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“A Madman Full of Paranoid Guile”: The Myth of Rights in the Modern American Mind

Special Issue: The Legacy of Stuart Scheingold

ISBN: 978-1-78190-343-8, eISBN: 978-1-78190-344-5

ISSN: 1059-4337

Publication date: 17 September 2012


Stuart Scheingold's path-breaking The Politics of Rights ignited scholarly interest in the political mobilization of rights. The book was a challenge to the reigning popular and scholarly common sense regarding the supposedly self-executing nature of rights (what Scheingold called the “myth of rights”). Rights, Scheingold argued, could be resources for the pursuit of social change; but their realization in court doctrine and legislative output was not itself tantamount to meaningful social change. Thus embedded in The Politics of Rights is skepticism (or at least ambivalence) about the utility of rights politics for social movements. Scheingold was not ambivalent about the moral or normative value of rights themselves, although he did argue that the realization of rights was not by itself enough to overcome the manifold inequalities that structure modern life. The Politics of Rights, accordingly, is clear-eyed, but not cynical about rights advocacy. It is thus surprising, and keenly revealing, that Scheingold's final work – The Political Novel, which is ostensibly not about rights at all – points to mass cynicism, alienation, and the collapse of faith in governing institutions and logics as the animating elements of modern liberal democracies, including especially the United States. That rights are a vital part of the civic mythology whose collapse defines modern times suggests that the civil rights context of aspiration and struggle in which Scheingold, and nearly all of his followers (this author included), have conceived rights may be unnecessarily narrow. Rights may also be embedded, that is, in the modern condition of alienation, despair, and felt powerlessness. Inspired by Scheingold's investigation of how literature points to this modern condition of political estrangement, I offer an alternative backdrop for The Politics of Rights that is rooted in the bleak renderings of the American character found in much 1970's American popular and intellectual culture. Such a contextualization, I will argue, suggests that we envision The Political Novel as a companion piece to The Politics of Rights; together they illuminate both the mobilizing and demobilizing potential of the myth of rights.


Dudas, J.R. (2012), "“A Madman Full of Paranoid Guile”: The Myth of Rights in the Modern American Mind", Sarat, A. (Ed.) Special Issue: The Legacy of Stuart Scheingold (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 59), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 31-63.



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