Rights under Trial, Rights Reflections

13 Further Acts of Academic Journalism and Historical Commentary on Human Rights

by Ben Dorfman (Author)
©2020 Monographs 252 Pages
Series: Political and Social Change, Volume 8


As the second decade of the twenty-first century closes, challenges to human rights have deepened. Democracy is under stress, cultural battles within states have become heightened, and strongman politics are on the rise. Contemporary and historical reflections on rights are perhaps more pressing than ever – projects this book takes on via plain-language forms blending academic and commentary-based styles.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication Page
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction: The Fate of Rights in a Time of Trial
  • Mother May I
  • Dog Whistles You Can Hear
  • Codas of Anger and Silence
  • Art, Being, and Human Rights
  • Justice and the Confrontation
  • Trespassing the Untrespassable
  • Shirtless on a Horse
  • The Turning Point
  • Tossin’ Bombs and Sayin’ “Uncle Tom”
  • June in Singapore
  • When It Goes Too Far
  • Nuremberg
  • Khashoggi

Introduction: The Fate of Rights in a Time of Trial

The Long Road Back (May 4, 2019)

I would love to say that these are perilous times for human rights – however, when are they not? In my lifetime, the moment that seemed to hold the most human rights “promise” was the period in which the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union moved to close its doors – not because the Soviet system was inherently anti-human rights, but because it seemed that a liberal consensus might have been on the cusp of emerging in which it was understood that democracy and inclusion were important and that peace might be the raison d’être of the new world order. Of course, it took little time before the cracks in that façade showed as Yugoslavia quickly descended into Europe’s worst violence since the Second World War and genocide broke out in places like Rwanda.1 Still, as momentum around the role of international institutions seemed to grow and there appeared to be a heightened willingness on the part of key actors to at least refer to the discourses of human rights, the health of what I’ve called the human rights “lifeworld” often seemed to be good. The human rights “lifeworld” refers to the notion of rights as points of reference for high politics and grass-roots social movements; the subject of empirical research as well as a source for the imaginations of fiction and film. I.e., in the post-Cold War world, it often felt as though human rights were simply “there.” We might not always realize them, and they might be hard to effect. Still, there appeared to be a notion that one had to at least give lip-service to them, and, whether one was watching a film like The Interpreter ←11 | 12→(2005) or reading a graphic novel like Persepolis (2000), the idea might at least inspire us.2

Indeed, I would say that the human rights “lifeworld” enjoyed relatively good health until relatively recently – sometime after 2015, to be exact. Now, yes, the U.S.’ use of waterboarding, black sites, and “stress positions” vis-à-vis interrogations in the “War on Terror” seemed to mark a challenge to rights concepts and a “U-turn” in what should have been an era of increasing concord. However, such practices came under widespread criticism and, come the Obama era, they had essentially been rebuked.3 For sure, countries like Denmark engaged in immigration politics that raised rights organizations’ eyebrows.4 Still, there seemed to be enough momentum for a Europe based on free movement and transnational identities that it wasn’t clear that such attitudes wouldn’t become the exception as opposed to the norm. Regimes from Turkey to Syria to Saudi Arabia clearly reeked of strongman politics. Still, the smell of Arab Spring ←12 | 13→was in the air, even if results were hard to predict.5 The turning point? The 2015 European migration crisis and the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I.e., it’s never been the case that human rights have only been advanced by the nations of the North or the “West.” Ranges of countries have advocated for human rights’ presence and contributed to their inculcation on regional as well as global scales.6 Still, the cultures of leading states seem to have become increasingly pervaded by attitudes that what matters is “mine” and “ours” and notions that particular territories are marked off only for particular people – that as opposed to referring to broader human inheritances, or the idea that one group’s trials shouldn’t necessarily be marked as of any less value than the trials of anyone else.7

Of course, there’s a lot to unpack here. Vis-à-vis America’s leadership on the world stage or the growth of institutions such as the EU: has it ever been the case that such things were ever more than the growth of a “new imperialism,” as it’s been put, or that “human rights” were ever more than the powers of the West dictating that their standards had to be the standards of everyone else? I’m not sure. Tensions between culture and rights are well-documented by now, and it’s also well-known that great powers can become preachy about rights while ←13 | 14→sometimes falling short on rights standards themselves.8 It’s hard to know if interventions from Somalia to Yugoslavia or the lack of intervention in Rwanda were handled in precisely the right way; they’re often described as bungled, and such arguments have often made out of rights perspectives themselves.9 Still, be it from NATO actions in Kosovo to debates over how to handle the Syrian crisis’ “red line,” it’s been interesting to hear considerations of the right response to situations and notions that that response should be handled at least partially by way of principle as opposed to pure national interest or victory in a realpolitikal competition.10 It’s also true that political projects such as the EU have been economic projects and, be it Europe’s free-trade zone or that of North America (NAFTA), the growth of transnational capital has posed serious challenges to working classes and deepened senses of global “precarity.”11 Still, that hasn’t been absent the realization that development might be an essential human right, nor without the response of global social movements who have argued that issues from the environment to the rights of indigenous peoples have to be taken into account (and organizations like the World Economic Forum pricking their ears up in response).12 And, indeed, is this really the first time we’ve heard this or ←14 | 15→that nation “first!” No. Ideas of American exceptionalism are well-recognized by now, and the skepticism of European states towards the EU qua project as well as doubts about multiculturalism in general are long-term parts of the continent’s politics. Nonetheless, it’s clear that, for many years, the momentum was towards international organizations’ expansion and that the general tendency of such organizations was towards an interest in rights. As the Human Rights Watch 2017 World Report put it, we might be witnessing a global attack on human rights “values.” We may today be experiencing subtle attacks on concepts of humanitarianism as well as the idea that, whether one lives in Paris or Dar es Salaam, we’re all in this together.13

This book doesn’t address all of these topics – though it addresses some of them, either directly or in implicit form. This book also isn’t a treatise on rights nor a history of them, though it invokes notions of what rights should do and attempts to illustrate what a range of issues look like from a human rights-positive frame of mind. What this book does, like its sister volume from 2017, is pick-up thirteen topics from a subjectively-oriented cognitive space concerning international political and cultural affairs and offer reactions to those issues which blend dimensions of rights scholarship, dashes of international law, lines of thought concerning historiographical, aesthetic, and cultural concerns, and ←15 | 16→wrap the whole thing in a package in which the form is opinion pieces and a kind of journalistic writing, yet opinionating and journalism with a modicum of academic undergirding and a chunk of historiographical awareness. I.e., as with its predecessor volume, composed between 2014 and ‘16, many of this book’s pieces refer to items prominent in the news while some pieces present more personal reflections, engaging artistic or historical sites. By the time this book comes out, the “apex” of the moment at which many of the pieces were written will have gone by, standing a year or two in the past. Nonetheless, the point is to indicate that human rights aren’t just a matter of policy debate but that rights are a framework for approaching world affairs and a mode of thinking narratives we might ascribe to the past. Rights are a mindset and a mode of thought; they’re a variety of philosophy and a meeting point for the “spirit” as well as the “letter” of the law. Again, aesthetically, the point has been to fuse a kind of feuilleton-esque writing style with reference to more “scholarly” arguments such that one creates entreaties to discuss the nature of rights ideas by offering the views on such issues one has oneself. The idea is to present one’s own views as one’s own views as opposed to determined matters of “science” or “truth.” The point has also been to write in the flow of events elucidating thoughtways that might emerge as one encounters cultural and political scenes and approaches them with a general humanist’s eye. Again, I seek to do nothing more than offer a gestalt sense of international justice, history of ideas, political theory, social change, and the history of arts and culture in the context of a maw for goings-on. The hope is to do nothing more than repel down into the lifeworld of a political concept and shine the light a bit around. That’s at the same time that I’d like to suggest that one needn’t repel to far because that lifeworld is around us, available, right there, on the surface.

Now, in this context, a few questions emerge. A few problems poke their heads up vis-à-vis what in some ways is a clearly academic book, yet also not. There’s a question of what to do with a book that operates in view of scholarship, yet sometimes downplays “science” in favor of colloquialism and the invocation of subjective voice. What does one get from such writing – writing that happens at the interstices, or between the spaces of the intellectual and the academic, and vis-à-vis a vocabulary which should be simultaneously plain-spoken yet informed by an involvement with cultural theory and political philosophy?14 What does one ←16 | 17→get out of the “gestalt perspective” – something generalistic and oriented towards “thoughts,” or towards opening as opposed to ending debates, or having the last word in rights and international affairs?

In part, this book is concerned to say that not all academic communications need be about the “knowledge gap” and not everything need concern the “state of the art.” It’s concerned to assert that we need a diversity of academic communications, and there might be room for but reflection, showing the academic as musing, or magnifying the thoughts in which many of us are engaged. Indeed, that’s central to this project: suggesting that “intellectuals are ordinary,” or that, in the same way that a plumber might have a specific set of tools or lines of attack to address a stopped-up sink, so too might someone who’s spent time in grad school, with history books, in cultural studies conferences, and talking with students about political issues in college classrooms have a set of wrenches available to them regarding socio-political concerns and the culturo-political tensions of the day.15 I.e., we all look at and see the world; we all have thoughts about it. Many of us have socio-political awareness, and for most of us – indeed, I’d say all of us – when we read the newspaper or catch the news regarding an election or terrorist attack, the lights go on and a range of thoughts and observations come to mind. That raises the question, though, as to what observations come to mind, and, if one is asked to say something about those observations, what one might say. What does one seek to articulate, and what are the lines of thought involved? All, or at least many of us, enter into political and philosophical discourse with one another. Certain of us may have taken some history, philosophy, or political science courses. However, there is no “great conversation;” there’s no one with whom we have to talk. There’s only the conversation – a larger discourse in which all of us are involved. That’s by way of being present for the world and having the capacity to react to it – which, it seems, we do.

Now, throughout this book, as well as its sister volume, I try to be careful about getting into exhaustive accountings of philosophical “schools” or name-dropping arrays of theoretical perspectives. I seek to take a plain-language approach, and that means not talking only in ways one has to have gone to grad school to understand. Still, I’d like to take a moment to name-check the late-nineteenth-century ←17 | 18→philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Part of a philosophical movement that was concerned to establish rigorous modes of human scientific analysis yet which also recognized the enormous subjectivity of human life, Dilthey wrote about what he termed the “lived experience of time,” or existence as we have it in a mundane way. “The ship of our life,” Dilthey argued, “is…carried forward on a constantly moving stream.” “The present,” he put forward, is “wherever we are on those waves.” There was an “interconnectedness,” the philosopher proposed, to what appears before the mind.16 Now, I’d also like to name-check a contemporary of Dilthey’s from a similar philosophical school – the sociologist Georg Simmel. The relation between historical reality, Simmel wrote – history in its entirety, which simply can’t be known – and what one perceives and emerges for one as one moves through space and time, is “no different from the relation between…the landscape painting and the complete reality it portrays.” A “spontaneous functioning of personal subjective synthesis” is required to understand our surroundings, and phenomena can only be comprehended from their “focal point.”17 Winnowed down, we move through the world. As we move through the world, we bring certain information with us – information we’ve accumulated over time and which contributes to who we are. Out of that “base of information,” or perspective, as such, we may see the truth of a thing, or we may not. We may have things as they are, or just imaginations of them. However, as we encounter the world, massive circuits of connections go off, senses of historical reality swing into play, convictions about ethics and morality are set into motion, understandings of logic and reason enter the framework, and we deploy ideas of social change and notions of what’s “natural” and what’s “not.” We engage in a “descriptive psychology,” as another theorist has called it, embarking on sense-making and establishing stories that in fact allow gestalt senses of a situation and its attendant concepts.18 Indeed, as we’re social creatures, we’re likely to communicate those senses. Our narratives might be comprehensible to- or shared by- others; that’s the nature of living in society. Because knowledge has to exist for someone, however, at the moment that one generates a story or an understanding, that story or understanding is fully ours; it’s property of one’s own.

←18 | 19→

This book is but an attempt to capture the thoughtways and chains of associations that have gone off for a specific individual in relation to a range of continuing socio-cultural sceneries and unfolding political events. The attempt has been to catalog a range of thoughts, experiences, and ideas emerging vis-à-vis particular historical and contemporary scenarios for one person and in relation to their “base of information.” However, the point here is that that’s been done because that’s what we do. One can work in one’s studio like Caravaggio, crafting the details of a particular study. Or, one can take one’s paints into the field like Van Gogh and offer an impression. One can work on a portrait like Gainsborough; or, one can try to capture the moment of the rising sun, like Monet. I’d hardly claim that we’ve got Van Gogh- or Monet-like essays here. Still, I have wanted to load my paints into my backpack, stick the easel on the back of the bike, and go to the shore. That’s to capture something of the moment one sees something, or provide the panoply of, when one looks at the sky, what comes into view.

Of course, that raises the question of to what sky one has looked at or to which shoreline one has gone – what fields has one tried to paint, or the impressions of what sceneries has one tried to convey? Why has one chosen the subjects one has, and is one on the terrain of the intentional, or the fully random? I.e., to the extent that we have a range of experiences and it’s difficult to break the categories of experience off from one another, there are millions of issues one could have picked up to provide the kinds of analyses put forward here, or provide insight into the spaces in which human rights enter our lifeworld. As the historian Carlo Ginzberg argued in his The Cheese and the Worms (1976) – something of the historian’s attempt to capture the immediate lifeworld of a subject – it’s remarkable the number of things that can be compacted into small moments, what can feed into particular encounters with people, or what it takes to create a specific idea or thought. The “levels” of culture, Ginzberg asserted, are vast, and the “complex of attitudes, beliefs [and] codes of behavior” we maintain are labyrinthine. Many tributaries can flow into a river or stream, and there’s by no means one path to get to the sea.19 Has the approach here been like a gameshow contestant grabbing dollar bills in one of those “booths where they blow them around,” as it was described in volume one, or has there been an explicit attempt to elucidate the multiple registers in which human rights play-out – a world of high politics, ←19 | 20→combative cultural situations, encounters with art, architecture, and history, and goings-on in multiple geographical locales? Has there been an attempt to capture human rights as both “literal” and “figurative,” or is it simply the case that such a thing has fallen into place?20 Has there been no calculation involved – only stream of consciousness – or has there been an attempt to put a few stones and pebbles somewhere such that the stream goes somewhere, and enough brookside gardens get at least some of the water they’re supposed to have?

I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some deliberation here. I.e., the pieces themselves should be impressionistic and the content an act of politicological “descriptive psychology.” There is meditation on political-philosophical questions, and that in relation to a spectrum of events. Still, the point of departure for this book has been the idea that, as one historian puts it, human rights represent our “highest moral precepts and political ideals.”21 Even if rights standards have been dinged lately – and many of the essays attempt to convey that they have – it’s still rights standards we tend to invoke as the measure of what’s good and what’s not, what we should be moving towards, and to provide a sense of what we’re looking at when we look at a cultural or historical scene over and above obvious issues of political affairs. Invoking a point made by a number of scholars, human rights have a kind of ideological ascendancy today – they’re the gold standard of global politics. However, it isn’t just in the political realm that human rights play out. They also make their presence felt when we interpret the human story generally, and we look at a world of not only legislation and international relations, ←20 | 21→but spaces involving the arts and architecture, or locations involving historical memory.22

That has been important for me to capture. Historically, we often mark our world through high politics. Elections, summits, concords, treaties, major social upheavals – that’s the stuff of history books, and for good reason. Firstly, not everything can be chronicled. There are choices to be made regarding our narratives, as sometimes we lack the material to fill them in. History, it’s been argued, is occasionally driven by the form of narrative, or the idea that, come hell or high water, we have to get from point A to B.23 Secondly, in the absence of being able to chronicle everything, we need events we feel are emblematic of larger atmospheres and might have significance vis-à-vis the run of the past. The “plot” has to be driven forward somehow, and that’s sometimes at the level of “on the surface” affairs.24 That’s at the same time, though, that social history does exist. The arts and aesthetics are part of atmospheres we encounter. Memorialization, signification of the past, and the landscapes of cities are things we see and are part of a world we invest with meaning too. Any attempt to capture a “lifeworld,” if not the lifeworld of a political concept, has to reflect this. It might not be histoire totale, as a group of historians once called it; it might not be an attempt to offer a comprehensive look at a historical scene or affair. It also might not be “grand history,” as it’s also been monikered, or an attempt to provide a unifying arc above everything else.25 It might be something of a sampler ←21 | 22→plate, however, in which one gets a sense that rights ideas have at least a possible presence in looking at elections and international relations, but such things also make appearances in historical interpretation or even locations like literature and art. Qua idea, human rights have “triumphed on the world stage,” it’s been written. One finds them invoked by the “minister and the rebel” and from the “developing world [to] Hampstead and Manhattan.” They’re at least among the most referred to ideas in our “global culture.”26 The question is thus whether one captures this only by way of discussing figures like Trump and Putin, or if one can find other locations where rights ideals might wend their way in, helping us to understand our atmospheres.

Still, this book doesn’t just describe where or how one finds rights in our “atmosphere” – how one might discuss events from Charlottesville to Caracas through a human rights lens. This book also advocates for rights and criticizes Nicolás Maduro, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin for not living up to them. It finds it regrettable when Theresa May announces on the eve of an election that she’s skeptical of rights standards, and thinks it’s wrong when Israelis and Palestinians do battle with each other and, especially, when Israel opens fire. The book doesn’t want us to have regimes like those that built “party rally grounds” at Nuremberg (the Nazis), and it’s glad the international community developed standards of international law it might use to indict inhumane, abusive regimes. This book is glad when an artist like Wolfgang Tillmans might offer us a sense of the rights subject, and it thinks we should pause and think for a moment about events like the end of major trials at the criminal court established to investigate war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. As was the case with volume one, we don’t just have here an analysis, or explanation, of rights; we have arguments for them and an attempt to say that if one isn’t living up to rights standards, it’s a problem.

I need to make it clear that a third book will need to be part of this series. Firstly, if one wants a world organized around human rights standards, what would that look like and how would that happen? How does one constitute the “better society,” as I sometimes put it, and how does one do that regardless of frontiers? What is likely to create a world of “freedom, justice and peace,” as human rights phrase it, and what kind of political systems are likely to assure that people are accorded the dignity they’re supposed to have?27 In the most ←22 | 23→direct sense, these are answers I don’t provide in this book. I don’t theorize global governance, nor global governance by way of human rights. I don’t discuss the nature of a global social contract, nor do I discuss how one or the other state, group, or individual should be handled when they violate that contract or become involved in behavior we’ve said they shouldn’t. I haven’t discussed what the administrative units of a “human rights global system” would look like – do we maintain nation-states, for example? – and I also haven’t presented a theory of what justice or fairness is, or what the “dignity” is that all are supposed to have. I.e., as these are shorter, impressionistic pieces, volumes one and two should be followed up by a piece of rights theory. There should be a longer work discussing the human rights lifeworld as not just a cultural or intellectual atmosphere, but an actually manifestable political practice in which rights form the basis of globally effective law.28


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (November)
Justice Democracy History Inclusion Civil rights
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 252 pp., 14 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Ben Dorfman (Author)

Ben Dorfman is associate professor of intellectual and cultural history associated with the Democracy, Migration and Movements (DEMOS) research group at Aalborg University, and head of the Language and International Studies programs.


Title: Rights under Trial, Rights Reflections
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254 pages