Ideal Illusions by Peck, James

By Peck, James

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From the earliest years of the Cold War, Washington predicated its war of ideas on a set of deep divisions: between freedom and equality, reform and revolution, self-interest and collective interests, the free market and state planning, and pluralistic democracy and mass mobilization. American human rights leaders largely, if unknowingly, built on this divide. They usually felt more at ease associating human rights with civil rights and political freedoms, the individual, the market, and pluralistic openness, while seeing the perils in revolution and concentrations of state power.

So, for example, Truman administration leaders told Eleanor Roosevelt, who was chairing the UN Commission on Human Rights, that it was all well and good to produce a list of rights to inspire Americans so long as she made sure they could not be invoked on behalf of African-Americans. Truman feared that if the UN Declaration of Human Rights were to be used to challenge Jim Crow laws (as W. E. B. Du Bois, in fact, tried to do), he would be faced with a rebellion by Southern senators over a host of his other policies.

If we really begin to contend with the contradictions posed by these two currents, we will understand why later generations may look back on our present vision of human rights with the same perplexity. For the rise of the American human rights movement since the 1970s has coincided with an unprecedented increase in inequality, with brutal wars of occupation, and with a determination to establish American preeminence via the greatest concentration of military power in history. In the future, the downplaying of the issues of aggression and crimes against peace may not go unnoticed, for it fits with the character of Washington’s power and its half-century-long war of ideas.

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