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Abstract

This dissertation concerns contests over the meaning and inheritances of the French and American rights declarations in the midcentury politics of race and empire. Through a focus on the legacies of Enlightenment rights declarations during decolonization in France and movements for racial equality in the US, it challenges a narrative in which those foundational declarations are viewed as universal in their aspirations but often contradicted in practice. In this story, rights promises may have been unfulfilled – or, worse, a mask for imperial ambitions – but nonetheless enabled later rights claims. I argue against viewing ideals as separate from practice, and trace how, historically, narratives about gradual universalization helped justify imperial and racial domination in the twentieth century. In contrast, I identify actors who called not for the fulfillment of past promises, but for the making of new, more mutual ones. In calling for new rights promises, such actors developed distinct understandings of human rights hypocrisy and the dilemmas to which it gives rise. Demanding a reckoning with history, rather than appealing to national virtue and a future universal vision, those actors offered an alternative to progressive narratives of gradual fulfillment – an anti-imperial understanding of the political practice and conceptual history of human rights. My opening chapter offers a theoretical account of human rights politics as a practice of promise-making and suggests how such an account might help reframe debates among both political theorists and historians of human rights. Building on historians’ tendency to refer, somewhat off-handedly, to human rights commitments as “promises,” I read Hannah Arendt together with Arthur Danto on promise-making and historical narrative in order to offer a theory of promising as a political practice that recasts the past and projects a possible future. To show how this might let us rethink what rights promises have to do with their own failures and shortcomings, I use archival work to reconstruct Arendt’s and Danto’s involvement in the human rights politics of the 1960s and 1970s, including Danto’s role in Amnesty International USA. The second chapter looks to the declaration of rights as a genre, drawing on literary theory to explain how later participants in a genre can both inherit and disavow aspects of what came before. I give an account of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, using as an entry point the reception of the NAACP’s Appeal to the World, edited by W.E.B. DuBois. Focusing on Eleanor Roosevelt and René Cassin, I reconstruct conversations within the drafting committee about minority rights, the right to petition, self-determination, and the separation of the Declaration from the rights covenants, to illustrate the allegiances between US racial politics and French imperial politics. I argue that the UDHR, despite appearing to be a moment of recognition of human rights, involved the disavowal of the version of human rights politics enacted by African-American and anticolonial activists. The next chapters look to debates about rights during the French war in Algeria and the civil rights movement in the US, in order to explain the limitations of critiques of human rights hypocrisy, understood as a failure to make good on promises, and to elaborate an alternative approach, one that emphasizes a failure to make promises mutually. In Chapters 3 and 4, I reconstruct the French government’s response to accusations of rights abuses in Algeria, to show how the narrative of human rights that France advanced, beginning with its promotion of the UDHR, was compatible with ongoing colonial violence. While some critics pointed to hypocrisy, and appealed to an alternative, humanitarian universalism, through the work of Ferhat Abbas, and with reference to that of Albert Camus and Frantz Fanon, I trace how other anticolonial activists offered an alternative critique of imperial promises, demanding a reckoning with historical injustice in order to re-found France itself. Chapters 5 and 6 trace a parallel set of concerns in the US politics of race in the same period. Chapter 5 reconstructs Gunnar Myrdal’s and Ralph Bunche’s critiques of American hypocrisy. I argue for reading An American Dilemma not as an appeal to the exceptionalism of the American Creed, but instead as an appeal to, and exercise in, a new vision of social science as an alternative universalism which would allow Americans to better fulfill their foundational promises. In Chapter 6, I contrast this with Malcolm X’s appeals to human rights and his ideas about international politics, in order to elaborate an alternative critique of American hypocrisy and an alternative assessment of the dilemmas to which it gives rise.

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