When White Men Rule The World

A shorter version of this post appears at the Oxford University Press blog. It was invited – if that’s the right word – some months ago as a tie-in with the new edition of The Globalization of World Politics. Obviously, I was planning on writing about questions of imperial feminism and intersectionality. Things didn’t turn out that way. Apologies for repetition of good sense already promulgated elsewhere, and for the inevitable commentary fatigue.


Donald Trump

If Hillary Rodham Clinton had triumphed in last Tuesday’s presidential election, it would have been a milestone for women’s political representation: a shattering of the hardest glass ceiling, as her supporters liked to say. Clinton’s defeat in the electoral college (but not the popular ballot, where she narrowly triumphed by about 640,000 votes at last count) is also the failure of a certain feminist stratagem: namely, the cultivation of a highly qualified, centrist, establishment (and comparatively hawkish) female candidate, measured in speech and reassuringly moderate in her politics. But the victory of Donald Trump tells us just as much about the global politics of gender, and how it is being remade.

The election itself was predicted to be the most divided by sex in US history. Polls from a few weeks before the election had Clinton’s lead among women at the highest level for a presidential candidate since records began in 1952. A widely shared meme celebrated the trend and declared that “women’s suffrage is saving the world”. Activists from the ‘alt-right’ (a conglomerate of neo-Nazis, xenophobes, men’s rights types, lapsed libertarians and professional agitators) trolled in response that the 19th amendment should be repealed. Time called the election a ‘referendum on gender’; The New Yorker a question of ‘manifest misogyny’.

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In the end, the politics of race mediated the politics of gender: white women were by many leagues more comfortable with Trump’s candidacy than women of colour. As Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed out on Wednesday morning, the claim for a singular female worldview – one that could be mobilised to ordain Clinton ‘Madame President’ – collapses under the pressure of other cross-cutting histories, interests, and ideologies (the idea that women share a common political perspective has of course been under attack within feminist theory for many decades). As has now been much rehearsed, NBC’s exit polls measured a 10% lead for Trump among white women, and an almost 20% lead amongst white women between the ages of 45 and 64. By contrast, CNN data indicated that 94% of black women voted for Clinton. Opinions now vary on how much blame to apportion suburban white women, or what have been called ‘Ivanka voters’, for the result. Somewhat confoundingly, Pew Research finds that the overall gender gap was indeed larger than in the last presidential elections (with women leaning Democrat). In either case the most significant shifts took place within the cohort of white voters (in favour of the Republicans).

And yet the power of race and racism in deciding the election should not be taken to mean that gender is irrelevant after all. As predicted, it was white men who voted for Trump in the greatest numbers. Trump is moreover symbolic of, and personally implicated in, a resurgent strain of misogynistic thinking: regularly dismissive of the intelligence and professionalism of women, speaking about them as sex objects or harridans, and fuelling conspiracy theories and denialism over sexual assault. And although the collapse in the predicted female vote for Clinton is surprising, it is at the same time no novelty to observe that women may also disqualify a politician on the basis of her sex – for example, in setting higher standards for female than male candidates, in believing that only men are aggressive enough for politics, or in judging women more harshly on their appearance and demeanour.  Continue reading

Against the New Phrenology: De-Pathologizing Trumpism

This is a guest post by Dan Boscov-Ellen. Dan is a Ph.Dprofile. student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and a Visiting Instructor in Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute. His dissertation research involves exploring the political-philosophical implications of capitalist ecological crisis.


One of the most persistent refrains of the US Presidential election has been that of liberal incredulity at the idiocy of Trump voters. Depending on the current status of Nate Silver’s election forecasts, this tends to manifest either as amusement (perhaps chuckling at a Daily Show interview of deluded rally attendees or a screening of Idiocracy), or as disgust and horror (perhaps soberly staring into one’s craft IPA when the debate watch party gets too real). How, liberals wonder, could anyone vote for Cheeto™ Hitler?

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But of course they do not wonder too hard – it is obvious to most liberals that Trump voters are simply ignorant and stupid, an apparent truism of which comedians, political scientists, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists constantly assure us. Everyone knows that Trump supporters are less well-informed than liberals – if only they read the New York Times and listened to NPR instead of watching Fox News! But the deeper problem, allegedly, is that Trump voters are simply not intelligent enough to realize how ignorant they are. Psychologist David Dunning explains that

[t]he knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.

According to neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, this Dunning-Kruger effect “helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.”

At base, then, it is the Trump voters’ fundamental and impenetrable stupidity that causes them to ignore the experts – highly credentialed neoclassical economists, experienced military and intelligence figures, beneficent billionaires, esteemed members of the mainstream American political establishment and independent press, and Neil Degrasse Tyson – who obviously know far better than the plebian masses. Indeed, many liberals secretly believe it might really be better if the experts just ran things and we revoked the cretins’ right to vote.

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On Statues (II)

This is the second in an unplanned series of  write-as-stuff-happens posts on the politics of statues. You can read the first post here.

In June 2016, the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled a statue of Gandhi on the Legon campus of the University of Ghana in Accra. Almost immediately, angry blog posts and articles in the local press denounced the installation of the statue, demanding its removal. On twitter, activists proclaimed #GandhiMustFall and #GandhiForComeDown. An online petition voicing these demands has attracted over 1700 signatures at the time of this writing. The argument of the protesters is simple: Gandhi was a racist. As an activist in South Africa, he worked primarily in the interests of the Indian community, seeking a renegotiation of its position in the existing racial hierarchy of the settler colony without ever attacking the underlying premises of racial ordering. The protesters evidence this claim with Gandhi’s own words drawn from writings across a significant period (1894-1908), in which he refers to black South Africans by what would today be considered the offensive racial slur ‘kaffir’. More than the word, the connotations of which may well have worsened since the time Gandhi employed it, the protesters are angered by the shallowness and rank supremacism of his vision of liberation:

Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness (1896).

The protesters link Gandhi’s remarkably accommodationist views on race with his beliefs about caste, the institution of which he would notoriously justify in later arguments with Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar. Unsurprisingly, the protest against the Gandhi statue draws inspiration from contemporaneous struggles against symbols of colonialism, apartheid and white supremacy all over the world, among which #RhodesMustFall in South Africa is preeminent. The connection is more than incidental: once again, the politics of a settler in turn-of-the-century South Africa has come under scrutiny in a protest against a statue in a distant country.

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Translating Radical Plurality in Pragmatism: A Paradox?

This is the fourth and final commentary in our symposium on Reconstructing Human Rights.The symposium will close with a  rejoinder post by Joe tomorrow. You can catch up on the opening post, the first, second and third commentaries.


As I was reading Reconstructing Human Rights, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout most of the book. This did not come as a surprise; the work Hoover does in his book is close to my own work, and to my heart. giphy-1.gifDisrupting ethical theories that are rooted in abstractions and assumptions of universal moral principles is, I believe, urgently required if we are to better understand the moral responsibility we have toward our fellow human beings, particularly in environments of conflict and violence. And so for me, what resonates most strongly in Reconstructing Human Rights is the ethical project contained within the book. Like Hoover, I am not at all convinced that universalising accounts of morality can adequately address ethical problems in political contexts. And like Hoover, I am concerned with how the quest for certainty and universality shapes how we understand, see, and treat one another in social and political life. What is at stake here, in my view, is nothing less than the capacity for ethical action itself, which is at risk of being entirely subsumed by the pursuit of absolutes, leaving little room for contingency, alterity, uncertainty, or indeed anything unknown that might arise out of the specificity of any one ethical moment.

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Jaw-jaw, War and Law

ainley_kirsten_118Our third comment on Reconstructing Human Rights is authored by Kirsten Ainley. Kirsten is Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Studies at the London School of Economics. Her research is in the field of global ethics and is concerned very broadly with relationships between politics, law and ethics in world politics. She has published widely on international criminal law, transitional justice, the International Criminal Court and the notion of evil in international relations. Read Joe’s opening post here, Karen’s comment here, and Anthony’s contribution to the symposium here.


Reconstructing Human Rights is a remarkable book. It sets out, in a most compelling way, grounds to support human rights as an ethos – a way to approach politics that has the potential to be genuinely emancipatory. The book does so not from the widely (and rightly) disparaged universalist wing of political theory, but from a critical perspective. This is where the argument is most original and most impressive. There are plenty of us who are critical of many human rights practices, but supportive of the use of human rights language and law in some instances – or at least despairing of an alternative. Hoover provides, in a beautifully staged argument, a reconstruction of rights that weaves together strands from the work of theorists such as Dewey, Connolly and Honig (as well as drawing on Benhabib, Walzer, Habermas and others). Like many theorists, Hoover has a razor-sharp ability to recognise and expose flaws in arguments. More unusually, he treats the work he is responding to with humility and respect, and is thus able to draw his critiques into a constructive treatise. Engaging with the book was as rewarding as it was intellectually demanding, and the humanity with which Hoover thinks through his subject is testament to the potential of his approach.

So, I agree. He’s right. There is virtually nothing of substance in the book that I would take issue with. This realisation left me in something of a bind when it came to writing this post. But it also, after some time reflecting on the implications of the book, left me with a familiar discomfort about the relationship between philosophy and action. Rather than discussing the book’s argument, therefore, I want instead to think about the tensions that become apparent in campaigning for political change using the tool of human rights, in one form or another, if approached from Hoover’s position. Continue reading

Upsetting the Theory: Rights for Housing and Queers

The second post on our forum on Joe Hoover’s Reconstructing Human Rights, from DoT’s Anthony Langlois. You can read Joe’s opening post here and Karen Zivi’s commentary here.


 As I was reading Joseph Hoover’s fabulous new book, a critical debate was going on at the peak human rights institution of the global political system. The Human Rights Council, an institution to which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggests “all victims of human rights abuse should be able to look…as a forum and springboard for action”, was debating a resolution to establish a UN Independent Expert on Protection Against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. On June 30, 2016, after extensive debate, in which much opposition was expressed, the Human Rights Council voted in favour of this UN Special Procedure, establishing the office of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI).

It is a harsh reality that in many countries around the world, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans* and others of queer and diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (LGBTQ) are not able to look to human rights institutions for support and protection, or, those institutions find themselves constrained and unable to offer such support and protection openly, or at all. The creation of the SOGI expert by the UN is in part a recognition of this, and it is seen by many as a critical further step in the UN’s recent activism on this routinely neglected area of human rights concern.

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But as well as allegedly being “progress” in the human rights agenda of freedom and emancipation, it should cause us to pause and think. What does it mean that Human Rights have only come lately to queer communities, if at all?

Hoover does not directly consider this question. But the debate about gay rights, human rights for queers more broadly, and their place in IR, plays a role like that which Hoover shows the right to housing to play. Hoover uses the right to housing to destabilise, challenge, pluralize, democratize and reconfigure our received ideas of human rights. I would suggest that this is also precisely what happens, or, at least, what can happen, when human rights meets sexual orientation and gender identity expression, as well. Continue reading

Human Rights: A Love Story?

zivi-headshots-gray-backgroundThis is the first comment, following Joe’s opening post, penned by Karen Zivi. Karen is Associate Professor of Political Science at Grand Valley State University where she teaches courses on rights, democracy, and gender and politics. She is the author of Making Rights Claims: A Practice of Democratic Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2012) and her work on topics such as LGBT rights, citizenship, and motherhood has appeared in the Journal of Human Rights, American Journal of Political Science, Politics & Gender, and Feminist Studies.


A Longing

As I write this post, I am preparing for the first day of my ‘Introduction to Human Rights’ class. I’ll begin by asking my students to identify a human rights issue of interest to them. I won’t be surprised if they mention the Syrian refugee crisis or police brutality in the United States, religious liberty or reproductive justice, Wikileaks and freedom of the press or Flint and access to clean water (I teach in Michigan after all). I’ll ask them what should be done to address these issues and I won’t be surprised if they advocate for providing humanitarian aid or making new laws that limit or enhance state power. And when I ask them why we should respond one way or another, I won’t be surprised if they make reference to ideas about a common humanity, the meaning of justice, or doing the right thing.

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Not wanting to crush their spirit on the first day, I’ll tell them they are in good company in the way they are thinking about human rights. But over the course of the semester, I’ll tell and show them that political solutions and philosophical justifications disappoint again and again for reasons that go beyond the sheer callousness, greed, or stupidity of human beings. Even when victories are won, as Joe Hoover’s new book makes so astonishingly clear, collateral damage is often unavoidable. My students thus have the difficult task of confronting the reality of human rights’ limitations. I have the task keeping their promise alive, balancing rights realism with rights optimism in ways that motivate my students to engage in making change and yet staves off the kinds of skepticism, despair, and apathy that do nobody any good. I still believe in the power and promise of human rights. And, fortunately, so too does Joe Hoover.

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