`Human Rights’ As `Historical Universals’? (Paul Piccone)

Once a vocation, being an intellectual today has become a profession. Like day traders or divorce lawyers, “public intellectuals” pack their briefcases in the morning and off they go to make a living in “the public sphere.” Unlike day-traders and divorce lawyers, however, who at least have no illusions as to who they are and what they do, public intellectuals still pretend to follow a higher calling. They like to see themselves as the theoretical vanguard of an otherwise inarticulate and unsophisticated mass in need of guidance. Of course, this is nothing new. As in the dark ages of “pre-modernity,” when priests and shamans mediated between the visible and the invisible, the given and the giver, the known and the unknown, public intellectuals still pretend to totalize culture and to retail it piecemeal for everyday consumption. This assumption is so widespread that the only occasional and rather modest lament, by more “critical” intellectuals, is that they no longer do even that and, instead, only talk among themselves in a jargon inaccessible to the masses and meant to camouflage as profundities what, on closer scrutiny, turn out to be trivialities and non sequiturs. Their main occupational hazard is that, in order to be credible, they have to construct and to legitimate the transcendental universalist ideology they subsequently market as “the truth.”

Whereas there was once a common culture to mediate and elaborate, today it is difficult to defend anything of the kind. Unwilling to be relegated to the local level, most public intellectuals opt for a cosmopolitan public sphere populated exclusively by their peers, selected by their ability to converse effectively in the predominant lingo about what they themselves certify as “legitimate” topics. Thus, if the overwhelming majority of people cannot access this public sphere other than indirectly, through their alleged representatives, who usually end up transubstantiating their own particular interests into those of their constituencies, the very concept of a “public sphere” is terminally tainted by a democratic deficit. Worse yet, in the process of legitimating this public sphere and its rules of access as neutral and value-free, public intellectuals tend to hypostatize the principles presupposed by such a framework to the level of universal values. From these allegedly necessary preconditions, they proceed to reabsolutize the same cultural idiosyncrasies (whose particularity and artificiality had precipitated the crisis of modernity) into apodictic liberal values, thus circumscribing the heterogeneity of the democratic constituency whose will they appeal to as their political foundation. That radical pluralism necessary for true democracy is automatically homogenized within this axiological framework, which denies it its very unconditional diversity and gives way to a multicultural zoo, where the various cultures can roam freely only within their particular cages, under the close surveillance of liberal zookeepers –public intellectuals and their bureaucratic associates–whose managerial rule is enforced as neutral, and, therefore, unproblematic. Procedural universalism ends up trumping all other particular values, and gradually replacing earlier dogmatic religions. “Human rights” become the liberal glue reducing politics to administration and checkmating all real politics as irrational squabbles.

This maneuver is meant to solve the problem of relativism in the West, following the split of the res publica Christiana into a multiplicity of conflicting denominations, and the disintegration of the jus publicum Europaeum following the discovery of radically different lands and cultures plunged Western civilization into its perplexing relativistic predicament. At the dawn of modernity, the immediate response was simply to continue earlier practices in dealing with barbarians, infidels, and non-believers, and thus to regard all other cultures or denominations as inferior, misled, or primitive. Thus, it was merely a matter of upgrading, civilizing, or developing these “others” by turning them into the “same,” or by converting dissidents back into orthodoxy. The real agenda, however, soon emerged as one of subjugation, exploitation, and domination. When missionaries and their secular counterparts, the anthropologists, could no longer normalize the sheer exploitation and greed of colonialism and imperialism, it became necessary to transform what had turned out to be yet another particular culture into a new, universally-valid ideology able to re-totalize and control an otherwise uncontrollable heterogeneity.

The birth of liberalism is rooted in this historical junction. Today’s universalistic pretenses end up grounded either on secularized religious dogmatism or on a shaky consensualism, i.e., by appealing to the functional equivalent of divine revelation or by persuading everyone to accept certain particular mandates as binding. The first strategy occasionally works, as it did earlier in the case of Christianity and Islam, but is usually imposed by force, considerable bloodshed and the constant repression of dissenting factions, thus undermining any claim to privileged access to truth. The second gives up any absolutist pretences altogether and tries to make do with whatever consensus it can muster. While probably as good a solution as can be expected, this second strategy is weakened by several limitations. Its constitutive principles can never be stronger than the size of the consensus supporting them. They are always subject to radical revisions and, therefore, not binding on anyone not part of the original political unit though which the consensus was reached. In fact, participating in the formation of the subsequent consensus and accepting its outcome as binding is precisely what defines a political unit as such.

Liberalism turns into a dogmatic ideology when it forgets these limitations and hypostatizes its contingent consensual foundations into universally valid truths, enforceable whenever feasible. This is what happens with Rick Johnstone’s efforts to sell “human rights,” not as probably a good idea which everyone should accept, but as the basis for universally binding mandates. He ends up confusing apologies for Realpolitik with a universal morality he knows all too well is impossible to defend. Thus, as odious as the Rwanda massacres may have appeared to be to Western sensibilities, it is foolish to appeal to “human rights violations” as a justification for intervention. At any rate, it never happened, because Western powers had nothing at stake in Rwanda and did not need any excuse to camouflage the defense of their interests. The concept of “rights,” in its specifically Western sense of a secular version of inalienable attributes of the soul, is probably foreign to Hums and Tutsis, who have never been signatories to any binding contract mandating respect for “human rights. Rather, in addition to cases involving clear national interests, international intervention can be defended on the ground that what happens in places such as Kosovo, Chechnya, Rwanda, etc. is incompatible with Western Judeo-Christian values, and the West has the military clout to do something about it. At that point, however, the conundrum of whether the life of a zillion Tutsis is worth one American casualty kicks in. Since it is not feasible simply to bomb jungle-dwellers into submission or to confront Russian barbarism in Chechnya, and since direct military engagement (with casualties) would have been unavoidable, by now everyone knows the answer to that riddle. Genocide in Kosovo was halted, because the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing there would have caused chaos in the Balkans, thus threatening to destabilize Europe and, ipso facto, the US, and the problem could be dealt with by bombing instead of sending in the infantry.

Why do Johnstone and other liberals need to invoke indefensible transcendental imperatives to justify the Kosovo intervention? Because liberal intellectuals cannot make decisions and do not dare expose their choices as the products of their own particular wills. It is more risk-free to act as functionaries of higher mandates, thereby avoiding responsibility for questionable outcomes. Johnstone, however, knows that this will not pass muster: today all higher mandates are suspected of concealing lower interests and predilections. So, he takes the easy way out and pulls “historical universals” out of his philosophical hat: if something is the result of a general consensus, then it is as good as a universally valid mandate.

What is gained by appealing to “human rights” as “historical universals” to legitimate particular choices predicated on the defense of particular interests? It is a charade that fools some, but not all. The lame philosophical rhetoric does not wash. In the Kosovo case, the Serbs remained unfazed, the Europeans were strong-armed into showing support for something they were not really interested in, and the outcome is no more legitimate now than it would have been had the US simply gone ahead and done what it wanted to do in the first place. The pretense of a universal or quasi-universal consensus makes no difference either way. It is but a moralistic placebo, totally inconsequential to outcomes. It was not human rights that defeated Nazism, but military superiority, and it was not human rights but Realpolitik that triggered American intervention in WWII. Nazi persecution of the Jews was known long before the US decided to intervene, and, well into the 1960s, there was hardly any serious discussion of the Holocaust. It is too easy to find ideological covers for the most diverse hidden agendas.

Johnstone’s Panglossian worldview leads him to naive political conclusions. As recent events show, it is not harder now to get away with genocide than before, unless one is a misguided tinhorn dictator like Saddam Hussein, or a megalomaniac like Milesovic, unwittingly threatening powerful interests. The Russian and Chinese leadership, whose military clout is considerably greater, do not have much to worry about violations of human rights in Chechnya or Tibet and the commercial consequences of any abstract moralism are much too great. Johnstone rejoices that “Austrian squares once filled with Nazis now fill with anti-Nazis.” But Nazism is a ghost from the past, with no chance whatsoever of having any political impact anywhere. It is recycled today only as a negative symbol to legitimate an otherwise vacuous Left-liberal ideology in need of a viable enemy. Conversely, anti-Nazism is, at best, a no-cost, convenient road to virtuosity. Fulminating against a careless loudmouth like Haider may make some Austrians and the politically correct Western power elite feel better about themselves, but it does not obviate the fact that Haider is no different from most other European politicians, has no clue as to what to do with the problems of cybernated societies, and his views about immigration are widespread within most Western societies, from California to France and Belgium, among people that would hardly qualify as Nazis. If the recent Austrian demonstrations are to be taken as a measure of moral progress, they only provide evidence that there has probably been none. The public sphere remains a place of manipulation and indoctrination, public intellectuals continue to legitimate themselves as moral paladins by constructing Nazi windmills, and, like the “good” Germans of the 1930s, today’s citizens still compromise with institutional corruption and deception by minding their own business, thus becoming unwitting accomplishes in the process. Honest intellectuals, with no need of public certification and no universally valid truths to retail, should call a spade a spade, rather than excogitating useless oxymorons such as “historical universals” and trotting out “human rights” as moralistic placebos in a world increasingly becoming institutionally a-moral.

[Telos; Summer99 Issue 116, p143, 4p]


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