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After Evil

After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 544
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  • Book Info
    After Evil
    Book Description:

    The way in which mainstream human rights discourse speaks of such evils as the Holocaust, slavery, or apartheid puts them solidly in the past. Its elaborate techniques of "transitional" justice encourage future generations to move forward by creating a false assumption of closure, enabling those who are guilty to elude responsibility. This approach to history, common to late-twentieth-century humanitarianism, doesn't presuppose that evil ends when justice begins. Rather, it assumes that a time before justice is the moment to put evil in the past.

    Merging examples from literature and history, Robert Meister confronts the problem of closure and the resolution of historical injustice. He boldly challenges the empty moral logic of "never again" or the theoretical reduction of evil to a cycle of violence and counterviolence, broken only once evil is remembered for what it was. Meister criticizes such methods for their deferral of justice and susceptibility to exploitation and elaborates the flawed moral logic of "never again" in relation to Auschwitz and its evolution into a twenty-first-century doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52095-9
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-19)

    This book questions a specific politics of human rights that represents itself as coming after evil, especially the evil of the twentieth century.¹ Unlike earlier versions of human rights that sought to hasten the advance of social equality,² today’s commitment to human rights often seeks to postpone large-scale redistribution. It is generally more defensive than utopian, standing for the avoidance of evil rather than a vision of the good.³ This is the version of human rights that entered the political mainstream as the twenty-first century began.

    The mainstreaming of human rights was a long time coming. During most of the...

    (pp. 20-49)

    What did it mean for the victors of the cold war to describe its end as a victory for human rights? In their institutional outcomes we can see obvious similarities between the “third-wave” democratizations of the late twentieth century and an earlier “age” of democratic revolution.¹ But there was also an obvious distinction: the third wave of democratizations had mostly occurred without revolutionary violence. Was it a final victory or a final defeat for human rights that they were now disentangled from the inevitable cruelties of revolutionary struggle?

    Many historians of human rights regard it as a world-historical achievement to...

    (pp. 50-82)

    I visited South Africa in 1998 to learn more about the process of truth and reconciliation as an alternative to the model of revolutionary struggle described in chapter 1. Soon after my arrival, I found myself across the dinner table from an Afrikaner adviser to Thabo Mbeki and a member of parliament for the African National Congress (ANC) who had been imprisoned during the last years of apartheid. He was freed when the rapprochement talks began to negotiate the return of the ANC exiles, many of whom were under death sentence in absentia.

    Over dinner, he told me that his...

  7. 3 LIVING ON
    (pp. 83-112)

    South Africa’s politics of “closure” is not the only form that transitional justice can take: it is also possible to defer closure in order to make permanent the project of national recovery. This was the path eventually taken by post–Civil War America, where the historical victims of slavery could never claim to be a national majority and now claim to have finally “overcome” only as a consequence of Barack Obama’s election as president.

    For most of its history, however, the United States has been an aspirationally liberal political order that made the transition from slavery a permanent part of...

    (pp. 113-143)

    Large-scale murder, even the destruction of entire populations, is not a product of modernity. The sacking and pillaging of conquered cities, and the rape and massacre of their inhabitants, has occurred across religious traditions and cultures. The Greeks did it to Troy; the Romans did it to Carthage—and both Greeks and Romans built national legends around the significance of those deeds. To their enemies in the ancient world, the Persians, Akkadians, Assyrians (and so forth) were legendary for their willingness to destroy cities and kill or transport entire populations. The deliberate killing of entire populations was not, moreover, a...

  9. 5 “NEVER AGAIN”
    (pp. 144-174)

    In previous chapters I have suggested that Human Rights Discourse opposes a polemical concept of the ethical to the twentieth-century concept of the political, which (as Carl Schmitt conceded) was also polemical.¹ Human Rights Discourse, I have argued, is against the ideologies of both revolution and counterrevolution that dominated much of the twentieth century even while it indirectly carries on significant parts of the counterrevolutionary project. To point this out is to criticize Human Rights Discourse for its historical specificity by calling attention to the forms of justice it excludes, often surreptitiously, in putting beneficiaries on the same footing as...

    (pp. 175-211)

    The global politics of human rights after Auschwitz is still about the Jews. Today oppressed groups can qualify themselves as bearers of human rights by recognizing what happened to Jews during the Holocaust and asserting that another holocaust might happen to them; they are often said to disqualify themselves as bearers of human rights by denying the Holocaust and declaring themselves enemies of the Jews.

    The figure of the Jew enters into today’s Human Rights Discourse at two distinct levels. Most obviously Human Rights Discourse has treated the commitment to protect the remnant of world Jewry that survived the Holocaust...

    (pp. 212-231)

    Since the Holocaust the mainstream literature on human rights has addressed a world of onlookers: those who are neither victim nor perpetrator of an evil and who might imagine afterward that they had a choice about whether to stand by or intervene. The story, repeated time and again, is that the onlookers did not care or simply looked away and that such indifference or willful ignorance is no longer excusable now that the term “Good German” has entered our political vocabulary as a reproof.

    Human Rights Discourse calls into being a “world” of onlookers by challenging them to refuse to...

    (pp. 232-259)

    I have argued throughout this book that something more should be expected of surviving beneficiaries whose unjustly acquired gains continue to appreciate in value after the perpetrators of past evil have been defeated. The time has come to ask whether we have, or can develop, the conceptual tools required to redistribute accumulated wealth for reasons of historical redress.

    Most legal theorists who have difficulty imagining a feasible scheme of reparative justice assume that its goal must be to compensate victims for their loss. It is one thing, they say, to compensate the victim of an accident for financial and physical...

    (pp. 260-285)

    Building on the previous focus on victims, bystanders, and ongoing beneficiaries, this chapter begins with the obvious questions about perpetrators: How is a society that is moving beyond past evil supposed to feel about the guilty, and how are those who condoned such conduct supposed to feel about their past? An obvious answer is that a transitional regime should prosecute perpetrators in a way that makes those who silently stood by feel remorse. Their repentance and conversion is now considered a major goal of trials conducted with the stated purpose of convicting and punishing the guilty. This idea is a...

    (pp. 286-303)

    Before concluding this book we must ask why victims, whether individual or collective, should not be sacrificed for the good of the collectivity that survives. The simple answer is justice. Justice as we know it begins with the idea that sacrificial victims can be innocent and that, if so, their suffering is undeserved. This idea creates a strong presumption against being the perpetrators of such suffering, especially through violence, and also against being its beneficiaries. All theories of justice take victimization of the innocent—human sacrfice broadly conceived—as their paradigm of injustice. They use the dyad of victim/perpetrator to...

    (pp. 304-316)

    In this book I have contrasted two paradigms of historical injustice. The first is based on class struggle and revolves around the triad of perpetrator/victim/beneficiary; the second, based on anticolonial struggle, revolves around the dyad of native/settler.

    Viewed grammatically, these paradigms of justice (the answers to who/whom questions) involve the person and declension of nouns.¹ A noun’s person consists of its number (singular or plural) and its relation to the sentence uttered as a communicative act (performance). In the first and second person, the English pronouns “I” (we) and “you” are shifters: “I” always refers to “the one who speaks”;...

    (pp. 317-318)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 319-454)
    (pp. 455-502)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 503-532)