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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Fantastic Mr President: The Hyperrealities of Putin and Trump

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 21.56.56This is a guest post by Maria Brock. Maria is about to commence a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies and the School of Cultural and Critical Theory at Södertörn University (Stockholm). She has a PhD in Psychosocial Studies from Birkbeck and has perviously published on the role of negative affect in reactions to the case of Pussy Riot, and the status of memory objects and ‘museums of the everyday’ in the proliferation of post-socialist nostalgia.


In July 2016 – more than 15 years into his time in office – Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s approval rating was at 82%, a figure made all the more remarkable by the fact that the country is experiencing a palpable and lengthy economic downturn. Some commentators have favoured an explanation that treats this as proof that a larger-than-life president is more in line with ‘what Russians want’, as Putin “satisfied a yearning for a strong leader who could make the Russian family proud”. However, concretising a Russian ‘national desire’ is less than helpful if we seek to understand the reasons behind Putin’s continued popularity. Equating a historical past with an inherent propensity to follow strong-men is an exercise in oversimplification, as it treats nations and groups as essentially static, prone to repeat the same historical patterns over and over again. Similarly, a focus on the more overt parallels with the earlier ‘Cults of Personality’ neglects the fact that the underlying ‘conditions of possibility’ that produced the two phenomena are different. Such comparisons also fail to explain the appeal of similarly larger-than-life politicians in countries with a longer democratic tradition. Clearly, an emphasis on national psychological propensities is not productive. Instead, an analysis of the appeal of such leader figures that taps into less conscious mechanisms is worthwhile. By simultaneously looking at the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s remarkable rise, a number of parallels pertaining to the creation of their public personae become apparent. In fact, such an analysis can serve to illuminate overarching principles structuring the successful creation of their outsized public personae.

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The popular support these politicians attract demonstrates that they hold a kind of libidinal appeal that should not be underestimated, lest we render a large part, if not the majority, of a country’s population politically incompetent. While one cannot discount the real inequalities, as well as the real and imagined grievances that opened up the space for less established political figures to gain support, it is nevertheveless worthwhile to examine why these particular kinds of candidates hold such appeal. Their reliance on spectacle and well-orchestrated exploits which combine the hypermasculine with the hyperreal enabled them to set in motion processes of identification that transcend the need for a coherent, well articulated political agenda. Instead, while seeming unsubtle to the point of being crass, they simultaneously operate on a more subliminal level, remaining oblique enough to become conduits for the electorate’s personal hopes and grievances. While this piece centres on the representational mechanisms employed by Vladimir Putin and his team of PR advisers, it is possible to identify a number of parallels with other contemporary leader figures – chief among them Donald Trump – each of whom appears to rely on a kind of hypermasculine charisma to suture a political field that is otherwise characterised by cynicism towards established politics.

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Racism, multiculturalism and Brexit

Robbie Shilliam

I take it as a given (by polls) that the most influential reason why people voted  Brexit was not to restore British sovereignty in the abstract but more precisely to “take it back” in order to stop more of “them” coming over. I also take it as understood that  this statement does not infer that all who voted for Brexit  are racists. Structural racism does not make of every individual a racist but implicates every individual, variously, in the reproduction and/or contestation of racial structures.

I’m sorry I hard to start with Political Theory 101 and Political Reality 101 but I’m afraid that’s the quality of some of the responses to Brexit so far.

Glad that’s over with.

Because I want to move away from an analysis that puts the white English voter at stage-centre and key interlocutor of the Brexit drama. I haven’t got anything that’s too formulated; just some thoughts about the other kinds of…

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