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“moderates any felt need for desperate measures” and brotherhood. But the contributions of the various tradi-
“encourages a willingness . . . to abide by the armed truce tions are not identical, and each enriches the idea of human
of republican life.” “For that matter,” McWilliams adds, rights in a different way—Hinduism in encouraging respect
“a secular faith in progress can make liberals more willing for all existence, Confucianism in requiring cultivation of
to conciliate religion, making a place for it at the table of the self, Buddhism in emphasizing compassion, Judaism
public life, readier to trust democratic politics without in demanding an ethical life guided by law, Christianity in
insisting as a precondition on a distinctively liberal code exhorting universal love, Islam in its insistence on human
of rights and neutralities” (p. 158). And, as he concludes, equality and social solidarity. Each tradition has its limits
it is that generosity of spirit on the part of both camps also, and Ishay makes no attempt to hide their exclusion-
that could encourage a greater civility of political dis- ary and intolerant elements.
course that has been recently lacking. The bulk of the book (Chapters 2 through 6) is a mac-
rohistorical narrative of the human rights struggle from
The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times the early modern period to the present. Ishay devotes equal
to the Globalization Era. By Micheline R. Ishay. Berkeley: space to the intellectual history of human rights and to
University of California Press, 2004. 459p. $24.95. the social, economic, and political context in which it
— Jamie Mayerfeld, University of Washington
unfolded. The attention to context takes much of the sting
out of quarrels regarding the cultural origins of human
Are human rights universal or culturally bounded? From rights. Although the intellectual elements of the human
what religious or philosophical premises are they derived? rights idea had been present in each of the world’s major
Do they conflict? Do they empower or instead disem- civilizations, it was only the historical conditions present
power the weak and oppressed? What is their fate in an era in early modern Europe—political fragmentation, the Ref-
of globalization? The key to answering these questions ormation and the ensuing wars of religion, the scientific
may lie more in historical than conceptual investigation. revolution, the printing press, the empowerment of an
This is the hunch that inspires Micheline Ishay’s remark- independent merchant class, and the growth of the towns—
ably learned and wide-ranging book. It delivers forceful that made possible their coalescence into a fully articu-
conclusions, which need no belaboring by the author, since lated and politically revolutionary theory. The subsequent
she allows them to emerge from the historical record. story of human rights victories, setbacks, and transforma- 䡬
Among the lessons we learn are that human rights should tions cannot be understood without attention to changes
indeed be viewed as universal; that they draw nourish- wrought by the Industrial Revolution, European imperi-
ment from diverse ideological sources; that their meaning alism, decolonization, globalization, and a series of increas-
has always been contested, though not primarily along ingly destructive wars. The author’s grasp of the broad
cultural lines; that civil and political rights on the one social forces that shaped the evolution of human rights is
hand and socioeconomic rights on the other have histor- one of the most impressive features of the book; readers
ically been dependent on each other; that the claim to are treated to nothing less than a panoramic interpreta-
national self-determination as a human right has often tion of modern world history.
been a cover for human rights violations; and that the idea Ishay’s intellectual history presents a huge cast of char-
of human rights has regularly been reborn, often strength- acters. It brings to life arguments that raged between the
ened, after periods of tyranny and oppression. proponents and critics of human rights, points out that
Ishay begins by recalling the quandary of the United many of the bravest and most original champions of human
Nations when in the late 1940s it assumed the challenge rights have been left out of the political theory canon, and
of drafting a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. emphasizes the dizzying intellectual diversity within the
When UNESCO, its educational, scientific, and cultural human rights camp itself. The differences between “level-
organization, polled more than 70 leaders and scholars lers” and “diggers” in the 1640s, say, or between utopian
representing the world’s major religious and philosophical socialists and English radicals in the early nineteenth cen-
traditions, their responses demonstrated a broad if imper- tury seem no less dramatic than the larger contest pitting
fect consensus regarding human rights norms and princi- reformers against defenders of the status quo. Ishay recov-
ples. Taking her cue from the UNESCO study, Ishay ers the voices of oppressed and stigmatized groups; their
surveys the moral teachings found in Hammurabi’s code, protests have not only challenged the privileged to live up
the Hebrew Bible, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, to professed human rights principles but also fostered more
classical Greek and Roman philosophy, the New Testa- just, generous, humane, and universal conceptions of
ment, and Islam. She discovers common themes that help human rights. If the Universal Declaration of Human
lay a foundation for human rights: an effort to restrain Rights offers a more complete vision than, say, the 1689
violence and exploitation, a desire to soften the division English Bill of Rights, it is only because succeeding
between weak and strong through the assertion of recip- generations of excluded populations—women, children,
rocal obligations, and an aspiration to peace and universal the elderly, nonwhites, foreigners, colonized peoples,

June 2006 | Vol. 4/No. 2 365

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Book Reviews | Political Theory

indigenous groups, ethnic and racial minorities, workers, Micheline Ishay vividly demonstrates the power of the
the poor, sexual minorities, ill people, disabled people, human rights ideal. The History of Human Rights, almost
refugees, prisoners, and war victims—have fought to encyclopedic in scope and filled with theoretical insights,
broaden the scope and meaning of human rights. A dis- is a major scholarly achievement. It joins Paul Gordon
appointing feature of the author’s discussion, however, is Lauren’s The Evolution of International Human Rights:
the failure to address the mistreatment of prisoners and Visions Seen (2003) as an indispensable reference. By illu-
criminal defendants in the United States and elsewhere. minating past struggles that have informed contemporary
The omission stands out in a book that is otherwise com- human rights, Ishay improves our understanding of their
prehensive in its coverage and compassion. meaning. She lets us overhear a sprawling and impas-
A major theme of the book is the debt owed to the social- sioned discussion spanning many centuries. As she makes
ist movement. Socialist writers and activists, including clear, the conversation has barely gotten started.
Marx and his entourage, helped lead the Herculean
nineteenth-century struggle to realize the human rights Constructing Civil Liberties: Discontinuities in the
vision in both the economic and political spheres—to Development of American Constitutional Law. By Ken I.
broaden suffrage, extend education, humanize working Kersch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 400p. $75.00
conditions, and provide social insurance. Liberals have cloth, $29.99 paper.
no reason to feel superior: “If liberalism—rightly cel- — Alison Dundes Renteln, University of Southern California
ebrated for its contribution to civil rights—is more than
its colonial legacy, socialism—which championed the This is a fascinating book about constitutional develop-
rights of the hardworking and powerless poor—is more ment in the United States that questions traditional expla-
than Stalinism and Maoism” (p. 119). Socialists well nations for the genesis of constitutional rights. In this
understood the mutual dependence of civil-political and erudite study, Ken Kersch offers an account of the chang-
socioeconomic rights, and promoted the universal vision ing interpretations of constitutional rights by analyzing
of human rights by fostering alliances between workers landmark cases in their historical context in order to show
and other disadvantaged groups. Ishay takes seriously the the interplay of ideological, political, and social forces that
debates over political strategy among socialists, though she influenced them. The book provides a careful reconsider-
䡬 is excessively generous in ascribing a human rights vision to ation of the jurisprudence concerning civil rights and civil
radical figures like Lenin, given his ruthless subordination liberties that effectively challenges the conventional wis-
of means to ends and, as she herself points out, the political dom about individual cases. Kersch’s compelling analysis
terror over which he presided. She casts a warier eye over demonstrates that explanations for the expansion of par-
the claim to self-determination as a human right, noting ticular rights are often more complicated than traditional
that Wilsonian self-determination became a rhetorical gift constitutional works have assumed. He argues that the
to Hitler during the Sudentenland crisis and continues to expansion of constitutional rights did not occur in a uni-
serve as a shield for repressive governments today. She linear and unidimensional fashion (cf, e.g., pp. 132, 360).
concludes that “self-determination should be regarded as a This is a brilliant interdisciplinary study that should inter-
formal and abstract right, devoid of content—unless one est scholars in many fields, including cultural studies, his-
considers the fairness of the political, social, and economic tory, international law, law and society, and political science.
arrangements awaiting the individuals comprising these This comprehensive book is rich in historical detail and
subjected groups once they achieve independence” (p. 174). full of surprises.
In her final chapter, Ishay reminds us that the public Kersch begins by advancing a strong argument in favor
and private spheres, both necessary for human rights, of investigating the ways in which constitutional interpre-
emerged slowly and with difficulty over the past few hun- tation reflects political efforts at building the “New Amer-
dred years. Today, both spheres face threats from global- ican State.” It contains three elaborate case studies: one
ization and from the preoccupation with security after concerned with privacy and criminal process rights, another
9/11. Her verdict on globalization is mixed: While it has reviewing the relationship between labor rights and civil
handed dramatic victories to multinational capital at the rights, and the third focused on education rights. The final
expense of the world’s poor, it has also inspired new social chapter, despite being titled “Conclusion,” offers a new, pro-
movements to address problems of multicultural citizen- vocative consideration of the relationship between Ameri-
ship, labor rights, and environmental degradation. Observ- can constitutional law and international human rights law.
ing that the rhetoric of a “War on Terror” dangerously Throughout, Kersch leads the reader to competing expla-
undermines human rights, the author eloquently pleads nations for the advocacy of more rights as part of his
for a more intelligent form of political realism, one that intellectual strategy of problematizing standard accounts
understands that a genuine, rather than merely nominal, of doctrinal developments. He accomplishes this by using
commitment to human rights is necessary for enhancing various techniques. He shows that contrary to expecta-
global security. tion, those who championed broader interpretations of

366 Perspectives on Politics