Saturday, February 08, 2014

Competing Frameworks for History

The modern ideas about universal human rights arose during the period called the Enlightenment, beginning in late 17th century Europe.  History after that can be constructed within two different frameworks.

The first framework says that after the Enlightenment, the West is defined by its ideals of human rights.  Its deviations from human rights amount merely to hypocrisy, which is a natural human failing.  It is the other cultures of the world and their traditional orders that are often deeply  threatened by this Western gift.

The second framework - the one I favor - says that once the idea of universal human rights was invented, and diffused through the world, it created convulsions in the traditional cultures of Europe and America, just as much as it did, and continues to do, in the rest of the world.   Just to take America as an example, there was a century-long debate over slavery, culminating in the Civil War, and then it took another century until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s established a semblance of these universal human rights for the non-white component of America.  It was not hypocrisy that made this struggle necessary and made it last so long.  American culture underwent the trauma of the ending of its traditional order in favor of universal human rights similar to any Middle Eastern society that is in the throes of change today.

It is true that Western Europe and the United States had two advantages with regard to universal humans rights: - having invented the idea, they have the first mover's advantage; and having political independence (i.e., not being in a vassal or colonized condition) they could begin the long process of adjustment to these powerful ideas sooner.   So, with respect to universal human rights, they are, in most part, ahead of the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, in the race for universal human rights, those who were behind can overtake and even have overtaken in some aspects, those who were ahead.   For instance, today, in 2014, the threat to the citizens' right to vote from actions of the State are far graver in the United States than, say, in India. 

The war on voting rights in the United States does not arise out of hypocrisy.  The underlying cause is the threat minority voters' increasing numbers presents to traditional order.  The minority voters won't support the traditional order any longer because it has been inimical to them.  The difference in consequences between threat to the traditional order in the United States and the threat to the traditional order in, say, Syria, is that the United States has in place mechanisms that will likely settle this peacefully (those mechanisms, though, failed once before, and the Civil War was the result).

How does the first framework of history arise,  then?  History is written by the victor, and thus the innumerable factions and interests in the West that resisted universal human rights are assigned to a lesser role,  no longer included in the "We, Who are the West".   In a sense, the first framework of history is just another manifestation of imperialistic thought.