Friday, December 17, 2010

The Last Utopia

I'm finally setting down to read my friend (and Humanity colleague) Sam Moyn's wonderful new book The Last Utopia, on the rise of the discourse of human rights. The book is filled with many wonderful observations, and its central thesis is powerful and revisionist. In a nutshell, the book argues that the contemporary concept of human rights discourse did not emerge, as the standard story inside the human rights community usually has it, in the late 1940s, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, much less with the French and American revolutions in the 18th century (as others have argued), but rather much more recently, in the late 1970s - specifically with Jimmy Carter's inaugural address in 1977.

But to me the most striking aspect of Sam's argument is his claim that the rise of individualist human rights discourse is a direct result of the collapse of collectivist notions of human emancipation - specifically, the exhaustion of revolutionary idealism in the wake of the 1960s. (In this sense, Sam's book can be read in interesting counterpoint to Jeremy Suri's The Global Revolutions of 1968, which tracks the common global fervors of "youthful idealism," and the common reactions of the Establishments from Prague to Paris to Peking.) As I say, an interesting claim, and one that I buy intuitively.

But can we actually "test" this proposition? Well, it just so happens that Google Labs has just launched a new tool, the nGram Viewer, which lets you graph and compare phrases over time. And so I decided to plug in the two key terms in question here, namely "human rights" and "revolution" to see what I would get. And here you have it:

So what we see pretty clearly here is the way that revolutionary expectations and discussions (among English language books) peaked right around 1970, and human rights discourse takes off right around 1977, just as Sam's qualitative analysis suggests. Not that this is proof, but it's pretty compelling evidence.

1 comment:

Martin MacKerel said...

Wikileaks: The Third Revolt has a great analysis of exactly how human-rights organization like Doctors without Borders derived from 1968, and puts Wikileaks in that line.