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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.

Editor's Note: Open up a newspaper, go online, watch cable news, and it won't take long to see reporting on human rights tragedies across the planet.

The stories can tug on your heartstrings, they can recount spectacular and tragic atrocities and bizarre ones as well. Take Africa -- Western media is blanketed with the plight of Tanzanian albinos, the  persecution of gays by church and state in Uganda, the staggering rate of 48 rapes per hour in the Congo, or the potential for mass Christian genocide in South Sudan. Those stories touch us. And that's the whole point, as I've learned from James Peck's new book, Ideal Illusions.

These stories of human rights tragedies exploit our best aspirations in the name of the American imperial project, and the US has been funding this approach since the dawn of the Cold War. The media effect of filling a newspaper with human rights atrocities from the developing world functions to distract the audience from strategic and mineral designs the US and its allies have going in those countries, and to dilute the news coverage when their true aims come to light. The takeaway is that empire is the domain of storytellers as much as it is of Air Force generals.

In the case of Tanzania, it's notable that there has been very little attention to an ongoing violent struggle over a gold mine operated by a Canadian company called Barrick Gold while the plight of Tanzanian albinos, killed out of local superstition, made it into thousands of media venues. It's also notable that there has been practically zero coverage that the US has instituted a regional policy for the Congo and its neighbors ostensibly over so-called conflict minerals that finance  violence "in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or an adjoining country (Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo Republic [a different nation than the DRC], Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia." Western mining companies are opening offices in these countries at a staggering pace.

Celebrities are tugged by their humanitarian heartstrings just like the rest of the public. Hollywood superstars like George Clooney and others teach American audiences how to hang their heads upon learning about the looming tragedy in Sudan, while the planners at the National Security Council scheme how to thwart Chinese designs for control of its oil resources. Clooney's human rights organization has just found evidence of three mass graves in Sudan. Are you sobbing yet? 

How to react once you learn the history of why human rights stories from across the planet are thrust before your eyes in the pages of Newsweek, The New Yorker and countless other media outlets for the most cynical reasons imaginable? That's the question I was left with after finishing Peck's book. The following excerpt from Ideal Illusions takes us to the former Soviet Republics and the color revolutions that "liberated" them. It is well worth the read. -- Jan Frel, AlterNet Senior Editor


The folowing is an excerpt from IDEAL ILLUSIONS: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights by James Peck, published in March by Metropolitan Books.

National security managers and human rights leaders often call for the rule of law—yet what is it? A legal regime can implement a wide diversity of policies, after all. Laws do not just protect against unreasonable search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment; they support markets, corporate rights, and, often, astronomical profits. They can also stipulate what can be privatized and how—not to mention ways of controlling local resources, mandates for wide-ranging health programs, the implementation of taxes to redistribute wealth, and so on.

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