Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History by Samuel Moyn, Columbia University, has just been published by Harvard University Press. Here’s the book description:
Human rights offer a vision of international justice that today's idealistic millions hold dear. Yet the very concept on which the movement is based became familiar only a few decades ago when it profoundly reshaped our hopes for an improved humanity. In this pioneering book, Samuel Moyn elevates that extraordinary transformation to center stage and asks what it reveals about the ideal's troubled present and uncertain future.

For some, human rights stretch back to the dawn of Western civilization, the age of the American and French Revolutions, or the post-World War II moment when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was framed. Revisiting these episodes in a dramatic tour of humanity's moral history, The Last Utopia shows that it was in the decade after 1968 that human rights began to make sense to broad communities of people as the proper cause of justice. Across eastern and western Europe, as well as throughout the United States and Latin America, human rights crystallized in a few short years as social activism and political rhetoric moved it from the hallways of the United Nations to the global forefront.

It was on the ruins of earlier political utopias, Moyn argues, that human rights achieved contemporary prominence. The morality of individual rights substituted for the soiled political dreams of revolutionary communism and nationalism as international law became an alternative to popular struggle and bloody violence. But as the ideal of human rights enters into rival political agendas, it requires more vigilance and scrutiny than when it became the watchword of our hopes.
And the advance reviews:
"A most welcome book, The Last Utopia is a clear-eyed account of the origins of `human rights': the best we have."-Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

"Human rights have always been with us - or so their most zealous supporters would have us believe. With surgical precision and forensic tenacity, Moyn reveals how recent and how contingent was the birth of human rights and how fraught has been its passage from 1970s antipolitics to present-day political program."-David Armitage, author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History

"The Last Utopia is the most important work on the history of human rights yet to have been written. Moyn's search for origins reads like a great detective story as he carefully sifts the evidence of where and when human rights displaced alternative political ideals. "-Paul Kahn, Yale University

"With unparalleled clarity and originality, Moyn's hard-hitting, radically revisionist, and persuasive history of human rights provides a bracing historical reconstruction with which scholars, activists, lawyers and anyone interested in the fate of the human rights movement today will have to grapple."-Mark Mazower, author of No Enchanted Palace: The End of Imperialism and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations

"In this profound, important, and utterly original book, Moyn demonstrates how human rights constituted a new moral horizon and language of politics as it emerged in the last generation, a novel and fragile achievement on the wreckage of earlier dreams. A must read. "-Nikhil Pal Singh, author of Black is a Country

"Anyone who truly cares about human rights should confront this bracing account. "-Jan-Werner Müller, Princeton University
Moyn discusses the book in the current issue of The Nation.