ahorbinski: an imperial stormtrooper with the word "justic3" (imperial justice)
Bibliographic Data: Moyn, Samuel. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.

Main Argument: The human rights movement, rather than having roots stretching back at least to the Enlightenment, arose in the 1970s and is a minimalist moral utopia of antipolitics that ought to be superseded by non-globally minded movements within states.

Historiographical Engagement: Moyn trained as an intellectual and legal historian at Berkeley, and his sources are mostly philosophers, lawyers, and, in the 20thC, notable public thinkers such as Václav Havel and Malcolm X. Although he never mentions them, he is arguing against the school of human rights history loosely headed by Lynn Hunt and Gary Bass, which maintains precisely the opposite. In typological terms, he is of the revisionist school of human rights history.

Utopia, which means no placeā€¦ )

Critical assessment: It's difficult to overstate the problems I have with this book. (Granted, I would have problems with this book, as I am almost by default part of the Berkeley school of human rights history that Moyn has set himself against, neatly symbolized by the fact that Moyn doesn't mention Berkeley in his acknowledgments, despite the fact that he did his PhD here.) I not only think Moyn is wrong about the history of human rights but also that Moyn's practice in this book is profoundly anti-historical in the sense that several of his rhetorical moves seem to go against the very practices of the profession. For instance, Moyn's view of human rights is that its only "true" meaning is that of the 1970s--in other words, he denies even the possibility of change over time, which ought to be the historian's stock in trade. Another problem is his using the present to bludgeon people in the past for their supposed failures of imagination or for having the gall to think about human rights at a time when the time was out of joint, or "unpropitious" (42). If actual people in history thought that way, slavery would still be legal worldwide--I'm looking at you, William Wilberforce.

At times I felt like I was reading a book written by the reincarnation of Thomas More. Samuel Moyn hates utopias, though he never says why they are a priori bad, which adds another deeply frustrating layer to reading this book. Moyn is, in essence, articulating a deeply conservative vision in the Burkean tradition, and it's no surprise that the paperback edition has glowing blurbs from the Wall Street Journal and The National Interest. It's also just a weird read, because the entire book is leading up to a moment in the 1970s--May 1977, to be precise--that, once Moyn gets there, turns out to be a turning point that doesn't quite turn because the narrative doesn't go anywhere from there. The wave of the future breaks on the sand and the book loses its force, as Moyn has already spent the force of his argument denying things in earlier chapters.

The meat of my criticisms have been discussed in the chapter notes and above. Suffice it to say here that I question Moyn's constant equation of human rights with morality and with antipolitics (one of these things is not like the others), as well as his final assertion that "the last utopia cannot be a moral one" (227): why not? And how does the extreme teleology of Moyn's arguments negate what he sees as the teleology of "deep histories" of human rights?

Further reading: Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Meta notes: Principis obsta. Finem respice. The age of chivalry is dead. That of sophists, economists, and calculators has succeeded…

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Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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