Gary J. Bass is an associate professor of politics and internationalaffairs at Princeton and the author of Stay the Hand of Vengeance:The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals (Princeton University Press).He is writing a book on the roots of the human rights movement.
Inventing Human Rights: A History
By Lynn Hunt
(W.W. Norton, 272 pp., $25.95)
When Hitler came to devour Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlainshrugged it off as just a "quarrel in a faraway country betweenpeople of whom we know nothing." It was a notorious phrase, but nota careless one. After all, Chamberlain, while himself genuinelyknowing little about Czechoslovakia, was a shrewd politician whohad become prime minister not least for his skill in aiming hiswords at British public opinion. Chamberlain must have thought thatthese words would sell Britons on appeasement: that the remotenessand the obscurity of the Czechs would make it morally andpolitically acceptable to sacrifice them to Germany. This was thelanguage of moral unconcern, Chamberlain's deliberate attempt tomake the fate of the Czechs a matter of indifference to his ownpeople.
Whose lives matter to us? In principle, for the most austereliberals, there is no justification for preferring one human lifeover another one. "Because a . .. community widely prevails amongthe Earth's peoples," Kant remarked, "a transgression of rights inone place in the world is felt everywhere." John Rawls argued thatwe should choose society's main rules as if we did not even knowwhich family or ethnic group we belong to. To a pure liberal, ifpeople are dying in a quarrel in a faraway country between peopleof whom we know nothing, all that matters is that people aredying.
But the politics of this moral duty do not work that way. In reallife, our ethical universe radiates outward from ourselves. Our ownmiseries are our first and foremost concern, even when they arerelatively trivial. "If he were to lose his little fingerto-morrow, he would not sleep to-night," Adam Smith wrote in Theoryof Moral Sentiments. "But, provided he never saw them, he willsnore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundredmillions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immensemultitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, thanthis paltry misfortune of his own." Virginia Woolf echoed thisnasty thought with verve in Mrs. Dalloway, in which her sweetlydithering title character thinks this: "And people would say,'Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.' She cared much more for her rosesthan for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen,the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say soover and over again)--no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians,or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses." We all love ourroses. And most of us love them a little guiltily, insofar as werecognize the narrowness of this emotional horizon. This guilt, ordiscomfort, is a mark of moral progress. At least Clarissa Dallowayfeels bad that she doesn't feel bad.
Most of us are devoted to our families and our friends more than toanybody else or to humanity at large. There is ethical dignity inthis specificity, of course. But it can turn ugly. During thebusing crisis in Boston, mothers in Southie rallied againstdesegregation for the sake of their children: the concern forimmediate family was not attended by any larger sense of communitywith fellow Bostonians and Americans whose skin happened to be adifferent color. And beyond our immediate circle, we carryloyalties to our town, our region, our co-religionists, our class,our nation, our country--to the larger classes and sets to which webelong. Some solidarities go very big and very far: pan-Slavism,pan-Arabism, irredentist national movements. For Tolstoy, theprivileged human unit was the entirety of the Christian world:"there ... cannot be any reason for dissension between Christiannations." (Historically speaking, this was a spectacular error.)And Herzen went one better: "after Christianity [came] the beliefin civilization, in humanity."
When one's loyalties extend to all of humanity, one has reached theclimax, and perhaps the limits, of moral sympathy. Humanity, afterall, is as much an abstraction as a reality. How concrete mustethical obligations be? Is a species too vast to be a meaningfulmoral object? Or is it the other way around: are our commitments inthe particular premised on the possibility of universalism? Theseare also political questions, of course. The greatest dividinglines in today's world are certainly the ones on the map: I meanstate borders. Orwell, trying to understand why Germans werebombing him in World War II, argued, "One cannot see the modernworld as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength ofpatriotism, national loyalty." Patriotism--loyalty to the state--is the doctrine that on this side of the line, you should careintensely, and on that side, you should not at all.
Put that way, it sounds awfully unattractive. But patriotism can beone of the moral sentiments; patriotism is what fueled Churchill'srighteous defense against the Nazis. Yet patriotism is also whatunderpinned Chamberlain's argument against England's interest inCzechoslovakia. The advocates of patriotism tend to lean hard onthe unfamiliarity of foreigners. "The ordinary Englishman carriesin his mind a generalized picture of the behaviour, daily life,thoughts and interests of other Englishmen, whereas he has no suchpicture at all of the Greek or the Lithuanian," wrote E.H. Carr, theBritish historian, in The Twenty Years' Crisis, which stands as arealist brief for appeasement. "Moreover, the vividness of hispicture of 'foreigners' will commonly vary in relation togeographical, racial and linguistic proximity, so that the ordinaryEnglishman will be likely to feel that he has something, howeverslight, in common with the German or the Australian and nothing atall in common with the Chinese or the Turk."
Governments, at least, have long seen the world that way. In 1850,Palmerston sent a British squadron to Greece after anti-Semiticrioters burned the house of Don Pacifico, a British Jew living inAthens. During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, America and manyEuropean countries dispatched troops to safeguard their citizens(and their imperialistic claims) in China. In 1965, Lyndon Johnsonpublicly justified sending the Marines to the Dominican Republic inorder to evacuate American citizens, and in 1975 the White Houseargued that it was entitled to use force to free the Mayaguez, anAmerican merchant ship seized by Cambodia. In 1976, Israel reachedas far as Entebbe in Uganda to free Israelis and Jews fromPalestinian hijackers. And in 1980, much less effectively, theCarter administration launched a botched raid to try to freeAmerican embassy personnel being held hostage in Iran.
This emphasis on a narrow construction of national morality, thesort of patriotism that is deployed against larger and distantobligations, is likely to increase as things in Iraq go fromhorrific to worse. In the current Scowcroftian moment, as the Bushadministration's disastrous adventure in Iraq threatens todiscredit any future projects of nation-building anddemocratization, Americans are likely to place more emphasis onlooking out for fellow Americans, the rest of the world be damned.But the contemporary revival of the patriotic-realist traditionwill run up against an obstacle--one of the primary moralaccomplishments of our time. I refer to the idea, and thestatecraft, of human rights.
What exactly are human rights? Are they a criminal "egoism" thatsaps the strength of society overall, as Marx wrote? Are they"nonsense upon stilts," as Bentham witheringly called naturalrights? (In his dealings with slavery and the suffering Greeks inthe 1820s, Bentham actually showed that he took the idea of humanrights much more seriously than that.) Is believing in rights, asAlasdair MacIntyre has claimed, like believing in witches andunicorns?
No doubt the definition of rights, and certainly the language of it,is slippery and easily exploited. The precise content of a right isalways up for debate, as are the people who get to hold them.(Under the English Bill of Rights, Protestants were allowed tocarry arms sufficient to defend themselves. ) Rights are supposedto exist in all times and all places: the enslavement of theSpartan helots and apartheid are what we would call human rightsviolations. But, as Lynn Hunt's splendid new book demonstrates,rights as a political program came along relatively late in theday.
Hunt has written a provocative and engaging history of the politicalimpact of human rights, mostly in the eighteenth century. Thelanguage of rights grew up in the early and high Middle Ages, andcame of age with political theorists from Grotius to Locke. This isroughly the point where Hunt begins. In the late eighteenthcentury, for the first time, doctrines of human rights gained wideacceptance. In America, they took on political form in theDeclaration of Independence in 1776; in France, in the Declarationof the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789. These went a step beyondthe English Bill of Rights in 1689, which was rooted in theparticulars of English law and history, rather than universalprinciples that applied to all men--every single member of thehuman race.
Above all, rights themselves are supposed to be beyond debate.Nothing beats a right. After the middle of the eighteenth century,Americans and (somewhat more grudgingly) Britons increasinglytalked about rights as universal, not particular to a givencountry. When the Americans and French solemnly declared, in 1776and 1789, that their undeniable rights had been violated, they weretrying to render uncontroversial a view of government that was infact fiercely contested: that the point of government was to securethese rights of man.
Hunt grasps the novelty, and the preciousness, of this intellectualtransformation. Although she clearly believes in moral progress evenunto her own day, she does not allow herself the smug luxury ofassuming the superiority of the current age. She properly condemnsJefferson for owning slaves, but she insists that the reallyimportant point is that the flawed Jefferson and his flawedcontemporaries nonetheless rose far above the mores of their day:"How did these men, living in societies built on slavery,subordination, and seemingly natural subservience, ever come toimagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, asequals?"
Hunt dwells on the shock of the violation of rights. One does nothave a philosophical reaction to the photographs from Abu Ghraib,even if one's principles are offended; one first reacts viscerally.Hunt argues that "we are most certain that a human right is atissue when we feel horrified by its violation." As she notes, inthe most famous articulation of the human rights ideal, ThomasJefferson wrote only that the truth of rights is self-evident. Butfor rights really to be self-evident implies a widespread emotionalrecoil from their violation. Hunt is not troubled that Jeffersonducked the issue of rationally deriving rights from firstprinciples. She thinks that the idea of human rights comes not fromreason but from experience. What really counts, Hunt argues, is notso much the abstractions of equality and universality, but "thenewfound power of empathy": the sense that the suffering of othersis like our own.
In our own time, this sense of empathy is nurtured by the massmedia. For Hunt, that mostly means pictures in public exhibitionsand wildly popular novels. When you hear about torture, you imagineyourself in the position of the person being tortured. (Wesometimes do this even in circumstances when it might not makemoral sense, such as feeling pity for Saddam Hussein while watchingfootage of him at the gallows.) Many people will not react withempathy to depictions of suffering; some people will getdesensitized or will actually thrill to the cruelty. But if thespectacle of suffering does not make empathy inevitable, itcertainly makes it possible. As Hunt writes, "New kinds of reading(and viewing and listening) created new individual experiences(empathy), which in turn made possible new social and politicalconcepts (human rights)."
Hunt describes readers howling with emotion as they read Rousseau'sepistolary novel Julie, or the New Heloise. The historicalsignificance of this literary hysteria, she argues, was that itshowed readers identifying with characters very different fromthemselves. In an era of increasingly widespread literacy, novelswere a kind of lesson in emotional and moral expansiveness. Thepoint that literature has been a cause of empathy is not a new one,but it is still a good one. In Julie, or in Samuel Richardson'stitanic Clarissa, the story unfolded through letters written by thecharacters, which allowed readers to discover the characters'innermost thoughts without any interference from a narrator.(Writers in our time now make epistolary fiction out of e-mails.)Men identified directly with Rousseau's and Richardson'semphatically female heroines--although, a bit problematically forHunt's argument, it took well over a century before anyone namedJulie or Clarissa experienced anything like political emancipation.Class differences were imaginatively transcended as effectively asgender differences. And this closing of the distance between peoplerepresented, in Hunt's view, a huge leap of the moralimagination--the sort of leap without which the idea of humanrights would not have been possible.
Torture is Hunt's most powerful example. With a White House thatmanifestly believes in torture as an instrument of nationalsecurity policy, it is not just antiquarian to read that back inthe eighteenth century people believed that torture could make thebody speak truths even when the mind was unwilling. Judiciallysupervised torture was commonplace in France well into theeighteenth century, and much of Europe's sixteenth- andseventeenth-century criminal jurisprudence was dedicated to thecodification of particular forms of torture. Prussia, of allplaces, led the way in abolishing judicial torture in 1754. Fromthe 1760s, activists fought back against torture and the cruelerforms of criminal punishment. French courts began to back away fromtorture as a way of extracting confessions.
Their champion was a young Italian aristocrat named Cesare Beccaria,who was moved to write his Essay on Crimes and Punishments by anempathetic horror at the public spectacle of torture. To thetraditionalists in the legal establishment, of course, that was thewhole point: punishment had to be horrible for it to produce adeterrent effect among the watching mobs. Clearly not everyone hadthe same reaction to watching torture as Beccaria; otherwise nobodywould have shown up. (The slasher movies of our time profitmightily from Beccaria's error.) Benjamin Rush denounced publicpunishment for its attempt to block the public from empathizingwith the sufferer. For Rush, it was crucial to realize that evenconvicts "possess souls and bodies composed of the same materialsas those of our friends and relations."
Hunt argues that people gradually came to believe that their bodiesbelonged to themselves and not to the community, and thus could notbe sacrificed in the name of public order (or religion). AsBeccaria's treatise was translated into English, German, Polish,and Spanish, torture and public execution withered. In 1780, theFrench essayist Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville wrote that the"sacred rights that man holds from nature, which society violates sooften with its judicial apparatus, still require the suppression ofa portion of our mutilating punishments and the softening of thosewhich we must preserve." Brissot would go on to found France'sfirst anti-slavery society. Hunt also quotes Montesquieu, in TheSpirit of the Laws, suggesting that whereas torture might work fordespotic governments, and ancient Greece and Rome certainly hadslaves, "I hear the voice of nature crying out against me." By the1780s, the absolute end of torture was a key tenet of humanrights.
The end of torture was one of the signature (and, if you considerthe body count of the new republic, one of the most hypocritical)achievements of the French Revolution. Just six weeks after theFrench Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789,France's deputies completely abolished judicial torture. King LouisXVI had discontinued the use of torture to get guilty confessions,but had only provisionally abolished it for the purpose of findingout the names of accomplices--what French law, with chillingeuphemism, called the "preliminary question." Alberto Gonzaleswould have gone far at the court of Louis XVI.
For the supporters of the old European order, the new language ofrights had to be discredited. Edmund Burke, who preferred to basegovernment on deep- seated traditions, was the most witheringcritic. As he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France:"Troops again--Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights ofmen! These are the fruits of metaphysic declarations wantonly made,and shamefully retracted!" But even if Burke recoiled at thepolitical abuse of rights language, he strongly believed inuniversal moral norms. Burke's criticisms of the French Revolutionshould not be written off as dark reaction. He was right about whatthe Revolution quickly degenerated into; and so he provided anearly warning that the pursuit of a perfect society can quicklydescend into the persecution and the destruction of the imperfecthuman beings who stand in the way of the plan, like the Sovietkulaks. And Burke was also an early hero of anti-imperialism, inthis way giving aid and comfort to those who believed in the rightsof man. In 1788, attacking the corrupt colonial administratorWarren Hastings, Burke demanded equal decency in India as in anyother place: "the laws of morality are the same every where, and... there is no action which would pass for an action of extortion,of peculation, of bribery and of oppression in England, that is notan act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery and of oppression inEurope, Asia, Africa, and all the world over." There is not a wordin that magnificent declaration that would trouble a liberal rightsadvocate.
Still, as Hunt shows, those French metaphysic declarations were notso easily retracted. The granting of rights really was a slipperyslope. Once one group was included, others followed, in what Huntcalls the "bulldozer force of the revolutionary logic of rights."In France after the Revolution, once the deputies debated grantingrights to Protestants, it was hard not to grant them also to Jews.So even in a Catholic country, Protestants got their politicalrights in 1789, and Jews got them in 1791. Next, as Hunt mordantlynotes, "some, but not all, free black men won political rights onMay 15, 1791, only to lose them on September 24 and then have themreinstated and applied more generally on April 4, 1792." Evenexecutioners and actors, who had previously been excluded fromholding public office, were allowed full participation in theFrench political system. And in 1794 France abolished slavery in itscolonies (only to reinstate it under Napoleon).
The pattern of expansion was much the same in other countries. AsHunt puts it, "The virtue of beginning with the general becameapparent once the specific came into question." That logic helpedto engender a gradual spread of freedom, despite heated controversyat every step. In Britain, Catholics were allowed into Parliamentafter 1829, and Jews after 1848. In 1807, fully two hundred yearsago, Britain got rid of the slave trade, and in 1833 it decided toabolish slavery in British colonies. In the new United States, whereat first in many states only Protestants could hold politicaloffice, the process went state by state, but usually in pretty muchthe same sequence. In Massachusetts, all Christians were allowed tohold public office in 1780, and then, in 1833, the right wasexpanded to include people of any religion. The great anddisgraceful lag was in the abolition of the most monstrous Americanviolation of human rights, slavery itself. The EmancipationProclamation in 1863 came almost seven decades after France firsttried to abolish slavery. Even Russia beat America to this highground when Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861.
Women's rights lagged in both Europe and America, trapped in whatHunt nicely calls "the obscuring fog of habit." But Hunt arguesthat women, while downtrodden by today's standards, "were not apersecuted minority." Unlike blacks or Jews, women could not beexpelled outright from society. Women in the eighteenth century didhave some civil rights, although not as many as men. In 1791, aFrench woman playwright named Olympe de Gouges issued a Declarationof the Rights of Woman, extending the language of the famousDeclaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. "Woman is born freeand remains equal to man in rights," she wrote. She wasguillotined. In Britain, in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft rather moresafely issued her Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Hunt's exemplary book treats mostly the domestic roots of humanrights. She does not particularly address herself to thenow-pressing problems of a foreign policy based on human rights.Should the liberal republics be merely exemplars of human rights,passively inspiring other societies to follow, or should they moreactively seek to spread liberty and defend human rights? If rightsare universal, there will presumably be a strong temptation toprotect them even in other countries. Thus John Stuart Mill cheeredat British foreign policy conducted "rather in the service ofothers than of itself,--to mediate in the quarrels which break outbetween foreign States, to arrest obstinate civil wars, toreconcile belligerents, to intercede for mild treatment of thevanquished, or, finally, to procure the abandonment of somenational crime and scandal to humanity, such as the slave-trade."This was the interventionist language of "crimes against humanity,"almost a century before Nuremberg.
Hunt is wonderful at showing how the American and Frenchdeclarations reinforced each other, and at demonstrating the slowspread of human rights ideas across borders. Between 1776 and 1783,there were nine different French translations of the Declaration ofIndependence. French reformers were thrilled by the Americanexample. In revolutionary France as in revolutionary America beforeit, Hunt argues, human rights arguments allowed for a decisivebreak with past government and a radically new vision of legitimategovernance. And after those two great declarations and theirconcomitant upheavals, the language of human rights swept intoWestern consciousness. Today, it spans the globe.
Hunt also tracks the effects of imitation from one country toanother, as when French abolitionists in 1788 created an activistgroup modeled on the British Society for the Abolition of the SlaveTrade. French rhetoric about rights was used by Haitianabolitionists. After a slave revolt in Saint Domingue (present-dayHaiti), France abolished slavery in all its colonies in 1794.Toussaint-Louverture, an ex-slave who led the revolt, thundered, "Iwant Liberty and Equality to reign in Saint Domingue." Frenchcommissioners on the island started an emancipation decree withArticle 1 of France's own Declaration of the Rights of Man andCitizen: "Men are born and live free and equal in rights."
Although Hunt's book is not really about the deliberate export ofhuman rights, her examples are telling. The prime case is France inits wars after the Revolution. This meant the temporary abolitionof torture in Switzerland and Spain, which fell apart afterNapoleon was toppled, and the equally transient emancipation ofJews in small German and Italian states. The rights of man followedthe French flag, in advance and in retreat. The few lastingsuccesses--such as Jewish rights in Holland--were tainted by theentanglement of human rights with military aggression.
This old link between rights and troops reverberates to this day.The intentional spread of human rights has long been tarred asimperialism. Many times it is imperialism. But more often than isremembered, it is not. Once liberals have secured rights at home,there is a logic for not stopping there. Are not human rights bydefinition universal? Why not act universally and encourage thespread of human rights to all of humanity? In a pamphlet titled"Emancipate Your Colonies!" addressed to France in 1793, Benthamasked: "You choose your own government, why are not other people tochoose theirs? Do you seriously mean to govern the world, and doyou call that liberty? What is become of the rights of men? Are youthe only men who have rights?"
One critical example is the slave trade. As Hunt relates, NapoleonBonaparte brought slavery back to the French empire in 1802 andsent warships to brutally subdue rebellious blacks in the Caribbeancolonies, failing only in Saint Domingue. But immediately afterWaterloo, Britain demanded an end to France's slave trade. In July1815, Lord Castlereagh, the conservative British foreign secretary,proudly informed his prime minister that the restored Bourbonmonarchy had declared "the Slave Trade for ever abolished throughoutthe Dominions of France." (It would actually take until 1848 to putan end to the slave trade.) Bentham furiously told the president ofHaiti that he would like to see Haitian ships "capturing theslave-trading ships" and then consigning the slavers "to the likeslavery in your Island." The master of the slave ships, Benthamsuggested, should be permanently branded as "a man so highlydistinguished in barbarity" with "an indelible mark upon him"--suchas cutting off "one of his lips."
In 1817, Britain turned its attentions to the Spanish empire,demanding an end to the slave trade, and also rattled its sabersagainst the slave trade in Cuba, Zanzibar, Iran, and Texas. Thiswas anything but cheap talk. All told, as the political scientistsChaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape have reckoned, Britain lostsomething like five thousand troops in anti-slavery missions, souredits relations with America and France, and badly damaged itseconomy by undermining its own sugar industry. And as David BrionDavis has observed, in words that have an oddly familiar sound todebates today about the cost of spreading human rights, "Britain'sfixation on the slave trade often worked against British interests,damaging or straining relations with Muslim leaders in an era ofIslamic insurgency and nationalistic discontent." Here Britain hurtits own empire for the sake of humanity.
Hunt fast-forwards in two dozen pages from the end of the NapoleonicWars to the aftermath of World War II. This is already an ambitiousbook about the eighteenth century, so it is no criticism to notethat she might have been a little more reassured by some of themore hopeful moments of the nineteenth century. The nineteenthcentury is painted here in shades from dark to pitch. Hunt arguesthat nationalism became the framework for establishing rights after1815, when the Napoleonic Wars came to an end with France's finaldefeat at Waterloo. In the post-Napoleonic world, nationalistmovements spread across Europe and Latin America, to the horror ofthe established empires. Hunt rightly shows how hard it was toreconcile collectivist nationalism and individualist liberalism.The actual populations of Europe were so mixed that it wasimpossible, as Woodrow Wilson imagined, to draw lines that wouldhermetically partition ethnic groups from one another. As thecentury wore on, nationalists turned xenophobic and often simplyracist.
But there were more hopeful moments, too. When the Greeks rose upagainst Ottoman rule, they were helped by the activists of theLondon Greek Committee, including Bentham and Byron, who diedfighting for a free Greece; this pressure pushed the Britishgovernment to what was arguably the world's first humanitarianintervention, sinking much of the Ottoman navy in 1827 to securepresent-day independent Greece. British and French liberals ralliedfor the cause of Poles crushed by Russia in 1831 and again in 1863,and Hungarians crushed by Austria in 1848. Outraged at a crackdownon political prisoners in Naples in the 1850s, Britain broke offdiplomatic relations and then tried a daring covert rescue plan tosend a fast steamship to rescue the prisoners. (The ship sank.) In1860, French troops and British ships intervened in Syria aftermajor massacres there, and, just as impressive, the diplomatsmanaged to get France to withdraw in 1861. In 1876, after amassacre in the remote town of Batak in Bulgaria, Britons fromQueen Victoria on down were collectively horrified, and WilliamEwart Gladstone came roaring out of retirement to campaign againstthe "Bulgarian horrors." The Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli,who drew up plans for a military intervention in Bulgaria, neverrecovered, and was hounded from office by Gladstone in the nextelections. As Gladstone thundered on the campaign trail, "mutuallove is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited bythe boundaries of Christian civilization; that it passes over thewhole surface of the earth, and embraces the meanest along with thegreatest in its unmeasured scope."
In fact, something similar to Hunt's own argument could be appliednicely to the nineteenth century. As Hunt notes, new forms of mediacreated what Benedict Anderson calls an "imagined community." Whatlinks these distant and unconnected persons, Anderson argues, is,at least at first, print capitalism. In 1791, Burke worried thatFrench revolutionary nationalism was spreading "chiefly bynewspaper circulations, infinitely more efficacious and extensivethan ever they were." He warned, "Let us only suffer any person totell us his story, morning and evening, but for one twelvemonth,and he will become our master."
The same forces of modernity that first forged a sense of commonBritish political identity between impoverished Welsh villagers andLondon aristocrats, or between French citizens in metropolitanParis and the slowly integrating Lorraine and Savoy, could alsocreate a weaker but still politically significant sense ofsolidarity with foreigners facing massacre. Just as the growth ofnational consciousness relies on knowledge about the lives of othermembers of the national community near or far, the growth ofhumanitarian concern for foreigners relies on knowledge about thelives of foreigners. Although Hunt rightly recalls the imperialistbigotry of the period, the parallel marches of politicalliberalization and mass-media technology sometimes resulted in agreater concern for more and more people unlike one's own. In thenineteenth century, this was the product of telegraphs andnewspapers and books, and today includes radio, television,satellites, and computer networks--all the distance-shrinkingdevices.
Press freedom helped sweep away the absolutism of the sixteenthcentury. By the 1850s, various taxation schemes on the press, leftover from the Napoleonic Wars, were abolished: the AdvertisementDuty in 1853, the Stamp Duty in 1855, and the Paper Duty in 1861.From the 1850s to the 1880s, the British mass press basked in anunprecedented age of freedom and influence. The limits to theexpanding moral universe were the reach of the reporter and the runof the telegraph wire.
The rise of a free and enterprising press meant that the Britishgovernment could not always pick and choose its foreign crises. Inan earlier era, if there was an inconvenient massacre somewhere,only British diplomats would know about it, and they could sweep itunder the rug if that was what realpolitik dictated. But no longerafter the 1850s. Suddenly there was the danger that an industriousforeign correspondent would report news directly to the Britishpublic, no matter what the British government wanted its subjects toknow. Newspaper reports of a massacre in Chios, Greece, in 1822convulsed the British public; and in 1876 a Daily News scoop aboutthe massacre in Bulgaria did it again. This was a quarrel in afaraway country of which British newspaper readers knew quite abit.
That is why dictatorships work so hard to make sure that foreigncorrespondents cannot do their jobs. In Justice Robert H. Jackson'sopening address at Nuremberg, he spoke of Buchenwald and Dachau butnot of Auschwitz, because the eastern camps were in Soviet handsand thus not as accessible to British and American officials andreporters. In Algeria and Chechnya more recently, visitingreporters were potential targets, which helped to ensure that theoutside world knew little of the staggering bloodshed there. NorthKorea imposes strict limits on foreign correspondents, preventingdetailed reporting on the country's vast famine. And Robert Mugabeallows only a few foreign correspondents to operate in Zimbabwe.
You could read Hunt's superb history with a certain sense ofsatisfaction: liberalization and the mass media are flourishingbeyond her eighteenth-century characters' wildest dreams. Humanrights is not triumphant, to be sure; but the idea is holding itsown. It is more and more a central element in foreign policy andinternational affairs and even military strategy. We may be livingin a very cruel world, but there is a growing conscience, at leastofficially and culturally, about its cruelty. Yet there is oneelement of this era of human rights that is in retreat: printcapitalism, and thus foreign press coverage. Print and capitalismare not getting along. Although American newspapers now fieldoverseas reporters with a skill and a professionalism unknown tonineteenth-century hacks, Wall Street has decided that it hatesnewspaper stock. Under heavy pressure from investors, some of thecountry's best newspapers have decided to go local. Foreign bureausare being closed by many important papers in many important places.When the suits decide to shut those bureaus, they fritter away ahard-won achievement of centuries. They are reversing the moralgains of modern empathy. Do they know this? I doubt it. But I doubtalso that they would care.
By Gary J. Bass