Richard A. Primus, The American Language of Rights. New York, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. $54.95.
Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000. $29.95.
The rise of rights talk is a subject that has gripped academia in recent years. Many historians of modem America are now searching for the origins of the rights revolution and the feverish use of rights arguments on the left and on the right. Two recent works of legal history tackle one part of this question with trailblazing interpretations, focusing on left-wing rights discourse and the successes of the civil rights movement. Both books offer compelling and well-written narratives of post-war legal issues, and they present innovative arguments that this revolution began in response to global crises. Richard Primus's The American Language of Rights argues that rights are not natural truths, but are, rather, historically contingent. Rights, he claims, evolve when a political community reacts to particular adversities and synthesizes established rights with new conceptions of rights to combat that adversity. Just as the Founding and Reconstruction generations articulated systems of rights in response to particular events and evils, the post-World War II generation pursued a vision of human rights defined against the horrors of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism. In a parallel story, Mary Dudziak's Cold War Civil Rights attributes America's advances in desegregation to a global public relations crisis over the treatment of blacks. As this international embarrassment provided ample fodder for Communist propaganda, presidents from Truman to Johnson heeded a "Cold War imperative" to promote racial justice.
Grappling with the complicated origins of the civil rights movement and the Warren Court's activism, Primus and Dudziak offer coherent explanations that integrate domestic politics, international events, and the world of ideas. By placing this rights revolution so clearly in their global post-war context, they have pushed the boundaries of the legal academy to a more global perspective, and they have contributed to our understanding of the civil rights movement's broader origins. They have also suggested how seemingly unrelated events force leaders to embrace social reform, and how those leaders build on rights traditions to gain momentum. Even as legal academics continue to argue that rights are fundamental and universal, Primus and Dudziak offer evidence that rights are historically constructed, contextually reactive, and ad hoc.
However, both books emphasize the role of elites, and for that matter, of left-leaning elites, which leads to two shared shortcomings. This emphasis enables them to make some particularly insightful observations about the decisions of many significant political leaders, judges, and academics from the 1940s to the 1960s. This perspective creates a great story, but unfortunately, it is only half the story, or more accurately, one quarter of the story. As a result, they overlook some very significant differing perspectives on the Cold War and rights discourse.
Jed H. Shugerman,
Rights Revolutions and Counter- Revolutions,
Yale J.L. & Human.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol13/iss2/6