Verso Five Book Plan: Human Rights
In this new blog series we bring you recommended reading lists as selected by our authors.
Samuel Moyn is the author of Human Rights and the Uses of History, out June 17th from Verso. Against the popular mythologies of human rights, Moyn's widely acclaimed The Last Utopia located the birth of human rights discourse in the decade following 1968. In Human Rights and the Uses of History, he takes aim at rival conceptions, especially those that serve to justify humanitarian intervention. Below he lists five essential books on the subject.
I started out writing about where human rights came from thanks to Lynn Hunt’s already classic book. I found it as problematic as it is stimulating —as you can read in the first chapter of Human Rights and the Uses of History — but Hunt’s study remains the inaugural work of a new field of historical scholarship, and is still unsurpassed in importance. Other books like Robin Blackburn’s American Crucible have followed it in many ways, extending its story to antislavery and beyond, while a burgeoning set of inquiries into the rise of photography and other media takes up Hunt’s master theme of how empathy humanized the world.
At the time of the Kosovo bombings, and the failure to intervene in Bosnia and Rwanda before then, it was common to say that humanitarian intervention was a rude interruption in international affairs, which had supposedly always been committed to sacrosanct borders. That myth has now been destroyed by a series of historians, starting with Gary Bass, whose Freedom’s Battle I take up in the new book too. Unlike the rosy treatment that humanitarian intervention in the nineteenth century can sometimes attract, the truth is that it was never separable from the tangle of empires of the age. At stake most often were the prerogatives of Christian powers as they answered the famous “Eastern Question,” as Davide Rodogno shows in his balanced and penetrating study of how the Ottomans fared under Western eyes — and the stigma of Western humanitarianism.
History has provided space for affirmative and critical accounts of human rights, as my book discusses, but today much of the energy seems to be passing into philosophy, with precisely the same division of opinion. For most of modern times, mainstream Anglo-American thinkers disdained human rights as outworn metaphysics, but today the reverse is increasingly the case: the pendulum seems to have swung to swing from undue contempt to herdlike enthusiasm. This new collection of critical essays offers a tonic of resistance to that trend, collecting the thinking of leading interdisciplinary critics of the Anglo-American mainstream. In their different ways, they want philosophy to remain the critique of the popular morality that Socrates originally made it — even in our age of human rights.
This brilliant new book offers the new “revisionist” history of human rights at its very best. Keys shows why neither the civil rights movement (focused on the home front) nor the antiwar movement (intent on stopping a conflict abroad rather than merely humanizing the fight) were so different than the human rights surge of a decade later. Demonstrating the importance of incipient neoconservatives, Keys also replaces my own portrait of human rights in the American 1970s as an episode of guilt with a subversive but convincing picture of the origins of liberal foreign policy. Human rights were not so much about acknowledging sin, Keys shows, as washing it clean. George McGovern had counseled expiation, and gone down to crushing electoral defeat, where Jimmy Carter’s more uplifting message a few years later allowed America to stand tall after Vietnam and return to the geopolitical fray with new moral credentials. As James Mann has shown in The Obamians, it is now in the DNA of the Democratic Party to avoid McGovern’s error, making Keys’s book surpassingly relevant even today, under the current presidency.
International lawyers were long alone in their interest in human rights. Nowadays they are taking an “empirical turn,” to investigate whether the law the world has built to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights has made any difference in the end. In contrast to a more sanguine account by Beth Simmons, in this new book Eric Posner brings acid skepticism to that project of evaluation. If you worry, as I do, that human rights have caused an undue distraction for progressives, in part because they are responsible for so little if any change, Posner’s conservative skepticism is worth careful meditation.