enthusiastic, naïve backing of Bush’s war.
Some people, myself included, advocated foreign intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo while opposing our adventure in Iraq. Sam Moyn might find this inconsistent, but (on this occasion at least) it is the world that is inconsistent, not us. During the Balkan wars individuals’ rights were under ascertainable threat in real time. Outside intervention could make a difference, and it did. This was not the case in Iraq. We should always be suspicious of the invocation of universal “rights” as a cover for sectional interests. But it doesn’t follow from this that talk of rights is “really” always about something else. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. How, then, should we adjust our response? Well, there is a serviceable Keynesian answer to that: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”