Scholar Robert Meister on America: Saying "the past is evil" doesn't mean the evil is past

Part 1: A leading critic of "human rights discourse" on how we abandoned any sense of historical justice

Published July 1, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Robert Meister (YouTube)
Robert Meister (YouTube)

I first came upon Robert Meister a few years ago, when Peter Dimock, a singularly gifted novelist whose judgment I trust, urged me to read "After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights." Dimock had edited the book and seen it into print at Columbia University Press. Meister’s thinking proved instantly electrifying. Before I finished the second page I knew he was someone I wanted among my “sitters,” as I call those who agree to one of my Q&A exchanges.

In a time when injustices accumulate at a rate and momentum no one seems able to stop, Meister proposes an exceptionally insightful way to understand and counter this phenomenon. His key is chronology — a historical perspective on how we in the present benefit or suffer in consequence of past wrongs. What of the past remains among us? It is fine to denounce slavery and pull down statues, say, or repudiate the dozens of coups the U.S. led or cultivated during the Cold War, but are we so far beyond such times as we prefer to think? Are we cleansed as we express our condemnations?

These are among the questions Meister addresses. One cannot possibly summarize his reply adequately — all of "After Evil" is his reply — but this is my attempt: No, we do not live in some blessed time wherein history’s countless blotches are at last behind us because our understanding of them has released us into some better future. As Meister puts it in his book, to understand past evil does not mean evil has passed. We are still on the hook, in other words — however few of us wish to recognize this.

"After Evil" is the fruit of an astonishingly determined investigation, the beginnings of which extend back to Meister’s years as a draft resister while earning his graduate degrees at Oxford and Harvard. The book is especially critical of what Meister calls — in capitals — Human Rights Discourse, a specifically post–Cold War phenomenon. This is not beach reading. (And conversing with Meister is not something to attempt on a couple of barstools.) But the rewards of entering into the universe of Meister’s complex, provocative and graceful thinking are many. I know of few books that match his for the variety and value of its insights and its rare frame of reference. Moments of illumination — the measure of original work, maybe — are frequent.

Meister is now a professor of social and political thought at the University of California, Santa Cruz. We met at his hotel in New York some months ago, when he gave a seminar at the New School. His most recent work, unwrapped on that occasion and explored later in our exchange, concerns the question of justice in a financialized economy. Meister urges us to think of justice as an option to be exercised: As factory workers used strikes or the threat of them to leverage political and economic gains during the industrial era, so can the value of financial assets be leveraged. The concept alone suggests how innovative Meister’s mind is.

Peter Dimock and Michael Conway Garofalo, who transcribed the audio recording of my conversation with Meister, were exceptionally generous with their time and advice as I worked through the material. I thank them. What follows is the first of two parts.

“We don’t have a good-faith definition of historical justice, and without this we cannot have a politics,” Dimock said one day as I prepared the transcript of the conversation that follows. “Restoring this is Meister’s very original undertaking.”

It was with this thought that I began our exchange.

The most significant phrase in your book "After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights," it seems to me, is “historical justice.” Can you explain this term and its importance to you?

I came of age in the postwar, post-Holocaust world, where the fundamental question was: What should you think about the events that occurred in Germany? This in relation to “What should you think about events that occurred in the U.S., in particular slavery?” In debates after Brown v. Board of Education, the question was whether what was wrong with segregation was that it had been a consequence of slavery. That is to say, segregation had been the ongoing effect of an historical wrongdoing that was supposed to be past.

In other words, we should understand a given reality in the present through the history lying within that reality. 

Yes: What happens when we see justice through the lens of history? The question that ties together "After Evil" and my current work on financialization is what it means in the present for the effects of a past injustice to have accumulated. What does it mean, that is to say, for effects to compound rather than diminish? Isn’t what’s wrong with the social order today precisely the respects in which it continues to allow the effects of past injustice to compound — to accumulate — without redress?

I want to pause here to mention three terms essential to the argument in "After Evil." You write of perpetrators, those responsible for committing evils in the past. There are the victims of those evils, obviously. Then there are the beneficiaries of past evils in the present day. And again victims — those in the present who still suffer from the persistent effects of past evils. Please explain why these are the key terms you have chosen to develop your ideas of historical justice.

When I was a graduate student, I studied with many of the giants in the liberal pantheon — people like John Rawls and Robert Nozick, Isaiah Berlin and Michael Walzer, others more tangentially. Their view was that any form of justice needs to be forward-looking — that is, without substantive reference to the original evil. Past evil is not to be revisited or disturbed. For them, this is because, insofar as justice is retributive, it runs the risk of passing over into injustice.  

The problem they saw with backward-looking justice was whether somebody who doesn’t deserve to pay is being made to sacrifice a present advantage for the benefit of someone who suffered nothing wrong and doesn’t deserve to be paid.

Because of this concern, my liberal teachers ultimately defined justice itself around the notion that the attempt to achieve historical justice was paradigmatically unjust. They wanted to think through justice in a way that abstracted from political identity rather than validated political identity. I took issue with this. I took issue with this at different points in my life in different ways. Originally, insofar as I was also interested in Marxism, I was interested not merely in the argument that the exploitation of labor is prima facie unjust for the reasons that Marx explains rather well. I was also interested in what further injustice is created or compounded through the mechanisms of capital accumulation. This became central to my critique of post-Cold War Human Rights Discourse, which often allows the cumulative gains from past injustice to increase, while purporting the have ended the injustice itself.

So, yes, in "After Evil" the question is whether achieving the prized moral consensus that the past is evil really means imposing a political consensus that the evil is past, so that the current beneficiaries are not seen to be perpetuating it. In this way of thinking, current inequalities do not share historical continuity with past structures of oppression, domination and injustice because these have been put behind us through enlightened insight that they were unjust. Forward-looking justice can then be pursued without reference to the persisting structural effects of past historical crimes.

To take an obvious example, past interventions in the Middle East are available to be deemed evil, but our interventions today are always of another order: They are not compounding an earlier evil because that evil has been acknowledged and thus put in the past.

This is absolutely vital at my end of the garden, which is foreign affairs. Time and temporality play key roles in framing your book. In one of two cases we should consider, you describe what happened in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union as the end of an era of revolutionary justice that began with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen exactly two centuries earlier. Please talk about this period’s core characteristics, especially as they relate to justice.

The focal concept I develop is that of the beneficiary of injustice as distinct from the perpetrator of injustice. Justice was connected, in that two-century period, 1789 to 1989, to the notion of revolutionary takeover of a state by a majority that had an identity such that it knew in advance who it was and could act in its own interests. Justice was also thought in that period to be essentially a form of: Who does what to whom for whose benefit at whose expense?

The notion of giving agency to the people was seen to be a way in which a self-conscious and self-activated people could act in its own interest, and by doing to itself, could also do for itself, unless it were impeded in some way. Justice was about opportunity, and opportunity was seen to be — even by my anti–Marxist professors, like Isaiah Berlin — an exercisable option. That’s what they mean by “liberty.”

The idea that having options creates value without expanding opportunity has been important in the 50 (or so) years that correspond to my academic career. But this isn’t “liberty” in the meaningful sense that my teachers thought about at the height of the Cold War. I’m now trying to address optionality as such at the level of historical justice. In my view the idea of having options without opportunities is the economic counterpart of a reduction of historical justice to a concern with traumatized bodies.

We’re tipping into a concept I’m eager to explore — the notion of justice as an option that can be exercised. You open doors onto this idea. The place of bodies in the thinking of human rights advocates is something we’re about to get into.  

But let’s stay with the characteristics of the post-1989 conception of human rights as contrasted with the two centuries pre-1989. It seems to me to turn on politics.

It turns on politics and it turns on the rise of what I call the politics of victimhood. The revolutionary subject in the 200 years between the French Revolution and the fall of Communism is a class-conscious victim — somebody who understands that his suffering has beneficiaries and who believes that the beneficiaries are would-be perpetrators. This subject makes war against the perpetrator. But when he defeats the perpetrator, he believes that the would-be perpetrator is always a threat until the benefits are disgorged.

The counterrevolution side in that 200-year period doesn’t think the way society distributes benefits is necessarily just. But this side does think that the victim who conflates a perpetrator with a beneficiary is dangerous for that reason alone. Why? Because this victim is understood as morally damaged, and so is capable of worse injustice than the injustice that’s been inflicted upon him. He must therefore be defeated, not in the name of justice but in the name of defense against worse injustices. It goes back to Socrates’ notion of the worst effect of injustice being that it makes you capable of injustice. This conflict between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary justice is the first period you mention, 1789 to 1989.

And post-1989?

After 1989, the real effect of the past is not regarded as coming from cumulative gaps between classes and persons that continue to grow as a result of past injustice. As I say, the real effect is regarded as a kind of psychic damage, a kind of trauma, an injury that’s incapacitating. In this very recent conception of justice, there are bodies and stories — and the bodies are incapacitated from telling their stories. What needs to occur for us to move forward is to remove the incapacitating effects the past will have on the ability to make good choices in the present, based on what the alternatives now are.

OK, bodies and stories — we’ll come back to these topics. I’ll note here that a preoccupation with bodies alone is an essential feature of Human Rights Discourse. It sometimes seems that bodies alone matter to the human rights advocate. It can result in a kind of inhumanity dressed up as humanism.

The books that came out in 1989 all have titles like “Breaking the Cycle of Violence,” where what is considered to have been evil about the past is precisely this characterization of it — what I’m calling victims, whose consciousness is raised identifying beneficiaries as perpetrators and becoming capable of having victims in their turn, perhaps worse. The process of achieving justice now has to be a process which essentially breaks the cycle by distinguishing between the morally damaged victim who is otherwise the subject of revolutionary action — the person who thinks of beneficiaries and perpetrators as the same, or at least as blending into each other — and the undamaged victim who would not confuse them.

In literature the undamaged victim is the subject of melodrama. We read melodramas because we want to read about the suffering of people who won’t blame us for that suffering.

Let’s consider the second core notion of temporality: the religious echoes we find in the Human Rights Discourse. I found this fascinating in your book. You take the Pauline explanation of time, as Paul laid it out in Romans, and showed how the reigning notion of the humanitarian mission reads straight out of it. Just as Paul had it for the early Christians, ours is a time between times. That’s to say, the past is one of sin, the future is one of redemption and justice, and in the present, both justice and redemption must wait.

It is the same in the liberal narrative of “progress,” and I don’t take this as coincidental: The moment of achievement is ever in front of us. It is, as you say, not yet time for justice, and it is never time.

It’s never time.

It’s messianic time you’re talking about. How do you imagine this notion of time found its way into Human Rights Discourse? Or is it just your way of understanding it?

No, I think it’s essential to what we mean by Human Rights Discourse. Even in its own terms, it’s the time in which we’re supposed to love one another before the judgment comes. The sins that one commits after one renounces sin are not the same sins as in the past, because everything that’s necessary for one’s own salvation has already occurred, except for the fact that it’s not yet time.

So now that you’re living at a moment when it’s still too soon for redemption but too late to undo the sins of the past, the question is: How do you behave? How do you feel? And how do you feel toward others in what some philosophers call “the time that remains”? The time that remains is made time. It’s extended time. It’s bought time. It’s time that’s bought with a price. The idea of a change in time is essential to my argument about Human Rights Discourse: It is a conversion from the cyclicality of violence to the view that our duty in the time that remains is to reconcile rather than to pursue justice, because now is not the time for justice.

This notion of justice-as-reconciliation and as an imperative to heal rather than to restore or repair, is very connected, in my mind, with this secular view of trauma as the equivalent of sin, which is the presence of the past.

It would be good to talk here about the difference between the Quranic and Judeo–Christian views on this point. Islam asserts, in contrast to Pauline Christianity, that God and justice are not to be awaited, they are here now. Do I understand that correctly?

Yes: Now is the time. This is the prophetic tradition.

Do you consider this point pertinent to events between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds today? Is that what’s being fought over?

That’s what’s being fought over. You can put it as a question of: What’s the absolute worst thing possible? If the worst thing possible is cruelty, as Christians would assume, then any truth or apparent truth that might make one capable of cruelty discredits itself for that reason alone. If the worst thing is infidelity, then there can be truth, and the truth can be something new that breaks the cycle by removing the question of cruelty from paramount consideration in the name of truth.

There can be truth accompanied by cruelty. This, you are suggesting, is the Quranic view as against the Pauline view.

There can be ethical violence. If all that is ever ultimately wrong is cruelty, then, really, a human right is a right to an attitude. That attitude is one of compassion for the suffering of “others.” It amounts to concern for their trauma and respect for their stories.

This is a key point.

Yes, as it turned out, that’s the view I’m criticizing. My generation, which in the mid–20th century started talking about the justice of institutions, has reduced human rights to the right to an attitude, and that attitude is to treat people as though they matter. Justice becomes simply a way of doing that. There is nothing more to it — except, of course, there is a lot more to it.

Your thinking on this matter of Human Rights Discourse is central to the book. How does it fit into the two core concepts of the meanings of justice pre- and post-1989 and the question of time? How is Human Rights Discourse an expression of those concepts? You link it to U.S. global dominance. Let’s start there.

I view Human Rights Discourse as a secularization — a false secularization — of the question of what makes power good. In other words: Why is God worth worshipping? God is worth worshipping because He is not a predator. He cares for us. He saves us. It’s a concept of rescue, grounded in compassion, that makes us feel that what makes God worth worshipping, what makes omnipotence just, is that those over whom power is exercised matter. That God treats his flock with concern for their pain, with respect for their dignity, and in the hope of developing their capabilities. God treats people with dignity who aren’t yet capable of acting with dignity because they’re disabled by their trauma.

At a philosophic level, Human Rights Discourse is connected to this idea that we are our bodies with stories. What God allows us to do is tell our stories. Today we have humanitarian journalists going around the world, discovering victims with “blank stares” and telling their stories — attaching stories to the bodies. The redemptive logic of Human Rights Discourse implies that maybe those bodies will be able to tell their own stories and then they’ll find redemption. What makes power good in a unipolar world is that it’s not cruel because it believes that suffering can be redeemed through narration. That’s what distinguishes us as humanitarians from the Islamists and other “fanatics.”

Our power is not cruel. It is the power of the other that is cruel.  


Very well put. A lot of Human Rights Discourse turns on a rearrangement of relations between time present and time past. As you’ve already said, evil is pushed into the past, and we are in another time. We are not in that time of evil.

“Evil” becomes a time that we have surpassed.

As you protest, to say the past is evil does not mean that evil has passed. Again, the mechanism is temporality. I want to bring a couple of practical examples into this. They’re drawn from my experience.

In 1999 Bill Clinton spent half a day in Guatemala City. He thoughtfully and generously apologized for the [CIA-inspired] 1954 coup that deposed Jacobo Árbenz. In 2009 Obama did roughly the same with regard to the 1953 coup that deposed Mossadegh in Iran, although he didn’t travel to Tehran. The tone of both these ceremonial moments suggested that those events belonged to a remote, no longer threatening past that these men’s words were helping put to rest.

In 2016 Obama offered sympathy when visiting Hiroshima, but made no apology for the 1945 atomic bombing. This was reported as an important and proper distinction — sympathy but no apology. In my reading, that event was too momentous and is still too near in the past to apologize for. Though earlier chronologically, Hiroshima implicitly belongs to a present time of the benign exercise of U.S. hegemonic power for the sake of global security and not a time of accountability within a narrative of international historical justice.

Another example: In 1977 the Church committee exposed the CIA’s infiltration of the American press. The swiftly purveyed assumption was that a cleanup followed and the problem is no more. In all instances, the conceit is that the past was evil — had evil in it, as you say — but the evil is passed.

Of course, in all four cases, evil is nothing like passed. We’re counting American-inspired coups since Mossadegh and Árbenz in the dozens now. Syria and Venezuela are works in progress as we speak. The U.S. now modernizes its nuclear arsenal. As to the press, it’s preposterous. It’s not ethically responsible to name names publicly without evidence, and by definition one is never going to have any evidence, but I could name you half-dozen or more compromised journalists, and this is just in my small orbit.

Are these examples of what you mean? Of how eager we are to tell ourselves comforting stories that we belong to a time different from that of those who came before us?

Oh yes, all of them are. It’s part of a process. When people talked about “transitional justice” in its heyday, they talked about creating a culture of human rights in which knowledge about the past means that we will never again allow it to occur because we will be aware of the patterns. No longer will the people committing these frauds upon public opinion get away with it because courageous journalists will now be able to stand up and stop it.

I don’t think it works in this linear fashion. Instead, there’s a phenomenon I call “anticipatory regret.” The advent of a temporality of human rights allows one to imagine what it will be like to regret something in the future that one might have stopped now, were the information now available to us.

Please put this in a context.

When atrocities occur, for example, one can imagine oneself in the future as a would-have-been rescuer had one known now, in our present, what one will know in the future. Or one can imagine oneself projecting forward, looking at past futures, as a will-have-been rescuer. But now is never the right time because the facts are never fully in and we don’t know what we will have known.

It can be constructed quite cynically. For example, Hillary Clinton was one of the handful of senators who were allowed to look at the evidence of weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and she declined to do it. But she regretted her vote about the war when later running for president. At the time when it mattered, she didn’t want to know, because she then would have been responsible for what she did at the time.

That’s such a pithy example. At this point we have to turn to the question of Israel. The role that Israel plays in this Human Rights Discourse is very key.

It’s the constitutive exception.

Four themes: One is Auschwitz, and the meaning Human Rights Discourse confers upon it. The Holocaust is, as you say, the principal murder in the new human rights narrative. Auschwitz is the moment of revelation in a conversion experience, the foundational moment in Human Rights Discourse. Please explain this. What makes it so?

Two levels, one very specific to its being about the Jews and the question of whether it is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy in Deuteronomy, as interpreted by Paul in Romans, that eventually there will be a world without Jews. This makes the notion of human rights finally about a final conversion of the world to a form of Judeo-Christianity. That means that, paradoxically, from now on there will have to be a world with Jews until the very end. The continuation of the Jewish people is considered a criterion, a sine qua non, of what it means to have transcended the cruelty of Christianity and become a true Christian. True Christianity is a world in which … well, it’s back to the idea that only a true Christian could really save the Jews.

Let’s explore this a little further.

You have within Christianity itself this theology of the Cross, this Death of God movement after the war, which is about the paradigm of victimhood as what God himself experienced to establish, again, that his power is good because he loves rather than hates, and loves in particular the Jews in a way that only a Christian can. In effect, the Auschwitz religion is, at the same time, a supersession of anti-Semitism on the part of Christianity — or at least anti–Judaism on the part of Christianity, to be careful about that. Auschwitz becomes the sign under which the Jews are able to convert to a version of universalizing their experience, and thus becomes for Judaism in the 20th century what the crucifixion of the Jewish king was not in the 1st century.

So there’s that. And then there’s another dimension, which relates more directly to paganism, to scapegoating, to the supersession of paganism and the exceptionality of the Jew as a scapegoat — a conversion to Human Rights Discourse based on the notion of incommensurable evil that is revealed by witness. It’s the visuality, the iconicity of Auschwitz that constitutes it.

There were two revelations in 1945 that are both important in my book. One was Auschwitz and the other was Hiroshima. The liberation of Auschwitz and the event in Hiroshima were within months of each other, so there is an idea here that a new truth has been revealed and it’s not simply an example of something cyclical.

Then there is Nuremberg. Not, like Auschwitz, symbolic in a cultural transition, but a legal precedent. It is individuals that are tried and found guilty, not groups, not a political order. Nuremberg de-collectivized responsibility, as you put it. There’s a straight line from this, it seems to me, to the determination now that it is localized evil that must be countered, precluding all consideration of wealth distribution, political rights, etc. All that is off the table.

Yes, we established this culture of legalism precisely by saying that people are no longer guilty of things for which they weren’t prosecuted and of which they weren’t convicted. So adherence to the rule of law, after evil, involves limiting the number of people who are considered to be guilty to those who are successfully prosecuted.

That said, Nuremberg is important to me and to the evolution of my generation, ’68ers, who gave us Human Rights Discourse and Responsibility to Protect [R2P] and whose personal biographies are very much affected by it. I’m acutely aware of the fact that the phenomena that I am criticizing are a matter of coming to terms with my generation and my classmates, narrowly conceived.

I graduated from college in 1968, which was the year after graduate [draft] deferments began and one year before the [draft] lottery. I was a student at Oxford. I was friends with Gareth Evans, future president of the International Crisis Group, the preeminent NGO working on deadly conflict resolution. Bill Clinton was also my classmate. The question posed by Nuremberg to us was, at the time: What would we have done if we were in Nazi Germany with a relatively freer press that was reporting about the overreactions of our allies and collaborators in places we were occupying? And what would we have done about the understandable excesses of our own soldiers who were being shot at by people in countries that we were occupying? Would we have been resisters or would we have been collaborators? What would constitute real resistance? That was the imperative — to have done it when it mattered.

The serious question, the debates among those who wouldn’t resist and those who did resist, was whether now was the  time. Whether something new might happen. Those of my generation who went on to careers in government probably believed something new had happened in our lifetime.

After Cambodia, after “the killing fields,” the question shifted from whether it would have been right to resist if you were in Germany to whether it would have been right to bomb if you were the U.S. I’m talking about Clinton, Gareth Evans, Bernard Kouchner  [co-founder of Doctors Without Borders]. My whole generation, as it rose in power, began to think that any place where it would be right for people on the ground to resist, it would be better — and even better for them—if an outside power bombed. The trains to Auschwitz, Rwanda, Libya, this was the idea — that if you could do it, you should do it. You should do it to rescue those who would otherwise be right to resist but would become morally damaged in the process. Whereas those who could bomb, in this new world, could save. As I quote Kouchner in my book, “Bombs can save.” It’s a matter of saving.

The issue of resistance is superseded by the issue of salvation from above. That’s what is supposed to have happened in our lifetime — the conversion of the world to humanitarianism as what makes power good.

Which is the Nuremberg template, as I take it.

Which is, in a sense, the Nuremberg template. For me, however, the Nuremberg argument goes in the opposite direction. I base my test case in resisting the draft — which was never prosecuted against me — on Nuremberg, and on the argument that, based on the expert opinion of international lawyers, the U.S. military’s overarching strategy in Vietnam was to raise the civilian kill ratio until the population on the other side turned against prolonging the war. I, as a student of international law and political and moral theory, believed this strategy was criminal. And I believed I would have no defense, if I were charged, if I were on record as having known this before I went. I believed, then, it was important to make existential choices when it mattered, and I believe even now that the real meaning of Nuremberg is that a state of emergency intensifies guilt rather than mitigates guilt.

Then the [Adolf] Eichmann trial, wherein Nuremberg was retroactively reinterpreted as the world’s response to the Holocaust. Crimes against humanity are prosecuted separately from war crimes for the first time. All this, combined with efforts of historians and political figures such as Ben-Gurion, awards Israel — and this is the core of our point, I think — a special status: It is rendered immune from criticism. As you write, “The post-Holocaust security of Israel thus stands as the constitutive exception on which 21st -century humanitarianism is based.”

We return again to Paul and Judeo-Christian time — violence in the present is not the same as violence in the past. I suppose it’s another way of talking about bombs that are virtuous. Please talk about Israel’s specific place in our new Human Rights Discourse: Israel as the paradigm of the constitutive exception.

I can give you a concrete example. The legal rationale for Israel’s use of Scud missiles against … it’s hard to keep track of them now, but I think it was the first intifada, against Hebron and civilian centers, was that these places were arming terrorists and therefore — because Israel’s duty was fundamentally to survive, since a world of human rights is a world in which, above all, there can still be Jews, and Israel’s survival was necessary for the existence of human rights — Israel’s defense was that it was permissible under the laws of war to attack from above the civilian population of a place that was supplying weapons to your enemy. That’s exactly what the 9/11 bombers did to the United States, which supplied those Scud missiles.

We don’t talk about the nature of American support for Israel in the same register in which we talk about Israel’s use of American weapons against its neighbors. Why is that? It’s because the entire discourse of human rights is based on the idea that on the one hand the Jewish experience has to be universalized — “this is what could happen to anyone” — and on the other hand, it’s very important that Jews be able to think of themselves as the only Jews, without whom there would be no Human Rights Discourse to begin with. So Israel can rationalize what it’s doing by accusing its enemies of Holocaust denial.

I see that you’re a reader of Agamben, a thinker and writer I love for all the doors he opens. He’s excellent on Auschwitz. [I refer to Giorgio Agamben, Italian philosopher, whose books include “Remnants of Auschwitz,” “The Mystery of Evil” and “The Use of Bodies.”]  

He’s the best of all.

You seem to stand with him or draw from him on a point we mentioned earlier: the strict focus of Human Rights Discourse on the rescue of bodies. Can you explain why this is an important feature of the new narrative? The effect of this rigorous preoccupation to the exclusion of so much else?

It’s because ethics is reduced from being the pursuit of justice based on some truth to the attachment of bodies to their stories. It’s the notion that there are bodies and there are stories, and that what we owe others — and this is really a diminished version of the Kantian view — is nothing more or less than respect for the stories that make their bodies matter to them. The idea here is that ethics is a state of mind toward the meaning of suffering for the one who undergoes it, and that everything else is simply a path to that attitude.

But we can just as well start with that attitude or end with it. Because the attitude is that the bodies must be made to matter to the author of the story. We want to return mattering to bodies, and how do you make bodies matter? By attaching stories to them. Our ethical goal is to treat others as if they were the authors of their own stories. That’s where having options comes in.  Your story can be one of making optimal choices — of constantly re-hedging your life-portfolio. Making better choices is based on being realistic about whatever opportunities you happen to have.

And in cultivating our attitude we have discharged our responsibility. As you suggested earlier, all one is required to do is display an attitude.

Exactly. So that our task is essentially to witness and to tell the stories of those bodies that cannot tell their own stories. Freedom is essentially the ability to tell one’s own story, and injustice is a form of writer’s block.

Can I summarize here and ask for either agreement or correction? We’re talking in all these respects about the depoliticization of human rights, are we not?


But precisely in the name of the neoliberal political order, paradoxically. I would also go so far as to say the dehumanization of human rights, insofar as the human being is replaced as the object of the endeavor with ideological advancement. Is that a good summary of where we stand?


To be continued ...

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By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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