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The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man

We are reading a chapter from Hannah Arendt’s THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARISM, entitled “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”.  This chapter from Arendt may be the most difficult you will read this semester.  But, I think it’s quite interesting and relevant to our present circumstances.  In this reading Arendt discusses the plight of national minorities and those people who became ‘stateless’ refugees in the period between WWI and WWII.  Using the prism of their experience, she puts forth a fundamental critique of the notion of ‘human rights’ (she herself was a German Jewish refugee that survived the Holocaust).  Her critique of this notion is perhaps more important to reflect on today that when she wrote the piece, given how pervasive the language of ‘human rights’ has in the meantime become. I want us to think through what she has to say about human rights to go deeper into the implications for decision-making today, taking into consideration what our authors have already said about this subject.  Below, you’ll find the essay prompt on Arendt.

Please write an essay of 500-1200 words addressing Arendt on ‘human rights’:

In contemporary political and cultural discussions, there are few concepts with the cache of the notion of ‘human rights’, as something all of us as individuals, organizations, businesses, governments, should be working in terms of and towards.  But, are ‘human rights’ all that they are made up to be?  Writing after WWII, Hannah Arendt, in her text, THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM, moves from a discussion of the plight of national ‘minorities’ and the altogether ‘stateless’ in the inter-war years of European history to a fundamental critique of the notion of ‘human rights’.  Who are these ‘minorities’ and ‘stateless’ and why does their situation imply, for Arendt, a ‘decline of the nation-state’ of the nineteenth century? Why does this entail the ‘end of the rights of man’? What is the danger, as far as Arendt is concerned, in presuming that there is such a thing as ‘universal human rights’? Why does she see the emphasis on such rights as more a sign and symptom of dehumanization rather than a solution to prevent dehumanization? Do you find Arendt’s critique of the idea of ‘human rights’ convincing?  Does it have any implications for leadership today?

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