"UN International Nursery School, 1950." United Nations. Accessed October 23, 2018. http://www.un.org/en/sections/universal-declaration/index.html.
In The Last Utopia, professor of law and history Samuel Moyn offers fellow academics both an intellectual and political history of human rights. He complicates the origins of the concept, commonly conceived of as a postwar phenomenon with a confluence of ancient Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, and secular Enlightenment influences. Simultaneously, he traces its subsequent inscription in the popular consciousness as a universal ideal – a triumphalist, teleological narrative that characterized “human rights” as innate, obvious and inevitable. Ultimately, Moyn argues modern notions of inalienable, individual entitlements that transcend geography and affiliation only manifested in the 1970s.
Moyn deals in the definitions, itemizations, and changing contexts that shaped the invention of human rights. Drawing on both past and presents works in English, French, and German, he uncovers a palimpsest of constructed meaning. These close readings of published works yield a critical historiography that identifies flaws in the telling and retelling of international history. Therefore, The Last Utopia is neither a history of human rights nor an argument for what the concept entails. Rather, the book explores why the concept was invented and redefined over time, in tandem with well-known historical events and watershed moments. It serves as a genealogy, revealing the intentions and insecurities of western nation-states in the twentieth-century, situating human rights within a broader international scheme.
Writer and journalist Adam Hochschild's 1998 book King Leopold's Ghost offers “lay audiences” a glimpse into an atrocity largely abandoned by popular historical consciousness. Rejected by nine publishers before being picked up by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hochschild reflects in his personal afterward – “it may have to do with the way most of us have been brought up to think that the tyrannies of our time worth writing about are communism and fascism.” In other words, stories of colonial violence and exploitation in non-western contexts are rarely remembered vis-à-vis the Holocaust and similar tragedies. This dynamic may be attributed to both constructions of foreign, enemy ideologies and the ethnic, or cultural, proximity of the victims to sympathizers. King Leopold's Ghost, therefore, offers us a meta-narrative on the making and unmaking of white memory and self – a history of Euro/American saviorism and barbarism as told through Christian gospel, the body, and the archives.
Christianity intervenes in the motivations and self-representations of several historical actors in this account. Hochschild readily illustrates how King Leopold professed his faith to justify and promote his own agenda. In the beginning, Leopold was considered “philanthropic” for opening the Congo to Christian missionaries and ousting slavers (1) – a model of white saviorism. He continued to present himself as a pious man when interviewed by Black American historian George Washington Williams, speaking of his “Christian duty to the poor African" (106). He also wielded this rhetoric when appealing to the Pope, seeking funds to “encourage the spread of Christ's word" (93). However, Hochschild does not fully investigate the “Christian duty” of the missionaries, journalists and politicians who campaigned against Leopold – opting to highlight their altruism over their ulterior motivations. Though he briefly discusses the confluence of European schemes cast onto Africa – economic and ideological alike (28) – the role of white Christian guilt and spectatorship deserves more thorough treatment.
"Demons/Devotees I, 2012." Ayana V. Jackson. Accessed October 9, 2018. https://www.ayanavjackson.com/archival-impulse.
"Alice Seeley Harris with Congolese children." International Slavery Museum. Accessed October 9, 2018. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/exhibitions/brutal-exposure/alice-seeley-harris.aspx.