Friday, December 2, 2011

The creation myth of human rights

From Harrisonburg, VA
For as much as I gripe about nationalism in the U.S., I want to be fair in representing the fact that the myth of "nation as savior" is not unique to my own nation, as this video about universal human rights makes plain. Especially of interest to my argument is minutes 2 through 5...

The historiography/myth-making going on here is fascinating. Essentially reading "nation-state" back to Cyrus the Great, tracing it then directly to medieval England, colonial America, revolutionary France, and then...[cue angelic choirs]...the United Nations! That really is an imperialist narrative, which is interesting given their topic of universal human rights and who they purport to protect, namely the marginalized. I bristle at the philosophical commitments underwriting the very notion of "universal" human rights, even more so when set against the backdrop of the soundbyte historical narrative they painted. Now, what I am not saying is that I think human rights are a bad idea per se. Indeed they are good. Rather, I am taking issue with the highly selective and interpretive storytelling going on in the video. (Granted, it is a YouTube video, so there's only so much you can do in 10 minutes.)

Notice, also, the complete silence on major religious traditions, other than the reference to Jews in the Holocaust. But even that isn't entirely true, as Cyrus the Great was leader of an empire every bit as "religious" as little ol' Israel nearby, whose god, Yahweh, told the people - repeatedly - to take care of the alien, the orphan, and the widow in their land, because they themselves were once marginalized, enslaved people in Egypt. Sounds an awful lot like human rights to me, but one sees the word "Moses" flash by on the timeline when the narrator talks about the bad/primitive pre-human rights era prior to Cyrus.

This is the pat "nation-state as savior" myth that passes as natural in most of the world now, where religions are sneered at for being exclusionary and inherently violent. Granted, it's not only religions that are ignored or sneered at in the video; the storytellers here are not fans of Napoleon or Hitler, either, and for good reason. But at the end of the day, it's still the assembled modern nation-states that fill the salvific role of delivering universal human rights to the world. (You're welcome, world.)

But the myth of state(s) as savior has so many holes in it now, phenomenologically and intellectually. I think of folks like William Cavanaugh, Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, et al, who have done serious work at showing what this myth is...which is exactly that: a myth, a narrative of the liberal democratic order this side of the Enlightenment.

The global social movements underway, using names such as "Occupy Wall Street" and "Arab Spring" should be enough to show the cracks in this myth, and the yearning for something different. I highly recommend this article at the Immanent Frame blog on that topic: The Resurgence of the Civic.

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