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Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights (American Empire Project)

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From a noted historian and foreign-policy analyst, a groundbreaking critique of the troubling symbiosis between Washington and the human rights movement The United States has long been hailed as a powerful force for global human rights. Now, drawing on thousands of documents from the CIA, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and development agencies, James Peck sho From a noted historian and foreign-policy analyst, a groundbreaking critique of the troubling symbiosis between Washington and the human rights movement The United States has long been hailed as a powerful force for global human rights. Now, drawing on thousands of documents from the CIA, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and development agencies, James Peck shows in blunt detail how Washington has shaped human rights into a potent ideological weapon for purposes having little to do with rights—and everything to do with furthering America's global reach. Using the words of Washington's leaders when they are speaking among themselves, Peck tracks the rise of human rights from its dismissal in the cold war years as "fuzzy minded" to its calculated adoption, after the Vietnam War, as a rationale for American foreign engagement. He considers such milestones as the fight for Soviet dissidents, Tiananmen Square, and today's war on terror, exposing in the process how the human rights movement has too often failed to challenge Washington's strategies. A gripping and elegant work of analysis, Ideal Illusions argues that the movement must break free from Washington if it is to develop a truly uncompromising critique of power in all its forms.


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From a noted historian and foreign-policy analyst, a groundbreaking critique of the troubling symbiosis between Washington and the human rights movement The United States has long been hailed as a powerful force for global human rights. Now, drawing on thousands of documents from the CIA, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and development agencies, James Peck sho From a noted historian and foreign-policy analyst, a groundbreaking critique of the troubling symbiosis between Washington and the human rights movement The United States has long been hailed as a powerful force for global human rights. Now, drawing on thousands of documents from the CIA, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and development agencies, James Peck shows in blunt detail how Washington has shaped human rights into a potent ideological weapon for purposes having little to do with rights—and everything to do with furthering America's global reach. Using the words of Washington's leaders when they are speaking among themselves, Peck tracks the rise of human rights from its dismissal in the cold war years as "fuzzy minded" to its calculated adoption, after the Vietnam War, as a rationale for American foreign engagement. He considers such milestones as the fight for Soviet dissidents, Tiananmen Square, and today's war on terror, exposing in the process how the human rights movement has too often failed to challenge Washington's strategies. A gripping and elegant work of analysis, Ideal Illusions argues that the movement must break free from Washington if it is to develop a truly uncompromising critique of power in all its forms.

30 review for Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights (American Empire Project)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Davide

    This is a must-read book, especially now. The author argues that American human rights groups are pawns in the U.S. government's battle for Empire, at best useless in influencing the government and at worst drumming up support for their conquests among the public. It's a contentious argument, but the author makes it very well, tracing the human rights movement from its emergence until today. I'll definitely approach human rights groups more critically after reading this. One of the book's flaws, This is a must-read book, especially now. The author argues that American human rights groups are pawns in the U.S. government's battle for Empire, at best useless in influencing the government and at worst drumming up support for their conquests among the public. It's a contentious argument, but the author makes it very well, tracing the human rights movement from its emergence until today. I'll definitely approach human rights groups more critically after reading this. One of the book's flaws, though, was that the writing wasn't great. It was a bit dry, and sometimes clunky. But still, the argument and examples cited make it worth reading.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Rhuff

    "I'm here only for the good I can do." So said the corrupt Ottoman official in Elia Kazan's film, "America, America." James Peck shows the patronizing mentality of the master class remains unchanged through all the permutations of the 20th century. I can recall when "human rights" was considered the catchphrase of leftist and libertarian cranks, to be brushed aside by knowing pragmatists dealing with the Real World. Peck outlines how international human rights ideals, and the civil rights movemen "I'm here only for the good I can do." So said the corrupt Ottoman official in Elia Kazan's film, "America, America." James Peck shows the patronizing mentality of the master class remains unchanged through all the permutations of the 20th century. I can recall when "human rights" was considered the catchphrase of leftist and libertarian cranks, to be brushed aside by knowing pragmatists dealing with the Real World. Peck outlines how international human rights ideals, and the civil rights movement at home, became ideological tools in the global arsenal of the Cold War; and continue as "weapons of mass justification" in spreading US hegemony to new frontiers. But it seems Peck has taken a rather narrow, postwar/cold war view of the subject. Nothing was substantially different about this rhetoric from its imperial predecessors. Subduing the Boxers in China, ending the African slave trade, freeing Cuba from Spain, bringing Christian enlightenment and "good government" to lost heathens everywhere - all of this was justified in the broadest religious and humanitarian terms of Western idealism for their generation. And there was always the divide between "good imperialism" and "bad imperialism" - exemplied by the contest between the Atlantic Powers and fascism, continued with scarcely a blink in the internal and external cold war with the "communist empire." Men in the US Government like the Dulles Brothers encompassed the entire era with no sense of contradiction. Peck also glosses over the differences between Carter and Reagan in their human rights promotion. Reagan was a late convert to the idea, most notably by avoiding the rescue of Ferdinand Marcos in the "Peoples' Power" Yellow Revolution of the Philippines - much against the Gipper's first reaction. Even so there was little pretense of even-handedness: the likes of Patricia Derian would never be found in Reagan's administration. His first cabinet consisted entirely of hardliners who preferred military confrontation, for whom Carter's human rights rhetoric was pure sissiness. The growth of the human rights industry made it an unavoidable asset even to die-hard reactionaries. As another reviewer suggests, the focus on individual human rights, at the expense of social rights, is a legacy of the eighteenth century's "bourgeois revolutions." The middle class individual citizen was the highest expression of human evolution; freeing him from all external constraints (and social responsibilities) in asserting his ego identity the endgame of "good government." Peck demonstrates how this became a rationalization for the rich and powerful, where - as in so much else - one has all the human rights one can afford. Instructive also is how rights rhetoric is continuously employed as a justification for mass bombing, as in the former Yugoslavia, for ending "genocide"; in Afghanistan, in the name of "womens' rights"; or for gutting social safety nets as part of one's "freedom to choose." It's also ironic how the "communist empire" lost its side of the cold war by abandoning its earlier social missionary sense, settling into the corruptions of power, and finally capitulating to the competition. Thus modern triumphalist pundits pontificate on the "inevitable collapse" of a "failed system." Yet there seemed nothing inevitable about said collapse to the cold war crafters of ideas. Their rivals instead seemed marching from success to victory across the nations and mens' minds. It was the West, so they worried, that was intellectually flabby, uninspiring, being left behind. Peck also writes that enlightened criticism of past mistakes only reinforces the continued employment of the same methods with the same results. Empires never "learn the lessons" of their Vietnams: they can't admit the fundamental conflict of interest between power and justice without political suicide. Empires which finally do - like Britain or Gorby's USSR - are in "decay", exiting the stage of history. As long as the US can dress aggression and greed in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes of doing good, of "humanitarian intervention," admitting that it has yet to live up to its ideals, the illusions of empire are in place; and the empire itself safe from them.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Tieu uyen

    Phương Tây có một cụm từ để nói về nhân quyền rất hay ho đấy là: Nghành công nghiệp nhân quyền (human rights industry). Giống như những nghành công nghiệp khác, nghành công nghiệp nhân quyền cũng sẽ có ưu tiên phát triển sản phẩm, định hướng tiêu dùng. Các ông lớn đã biến nghành công nghiệp nhân quyền thành nghành công nghiệp mũi nhọn đi chinh phục thế giới như thế nào? Ví như họ cắt bỏ quyền lao động/các tổ chức công đoàn, gạt quyền bình đẳng kinh tế ra khỏi nghành sản xuất của mình thế nào thì Phương Tây có một cụm từ để nói về nhân quyền rất hay ho đấy là: Nghành công nghiệp nhân quyền (human rights industry). Giống như những nghành công nghiệp khác, nghành công nghiệp nhân quyền cũng sẽ có ưu tiên phát triển sản phẩm, định hướng tiêu dùng. Các ông lớn đã biến nghành công nghiệp nhân quyền thành nghành công nghiệp mũi nhọn đi chinh phục thế giới như thế nào? Ví như họ cắt bỏ quyền lao động/các tổ chức công đoàn, gạt quyền bình đẳng kinh tế ra khỏi nghành sản xuất của mình thế nào thì không phải ai cũng biết, bởi mọi người sinh ra vốn có quyền bình đẳng, chỉ là luôn luôn có một số ít người bình đẳng hơn những người còn lại ak ak. Ngoài chuyện về kích động nhân dân, ủng hộ chiến tranh, nghành công nghiệp nhân quyền còn gì nữa đọc sách là biết. Các ông lớn trong nghành công nghiệp nhân quyền như tổ chức ân xá quốc tế, human rights watch hay ACLU... đang làm giàu cho những ai, đem lợi ích đi phân phối ở đâu, bị những thế lực nào tác động, bị những ai chi phối có lẽ cuốn sách sẽ giải đáp khá đầy đủ.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Polar George

    Amazingly sourced and bravely detailed. I only wish some parts were more in depth, and maybe spent more time laying out the thesis of the evolution of human rights intervention but maybe that’s just the material being convoluted to begin with. Overall, extremely important read and so many good sources to dive into (CIA/NSC docs etc).

  5. 4 out of 5

    Veronica

    I loved the various perspectives from which the author approached the idea of human rights and they ways in which the American government manipulates politics around them (or them around politics). It was easy to read and follow, with great examples, both contemporary and historical, to demonstrate his points.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    Amazing look at the foreign policy of the US and the failure of the human rights industry to adequately deal with "humanitarian issues." Amazing look at the foreign policy of the US and the failure of the human rights industry to adequately deal with "humanitarian issues."

  7. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Long. Interesting. A lot of information. May buy when it comes out on paperback to re-read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jarrell Fisher

  9. 4 out of 5

    Karen

  10. 5 out of 5

    Diplomaticscrutiny

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jess McCutchen

  12. 4 out of 5

    Nick Hemlock

  13. 4 out of 5

    Amelia

  14. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

  15. 4 out of 5

    Chelsea Prax

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nick

  17. 4 out of 5

    Will Jury

  18. 4 out of 5

    Muller

  19. 5 out of 5

    EB

  20. 4 out of 5

    Robert Porter

  21. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

  22. 4 out of 5

    Michael Leedom

  23. 4 out of 5

    Brandon Dunn

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Thompson

  25. 5 out of 5

    David

  26. 4 out of 5

    Matt

  27. 5 out of 5

    Henry Silver

  28. 4 out of 5

    Garry A.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Shane

  30. 5 out of 5

    Bridget

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