The Barbed-wire Labyrinth
August 23, 2022
Part two of a three-part memorial for human rights.
Let's play a little game. Read the following text and guess the event being described:
It is almost impossible even now to describe what actually happened... The days before and the days after are separated not like the end of an old and the beginning of a new period, but like the day before and the day after an explosion. Yet this figure of speech is as inaccurate as are all others, because the quiet of sorrow which settles down after a catastrophe has never come to pass. The first explosion seems to have touched off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems to be able to stop... Nothing which was being done, no matter how stupid, no matter how many people knew and foretold the consequences, could be undone or prevented. Every event had the finality of a last judgment, a judgment that was passed neither by God nor by the devil, but looked rather like the expression of some unredeemably stupid fatality.
If you're at all clued up on what's going on in the world at the moment, you might recognise this as a description of the unprecedented disaster we have all been living through. But as you may already have guessed, this is not a description of a contemporary event at all. It is Hannah Arendt's 1951 account of the aftermath of the First World War in Chapter 9 of The Origins of Totalitarianism, "The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man." Now this title may seem odd. Why in 1951 is Arendt talking about 'the end of the Rights of Man' (meaning 'humanity', for 'Man' used to be a gender neutral term)...? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been signed a mere three years before she was writing - so wasn't she at the beginning of human rights...? But what Arendt traces in this stunning piece of historical philosophy is the end of something that preceded the 'Old Republic' of human rights, and which in many ways prepared the way for it.
The idea of the 'Rights of Man' informed among other things the US declaration of independence's assertion that it was "self-evident" that everyone is endowed with "certain unalienable Rights" such as "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These 'inalienable rights' (as the later grammar has it) were taken to be guaranteed by nations. Precisely the tragedy that Arendt explores within the chapter quoted here is that the destabilising events of the World Wars caused the collapse of many nations, such that those who belonged to these now-inexistent countries were suddenly deprived of both nation and rights:
No statesman, no political figure of any importance could possibly take them seriously; and none of the liberal or radical parties in Europe thought it necessary to incorporate into their program a new declaration of human rights. Neither before nor after the second World War have the victims themselves ever invoked these fundamental rights, which were so evidently denied them, in their many attempts to find a way out of the barbed-wire labyrinth into which events had driven them. On the contrary, the victims shared the disdain and indifference of the powers that be for any attempt of the marginal societies to enforce human rights in any elementary or general sense.
Arendt's 'barbed-wire labyrinth' is a metaphor for the desperation of these refugees with neither home nor nation. They were lost in a figurative maze, because they sought a way out that they could not find, but they were also literally lost behind barbed-wire in the many camps that were set up to hold them. These miserable victims of the destabilising effects of the First World War were treated as "the scum of the earth", and it is from this catastrophe that the Nazi party in Germany was so effectively able to mobilise, while simultaneously destroying the rhetoric of the Rights of Man that would otherwise have made the Holocaust unthinkable:
Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth - Jews, Trotskyites, etc.- actually were received as scum of the earth everywhere; those whom persecution had called undesirable became the indésirables of Europe. The official SS newspaper, the Schwarze Korps, stated explicitly in 1938 that if the world was not yet convinced that the Jews were the scum of the earth, it soon would be when unidentifiable beggars, without nationality, without money, and without passports crossed their frontiers. And it is true that this kind of factual propaganda worked better than Goebbels' rhetoric, not only because it established the Jews as scum of the earth, but also because the incredible plight of an ever-growing group of innocent people was like a practical demonstration of the totalitarian movements' cynical claims that no such thing as inalienable human rights existed and that the affirmations of the democracies to the contrary were mere prejudice, hypocrisy, and cowardice in the face of the cruel majesty of a new world. The very phrase "human rights" became for all concerned - victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike - the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy.
Here too we see the parallels between the circumstances Arendt talks about in the end of the Rights of Man, and the fall of the Old Republic that now faces us. For her remarks offer today an apt description of the terrible condition recently created for that newest of pariahs, 'the unvaccinated', who have been publicly denounced by numerous esteemed leaders of nations, and blamed for problems they are in no way responsible for. The excuses mounted for demonising the unvaccinated are made all the more vile by the fact that these new 'scum of the earth' have in almost all cases already had a natural infection of the disease they are falsely accused of exacerbating, and thus are in no plausible need of a vaccine against it.
If you have already had chickenpox, you don't need to be vaccinated against it, and the same is true for every infection - how health authorities like the CDC came to deny this basic tenet of immunisation is one of the great mysteries of our own humanitarian catastrophe. It is hard to escape the conclusion that public health agencies gave up their commitment to promoting good health and instead began advocating for the commercial agenda of the pharmaceutical companies in a grotesque inversion of their duty of care. The only other plausible explanations are that these officials distorted scientific fact for wholly political reasons, or that they were grossly incompetent - and frankly, these both seem just as unforgiveable.
To understand how the human rights of the Old Republic unravelled for us, we can learn a great deal from Arendt's account of the collapse of the proceeding regime of the Rights of Man, especially once we appreciate that the philosophical concept of 'inalienable rights' became necessary only once the common religious culture of Europe ceased to be taken for granted:
The proclamation of human rights was also meant to be a much-needed protection in the new era where individuals were no longer secure in the estates to which they were born or sure of their equality before God as Christians. In other words, in the new secularized and emancipated society, men were no longer sure of these social and human rights which until then had been outside the political order and guaranteed not by government and constitution, but by social, spiritual, and religious forces. Therefore throughout the nineteenth century, the consensus of opinion was that human rights had to be invoked whenever individuals needed protection against the new sovereignty of the state and the new arbitrariness of society...
This led to a transition in thought whereby the Rights of Man became caught up in the problem of national emancipation:
As mankind, since the French Revolution, was conceived in the image of a family of nations, it gradually became self-evident that the people, and not the individual, was the image of man... We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation. The trouble is that this calamity arose not from any lack of civilization, backwardness, or mere tyranny, but on the contrary, that it could not be repaired, because there was no longer any ‘uncivilized’ spot on earth, because whether we like it or not we have really started to live in One World. Only with a completely organized humanity could the loss of home and political status become identical with expulsion from humanity all together.
As then, so now. The refugees created by the Great War were expunged from the World Order because their nations had collapsed, and they entered into the barbed-wire labyrinth where those who no longer belonged were forced to dwell. After the fall of the Old Republic of human rights, you don't even have to be denied a nation to be denied rights. With the outcasts known as the unvaccinated, you can still claim to be a citizen, you are just judged as a lesser kind of being. The root of these two disasters is the same - the confusion of what is right or good with the merely conditional, and from this error emerges a hateful rhetoric that has no basis in scientific or moral truth:
A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for - for the individual, or the family, or the people, or the largest number - becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority. And this predicament is by no means solved if the unit to which the "good for" applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically - namely by majority decision - that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof.
Arendt feared a base form of democracy that denied human rights and could sanction genocide as 'the will of the majority'. What we have allowed to happen instead manages to sidestep the outrage that would erupt in the face of overt mass murder - the majority decision has been made not to exterminate, but merely to abandon our equality. In our digital age, a virtual construct of exclusion can exist in the same physical space as the illusory freedom of those who co-operate with the dictates of overlords who take the name 'public health' in scandalous vain. Travel, shopping, employment, entertainment... whatever it might be that the powers in charge of the New Empire wish to withdraw from the unvaccinated, the virtual barbed-wire labyrinth rises up from the depths of the internet to deny and imprison. Freedom has become conditional upon compliance, and horrifically we too cheered as the entire edifice of human rights came crashing down around us.
Next: The Third Accord
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