The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Tuesday, June 22, 2010  

Human Rights Are Not Subject to Convenience

One of the strangest aspects of the debate over Israel's killing of nine people aboard the Mavi Marmara, and the condemnation the event brought upon the whole Gaza embargo, is how American conservatives have burrowed ever more deeply into their conviction that human rights is a sort of optional concept, subject to suspension by "civilized" powers when they confront difficult situations or bad actors.

Take Shelby Steele, who views every problem in the world through the lens of the white man's supposedly crippling self-hatred. We don't kill our enemies and their wives and children with the required resolve, Steele is convinced, because we are afraid of being imperialists. And so people beat up unfairly on Israel for killing a few unarmed people here, strangling an enclave of 1.5 million there, seizing this or that person's home somewhere else when in reality all of this is OK because Hamas is very bad. Walter Russell Mead made a related argument a while back--basically, that it's not fair to hold Israel to civilized standards because, after all, Israel claims to be a civilized country. I encourage people to read both links. Notice how the very existence of genuine Palestinian grievances is summarily dismissed by Steele, whose apparently profound study of the Arab mind leads him to conclude that the only real problem they face is self-hatred. And see how Mead holds the Palestinians between grammatical tongs, phrasing all their miseries subjunctively and concluding that it sure would be unfortunate if people got the impression that those supposed miseries are caused by the policies intended to cause them, rather than by the actions of their own leaders. Clearly Palestinians are not fully human in the eyes of these or most any other American neoconservative writer, so it is a small leap to legitimating disproportionate force, collective punishment, and erasing the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Only humans can have human rights.*

But in any case let's stipulate that Israel has some implacable and existential foes, people who do not acknowledge the distinction between civilian and soldier and who are not interested in observing the norms of civilized conflict. Should the U.S. and the international community then grant Israel a blanket exemption from the core tenets of human rights in order to prosecute its conflicts with them? American conservatives clearly think so--the thinking being, I suppose, that 1) we are better than they are because we espouse civilized norms of state conduct and therefore 2) since we are better than them, we may ignore those norms when we kill and punish them.

It is very hard to imagine what someone could mean by "human rights" or "civilization" in the context of such an argument. Every state that violates human rights claims that it faces existential threats, dastardly foes, and emergency circumstances. That is the universal language of crimes against humanity. A civilized state is one that binds itself to respecting norms of human decency despite these significant difficulties. Otherwise what could the idea of human rights be for, if not situations in which it is strongly tempting to violate them? And in which doing so would further a putatively legitimate political end?

Israel has progressively alienated its allies since launching the war against Lebanon in 2006. The Gaza operation in 2008-09 was still less justified, and the killings aboard the Mavi Marmara and the cruel embargo they highlighted have made it difficult for anyone to support Israel's policies who does not have an entirely situational view of human rights and the rule of law. To his minimal credit, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman doesn't seem to indulge in a lot of b.s. about civilization and the outpost of the Enlightenment. He is a bigot and an eliminationist and he sees the conflict in those terms. Netanyahu shucks and jives about the civilization stuff in front of American conservative audiences. But at some point a choice must be made. A battle between civilization and barbarism needs one side to be civilized. On the other hand, if this is just another ethno-religious blood feud in which there are no rules, then it's hard to imagine what stake Americans or Europeans could have in the outcome.

* A notable exception is Ross Douthat, who rather courageously points out that the occupied territories and their residents will need to arrive at some sort of status:

Israel can probably live with diplomatic isolation so long as the American public remains staunchly on its side. But it will have a harder time surviving the demographic transformation of its territory. If the Jewish state can’t extricate itself from the West Bank, it may be forced to choose between the quasi-apartheid of a permanent occupation, and the dissolution that would likely follow from giving Palestinians a significant voice in Israel’s politics.

I don't know what exactly would be "quasi" about the apartheid entailed by a permanent occupation of a stateless land, but at least Ross is entering the gravitational field of reality by pointing out that this is a sort of default alternative and that it would be a bad thing.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:17 AM
Yep, that's exactly the problem. The Mean link though, doesn't go to any particular article, but to his profile. Was I supposed to follow a particular link once I get there?
Post a Comment