"Peace is a communist plot," Irving Kristol used to observe back during the Cold War. The line was one of his typically brilliant and overstated ways of focusing attention on a insufficiently noted fact¯in this case, the fact that nearly every organization with the word peace in its title was a communist front.
Perhaps only a few of them were directly financed by the Soviet Union, but they all seemed to be on Moscow’s side on any quarrel with the West. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Angola: It didn’t much matter. The peace groups might condemn some communist military actions, but always it was by way of asserting moral equivalence, with the aim of changing America or Europe rather than the Soviets. "Peace" was a hacksaw that cut only in one direction.
Lenin and Stalin are long gone, of course, but their stalking horses go galloping on. "Human rights" seems to be a modern replacement for "peace"¯and even with the new term, the equation holds as true now as did then: Human rights are a communist plot, and international human rights are an international communist plot.
Well, maybe not communist. Can you have communists without communism? Is it possible for full, old-fashioned radical faith to exist without a guiding philosophy (even one as weak as dialectical materialism), or an economic theory (even one as mistaken as Marxism), or a future perfection to hope for (even one as implausible as the workers’ paradise that would magically come to be as the state withered away)?
That seems unlikely, and yet, here we are: Some amorphous radical leftism is clearly afloat in the world. Generally undefined in philosophy, economics, or eschatology, it seems nonetheless able to unite the most unlikely bedfellows: terrorists, and sexual-transgression artists, and agitators for radical Islam, and abortion activists, and third-world dictators¯anybody, anywhere, who thinks there’s an advantage to be gained from claiming that the West is wrong. And they can always join under a banner emblazoned with that noble phrase "human rights."
The journal Foreign Policy recently posted an item on its website about the United Nations Human Rights Council that noted: "By a decisive margin, the Council voted to end its examination of Iran and Uzbekistan despite worsening human rights records in both countries." What’s depressing about this is that the U.N. Human Rights Council was created specifically to replace the discredited U.N. Human Rights Committee, which had turned into an international joke around the time the world’s worst offenders against human rights were named as watchdogs for human rights.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that the new council has proved no better than the old committee. As the blogger Robert Mayer points out :
In nearly a year, here is a brief list of some of the Human Rights Council’s greatest accomplishments:
Successfully condemned one country only, Israel.
Repeat[ed] the above seven more times.
Voted on June 30, 2006, to review Israeli human-rights abuses at every council session.
Mayer notes as well the news that Cuba (which has consistently denounced any human-rights investigation of Cuba as U.S. propaganda) has proposed for the council "a new system by which countries would submit their own reports on their domestic human-rights records."
That will prove a useful trick, for it will eliminate the council’s power to investigate any abuses of human rights¯without eliminating the council’s use of the phrase "human rights" or its ability to condemn whomever it wants in the name of those rights.
The ones that it wants, naturally, will be countries like Israel. At the United Nations, at least¯indeed, at nearly every international organization¯human rights seem nothing more and nothing less than a plot against the West.
This is a difficulty for proponents of international human rights, isn’t it? Not just for the professionals in that strange world of international organizations¯ les hommes sans patrie , as de Gaulle called them¯but also for those who believe in human rights as a natural law that binds nations. It’s easy enough to point out the corruption of the phrase "human rights" in the mouths of international organizations, but along the way there’s also a corruption of the idea to mean any turn against Western morality and Western actions. Indeed, it becomes little more than a phrase to indicate deep discontent with the world.
The parallel with the word peace seems exact. Back during the Cold War, fraudulent language had so corrupted the idea that even the pope felt compelled to denounce "false peace." That 1982 message from John Paul II for the "World Day of Peace" remains one of the most fascinating and prophetic documents of the Cold War¯precisely because it attempts to reclaim the original idea for a word that had been corrupted by various forms of misuse.
He opens with St. Augustine’s paean to peace: "Even understood as one of the fleeting things of earth, no sweeter word is heard, no more desirable wish is longed for, and no better discovery can be made than this gift." But by the end, John Paul is forced to note:
Christians know that in this world a totally and permanently peaceful human society is unfortunately a utopia, and that ideologies that hold up that prospect as easily attainable are based on hopes that cannot be realized, whatever the reason behind them. It is a question of a mistaken view of the human condition, a lack of application in considering the question as a whole; or it may be a case of evasion in order to calm fear, or in still other cases a matter of calculated self-interest. Christians are convinced, if only because they have learned from personal experience, that these deceptive hopes lead straight to the false peace of totalitarian regimes.
Strong stuff, and yet it’s not at all clear that John Paul II succeeded in restoring the original meaning to the word peace .
Nor is it clear that the phrase "human rights" can now be saved from its corruptions. In A World Made New , her interesting 2001 study of Eleanor Roosevelt and the birth of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mary Ann Glendon mentions John Humphrey, the Canadian law professor who prepared the initial staff report for the declaration. Humphrey was the man who noted in his diary that what they had achieved was "something like the Christian morality without the tommyrot," by which he meant all the unnecessary accretions of prayer and miracles and faith and sacraments and chapels.
Christian morality without the tommyrot . This might be the motto of the agitators for international human rights¯if they hadn’t mostly decided to make the word Christianity one of the signals of all they oppose. Still, the morality they promote is one that begins in Christianity: peace on earth, goodwill to men, all that sort of thing.
It’s just that, without all the tommyrot of God and Church, the words are empty: Cups for us to fill without almost any meaning we want. "English flatheads" and "little moralistic females à la George Eliot," as Friedrich Nietzsche denounced those who thought they were going to be able to keep Christian ethics without Christian faith or the Christian worldview.
Reviewing Glendon’s A World Made New when it first appeared, Jeremy Rabkin observed :
The framers of the Universal Declaration displayed their collectivist leanings in their disdain for independent states as much as in their distrust of free markets. They meant well, and they wanted to help everyone to get what they should receive. These globalist benefactors weren’t too troubled at disagreements over their premises, because they were so sure of their conclusions. And they were so sure of their conclusions because they all agreed on them¯whatever the actual citizens of actual countries might think.
That seems right. The people who drew up of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were so confident in their conclusions¯their Christian morality without the tommyrot¯that they thought it unnecessary to agree about where those rights came from or what they meant. ("Yes, we agree about the rights," Jacques Maritain said of their deliberations, "but on condition that no one asks why.")
But there’s something more to observe here. In a sense, all international human-rights organizations are after Christian morality without the tommyrot. Human rights are born from Christian ideas, and they have their fullest meaning rooted in a long Christian history. But without the tommyrot, the meaning starts to sift away¯and the phrase is thereby free to be used for any purpose the United Nations Human Rights Council desires, usually as a case of "calculated self-interest."
Right now that means that international human rights are most useful as a hacksaw that cuts only against the West. Why shouldn’t we come right out and say that human rights are a plot?