College Quarterly
Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3
Reviews The Riddle of Human Rights
Gary Teeple
Aurora, ON: Garamond Press, 2004

Reviewed by Howard Doughty

Skeptics may be forgiven for regarding declarations of the holiness of basic human liberties as little more than examples of grotesque hypocrisy and moral conceit. The twentieth century's record of genocide from Armenia to Rwanda, of civilian exterminations in Auschwitz and Hiroshima, of calculated starvation in the Ukraine, ongoing slavery in Sudan and systemic racism and sexism around the globe all give the lie to pious invocations of the sanctity of human life, individual dignity and universal rights. No century has lifted its voice so emphatically in favour of human rights, and no century has failed so woefully to deliver them. What is more, no nation of any size or substance is wholly exempt from legitimate accusations of direct acts and indirect complicity in acts of hideous violation of what are sometimes called "natural" rights. Canada is no exception. Blatant domestic policies such as barring entry for Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany and ignominious and pusillanimous diplomatic dealings such as early support for the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile are just two items in the extensive inventory of opprobrium in which Canada's government is culpable. When we reflect upon the fact that Canada is arguably among the countries most rhetorically committed to the highest available standards of human rights, the world's record seems not merely ghastly, but unfathomable.

It was ever thus. The idea of human rights, absolute and universal, has been around a long time. For example, a commendable compendium of supportive documents edited by Micheline Ismay (The Human Rights Reader, Routledge, 1997) traces the evolution of thought about such matters back through Gandhi, Dewey, Marx, Mill, Paine, Rousseau and Locke, through St. Augustine, Cicero and Aristotle to the Biblical books of Exodus and the prophet Micah as well as ancient Mahayana Buddhist texts. Some pedigree. Yet, every generation of intellectuals commits treason anew, and offers to those who profit from the suppression of others ample excuses to betray the mighty principles their ancestors endorsed and struggled to achieve. How do we resolve the riddle of human rights which appears as a peculiar contradiction between what we declare to be inviolable, yet violate every day?

To help resolve the riddle we are fortunate to have a new book by Gary Teeple, a professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University. He has already contributed a good deal to our understanding of difficult issues. He edited Capitalism and the National Question (University of Toronto Press, 1972), a collection of essays that assisted us in sorting out the role of Canadian nationalism (while it lasted) in the struggle for something approaching a just society. For those with a continuing interest in Marxism and the place of politics and government in Marxist theory, his book Marx's Critique of Politics 1842-1847 (University of Toronto Press, 1984) was especially insightful. Turning his attention to important day-to-day life circumstances, he composed a thorough and relentless criticism of what we call neoconservatism and its damaging consequences for middle and working class people; his Globalization and the Decline of Social Reform (Garamond Press, 1995, with a revised and expanded edition in 2000) provided a keen analysis and a sober diagnosis of the ills that beset our society in a time of increasing international "harmonization" of health, education and welfare priorities. Now he is back to tackle the dilemma of human rights.

Unlike those whose sympathy is readily apparent, but whose analytical powers are capable of expressing little but heart-felt sorrow at a century of butchery and anguish at the abominations that will continue to beset us now that we have paid the toll to cross the bridge to the twenty-first century, Teeple is not merely devoted to authentic human rights but is also profoundly realistic about their origins and their future.

His message is elegant in its simplicity. Contrary to such proud pronouncements as the American Declaration of Independence's insistence that the existence of human rights was "self-evident" and that they are "endowed by [the] Creator," Teeple is clear that rights to life, liberty and anything else are historically contingent and that their establishment and defence are at all times contested. The price of liberty is not merely eternal vigilance but enduring struggle.

Teeple is fearless in his dissection of the power structures that actively promote our current commitment to perpetual war and who are willing, if not eager, to reduce or remove what seemed like permanent civil liberties in order to achieve "national security." He takes on all the obvious perpetrators from terrorists and arms dealers to those promoting "full spectrum dominance" in what is purported to be "benevolent global hegemony," whether articulated by the United Nations, regulated by the World Trade Organization or enforced by NATO or, if necessary, the United States acting alone.

To the potential embarrassment of right-thinking people, he also conducts autopsies on the compromised instruments of liberal reform—Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for example. These doubtlessly well-meaning and occasionally courageous non-governmental organizations are revealed as exemplars both of innocently charitable impulses and the inherent contradictions in fighting for human rights almost wholly from within a political paradigm that accepts the virtues, or at least the abiding dominance, of liberal democratic governance and a capitalist economy.

While no one denies that taking "prisoners of conscience," denying them a "fair trial," and subjecting them to torture and death are hideous practices, and while all can agree with the historian Edward Thompson who declared that the rule of law is an unqualified human good, the wickedness of which we are all aware cannot adequately be opposed by reliance on abstract assertions of the inviolability of rights, whether "natural" or divinely ordained. Teeple says this about Amnesty International: "AI makes an effort to separate the violation of the individual's rights from the context that gave rise to the violation. … [T]his separation of the victim from the circumstances of oppression decontextualizes and so depoliticizes the act of oppression. … It obscures the nature of the repression, indeed trivializing it by making it appear as a matter of just so many individual tragedies—which, of course, is not what repression is."

The riddle of human rights, in one of its forms, obliges us to confront the question of how violations of human rights co-exist with an apparently universal (or, at least, "Western") consensus on their inherent value. The resolution of the riddle requires us to understand that the violation of human rights is a symptom of something larger and more pervasively pernicious. Much as donations to the United Way, "adopting" a child in an underdeveloped country through one of several international charities, or committing to personal involvement in helping "at-risk" adolescents by taking on responsibility as "Big Sisters" or "Big Brothers" can make a tremendous difference in the lives of selected less fortunate individuals, so Amnesty International can assist in the release of political prisoners and bring pressure to bear on selected dictatorial regimes. Neither kind of intervention, however, addresses the problem of poverty or of tyranny in general.

The Riddle of Human Rights was all but completed when the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded. Feeling compelled to add a concluding chapter that would take the crimes of al Qaeda into account, Teeple remained focussed.

The roots of terrorism, Teeple argues, are not to be found in religious zealotry, which is mainly an ideological adjunct (albeit an especially persuasive one) to a response to global power arrangements. This is no argument for a self-indulgent exercise in Western "bourgeois guilt"; it is a simple recognition of the fact of increasing global inequality and the inevitable resentment it creates. That those who are prepared to fight against it do not often live up to Western ideas of what proud revolutionaries should be is too bad for us. Religion, it seems, is not so much the opiate as it is the rallying cry of at least some of the masses. As Teeple points out, it has traditionally been one of the most ferocious forces contributing to the debasement and destruction of those who live outside the faith (any faith).

To take human rights seriously, according to Teeple, it is insufficient to utter homilies in support of human dignity. Rights cannot easily be sustained in social and political systems wherein the rulers do not profit from them. Respect for human rights is the product, not the producer of specific sorts of social relations. The current political circumstances (postmodern perhaps, but certainly not postcapitalist) are not propitious for the preservation, much less the expansion, of human rights.

From one point of view, the case for pessimism can be easily made. Teeple himself entitles his closing segment, "The Coming End of Liberal Democracy." Cataloging real or immanent assaults on political, social and economic rights (the latter barely articulated, much less achieved), Teeple points to affronts to human dignity and dangers to human survival from the militarization of space and the proliferation of nuclear weapons—sometimes in the form of depleted uranium devices that have been tested by the US in Okinawa and Puerto Rico and by Canada in the fishing waters off Nova Scotia, and deployed in the first Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo—the abrogation of trade union rights, the decline of juridical due process and the heightened technology of surveillance (all duly accepted by a citizenry paid off with spectator sports, pornography, other forms of cultural escapism, as well as fears of war or terror).

The good news? For those seeking refuge in "the big picture," subtler thought can be slightly more salutary. Marina Warner, in last year's Amnesty Lecture in Human Rights at Oxford University (an edited version of which was published in the Times Literary Supplement, August 1, 2003) showed how progress is possible provided that we are prepared to acknowledge the depth of humanity's self-imposed tragedy. Appealing to the defiance of Prometheus and to Io, the suffering foremother of civilization, she equips us with the literary sensibilities to grasp the elements of a global healing process, a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the individual soul. Exemplary as such guidance toward personal redemption may be and as high-minded as people such as Desmond Tutu may seem in circumstances requiring immense national reconciliation, it is hard to imagine how institutions of greater evil can be overcome in the absence of profound social change. Before seeking to heal South Africa's wounds, after all, apartheid had first to be overthrown.

Teeple is keenly aware of this, and warns us of the enormous advantage that the prime culprits have in terms of military, economic and cultural power. He does not, however, advise the abandonment of hope; he merely insists upon a realistic assessment of the current situation. This requires that we think clearly about what human rights are and how they can be maintained and expanded. "A government can violate its own purported principles," he says, "only until the majority of people understand their transgressions and their rationale for what they are. It is difficult to perform a charade when the audience can no longer suspend disbelief. The answer," he concludes, "to the riddle of declining human rights becomes self-evident when people no longer believe the lies."

So, the future may be brighter than the noonday darkness we see at every hand now portends. With something we may imagine as a shrug of resignation, the eleventh-century Jewish sage Moses Maimonides said of supernatural intervention in the process of human redemption: "The Messiah will come … but he may tarry." By inviting us to stop believing the lies and, more importantly, by showing us how to understand the tricks, Teeple may have prompted us to speed up the secular process just a little.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.


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