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THE Origins of Totalitarianism has received much attention, for it is a rich and elusive book, broaching many themes, touching upon many disciplines, presenting a kind of historical account as well as articulating, albeit indirectly, a political philosophy. Origins clearly is no conventional philosophical text. Yet it is the central work of Arendt’s political theory because it explores the evils that comprised the backdrop to her political thinking, and against which she set herself as a public intellectual. Arendt’s positive conception of praxis is best understood as the antithesis of the totalitarian plague that laid waste to the twentieth century, and it is best seen in stark relief with this plague. In my book Democracy in Dark Times, I argued that rightlessness is one of the central problems framing Origins, and that Arendt can thus be seen as an unconventional theorist of human rights (Isaac, 1998: 74-99). In this paper I would like to extend the argument about the relevance of Arendt’s political theory to the politics of human rights, but in a slightly different direction. I am interested less in reconstructing her theoretical views on the topic SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 2002) Hannah Arendt on Human Rights and the Limits of Exposure, or Why Noam Chomsky Is Wrong about the Meaning of Kosovo BY JEFFREY C. ISAAC of human rights than in exploring the style of thinking that is implied by what she says on this topic in Origins. And I am further interested in contrasting this style of thinking with that style displayed by another writer on this topic who bears certain surface resemblances to Arendt—the famed linguist and social critic, Noam Chomsky. My interests here are both presentist and polemical. Chomsky, in The New Military Humanism and in other subsequent essays, has articulated a powerful (that is, insistent and persistent) critique of the discourse of human rights that has become increasingly prevalent in the post-1989 period, and that has been invoked by politicians , policymakers, and public intellectuals, most notably to justify the United States-led, NATO military intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999. Chomsky’s critique is directed primarily against a certain Western triumphalism that most certainly deserves criticism (see Isaac, 1998: 19-40). But it extends beyond this, to disparage the very rhetoric and praxis of human rights, and to challenge both the NATO intervention in Kosovo and the very idea of human rights interventionism. Chomsky’s critique represents the counterorthodoxy of the antiglobalization left. Among those who have protested the American -led intervention in Kosovo (and also those who protest against capitalist globalization in Seattle, Washington, Prague, and Genoa, though I will not here deal with the broad issue of globalization), Chomsky’s arguments about the current hegemony of human rights discourse and its baneful effects are considered authoritative. This is unfortunate, for these arguments are intellectually disingenuous and politically irresponsible. In this paper I will expand on this theme by extending the logic of Arendt’s very different approach in Origins; making explicit the contrast between Arendt and Chomsky on the relationship between human rights discourse, hypocrisy, and politics; and then drawing certain conclusions about the importance of human rights and the limits of a politics of exposure. 506 SOCIAL RESEARCH I approach the Chomskyan argument in this manner for three reasons. The first is simply because this commemoration of the enduring relevance of Arendt’s Origins is a useful occasion to reflect on this important contemporary issue. The second is because my own thinking on the human rights issue has very much been shaped by my reading of Arendt, and so it is fitting for me to draw these connections more explicitly. The third is because I sincerely believe that a serious re-reading of Arendt furnishes us with some important intellectual resources for countering the Chomskyan view and for delineating a critical and responsible approach to the problems of human rights policy and human rights interventionism. But my primary interest is presentist. I am less concerned with what Arendt might have said about Chomsky’s current publications or about Kosovo—speculative topics about which we can speak with no...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 505-537
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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