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Jewish World Review Aug. 17, 1999 /5 Elul, 5759

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Watch Out, Humanity! Here Comes Human Rights --
HAS IT EVER BEEN a better time to be human? David Rieff doesn't think so. In the New York Times Magazine last week Rieff announced the triumph of something he calls "human rights," without ever defining what he means by this phrase. The Kosovo war was fought in the name of human rights, Rieff tells us. So we do know what human rightscan't mean: it can't mean no ethnic cleansing, because it's in the name of "human rights" that Albanians slaughter Serb civilians and drive them from their homes-even if the NATO commander Mike Jackson now calls the Albanians as bad as the Serbs ever were. It doesn't mean the defeat of totalitarianism, because Rieff is indifferent to the collapse of the Communist empire and the closing-down of its death camps. He is uninterested in the squalid details of how the Hitler, Tojo, and Gorbachev regimes were defeated, and thus made the glory years of human rights possible.

The New York Times' headline for Rieff's essay suggests that ten years ago-when the Berlin wall fell, when murderous regimes in East Germany, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary collapsed, when the Baltic nations regained their independence--are the dark ages as far as "human rights" are concerned. The important date to remember is 1992-when Bill Clinton was elected, and brought such luminaries as Harold Koh, David Scheffer and John Shattuck into government. Want me to repeat those names?

For Rieff, "human rights" begins only after hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors have died, billions of citizens' dollars have been spent, atom bombs have been dropped, politicians and leaders who have taken great risks have left the stage. In its own view, the achievement of "human rights" depends not upon leadership, sacrifice, and bravery, not upon the survival of bourgeois democracy, but upon the pressure of a group of people called "human rights workers," who apparently draw pretty good salaries in order to live in dangerous places like Washington and Geneva, and jeer at ordinary people for not being as good as they.

"Human rights" can't happen when something called "colonialism" is going on, even though the most egregious examples of the absence of human rights comes in territories which used to be peaceful colonies. (When the armed men from western Europe and North America who used to police these territories were withdrawn, it was a good thing for "human rights"). Now, "human rights" must be imposed in these former colonies by importing armed men from western Europe and North America (their arrival is a good thing, and they must stay a good long time).

Rieff flatters himself and his political heroes that it is a novelty to act out of pure principal rather than self-interest. But if he knew any history he would know of another great idealistic movement that prefigured his, between the wars of this century: the pacifist movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

Rieff speaks grandly of how well the human rights establishment might have done had they been around in the 1930s and an "enlightened" German government tried to stop Hitler. But in Britain, the idealistic precursors of his "human rights worker"-allies were definitely in the saddle during the crucial years in the early 1930s when Hitler seized power and Germany could have been bottled up.

The moral equivalent of "human rights" in the 1930s was the belief in "peace" and "disarmament." Unfortunately, the political strength of pacifism in these crucial years only made Hitler stronger and the Second World War inevitable. Good intentions abounded. The members of Britain's "Peace Pledge Union" wanted to oppose aggression and tyranny, but using only the weapons of understanding, moral example, and exemplary disarmament. And these idealists, demanding that there be no rearmament in the face of Hitler's seizure of power during 1933 and 1934, won 8 by-elections in Britain in a row. As a result, in a democracy like Britain, politicians found it easier to flatter this public's belief that Hitler could be stopped-as long as it didn't involve fighting him, or taking any measures to protect British self-interest.

The pacifists of the 1930s, like today's human rights professionals, believed in a value higher than mere national self-interest. They flattered themselves that others they dealt with had the same high ideals they identified with themselves. They too were parasitic on the sacrifices of others.

Thanks anyway-- I'll choose national self-interest any time. Self-interest has a kind of reality that means you can defend yourselves against others. It's important to remember that there has been nothing so deadly in all of nature than the kind of idealism which appeared in 1789. After all, it was an idealism which didn't allow itself to be "trumped" by national sovereignty which enabled Russia, China, and Germany to transform themselves into mass exporters of death during the greater part of this sad century.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


©1999, Sam Schulman