Dubious Progress: Human Rights and Hypocrisy - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Dubious Progress: Human Rights and Hypocrisy

Members of the commercial, political, and cultural elite — the so-called “superclass” — are notoriously willing to overlook the human rights abuses committed in their name even as they pay lavish lip service to the loftiest ideals of public social responsibility. A conglomerate whose earnings depend on the use of outsourced slave and sweatshop labor, or the ruthless suppression of trade unions and farmers’ associations, is all the more likely to engage in moralizing Wokeism closer to home. This cynical grandstanding has given rise to a sort of ethical double-entry bookkeeping system, wherein a self-serving multinational corporation like Intel, Apple, Nike, or Coca-Cola is permitted to incur a glaring moral debit — secretly lobbying against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, for instance — so long as it can bolster its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) bona fides elsewhere, thereby securing a counterbalancing moral credit entry.

The result is a win-win scenario, as entities that profit from chattel labor, conflict minerals, or blood diamonds obtained from abroad can simultaneously reap the benefits of various domestic policies that just so happen to confer upon them distinct competitive advantages (administrative regulations unduly burdensome to their rivals, the systematic destruction of small businesses, expansive immigration laws that allow for the in-sourcing of cheap H1-B workers, to name a few). There are intangible as well as tangible benefits to this bookkeeping system. Everyone appreciates a good night’s rest, unperturbed by the grim specter of gross human rights violations, and so the formidable psychological self-defense mechanisms of repression, compartmentalization, and displacement become essential comforts in a fundamentally hypocritical society.

As the late, lamented Angelo Codevilla observed in his influential and astoundingly prescient 2010 American Spectator essay “America’s Ruling Class,” our elites legitimate their claim to power through “intellectual-moral pretense,” but they actually represent cogs in a neoliberal “machine” that “holds power by one of the oldest and most prosaic of means: patronage and promises thereof,” a machine lubricated by “power and money,” and geared entirely towards its own self-perpetuation. It is an apparatus that requires moral authority (real or pretended) for its efficient and undisturbed operation, but moral authority is hard to acquire and is easily squandered, hence the need for these absurd ethical contortions. Our entire society, as a consequence, now suffers from an unprecedented surfeit of transparently false virtue, and those who have difficulty stomaching hypocrisy on this planetary scale can hardly avoid being afflicted with what George Meredith called an “indigestion of wrath,” a veritable “moral Dyspepsy.”

What is at work here is not hypocrisy per se, but rather hierarchy.

Elite hypocrisy is now endemic, to such a wearisome extent that even a modern-day Aristophanes or Molière would struggle to detect anything remotely comical in it. Eco-conscious plutocrats revel in their carbon-intensive superyachts, private planes, and vanity space flights. Davos Agenda types, having secured an inordinate share of global wealth, breezily anticipate a time when the toiling masses will eat insect-based protein slurry and “own nothing and be happy.” Unmasked celebrities at the Met Gala show off their freakish, Botoxed rictuses while event staffers spend all evening smothered by face-nappies. Lawmakers implement futile and ruinous lockdowns, mRNA injection mandates, and green-pass systems while blithely ignoring their own edicts (as in the cases of Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Gavin Newsom, Gina Raimondo, Gretchen Whitmer, Michelle Lujan Grisham, and others). Otherwise zealously progressive Upper West Side parents protest rezoning efforts that would bring low-income students into their high-performing schools. Professedly antiwar politicians unapologetically drone-strike funeral processions, wedding-goers, and the families of aid workers, and through foolhardy interventions wreak havoc in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Campaign operatives facilitate foreign influence over American elections through sham dossiers and other forms of misinformation, then accuse their opponents of collusion and treason. Members of Congress profit handsomely from trading stocks, using the advance knowledge gained from their work on Capitol Hill. Of the corporate media, perhaps the less said, the better. I am sure that the reader could supply any number of additional examples, given the rich veins of hypocrisy that run, barely concealed, throughout our increasingly venal and anarcho-tyrannical society.

The ruling class can exploit rampant double-standards for its own mercenary aggrandizement, and for the sake of raw power, or filthy lucre, though I repeat myself.

None of this constitutes mere garden-variety hypocrisy — the all-too-human inability to live up to professed moral values. In fact, to paraphrase Auron MacIntyre, what is at work here is not hypocrisy per se, but rather hierarchy. There are material advantages that come with being able to benefit so openly from double-standards, not to mention the delicious frisson that comes with transcending the perceived order of things, an almost Nietzschean “pleasure-in-power.” It was precisely a century ago that the German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt demonstrated, in his oft-quoted treatise Politische Theologie, how the true sovereign is “he who decides on the exception,” the one for whom the rules need not apply, while the subject is one for whom the rules are written in stone instead of sand. “The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything.” Theoretically this Ausnahmezustand, or “state of exception,” should only arise out of an emergency, and for the sake of the public weal — think Cincinnatus, Caesar, Atatürk, or Lee Kuan Yew — but in practice, it arises whenever the ruling class can exploit rampant double-standards for its own mercenary aggrandizement, and for the sake of raw power, or filthy lucre, though I repeat myself.

Given that liberalism is an ersatz religion, the summum bonum of which is the gratification of individual desires, it will inevitably shed the trappings of fair play and the rule of law. Social bonds of cohesion — Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyya — dissipate, replaced by novel, divisive, intropunitive, and weaponized ideologies that are aerosolized and dispersed through schools, corporate training sessions, and mass media indoctrination. Lacking any traditional constraints, such a system, as Schmitt put it, “deprives legality of all persuasive power,” and soon the law amounts to nothing more than “a poisonous dagger, with which one party stabs the other in the back.” Values become relative, nothing is firm or nailed down, and looting, literal or figurative, proves increasingly commonplace, as everything down to the copper wire is up for grabs in what was once a high-trust society. Exalted notions of human, civil, social, political, and economic rights are retained only as fig leaves for some and bludgeons for others. Hypocrisy reigns triumphant, the “intellectual-moral pretense” of the ruling class persists against all evidence, and we are continuously subjected to what Max Nordau, in Die konventionelle Lügen der Kulturmenschheit (1883), characterized as “the discordant strife between the principal conventional lies of our civilization, and the truths they deny.” (If he could only see us now.) Modern life begins to feel like a protracted humiliation ritual, which is precisely the point.

It is for this reason that one almost welcomes the recent outburst by billionaire venture capitalist and Golden State Warriors co-owner Chamath Palihapitiya, who during a January 15, 2022, episode of the All-In Podcast put aside all the usual pretenses and declared that “nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, okay? You bring it up because you really care, and I think it’s nice that you care, the rest of us don’t care,” adding that he was “just telling you a very hard, ugly truth, okay? Of all the things I care about, yes, it is below my line … If you’re asking me, do I care about a segment of a class of people in another country, not until we can take care of ourselves will I prioritize them over us.” That a tech investor and NBA franchise co-owner has no interest in upsetting the profitable Chinese applecart over the mistreatment of ethnic Uyghurs is scarcely news in and of itself, but Palihapitiya’s strident indifference to the ongoing human rights catastrophe in East Turkestan, and his provocative suggestion that any semblance of concern over the far-flung Uyghurs’ plight constitutes one of the “principal conventional lies of our civilization,” was bound to provoke an equal and opposite reaction.

Salih Hudayar, the Uyghur-American activist and founder of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, likened Palihapitiya’s comments to “genocide denial,” and found it “very, very discouraging at the very least … to see business elites like Chamath Palihapitiya, businesses, corporations, make vile statements and … completely ignore what’s happening by saying that they don’t care.” Despite the Warriors organization’s clarification that “as a limited investor who has no day-to-day operating functions with the Warriors, Mr. Palihapitiya does not speak on behalf of our franchise, and his views certainly don’t reflect those of our organization,” and Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s affirmation that “all of us within the organization feel very strongly about our values” (whatever that means), Hudayar remained unimpressed, calling for an investment boycott of the Warriors, and astutely noting that there was never any actual mention of the Uyghurs themselves in these clumsy attempts at damage control. “Uyghur,” in the NBA and in much of the corporate world, evidently remains a word that must not be spoken. More criticism followed, with Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom opining that “when genocides happen, it is people like this that let it happen,” while Sen. Josh Hawley joined in with the trenchant observation that “Biden mega-donor says the real truth out loud: the Democrat woke crowd couldn’t care less about slave labor.” The Sri Lankan-born, Canadian-American founder of Social Capital subsequently issued a somewhat tepid expression of regret, in which he acknowledged that he had come across as “lacking empathy,” but insisted that he believed (his “hard, ugly truth” notwithstanding) that “human rights matter, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere.”

I have no intention of offering up a full-throated defense of Chamath Palihapitiya. Hawley put it best — a left-leaning venture capitalist and NBA co-owner has everything to gain from financial intercourse with China and its burgeoning economy, and everything to lose from antagonizing the CCP over the slave labor, mass incarceration, forced sterilization, and cultural genocide that have accompanied Beijing’s “Strike Hard” campaign, as highlighted by the recent workings of the U.K.-based Uyghur Tribunal. I am willing, however, to take Palihapitiya’s position a bit more seriously than most, for a hypocrite asymptotically approaching self-awareness is, to my mind, rather more interesting than a purely delusional one. What is more, I am not sure that his “hard, ugly truth,” however obnoxiously expressed, is entirely misguided.

We can stipulate that Hawley’s critique is valid and morally responsible while recalling that, in the aftermath of a 2019 Iran-backed Houthi attack on Saudi oil fields, it was Hawley who rightly urged the Trump administration to show restraint and to ignore his fellow senator Lindsey Graham’s call to “take decisive action to deter further aggression by the Ayatollah and his henchman.” “We shouldn’t attack anybody on behalf of Saudi Arabia for Saudi Arabia’s national interests,” Hawley countered, especially when our efforts should be focused on preserving “the security of the American people and the prosperity of our middle class.” This quintessentially isolationist position is not all that different from Palihapitiya’s stance that “not until we can take care of ourselves will I prioritize them over us,” although I am sure that Hawley and Palihapitiya would disagree on the particulars of American socio-political self-care. Both would agree, however, that fundamental tensions exist between realism and human rights utopianism, and that these should be explored in more detail.

Adam Smith, in his 1759 inquiry into human nature, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, proposed the following scenario to illustrate the “natural inequality of our sentiments.” “Suppose,” the Scottish economist posited, “that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake.” Doubtless the reader, “who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment.” He would, in a word, “care.” That said,

when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

In such a way does Smith’s hypothetical reader quickly return to a state of comfortable moral equilibrium. “The death of one man: that is a catastrophe. One hundred thousand deaths: that is a statistic,” as Kurt Tucholsky famously phrased it. This, for better or worse, is a sober assessment of human nature, and the means by which we cope with the natural disasters we experience, and the horrors we inflict upon ourselves. One might even call it a “very hard, ugly truth.” There can even be something faintly ridiculous — as seen in Charles Dickens’ portrayal in Bleak House of the “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs. Jellyby — about those who deny this basic reality, and affect an all-encompassing sense of moral responsibility, heedless of pressing problems closer to home. (I am reminded here of the 2019 study published in Nature Communications, “Ideological differences in the expanse of the moral circle,” which found that on the “heatmaps indicating highest moral allocation by ideology,” left-wingers on average placed their highest values not on family, friends, communities, countries, or civilizations, but somewhere between “all animals on earth including paramecia and amoebae” and “all natural things in the universe including inert entities such as rocks.”)

In Smith’s day, before international law was overtaken by utopian human rights discourse, the law of nations was just that, the law that obtained between one sovereign state and another. Emmerich de Vattel, the renowned 18th-century jurist, asserted that “it clearly follows from the liberty and independence of Nations that each has the right to govern itself as it thinks proper, and that no one of them has the least right to interfere in the government of another,” while the consummate realist Prince of Talleyrand held that “the true primacy, the only one that is useful and rational, the only one that suits men that are free and enlightened, is to be master in one’s own domain, and never to have the ridiculous pretension to be master in another’s.” There was no room in this moral universe for human rights as we have come to know them. A reactionary like Joseph de Maistre could postulate that ultimately “there is no such thing as ‘man’ in the world. In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, &c.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me.” Even a relatively liberal philosophe like the Milanese anti-torture campaigner Cesare, Marchese di Beccaria-Bonesana could still oppose the “abstract reasoning that he who offends mankind becomes the enemy of all mankind,” while maintaining that judges are merely the “guardians of pacts that bind men to one another,” not the puffed-up “vindicators of mankind.”

The vindication of mankind is not something within our power; it is, to adapt Chamath Palihapitiya’s turn of phrase, entirely above our line. Humanity, and the human rights that go along with it, are in essence abstractions. “If one is attacked as a Jew,” Hannah Arendt once pronounced in an unwitting echo of de Maistre, “one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man.” Yet over the course of the 20th century, and all the more so in our century, these abstractions have only grown in importance. Following the Second World War, human rights attained the status of a sort of political and diplomatic lingua franca, what Samuel Moyn described in The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, “the core language of a new politics of humanity,” a language that, unusually enough, Palihapitiya seemed to reject in his infamous January 2022 diatribe.

Human rights can therefore be of immense value in a hypocritical society marked by deep partisan divides.

Being notional, and exceedingly malleable, human rights can therefore be of immense value in a hypocritical society marked by deep partisan divides. Human rights can be invoked to argue for, or against, the invasion of Iraq. Human rights can be used to justify maintaining troops in Afghanistan long after the mission’s expiration date, so as to protect threatened subsets of the population, or to justify crippling sanctions against the nascent Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, embargoes which figure to subject those same unfortunates to death by starvation or lack of medicine. Human rights can justify the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen against the Islamist Houthis, or can be used to delegitimize the anti-Houthi strikes that have damaged markets, schools, mosques, and homes, while killing thousands of civilians. Human rights doctrines like “Responsibility to Protect” can help Washington rationalize intervening in Syria to safeguard territory under the control of the “moderate opposition.” Contrariwise, it allows the Kremlin to prop up a Damascus regime that promises to preserve Syrian Christians from Islamist forces aligned with the “moderate opposition.” A moral panic ensues when American forces are withdrawn from Syria — “What about the Kurds?” — while others point to Kurdish YPG attacks on Assyrian Christians, the sectarian persecution of Alawites by rebel forces, and other equally distressing instances of religious and ethnic oppression that have taken place in that morally muddled and needlessly protracted civil war.

Thus the soaring, utopian language of human rights can be used for good and ill, as Carl Schmitt warned in The Concept of the Political, published a decade after Political Theology:

When a state fights its political enemy in the name of humanity, it is not war for the sake of humanity, but a war wherein a particular state seeks to usurp a political concept against its military opponent. At the expense of its opponent, it tries to identify itself with humanity in the same way as one can misuse peace, justice, progress, and civilization in order to claim these as one’s own and to deny the same to the enemy. The abstract concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism. Here one is reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon’s: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat.

False patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but false invocations of humanity have proven more sinister still. Recall the Internationale anthem, so beloved by the genocidal Bolsheviks, Maoists, Khmers Rouges, and others, with its broad declaration that

This is the final struggle
Let’s group together and tomorrow
The International
Will be the human race

“May the past finally be swallowed up,” the anthem continues, by a “transfigured human race,” and in a way, we have been transfigured through the agon of modernity. To again cite Carl Schmitt,

Today nothing is more modern than the onslaught against the political. American financiers, industrial technicians, Marxist socialists, and anarchic-syndicalist revolutionaries unite in demanding that the biased rule of politics over unbiased economic management be done away with. There must no longer be political problems, only organizational-technical and economic-sociological tasks. The kind of economic-technical thinking that prevails today is no longer capable of perceiving a political idea. The modern state seems to have actually become what Max Weber envisioned: a huge industrial plant.

The hyper-industrialization of the world, the “planetary appropriation of industry,” leads inevitably to the hyper-politicization of the world. This does not, for Schmitt, imply moral advancement, for “the day world politics comes to the earth, it will be transformed into a world police power. That is a dubious progress!” As Matthias Lievens summarized it in his essay on “Carl Schmitt’s Concept of History,” “inevitably, this project ends up with forms of hyperpoliticization: the enemy is turned into a criminal rather than a political opponent, or he becomes an enemy of humanity, the most radical kind of enemy imaginable.”

And this is precisely what came to pass. The very “notion of human rights thus brought in its train a whole succession of evil twins,” as the historian Lynn Hunt has shown, since the “call for universal, equal, and natural rights stimulated the growth of new and sometimes fanatical ideologies of difference,” while the “efforts to dislodge cruelty from its legal, judicial, and religious moorings made it more accessible as an everyday tool of domination and dehumanization.” Paradoxically, the “utterly dehumanizing crimes of the twentieth century only became conceivable once everyone could claim to be an equal member of the human family.” Consider the sad fate of the Slovene jurist Boris Furlan, tried and convicted during the communist Nagode (Show) Trial of 1947 for his “collaboration” with capitalist powers. Initially sentenced to death, later to be commuted to 20 years of forced labor, Furlan and his fellow intellectuals were tried, so their captors said, “not merely by working people but by all men, by all humanity.”

Schmitt was undoubtedly far-sighted in his assessment that the “ideological humanitarian conception of humanity,” when applied to the political sphere, will tend to be “transformed into an awful instrument of human domination.” It is by no means paradoxical, Schmitt wrote in The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (1950), that “humanists and humanitarians put forward such inhuman arguments, because the idea of humanity is two-sided and often lends itself to a surprising dialectic.” It would be better to side-step this discussion, and cleave to those values upon which our nation was founded, as embodied in George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address:

If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel. Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

“Our interest, guided by justice” — five words that should define our interactions with the outside world. This may mean, at times, prioritizing “the security of the American people and the prosperity of our middle class,” or even admitting the existence of a “very hard, ugly truth,” that human rights utopianism, telescopic philanthropy, and world police power indeed represent dubious forms of progress.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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