Contemporary appeals to human rights within our liberal-capitalist societies generally rest upon three assumptions. First, that such appeals function in opposition to modes of fundamentalism that would naturalize or essentialize contingent, historically conditioned traits. Second, that the two most basic rights are freedom of choice, and the right to dedicate one’s life to the pursuit of pleasure (rather than to sacrifice it for some higher ideological cause). And third, that an appeal to human rights may form the basis for a defence against the ‘excess of power’.
Let us begin with fundamentalism. Here, the evil (to paraphrase Hegel) often dwells in the gaze that perceives it. Take the Balkans during the 1990s, the site of widespread human-rights violations. At what point did the Balkans—a geographical region of South-Eastern Europe—become ‘Balkan’, with all that designates for the European ideological imaginary today? The answer is: the mid-19th century, just as the Balkans were being fully exposed to the effects of European modernization. The gap between earlier Western European perceptions and the ‘modern’ image is striking. Already in the 16th century the French naturalist Pierre Belon could note that ‘the Turks force no one to live like a Turk’. Small surprise, then, that so many Jews found asylum and religious freedom in Turkey and other Muslim countries after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled them from Spain in 1492—with the result that, in a supreme twist of irony, Western travellers were disturbed by the public presence of Jews in big Turkish cities. Here, from a long series of examples, is a report from N. Bisani, an Italian who visited Istanbul in 1788:
The very feature that the West today celebrates as the sign of its cultural superiority—the spirit and practice of multicultural tolerance—is thus dismissed as an effect of Islamic ‘degeneracy’. The strange fate of the Trappist monks of Etoile Marie is equally telling. Expelled from France by the Napoleonic regime, they settled in Germany, but were driven out in 1868. Since no other Christian state would take them, they asked the Sultan’s permission to buy land near Banja Luka, in the Serb part of today’s Bosnia, where they lived happily ever after—until they got caught in the Balkan conflicts between Christians.
Where, then, did the fundamentalist features—religious intolerance, ethnic violence, fixation upon historical trauma—which the West now associates with ‘the Balkan’, originate? Clearly, from the West itself. In a neat instance of Hegel’s ‘reflexive determination’, what Western Europeans observe and deplore in the Balkans is what they themselves introduced there; what they combat is their own historical legacy run amok. Let us not forget that the two great ethnic crimes imputed to the Turks in the 20th century—the Armenian genocide and the persecution of the Kurds—were not committed by traditionalist Muslim political forces, but by the military modernizers who sought to cut Turkey loose from its old-world ballast and turn it into a European nation-state. Mladen Dolar’s old quip, based on a detailed reading of Freud’s references to the region, that the European unconscious is structured like the Balkans, is thus literally true: in the guise of the Otherness of ‘Balkan’, Europe takes cognizance of the ‘stranger in itself’, of its own repressed.
But we might also examine the ways in which the ‘fundamentalist’ essentialization of contingent traits is itself a feature of liberal-capitalist democracy. It is fashionable to complain that private life is threatened or even disappearing, in face of the media’s ability to expose one’s most intimate personal details to the public. True, on condition that we turn things around: what is effectively disappearing here is public life itself, the public sphere proper, in which one operates as a symbolic agent who cannot be reduced to a private individual, to a bundle of personal attributes, desires, traumas and idiosyncrasies. The ‘risk society’ commonplace—according to which the contemporary individual experiences himself as thoroughly ‘denaturalized’, regarding even his most ‘natural’ traits, from ethnic identity to sexual preference, as being chosen, historically contingent, learned—is thus profoundly deceiving. What we are witnessing today is the opposite process: an unprecedented re-naturalization. All big ‘public issues’ are now translated into attitudes towards the regulation of ‘natural’ or ‘personal’ idiosyncrasies.