Almost never used in English before the 1940s, “human rights” were mentioned in the New York Times five times as often in 1977 as in any prior year of the newspaper’s history. By the nineties, human rights had become central to the thinking not only of liberals but also of neoconservatives, who urged military intervention and regime change in the faith that these freedoms would blossom once tyranny was toppled. From being almost peripheral, the human-rights agenda found itself at the heart of politics and international relations.You know what? He's right, the author. Human rights (the Germans call them Menschenrechte) weren't always the sum of all political thought, nor the only possible pinnacle of human endeavors. If they are now, it's a very new phenomenon.
In fact, it has become entrenched in extremis: nowadays, anyone who is skeptical about human rights is angrily challenged to explain how they can condemn Nazism—as if the only options that exist in political thought are rights-based liberal universalism or out-and-out moral relativism. The fact that those who led the fight against Nazism understood the conflict in quite different terms, with Winston Churchill seeing it simply but not inaccurately as a life-and-death struggle between civilization and barbarism, is not considered relevant.
Not that there's anything bad about human rights, of course. Yet as John Grey reminds us, until very recently they were something one required of the state - or, put otherwise, it was recognized they're impossible without a strong state to inform them, and thus if not subordinate, at any rate they didn't outrank the state. He does so while reviewing Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, which sounds like a book lots of people ought to be reading. (My list will keep me busy for 5.5 years without sleeping any nights, and that's just the top priority books). The thesis of the book is that in its present form, human rights has become a utopia: un-attainable, even theoretically, thus mildly harmful in the real world. Near the end of the review Grey takes the thesis further than Moyn does:
The intrinsically utopian nature of the human-rights project lies in what its advocates most prize about their movement—its antipolitical orientation. Basic human freedoms do not form a harmonious system whose dictates can be decided by a court, as Rawls and the human-rights movement imagine; they are often at odds with one another—freedom of information with the freedom that goes with privacy, for example. The role of politics is to devise a modus vivendi among these rival liberties. At the back of the rights movement is a vision of an ideal constitution that could in principle be installed everywhere. But such a framework is impossible even in theory, for there are ethical and political conflicts that admit no single, right solution. If neo-Nazism could be countered in the countries where it is reemerging by curbs on free expression and political association, would it be wrong to impose such limits? The answer depends not on any imaginary “rights” but on the effectiveness of the restrictions. Where they have a decent chance of working, I for one would happily support them.Or the right to life on one side of a border vs. the right to life on the other side of it, I might add; but maybe that's just me.
(h/t, I think, Silke)