Against Human Rights

Against Human Rights:

If the title of this post sounds vaguely sacrilegious to you, Dr. John Gray says, it's because you are a victim of Utopian piety:

From Jimmy Carter onward, this tenet came to be invoked as “the guiding rationale of the foreign policy of states.” 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....

THE MOST damaging effect of Rawls’s work was the neglect of the state that it produced. The natural rights that were asserted in the early modern period by Hobbes and other thinkers were closely linked with the modern state that was emerging at the time. As Moyn notes, the “freestanding individual of natural rights . . . was explicitly modeled on the assertive new state of early modern international affairs.” Hobbes was insistent that the right to self-preservation can be protected by a state that accepts no limits on its authority to act—otherwise, there is only a “war of all against all” in which everyone must be on guard against everyone else. Other rights theorists such as Locke, more recognizable as liberals in a modern sense, wanted to impose substantive limits on what governments could legitimately do; but they too were clear that rights could only be respected in the context of an effective modern state. Human rights might in some sense exist prior to the state, but without the state they counted for nothing....

A willed ignorance of history was also at work. If rights are universally human, embodying a kind of natural freedom that appears as the accretions of history are wiped away, the past has little significance. But if human rights are artifacts that have been constructed in specific circumstances, as I would argue, history is all-important; and history tells us that when authoritarian regimes are suddenly swept aside, the result is often anarchy or a new form of tyranny—and quite often a mix of the two.
The examples the author draws on center around Iraq, of which he is a critic; but I would like to point to another example that may be more relevant to us. In "Philosemitic Discourse in Imperial Germany," Alan Levenson points to what must have seemed to Jews to be a glorious flowering of pro-Jewish sentiment in 20th century Germany. Yet it was not nearly as deep as it seemed:
Within the program of legal, economic, and intellectual modernization that led to the emergence of a German bourgeoisie and a unified nation, Jewish equality was regarded as a by-product. Analyzing the nexus of Jews and German liberals, Pulzer concludes that although the Jews "had good friends and allies, few were prepared to put the defense of Jewish rights above all other priorities."
We've seen a similar movement in this country as regards the claims to "rights" made by homosexual advocates. The claims are being forwarded as by-products of an expansion of individualist "rights" that people want for reasons of their own. For example, the argument for reforming marriage is an outgrowth of the highly individualist reading of marriage: that marriage is really no more than a contract between the two individuals undertaking it, and therefore the happiness of those individuals is its paramount purpose. Given that understanding of marriage -- not marriage as a forging of new kinship bonds, a uniting of families across generations, or a sacred oath, but just a kind of contract that only the two individuals have any right to criticize -- the equal-protection challenge makes a kind of sense. We often speak of marriage as a partnership, but here it is read as exactly and only a kind of business-partnership: a union undertaken freely by two autonomous individuals, for their own pursuit of happiness.

That understanding explains the explosion of divorce, which is a far more important cultural phenomenon in America. If this reading of marriage is the right one, then it is a kind of slavery for someone to remain in a marriage if their happiness lies elsewhere. After all, they entered the union to pursue happiness: if they now see their happiness elsewhere, and remain in the marriage merely to make the other partner happy, they have become enslaved. That is the real thing that the hard-core individualist wishes to avoid: and thus, this understanding of marriage is to be insisted upon at all costs. Gay marriage follows logically from this foundation; but it is a by-product.

Dr. Gray's point about the importance of the political institutions is therefore well-founded: once the institutions of German liberalism foundered, all that philosemitism went entirely away. In a sense it was never real, because it was founded not on love for the thing -- that is, Jewishness -- but merely a convenient by-product of the pursuit of the other things really loved.

(An aside: this is one reason, along with the change in American demographics toward a more robustly Christian society, that I warn that the current movement toward "gay rights" is probably at its high water mark. Take this warning, if you wish, for it is a sincere one. Just as there are many false friends, who seem to be on your side but who are really chasing things of their own, there are some false foes. I may be opposed to your project, but that is likewise for reasons of my own that have nothing to do with gays. It does not mean that I have anything against you, no more than it means that those currently helping with your project really love you for yourself.)

Where Dr. Gray is weaker is in failing to recognize that political institutions are not the only relevant ones. Social and cultural institutions are likewise crucial to making rights actual. Marriage is a good one, since we started with it: it is the institution that supports and defends the next generation, gives them shelter and support until they can make their own way. As it collapses, demographic changes make society less stable: and therefore less able to support "rights" claims for everyone. The extreme form of this is the demographic collapse that Mark Steyn warns about, whereby demographic changes cause the fall and subordination of the culture that ever believed in the "rights."

The rise of "right to serve" in the military is probably the worst case of misunderstanding here. The military is the final hedge that defends the space in which these rights are actual, rather than theoretical. In making individual dignity more important than military necessity, the whole liberal project is endangered.

Of course this is no surprise to readers of the Hall. If you are new to the discussion, there is a whole set of links on the sidebar under the heading "Frith and Freedom" that is relevant. Rights may come from God or from nature, but they come to be actualized only because we make a fellowship fit to defend them. We must drive back the world, make a space, and hold it.

Within that space, yes, we can have all the equality and rights we care to defend. We must never forget that the space has to be defended, though: the institutions are its pillars, and our frith is its walls. The rights live inside the space: they cannot survive outside of it, and do not belong on its frontiers. That is the place where the hard things are done, the things that hold back the world.

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