Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Salvation in Small Steps

by Brendan Simms

Wall Steet Journal
September 8, 2010

In their classic essay collection, The Invention of Tradition (1983), the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger showed how many features of British society that seem to be rooted in time immemorial, such as public-school rituals and royal ceremonials, are actually of recent provenance. Similarly, in The Last Utopia, Samuel Moyn challenges the notion that something now so well-established as the idea of human rights—foundational rights that individuals possess against enslavement, religious oppression, political imprisonment and other brutalities of arbitrary governments—had its origins in the remote past. This "celebratory" approach, he charges, uses history to "confirm the inevitable rise" of human rights "rather than register the choices that were made and the accidents that happen." The truth, Mr. Moyn shows, is that human rights, as we understand them today, are a "recent and contingent" development.

Mr. Moyn quickly disposes of the idea that human rights originated with the Greeks, who after all kept slaves, or even with the French revolutionaries of the late 18th century, whose "Rights of Man" led to the Terror. More controversially, Mr. Moyn denies that the experience of World War II and the Holocaust produced a decisive shift in our understanding of how to guard against systematic assaults on human life and dignity. Admittedly, the United Nations did issue the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but this document led only to a cul-de-sac; it had few practical effects. Nor did the concept come riding in on the back of the anticolonialism sweeping the world in the 1950s and 1960s, which was focused on self-determination, not individual rights.

The breakthrough, Mr. Moyn argues, came only in the 1970s. This decade saw the Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974, which tied U.S. trade with the Soviet Union to the right of Soviet citizens to emigrate. It was followed in 1975 by the Helsinki Accords, which required that the signatories, including the Soviet Union, respect "freedom of thought, conscience, religion [and] belief," to quote the accord itself.