The headline on Stephen Kinzer’s unintentionally self-incriminating display of the rot that has eaten away at the rich world’s “left” spoke sufficient volumes all by itself last week: “End Human Rights Imperialism Now”.
Apart from being a classic study in deception masquerading as revelation and self-deception masquerading as reflection (and a workshop-worthy specimen of straw-man argument, besides), what was exceptionally useful about the spectacle Kinzer made of himself was the service he provided in presenting a textbook example of the madhouse delusion that will inevitably result from the muddles of moral, epistemic and cultural relativism.
There’s no point in resorting to empirically-derived evidence if you’re trying to talk sense to someone whose very arguments rest on the absence of such universal standards if not their wholesale rejection. The dialectic, as we used to say, is simply not going to move forward. There will be rot in both form and content. Some people are just numpties.
But today, also in the Guardian, in an essay well-titled Beware those who sneer at ‘human rights imperialism’, our friend Sohrab Ahmari does yeoman service in exposing the bankruptcy of the pseudo-left orthodoxy that Kinzer so helpfully distilled. Sohrab does so by simply raising this question:
“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?”
It’s my own view that on the so-called “anti-imperialist” left, the truly progressive heart had already stopped beating at least a decade ago. True enough, the zombies have been stumbling around for much longer than that. Ahmari begins by citing Albert Camus’s observations of his erstwhile French comrades in the 1950s. In its response to the Hungarian Uprising, the “left” had betrayed itself as having fallen into useless decadence, “caught in its own vocabulary, capable of merely stereotyped replies, constantly at a loss when faced with the truth, from which it nevertheless claimed to derive its laws.”
The thing about the contemporary iterations of that decadence that gets at me like fingernails scratching on a blackboard is its cynical disregard for the bravery of hundreds of thousands of Afghans, especially, who every day take greater risks and make greater sacrifices in the struggle for the rule of law, free speech, womens rights and civil liberties than any of the rich-kid “anti-imperialists” have undertaken in their entire lives. It’s the arrogance of it all that I can’t abide. It’s a distinctly “western” kind of arrogance, paradoxically, that would assert that “western” values are what these brave Afghans are fighting for, but to which – owing to their nature, their “race,” their religion, their “identity” or some dang thing – they are somehow disentitled, and we in the west must not stand with them or support them because to do so is to engage in “imperialism.”
In the context of contemporary freedom struggles (he cites Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Bahrain, and Tunisia), Ahmari rightly notices that Kinzer’s polemics “might strike some as eminently reasonable.” And indeed they do give that appearance. It should go without saying that you can’t make a democratic silk purse out of an autocratic sow’s ear in a day, and that there is much virtue in human-rights gradualism and in a proper focus on objective support for the oppressed in their own struggles for self-emancipation. Most importantly, we should all be very wary of dramatic acts of revolutionary transformation. Fair enough.
But for Kinzer to marshall these observations in the hopes of showing that the universality of human rights is “imperialist” is to score a spectacular own-goal, in this specific way: It would have to mean the entire Third World “anti-imperialist” revolutionary legacy of the 20th century was similarly vice and folly (and even “western” in its usual Marxist character), which would make an even bigger laughing-stock the post-modern “anti-imperialist” polemics which purport to derive from that legacy. And yet that’s exactly the polemical pose Kinzer adopts. In this way, Kinzer’s own evidence ends up fatally undermining his own “anti-imperialism.”
This is both hilarious and especially instructive. Kinzer’s critique betrays itself in its affiliation with and descent from the drivel you would expect to hear spoken at a posh Tory club ca. 1890 (the wogs will never be capable of governing themselves properly) or at a John Birch Society gathering ca. 1961 (the blacks can’t claim to possess the rights we’ve won for ourselves). And yet it fits perfectly, and on several levels, with the so-called anti-imperialism of the fashionably transgressive “left” of the first decade of the 21st century.
Ahmeri situates this blood-curdling phenomenon in the “systematic relativism” of the “isolationist, provincial left.” That makes eminent sense to me. But call it what you like, there is nothing revolutionary, anti-imperialist or even mildly progressive about it at all.