Waylaid Dialectic

January 10, 2011

I’ve Seen the Enemy and, Believe Me, it’s not those Blokes

Filed under: Human Rights — terence @ 6:43 pm
Tags: ,

One of the many things I like about the Guardian is the diversity of views it publishes. And so now we have Sohrab Ahmari responding to ‘that Kinzer piece.’

Given the Kinzer article left me wondering whether being literate really had added that much to my life afterall, I was anticipating enjoying Ahmari’s writing. In the end not so much. It’s an ok critique of Kinzer, but ultimately unsatisfying in addressing the real challenges associated with advancing human rights.

Instead we get an attack on the relativist left:

Today – with a century of catastrophic lapses in judgment in hindsight – too many western progressives are still trapped by the same “systematic relativism” that, in Camus’s time as in ours, threatens no less than the “death of intelligence”.


Restaging one of the illiberal left’s favourite shibboleths, he argues that the modern human rights movement has become “the vanguard of a new form of imperialism”.


And consider, too, the impact of this brand of relativism on the moral imagination of the left, which, at its very best, stood firm on the principle that people divided by geography, culture and language can empathise with and express solidarity with each other.

If the isolationist, provincial left manages to convince us that the blessing of liberty is to be allocated randomly – along geographic lines and according to the accident of birth – will the heart still beat on the left?

I guess the relativist left (RL) exists somewhere — a university campus or two, four chaps at a protest, a troll in the comments box at Harry’s Place, and possibly Kinzer — but, trust me, it’s role in the thwarting of human rights around the world is not statistically different from zero. At their worst the RL might spoil your morning’s reading, or keep you up blogging at night, or sour your coffee, but they have no power, least of all in parts of the world where human rights are regularly violated.

To reiterate, and add to my last post on this, the reasons why far too many people around the world are denied human rights are as follows:

1. The majority of people in powerful parts of the world don’t care that much about the rights of people in less powerful parts of the world or, if they do, they simply don’t know about the violations taking place. If they did, the amount of resources devoted to helping would be vastly more than they currently are. What’s more, it would be next to impossible for developed country governments to support rights abusers when economically convenient. After all who would risk the wrath of the voters for some small economic benefit.

2. Some human rights problems are really difficult for external agents to solve. There’s no magic rights wand to be waved and make the world a better place. Instead there are difficult decisions.

3. Some of recent history’s most prominent putative human rights champions have proven to be fair weather friends, to put it kindly (Dick Chaney take another bow). Which means that when Western Powers have intervened in recent years, despite the rights based justifications for these interventions, they’ve all-too-often engaged in rights abuses themselves (Iraq, for example). What’s more, because the interventions were never really about human rights, they were never really geared around them. So whatever chance there was of improving the rights situation through force was often missed as other goals were pursued.

If would be awfully handy if the relativist left really did play a real role in the ongoing human rights tragedies experienced in parts of our planet. We could, after all, just round them up (all 7 of them) and be done with all that suffering. Unfortunately, as always, life ain’t that neat or that easy.

Or, to put it another way, I’m glad I got to read the Ahmari piece, but I’m also hoping that he’s got few more columns up his sleeves. Ones where the real world issues actually get addressed.

[Acknowledgment: any insights in the post above are, in part, the product of a conversation I had with a fellow PhD student here a couple of days ago. I doubt she’s ready for the sheer quantity of fame that would come with being named on Waylaid Dialectic. So, instead, anonymous thanks to her.]

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