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The Continuing Perplexities of Human Rights
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The Continuing Perplexities of Human Rights

I welcome the chance to engage with the readings of my book by these three preeminent scholars. But I am especially grateful to Jason Frank for organizing the original American Political Science Association session from which this forum emerged as well as to Qui Parle—of which I once served as an editor—for publishing the results.

In The Last Utopia, I offered an account of the recent ascent of international human rights, pushing back against emerging historiography that showcased continuity and necessity for the sake of providing a movement the authority of a deep past.1 But I never denied continuities absolutely, even as I decried the omission in the existing literature of lost roads into other futures, the presentation of drastic conceptual and practical transformation as if it had never occurred, and the elimination of the contingency of what were in fact entirely surprising developments.

Yet history is always the forum for a complex relationship between the ongoing and the adventitious. It seems obvious—it goes without saying—that without Jesus Christ there would have been no church, and with no church there would have been no Reformation, and so on and so forth. Self-evidently, in fact, some continuity back to the beginning of time is required for any later event to occur. Even more continuity holds between the French Revolution [End Page 95] and human rights movements today, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and our own international human rights politics. Like any professional historian, I attempted to insist on the novelties in such trajectories, without denying that international human rights politics flowed out of the past, in some relation to each of its chapters back to the usual suspects commonly cited as sources.

I now realize I should have mentioned the continuity anyway to avoid being misunderstood even by very smart readers. Yet the fact remains that the discontinuities are both more massive and more interesting. I wrote my book out of the conviction that mastering the obvious continuity obscures more than it reveals about ourselves—and out of the belief that the past is more useful for challenging rather than confirming our certainties.

Christians to this day appeal to Jesus or the “primitive Christianity” that followed his coming for guidance when they worry that history since has parted ways with the miraculous origin. The rights of Atlantic revolutions were ones that lit the world on fire, in and through violence when push came to shove, for the sake of the contagion of sovereignty and the blessings of citizenship. Instead of seeing them as the linear origin for international human rights politics today, I ask whether the true value of the former has been lost in the uncontested supremacy of the latter. I even think, in agreement with Antony Anghie, that the extreme novelty of the transformation of politics I portray in the surge of international human rights cut off not simply older but also recent alternatives: it is not as if one needs to return to Jesus to find alternatives to the current form of the church, and, even shortly before our own time, extremely different vistas were open both within human rights and to their current version.

Of course, it is certainly possible that there is much more interesting continuity than I realized. The first half of Pheng Cheah’s valuable comments are devoted to this proposition. But it is not really true that I “empty [human rights] of almost all normative philosophical content, to sunder them from the Western philosophical tradition [End Page 96] of thinking about rights.”2 I devote some attention to the disparate origins of that normative content, whether it comes to the rights form itself or various values characterized as human rights—in potentially continuous natural law traditions, at first separate legal backgrounds like the English common law from which rights were imported (over Edmund Burke’s famous objections), or revolutionary and nineteenth-century experiences in which economic and social rights were added (lu, 16–20, 21–23, 312–13). And I assume it goes without saying that most of that content carried over both into the...