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Are Your Humanitarian Heartstrings Being Tugged in the Name of Empire?

Author James Peck's new book 'Ideal Illusions' challenges our basic assumptions about the universal crusade for human rights.

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Occasional qualms over such interventions are assuaged by the conviction that the government in question shouldn’t be jailing citizens who are seeking to promote political change and greater freedom. Even if Washington has its own agenda, the outcomes are still worth it. Thus the conviction quietly grows that there is no conflict between self-determination on the one hand and external funding, advice, and training on the other. That some local advocates of change oppose intervention (“Let us find our own way”) and don’t like having local leaders picked out as “human rights heroes” by their patrons in the West is rarely acknowledged.

Consider, for a moment, the situation in reverse. Let’s suppose the “democratization” model of social change had been applied by other countries to the civil rights mobilizations in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. Hundreds of NGOs move in, funded by France, India, England, Sweden, Cuba, and Israel. Critics of such foreign involvement are roundly dismissed in the international press as provincial supporters of the status quo. Certain black leaders are picked out and advised on how to organize and how to fight in the courts against a corrupt nontransparent local government. Individuals deemed suitable for global television are highlighted. Funding proposals proliferate. Foreign governments and NGOs call for local officials who are obstructing justice to be indicted. Certain state governors are accused of crimes against humanity for their brutal and illegal use of state power to block integration and their tacit acceptance of violent, even murderous police tactics.

Let us further suppose that leading foreign figures are not inclined to favor black power advocates like Malcolm X, denouncing them as opponents of human rights. Nor is there much empathetic understanding of protest traditions in the mold of W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, John Henry Brown, or even of Ghandian civil disobedience if it ends in violence. And what of foreign funds coming from quasi-governmental groups abroad? In point of fact, the paranoia over Communist influence was still high in Washington during these years and was used to justify surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights groups.

The possibilities and the complexities in this analogy can be taken further, but the conclusion is clear. It is simply inconceivable that anything like this could take place, then or today, in the world’s most powerful country. American laws preclude it, the media would denounce foreign meddling, and Congress and the FBI would immediately investigate.

Excerpted from IDEAL ILLUSIONS: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights by James Peck, published in March by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2011 by James Peck. All rights reserved.

James Peck is the author of DEAL ILLUSIONS: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights , Metropolitan Books 2011.

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