Washington, DC: a human rights city?

Below are some initial reflections on the work I’ve been doing in Washington DC on the human right to housing. They are not terribly substantive and serve as much as a tribute and thank you to those who hosted me as disquisition on the topic. But I wanted to post the piece for those who might be interested in my broader project, or what’s going on in Washington DC. Enjoy.

In December 2008 Washington DC was declared a human rights city. The DC City Council passed the resolution, pushed for by the American Friends Service Committee. While this is a lovely idea, it leaves one wondering what does it mean to be a human rights city. In particular, what does it mean in a city defined by inequality, where more than 15,000 citizens do not have homes, where 20% of the population lives in poverty, where housing is more unaffordable than anywhere in the United States, and where public and affordable housing is under constant threat. Perhaps the declaration of DC as a human rights city would seem less cynical if the DC City Council or the Federal Government had shown themselves committed to protecting the human rights of residents of the District, particularly the right to housing.

Housing is a Human Right

Human rights promise us many things. The right to housing, however, is perhaps the most fundamental. What do our rights mean if we do not have a place to call home? Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises that

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The right to housing is fundamental because it is in our homes that we find the space to rest, to pursue wellness, to find love, to raise families, and build communities, to collect our energy and thoughts so that we can participate in democratic politics, and it is where we find the safety, security and privacy that make a dignified life possible. Continue reading

Rushed thoughts on political theory…

I am not sure I have proper post here, but I am pursuing some thoughts and it seems they might benefit from publicity. In the midst of “fieldwork” – a word I hate… Let’s scratch that – in the midst of a learning experience, in which I have been granted the opportunity to share in the struggle of some very brave people in Washington DC’s Shaw neighbourhood, I have stumbled over what seems a vital point about political theory. So vital in fact that it seems obvious now.

I spent yesterday in the Shaw neighbourhood of DC. Shaw is a historically black area, with a cultural and intellectual history that rivals Harlem or Bronzeville (in Chicago). It is also a neighbourhood in the midst of “gentrification”… wait, that’s the wrong word too. It is a neighbourhood in the midst of a campaign of displacement, moving long terms residents (mostly poor and Black – though also Latino and Asian) out of their homes and community. These people are being displaced to make way for “development” and “urban renewal” – which is a polite way of saying they are being moved for profit, because the investors and the city of Washington DC have found a way to make money off their homes and community.

Walking around the area you can see the transformation in process, as the old and new visions of the area meet like ocean currents. I sat in a park and while a young white woman jogged with her dog, a young and destitute black man watching from a nearby bench complained to himself that her dog needed to run free, not be stuck on a leash, and that the woman should have stayed in the suburbs rather than moving into his neighbourhood. And in Shaw, the writing is literally on the wall, as I walk past a former public housing complex that is now being advertised as a luxury apartment complex by a new owner keen to move out the current residence, renovate the building and move in new more profitable tenants.

I was fortunate to meet a group of local long time residents, mostly black women, who are trying to protect their homes and their place in the Shaw community. I won’t provide details here, but I will say that these people are incredibly brave and they face an absolutely monumental task. To oppose their own displacement requires them to fight against powerful adversaries using a system and a set of rules that is balanced against them. And this is where I started thinking about political theory… Continue reading

The Manning Trial, Truth-Telling, and The Precariousness of Democractic Society

The following is a piece written as part of an interview I did at City University on the political and ethical significance of the Bradley Manning trial currently ongoing (links to potentially embarrassing video to follow).

I think that the most important thing that the Bradley Manning trial shows us is the gap that opens up between our legal institutions and our sense of right and wrong, between the law and morality. Many people around the world are shocked by Manning’s imprisonment. People are shocked partly because he has been held under conditions that the UN said violated his human rights, but also because Manning is being tried for exposing the actions of US soldiers and diplomats, including evidence of many potential and confirmed human rights violations. Manning’s supporters are incredulous and view the proceedings now taking place at Fort Meade as illegitimate.Bradley Manning War Crimes

I understand this incredulity and on a level I share it. What I want to suggest, however, is that what we are seeing in the trial of this young man is even more troubling than the corruption of the law by politics – it reveals that the law is always suffused with politics. The law is a technical code. Yes, it is also a normative system that is supposed to determine right and wrong, guilt and innocence. But it is vital that we do not forget that it is a technical code first and foremost, a code that political authorities use to justify their power. Therefore, those with the capacity to influence and manipulate the legal code will always be at an advantage, will always be able to shape that code not towards the pursuit of justice but towards their own interests. This is what Finnish legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi calls this the gap between apology and utopia. The law has its utopian moments and this is especially true of human rights law – for example, Manning supporters see him as a hero who has exposed the grievous crimes of the US government and its military, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. They appeal to human rights standards that are quintessential moral claims, but which sadly lack the force of political authority and so are not reliably protected. This is important, but the law also has its moment of apology, where it serves the interests of established authorities, of powerful actors like the US government.

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Call for Papers: Subjects and Practices of Resistance

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For two inter-linked, consecutive workshops under the theme of Subjects and Practices of Resistance to be held 9-11 September 2013 at University of Sussex.

The first workshop (9-10 Sept) is on Discipline(s), Dissent and Dispossession and the second on Counter-Conduct in Global Politics (10-11 Sept).  The workshop convenors encourage attendance at both workshops.  However, paper proposals should specify the intended workshop and which days participants would be able to attend.

The workshops are generously sponsored and supported by the BISA Poststructuralist Politics Working Group (PPWG) and the Centre for Advanced International Theory (CAIT) at the University of Sussex  Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA 2013: The Practice Turn and Global Ethics

We're talking about practice!

I want to address the use of practice theory in global ethics rather than International Relations or social science broadly. I am neither a social scientist nor a social theorist. My interests are in political and ethical theory, in asking questions about the good in political life. Nonetheless, questions of ethics are an important part of the turn to practice theory because such a reorientation has much to add to how we think about questions of global ethics. I also hope that my reflections on, and uses of, practice theory may be of interest to those who see themselves as social scientists.

In global ethics there is a constant concern with the issue of justification, with determining how we know what is right or good – and especially how we know that what we know is really right or good. What is surprising is how little time is spent considering the details of what is right or good in specific situations. This question it seems is already known, either because we can deduce it through some rational rule or distill it from some social tradition. This is a crude map, but hopefully adequate to place ourselves.

Even among more dissident scholars the focus is on how justifications fail, or how our justifications reproduce undesirable social consequences – the exclusion of the other, the marginalization of women – and these are absolutely vital insights. However, what remains under-examined is what we take to be right or wrong, good or bad, the substantive and at times contradictory content of our ethics. Along with this there is a lack of concern with how we think when we are being ethical, with what social role ethical claims have and with how social institutions and traditions depend upon ethical claims.

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American Vignettes (II): The Spirit’s Agenda

Most of our day we are unaware of what we are thinking, but it is not our thoughtlessness that is disconcerting, it is our lack of awareness of our thoughtlessness.

It is rare to be in a space uncluttered by social messages, but you suddenly find even your modern sensibilities assaulted as you make your way through contemporary America. There are the expected advertisements, but they cover more of the physical surface of the world than you remember. There are the expected automated announcements, but they pierce the air and reverberate more loudly than you remember. You watch as everyone else moves through this cloud of demands, warnings, enticements, and you wonder: “does their head spin as mine does?”

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Advertisement on escalator railing.

The cab you take across Manhattan has a television screen constantly playing commercials – you can silence it but you cannot turn off the scrolling images. The roads you drive down in New York, Chicago and Denver have their negative space filled by an uncountable number of signs, billboards, words – every surface a text. Even tucked away from the public stream of communication, in your home or in your car, the words and pictures crash over you: television is ubiquitous and its light flashes on you wherever you go, the radio blares at you in the coffee shop and the eye doctor’s waiting room, the ads flash on your computer screen as you write emails to friends, and the messages and updates ding and chime on your phone as you sit down to eat a family meal.

The frenetic quality of the day only appears once you are lying in an unfamiliar bed, in a quiet dark room, when you can hear your parents breathing as they sleep down the hall from you, when you can hear the geese who have come south from Canada honking in the distance, when your mind stops receiving, blocking, dodging, collecting words and is able to put its own thoughts together. Being out of place and out of rhythm, you feel the importance of this moment. Slowness. Quiet. Rest. Continue reading