Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Human Rights

The notion of universal human rights seems to be a relatively modern invention. Certainly many cultures were entirely comfortable with restricting the rights of others, even celebrating their murder, enslavement, and death by torture. When did this start to change, and what propelled it? The notion is central to the development of the modern world and played a key role in the breakup of all the empires of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.
Harari traced some elements back to one of the early empires of the Middle East, whose ruler for the first time proclaimed his empire as something designed to benefit both ruled and ruler. Certainly the Roman Empire embodied many aspects of that. Though the Romans were utterly ruthless in their conquests, peoples once conquered were given considerable power to assimilate, and this assimilation made all of Europe, and ultimately, most of the rest of the World, Roman, at least in part.
Harari also noted the seminal role of the universalist religions, especially Christianity and Islam. Their emphasis on the value and centrality of the individual shaped future values in crucial ways. Not that actual humans are especially good at living out the noble sentiments they espouse, but these sentiments have their own power. Most later conquerors, whether Christian, Islamic, or Communist did so in the name of saving their victims. Of course being murdered, raped, and pillaged by someone ostensibly bent on saving your soul or at least your body from some evil of Capitalism is not a whole lot more pleasant than the same experiences at the hands of a less hypocritical conqueror, but words and sentiments do have consequences.
Slavery in the old Roman Empire was greatly mitigated in medieval times, mostly through the influence of the Church. The opposition to the new African slavery in the New World came out of Christianity. I'm less familiar with the story of anti-colonialism, but the great emancipators of anti-colonialism, especially Gandhi, made excellent use of the conflict between what the British Empire proclaimed itself to be and what it was in fact. Intellectual and moral inconsistency turned out to be the Achilles heel of the Christian empires.
Certainly the flowering of human rights burst forth in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. It's ironic but unsurprising that some of the recently "emancipated" are the quickest to protest against the extension of rights to still others. Thus, as homosexuality is increasingly normalized and protected in the West, Africa, especially, and even India, have become more repressive.
I say unsurprising because it's a highly predictable response to the increasing destruction of every local culture by the global secular culture. Thus, repression in Alabama and Nigeria can both be understood in terms of the same paradigm - the spasms of resistance to an increasingly universal global culture.

Another layer of irony is provided by the fact that the impetus behind the African anti-gay campaigns is provided mostly by American evangelical fanatics, who, facing the fact that they have already lost the culture war in America, have gone to Africa to spread their hate.