Friday, September 2, 2016

Moyn: The End of Human Rights History

Samuel Moyn (Harvard Univ. - Law and History) has posted The End of Human Rights History (Past and Present, forthcoming), a response to Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann's essay Human Rights and History. Here's the introduction:

The sociology of intellectual argument, for all of its strides forward in the intervening century, has not come far since Arthur Schopenhauer’s glum observation that truth most often enjoys ‘only a short victory celebration between the two long periods of time when it is condemned as paradoxical or disparaged as trivial’. Discovered since is that the truth is hostage not just to banalization but also to specialization: the hectic journey from paradox to disparagement that Schopenhauer portrayed occurs as new fields run through a familiar dynamic of excitement and exhaustion, before new generations of themes and topics seize their place. As a field normalizes, all the available moves within it are sooner or later made. When the last square is occupied, it is usually a sign that the game is about to complete its transit from vital to moribund. A historiography has only a short victory celebration between two long periods of time when it is unimaginable for scholars to pursue it in the first place and it is marginalized for lacking opportunities to innovate.

Human rights history has enjoyed a historiographical victory — a small place in the sun — in recent years. ‘If historians have argued in the recent past . . . about the nature of the French Revolution of 1789 or, in more general terms, about the impact of the linguistic turn on our attempts to construct artefacts of historical truth out of language’, Martin Conway recently observed, ‘we now find ourselves debating the way in which human rights emerged from the Second World War onwards as an intellectual preoccupation, a focus of political campaigns, and a reference point of inter-state and global diplomacy’. For that matter, classical, medieval and early modern historians have also got in on the act; and, long before the Second World War, the historiography of the French Revolution itself has famously been redefined in terms of its significance for the birth of human rights. It has been an exciting historiographical moment. Anyone schooled in Schopenhauer’s pessimism, however, will always have an eye on the horizon, looking for when the sun will begin to set.

Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann’s recent proposal in these pages to centre the historiography of human rights on the 1990s is brilliant, showing the light that the field still allows the intrepid. The past of the Greeks or Jews, medieval Christians or early modern philosophers, Atlantic revolutionaries or anti-slavery activists, American internationalists or scourges of empire, had once been treated as a poor source for the contemporary human rights revolution compared to east European dissidents seeking a post-political strategy of resistance, Latin American exiles on the run from deadly authoritarianism, north Atlantic advocates anxious for moral engagement with clean hands after too much Cold War and counter-insurgency, and an American president who pioneeringly called for a human rights foreign policy. But even the 1970s and 1980s, Hoffmann contends, were another era. It was in the 1990s, not before, that the day of human rights truly dawned.

It is always more startling to effect a paradigm shift than to engage in minor correction, and Hoffmann’s high-concept and incisive piece does it with wonderful success. Hoffmann’s proposal is easily more original than the more predictable quest, however well motivated, to restore the status quo ante by seeking the roots of human rights before the 1970s. And it is genuinely powerful. Yet my main response is that Hoffmann’s provocative resetting of the clock forward also looks to be the last interesting move available in the game of human rights history, at least until the rules are changed in ways no one currently anticipates.

Beyond its innovative leap into the 1990s, Hoffmann’s essay also, like a few other prior interventions, argues for much-needed reconciliation in the field of human rights history. In fact, more so even than in its chronological proposal, Hoffmann is persuasive in making a stress on the obvious novelty of international human rights politics (however dated) compatible with a more traditional search for some of their antecedents and avatars. Perhaps it is the combination of these often opposed impulses that makes Hoffmann’s stylish intervention most remarkable: even while offering the last interesting bid for novelty, it simultaneously provides reconciliation by incorporating all the prior arguments others have made before. For example, it helpfully portends a time when the nineteenth century figures more than it has hitherto in the initial construction of the field. Yet, like final innovation, complete reconciliation is also potentially bitter-sweet: it comes, if not at the end of history, then at least at the end of a historiography. As much in his innovation as in his reconciliation, then, Hoffmann may have let loose the owl of Minerva at the dusk of a field.

Notwithstanding my anxiety that novelty and obsolescence are often allies, the remainder of this admiring response will raise only a couple of doubts about Hoffmann’s proposals for both innovation and reconciliation. First, it will contend that even if the whole prior history of politics did little to anticipate the birth of human rights in the 1970s, the lines of continuity between the 1970s and the 1990s and therefore our own time are legitimate and strong. Secondly, and more briefly, it argues that while harmonious reconciliation is valuable, so that the full set of factors that led to the human rights revolution of our time deserves attention, historians are not saved by comprehensive inclusion from comparing and ranking those factors in importance. And if that is so, the debate over the period starting in the 1970s may remain the burning one relative to very distant or outright misleading antecedents supposedly accumulating since the beginning of time.