Human Rights Imperialism: Leftist Satire or Moral Collapse?
The Guardian recently published a wicked satire of moral relativism, a Swiftian send-up entitled "End human rights imperialism now" with the classic sub-heading "Groups such as Human Rights Watch have lost their way by imposing western, 'universal' standards on developing countries." Brilliant! Hahahahaha! I didn't know the Guardian had branched out into humor.
But about five minutes after my laughter subsided, a horrible suspicion dawned on me: Could it be that the author was serious?
A quick re-read confirmed my fears. This was no joke. This was the modern left finally taking its last inevitable step into the abyss of moral oblivion.
A few quick quotes from this astonishing manifesto will introduce you to a disturbing new way of looking at the world:
Founded by idealists who wanted to make the world a better place, [the human rights movement] has in recent years become the vanguard of a new form of imperialism.
Want to depose the government of a poor country with resources? Want to bash Muslims? Want to build support for American military interventions around the world? Want to undermine governments that are raising their people up from poverty because they don't conform to the tastes of upper west side intellectuals? Use human rights as your excuse!
Human Rights Watch is hardly the only offender. There are a host of others, ranging from Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders to the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard and the pitifully misled "anti-genocide" movement. All promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call "universal".
Just as Human Rights Watch led the human rights community as it arose, it is now the poster child for a movement that has become a spear-carrier for the "exceptionalist" belief that the west has a providential right to intervene wherever in the world it wishes.
Those who have traditionally run Human Rights Watch and other western-based groups that pursue comparable goals come from societies where crucial group rights – the right not to be murdered on the street, the right not to be raped by soldiers, the right to go to school, the right to clean water, the right not to starve – have long since been guaranteed. In their societies, it makes sense to defend secondary rights, like the right to form a radical newspaper or an extremist political party. But in many countries, there is a stark choice between one set of rights and the other. Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice.
Human rights need to be considered in a political context. The question should not be whether a particular leader or regime violates western-conceived standards of human rights. Instead, it should be whether a leader or regime, in totality, is making life better or worse for ordinary people.
It's not that the essay's author, former New York Times Bureau Chief and current anti-imperialist professor-activist Stephen Kinzer, is wrong about his facts: it's quite true that life under a totalitarian police state is often safer and more secure than living in lawless anarchy. That's why the war-torn masses throughout history sometimes clamor for peace even at the cost of their own freedom. Yet forgotten in Kinzer's approval of oppressive societies is that wannabe dictators always use this excuse to justify their crushing of human rights: We need to remove your freedom in order to guarantee your safety. Never mind that the new regime was usually one of combatants endangering the citizenry in the first place.
No, the issue is that Kinzer seems to have just now woken up to a phenomenon that many of us have known about for quite some time -- that the human rights movement "has in recent years become the vanguard of a new form of imperialism."
The only error in that statement is the word "recent." The notion of "universal human rights" was formulated in the West and is the basis of Western civilization; and the the notion of bringing these "Western values" to oppressed and backward peoples has been the goal not just of the modern human rights movement but of missionaries, do-gooders and yes, even the American military for quite some time.
Kinzer has freshly arrived at the blinding and quite correct realization that the "human rights movement" and "Western imperialism" are one and the same. And having become aware of this, you'd think that as a human rights activist, he'd have a life-altering epiphany: Perhaps I've been wrong about what I call "imperialism" this whole time. Maybe it is a force for good after all.
But no. Standing on the brink of a psychological breakthrough, Kinzer turned the other way and instead had a breakdown. Pinioned by the idée fixe that America and imperialism and Western values are always and irrevocably wrong, when faced with the fact that human rights are a subset of Western values, Kinzer felt he had no choice but to discard his belief in human rights. Which must have been quite difficult for someone who formerly regarded himself as a human rights activist, but hey, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.
Moral relativism vs. cultural imperialism
What we see in this essay is moral relativism finally taken to its logical conclusion. No longer will the Left be able to claim credit for the "good" aspects of two fundamentally oppositional viewpoints. Either you are for respecting native cultures and native value systems, or you are for bringing "human rights" (i.e. "Western values") to Third World peoples. But you can't do both simultaneously. Yet that is exactly what the Left has been doing for decades -- claiming credit as the world's humanitarians and advocates for universal human rights, while at the same time claiming credit as the defenders of native cultures and opponents of imperialism.
But as Stephen Kinzer just found out: Native cultures often don't share our notion of "universal human rights," and regard the involuntary imposition of Western values as the most noxious form of "cultural imperialism."
And it gets much worse for the Left's poor battered psyche with the additional realization that the men in these Third World societies are only "backward" as regards to their philosophical development, but not backward at all in their machismo, capacity for violence, and willingness to defend their worldview with force if necessary. So that often, the only way to "bring" human rights to oppressed populations is to "impose" these rights by force, and to defeat (which usually means kill) the intransigent defenders of the native way of life.
The prototypical exemplars of this attitude are of course the Taliban, and Afghanistan is the test-case where the dilemma is played out.
Case study: Afghanistan
The Taliban practice a uniquely noxious mix of ancient Pashtun culture (in which revenge is revered as a basic social precept) and fundamentalist Sunni Islam (with its well-documented array of oppressive and triumphalist doctrines). The Taliban are not nice people -- "nice" itself being a Western concept, I concede. They deeply believe in, and are willing to kill and die for, the imposition of an all-encompassing theocratic police state which denies even basic human rights to just about everyone under their rule. When they controlled Afghanistan, they tried to commit genocide against ethnic minorities, they denied women all rights whatsoever, they prohibited all religions and sects except their own, they harbored and supported known terrorist groups, attempted to commit "culturecide" by destroying all traces of other belief systems, and suppressed anything even vaguely resembling freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. And to this day wherever they get a toe-hold in Afghanistan or Pakistan, they continue their ways unabated. The Taliban and the traditional culture they represent are about as antithetical to human rights as you can get.
So, if you were a human rights campaigner, and cared about human rights in Afghanistan, what would you do? Trying to "engage" with the ruling Taliban was utterly futile, as many naive do-gooders discovered. "Enlightening" them to our value system only further infuriates them. So the only way to bring the gift of "human rights" (i.e. Western values) to Afghanistan is to remove the Taliban by force. But as the Soviets, the Northern Alliance, and now the U.S. and its allies have discovered, the Taliban fight tooth and nail against the imposition of Western values. They never surrender, never give up, and employ the most diabolical tactics to achieve bloody victory at any cost. Thus, the only recipe to "defeat" the Taliban's philosophy is to invade with massive force, physically drive them out, kill as many as possible in the process, and then stay in place for as long as necessary to repel an endless barrage of counterattacks and terroristic strikes.
There's a word for that process. It's called war. And another word, too, in the leftist lexicon. It's called imperialism.
Both war and imperialism are absolute anathema to the Left, at least in theory. War and imperialism are the very things they claim to oppose. And yet at the same time, they also claim to support above all things "human rights" for everyone on earth.
And so we come to the dilemma recently discovered by Stephen Kinzer: What if the only way to bring human rights to an oppressed population is to wage imperialistic war against their oppressors?
It's very very difficult for modern progressives to wrap their minds around this concept. They have been inculcated since birth in the old peacenik canard that war is always wrong, that it's inherently evil, that it can never be used for "good" because the process of salvation is invariably worse than the status quo of oppression, as encapsulated by the famous (but probably fabricated) quote, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."
(This is why I respect and admire Christopher Hitchens, despite the fact that I disagree with him on many issues. Shortly after 9/11, Hitchens confronted the same moral dilemma that Kinzer is facing now, but unlike Kinzer, Hitchens did have a transformational moral breakthrough in which a one-time far-left Marxist atheist came to understand that the armies of the West were not agents of evil but rather the last remaining champions of liberal values and human rights.)
Cultural imperialism doesn't always happen in a war zone. It can also happen incrementally, insidiously, as a side-effect of noble intentions.
Yet it had always struck me that the international do-gooderism of contemporary "progressive" groups is essentially indistinguishable from the international do-gooderism of Christian missionaries from centuries past. Both try to "save" third-worlders from their self-imposed poverty and ignorance. But somehow, magically, the modern progressives have so thoroughly rebranded their efforts that they feel no connection to nor feel themselves to be in the same tradition of those horrible old 19th-century Christians with their evil attempts to replace native cultures with Western values.
Several years ago my cousin joined a left-leaning nonprofit (technically an "NGO," listed on this page) and was sent on an all-expenses-paid volunteer project to a remote area of Papua New Guinea, where she and her fellow volunteers were to build a health clinic for the natives. She was practically delirious with progressive self-righteousness about the whole adventure, and sent home occasional letters detailing her team's progress. I, despite still being a liberal myself at the time (this being some years prior to 9/11), was overwhelmed with a nagging sense of doubt. Hadn't my cousin been an anthropology major in college? Wasn't this project "interfering" with the native culture? I confessed some of my reservations in return letters, to which she took great offense. We're helping these people, she explained. They've got all sorts of preventable diseases. I parried again: Perhaps their delicate culture is dependent on the absence of old people and the disabled? By keeping the sick and elderly alive with your clinic, might you not cause all sorts of unforeseen social upheavals, since their subsistence economy can only support the few and the able? She replied: Health care is a basic human right. Besides, this tribe has never even heard of contraception. We have classes in women's health. Me: Will the introduction of contraception lead to a lower birth rate and their eventual extinction? Back and forth our argument raged in letters sent over the months.
Around this time I let myself be dragged to a friend-of-a-friend's wedding in of all places a church (not the kind of establishment I normally visit), and afterward, milling around in the lobby, I picked up a copy of the church newsletter and saw to my amazement an article about a "mission" funded by the church in which Christian teens were sent to (brace yourself) Papua New Guinea where they were to build (you guessed it) a health clinic. (And, ahem, distribute Bible tracts and the Good News about Jesus, naturally, since the souls of the Papuans needed saving.)
I clipped out the article and sent it to my cousin. How, I asked, are you any different than these evangelical Christians, whom you so despise? Your group and the Christians are on opposite sides of the same island doing the exact same thing: You both show up, deem the native culture deficient in some way, build a health clinic in order to "help" them but which will only serve to disrupt native life, and ultimately use the clinic as a beachhead to impose your civilized notions on the heathen? At least the Christians are honest about their intent to Westernize the natives; you, however, hide behind the mask of political correctness and pretend that your altruism is blameless and pure, all the while doling out condoms and lessons undermining tribal patriarchy.
Her response? She packed her bags that night and returned home. From that day to this she has not spoken to me. I only later learned through my uncle that my cousin blames me for spoiling her youthful dreams, introducing her to the harsh world of cynicism and negativity. She quit the NGO and dropped out of political activism altogether.
What's the moral to this story? I myself at that time was not so different from the way Kinzer is now, each of us realizing that intrusions on non-Western cultures are all equally disruptive, regardless of whether that disruptiveness is intentional or not. A military invasion, a do-gooder health clinic, a Christian mission, a lecture about women's rights, the introduction of new technologies -- in the end, they all have the same effect, which is to undermine the pristine nature of the native culture.
Back then, however, I was more inclined to accept the "Noble Savage" worldview, that primitive cultures were inherently superior to the horrors of Western civilization, and thus we should protect and admire non-Western societies, like exhibits in a museum.
Since that time, however, my views have evolved, in a way that Kinzer's apparently haven't. I see much more clearly now that primitive societies, with their "non-Western" values, are often oppressive and unnecessarily brutal for the people living in them. Not always, but often. Furthermore, as the globe's population grows, many formerly "quaint" ethnic cultures are growing in dimension and scope, and they no longer need protecting -- they need suppression.
Yes, part of me still would like to see Potemkin Villages, or perhaps "It's a Small World" living dioramas, of each and every ethnic culture on Earth, so as to preserve our species' amazing diversity. But I also know that there is cruelty in such a fantasy; because real human beings will be compelled to live in these ethnographic exhibits, and must thereby endure real hardships for our intellectual amusement and to alleviate our Western guilt.
I also know too much about history and anthropology to continue the bankrupt charade that all cultures are equal in value and equally worthy of respect and admiration. And this is where the Kinzers of the world and I have parted ways, I suppose. The accumulated Judeo-Christian/Greco-Roman/Renaissance-Enlightenment/you-name-it wisdom that Western culture has integrated over the millennia is without any question the best bet that the human race has going.
The Left Man's Burden
We as a society have had this argument before. Rudyard Kipling put it in the bluntest possible terms with his 1899 poem "The White Man's Burden," essentially saying that when Western powers seize control of third-world countries, it becomes our moral duty to raise up "Your new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child," even if by so doing we only earn their anger: "Take up the White Man's burden- / And reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard."
Nowadays, Kipling is dismissed as the worst kind of old-school racist: a condescending racist, one who looks down on "half-devil and half-child" non-Westerners with pity, not hatred. Embedded in our offer to help the third world is the presumptuous assumption of our superiority.
The contemporary Left feels free to criticize Kipling because they assume his spirit lives on in the hearts of neocons and warmongers today. He is conveniently categorized as a "bad guy" whose politics closely align with 21st-century Republicanism.
But I see it from a different angle: It is the modern human rights organizations, with their meddlesome insistence on helping downtrodden foreigners, that continue the "White man's burden" tradition. It is the progressives who are the Kiplings of today. The only difference between Rudyard Kipling and modern bleeding-heart liberals is that Kipling was at least more honest about his feeling of superiority.
Kinzer has realized this as well. Imagine the sense of horror that welled up in him when he became conscious that the white-dominated human rights activist community was doing the exact same things that the imperialists of old imagined they were doing, with the exact same smugness and self-righteousness? Oh my my God: I'm no different than Kipling!
Can't have that: no sir. And the only course of action, Kinzer concluded, is to leave those devil-children to their fate. Universal human rights be damned!
Response in the Guardian
Kinzer's diatribe did not go unrebutted in the pages of the Guardian. Sohrab Ahmari counterpunched with a devastating essay called Beware those who sneer at 'human rights imperialism':
Imagine what Kinzer's proposals would mean in practical terms. Can human rights activists be expected to ignore the plight of a woman being stoned in Iran for adultery or a journalist tortured in Mubarak's jails? ("Terribly sorry, but we wouldn't want to judge your oppressors by the meter of our culturally determined, imperialistic standards – tough!")
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?
"Will the heart still beat on the left?" Ahmari asks. Not with Kinzer leading the charge. I no longer detect a pulse.
Three Cups of Whoop-Ass
Kinzer's moral collapse is the culmination of an untenable paradox that has been bedeviling the modern left for quite some time. This paradox is epitomized by the career of progressive humanitarian Craig Mortensen, author of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, in which he details his efforts to build girls' schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortensen's project has received lavish praise from some mainstream liberals, who after all are in favor of education and women's rights. Mortensen's "soft" approach to modernizing the backward areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan is seen as the morally superior nonviolent alternative to the harsh military tactics of the U.S. government and its allies:
“Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or chasing some Taliban around the country,” says Mr. Mortensen, who is an Army veteran.
Each Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs at least $500,000. That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban.
I applaud Mr. Mortensen's efforts in that they undermine the oppressive nature of fundamentalist Islam -- but he's fooling himself if he thinks his school-building project could survive on its own without the menace of Western military might looming in the distance. If you walked alone into Taliban country and simply announced to the tribal chieftains, "I want to educate your women so they can break free from your cruel dominance and become more sexually liberated!", you probably wouldn't meet with much success, much less live to tell the tale. But if you instead announced, "Look, if you let me build a girls' school here, the U.S. military will regard you as friendly allies and spare this area; but if you kick me out and embrace the Taliban, expect a rain of bombs and missiles," then you'd likely encounter more cooperation.
Now, of course, the conversation is never that overt, but the carrot-vs.-stick dilemma is present even if not vocalized. It's a "good cop/bad cop" routine played out on a grand scale; villagers get a taste of the "bad cop" Western military, and then in come "good cop" do-gooder progressives offering a more appealing alternative, saying, "You don't want to deal with that bad cop again, do you?"
But the "good cop/bad cop" dynamic doesn't work if you have only a "good cop." Without the threat of a more dire outcome, the subject has little motivation to consent to the smiley-face cultural imperialism of the do-gooders.
Yet here's the part that the progressives don't like to admit: The good cop and the bad cop always have the same goal. The "routine" is just that -- an act. In a police setting the goal is to get a confession using psychological trickery. On the world stage the goal is to bring human rights to oppressed peoples using humanitarian progressivism as the loving alternative to war. But the "good cop" is actually on the same team as the "bad cop," despite appearances.
I can't say for sure because I haven't really followed his evolving attitudes, but it seems to me that Mortensen has himself had a second "A-ha!" moment and softened his opposition to military strength, realizing that the U.S. armed forces are on the same side as he is: his most recent book, Stones into Schools, details "his friendships with U.S. military personnel, including Admiral Mike Mullen, and the warm reception his work has found among the officer corps." Even Nicholas Kristof, linked above, noted in 2008 that "The Pentagon, which has a much better appreciation for the limits of military power than the Bush administration as a whole, placed large orders for Three Cups of Tea and invited Mr. Mortensen to speak. 'I am convinced that the long-term solution to terrorism in general, and Afghanistan specifically, is education,' Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda, who works on the Afghan front lines, said in an e-mail in which he raved about Mr. Mortensen’s work."
So: Greg Mortensen, the U.S. military, and I, all agree: We should use our full civilizational "arsenal," whether it be helping-hand do-gooderism, or Predator drones launching Hellfire missiles, or a combination of the two, to bring Western values to the backward areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But you know who disagrees with us? The Taliban and their fellow Islamists, who have issued fatwas calling for Mortensen's death, blown up girls' schools when they could get away with it, and militarily opposed the post-Taliban government.
And you know who else disagrees with us? Stephen Kinzer and his ilk, that's who. Realizing that we can't bring human rights to oppressive patriarchal societies without wreaking violence, whether actual or metaphorical, on traditional cultures, Kinzer now proposes that we abandon the attempt altogether.
So, on one side, you have human rights activists and the U.S. military; and on the opposing side you have the Taliban and the morally unhinged Stephen Kinzers of this world.
Which side do you choose?