Said's "Nationalism, Human Rights, and Interpretation"
In this, the final essay of Freedom and Interpretation, Said explores the discourse of rights as specifically linked to the State. For Said, in answering the question "the liberal tradition" posited in the language of the original question posed by Amnesty for the lecturers, one must keep in mind that Western national identities emerged at the same time as imperialism, and are thus linked with the subjugation and oppression of "non-Western" peoples. This was a practice that was condoned by liberal figures such as de Tocqueville and Mill, who were insightful when it came to other countries' sins but blind when facing those of their own. For Said, the construction of a universal rights discourse has been going on during the latter half of the 20th century, especially with the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, resolutions to protect minorities and refugees, etc. Said asserts: "...it is perfectly clear that an underlying 'critique of nationalist discourse' has been taking place, since it is national governments acting in the name of national security who have infringed the rights of individuals and groups who were perceived as standing outside the nationalist concensus" (197), a theme that I have been noting in the Cixous and Booth pieces.
The new consideration Said raises, however, is that "...in the Western community of nations presided over by the United States, an old, rather than a new, nationalist identity has been reinforced...[and] has given itself an internationalized and normative identity with authority and hegemony to adjudicate the relative value of human rights. All the discourse that purports to speak for civilization, human rights, principle, universality, and acceptability accrues to it, whereas in the case with the Gulf War, the United States managed its fortunes, so to speak, took it over. We now have a situation therefore that makes it very difficult to construct another universality alongside this one. So completely has the power of the United States...invested even the vocabulary of universality that the search for 'new ideological means' to challenge it has become, in fact, more difficult, and therefore more exactly a function of a renewed sense of intellectual morality" (197-98). Said's point is even more salient today, as the official discourse of "freedom on the march" and "enduring freedom" are espoused by those who endorse torture, extraordinary rendition, and possible tactical nuclear strikes that will end up encouraging the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
So, since discussions of human rights inevitably take place in a national context, what does that say for our discussion? I will examine the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America shortly, but perhaps a discussion of universal human rights is futile until the power of the United States is weakened to such an extent, or it becomes internationally isolated enough through it's deleterious foreign policy. More tomorrow.