From Arendt, to Douglass, to Palestine—what does it mean to have a “right to rights”?
Lori Allen’s The Rise and Fall of Human Rights opens with a double-barreled epigraph. She first gives us the famous—and often misquoted—passage from the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass in which the world-historical catastrophe of American plantation slavery grounds a simple observation with monumental implications: that the physics of oppression can be countered only with an opposite and equal reaction, a struggle with “words or blows, or with both.”
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
—Frederick Douglass, 1857