13 Acts of Academic Journalism and Historical Commentary on Human Rights

Opinions, Interventions and the Torsions of Politics

by Ben Dorfman (Author)
©2017 Monographs 222 Pages
Series: Political and Social Change, Volume 6


Constituted of a range of essays, the present volume addresses a variety of contemporary and historical events from human rights perspectives. Taking on issues from the American presidential election to North Korean missile tests to terrorism and «civilizational» conflict to Cold War history, the current collection seeks to speak plainly by combining academic convention with a «feuilleton» style. Aimed at students and the public as much as other academics, the essays in this book seek to make rights concepts concrete by speaking to the issues through which they become salient: international conflict, social justice problems and the historical scenes that ask us to realize all human beings’ equality and dignity – an equality and dignity this book seeks to promote.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction: The Torsions of Politics: Human Rights and Where We Are (And a Discussion of “Historical Commentary” and “Academic Journalism”) :(November 21, 2016
  • Bombing IS: The Battle for Kobani :( October 14, 2014
  • Brussels: Looking for Peace: A Different Approach to Terrorism and Human Rights :( March 22, 2016
  • Human Rights and American Politics: The Surprising Case of Bernie Sanders :( March 24, 2016
  • In the Footsteps of Potsdam: The Cecilienhof and the Glienicke Bridge :( March 30, 2016
  • Iron Bridges: Crackdowns, Crackdowns :( April 2, 2016
  • The Arc of a Blue Note: Clark Terry and the Quiet Sound of Human Rights :( April 4, 2016
  • What to Do with the Kingdom?: Rights and Cultural Life :( April 6, 2016
  • At it Again: North Korea and Those Pesky ICBMs :( April 13, 2016
  • “Without Distinction of Any Kind”: LGBT Rights :( April 30, 2016
  • The Clash of Civilizations: Sub-Continent Style :( May 2, 2016
  • Grappling with the Phenomenon: Donald Trump and Human Rights :( May 4, 2016
  • “Reason and Conscience”: The Arts and Politics in Denmark :( May 5, 2016
  • The Sound of Many and One: Bergen-Belsen :( May 7, 2016
  • List of Illustrations
  • Series index

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Introduction: The Torsions of Politics

Human Rights and Where We Are (And a Discussion of “Historical Commentary” and “Academic Journalism”) (November 21, 2016)

It’s been two years – perhaps two and a half by the time this finally shows up in print – like few others. The war that was announced to have ended all the way back in 2003 most decidedly has not (the Iraq War – now partly morphed into civil war in Syria), the world’s supposedly most reliable source of rights-based politics (Europe) has become awash in oft-shocking levels of xenophobia as it’s dealt with a flood of migrants from precisely the locales where war doesn’t seem to stop, the United States, supposedly the world’s other great example of democratic practice, has elected a what might be a pseudo-demagogue to be its next President (the controversial Donald Trump), and we’ve seen so many fluctuations in the supposedly good-for-everyone liberal global financial system that what are supposed to be First World countries like Greece have needed to be bailed out – that to say nothing of the bailout of the American auto industry some years before. In certain ways, all is fine. Democracy still functions in places like Europe and the U.S., people – at least many of them – maintain access to their bank accounts, and for every civil rights crackdown in countries like Turkey or Egypt, there seem to be demonstrations reminding us that such things aren’t ok. Those are the good signs. The bad signs are wars that don’t seem to stop (what will bring the fighting in Syria to an end?), intercultural conflicts of which many in the world’s dominant political geographies seem to be barely aware (religious conflict on the Indian sub-continent, e.g.) and the fact that ranges of countries either continue to support dictators or have taken newly authoritarian turns (are you a part of that trend, America?). Humanitarians can take comfort in their victories – the legalization of gay marriage in the United States, say, or UN attention to dire rights situations in locales from North Korea to South Sudan. Humanitarians stand agog, however, as bombs explode in European capitals, Western politicians invoke vocabularies of force and poverty continues to plague large parts of the world. For all the activism out there, the mountain of difficulties we face on the global stage can challenge the fortitude of one’s convictions, making it hard, at least sometimes, to find the spirit to get out and fight.

The current project is an imperfect – perhaps deeply imperfect – attempt to address at least some of these issues as well as a few more, largely of a historical ← 11 | 12 → nature. I can’t explain all the dimensions of the work here except to say that I’ve felt compelled to respond to a variety of problems confronting our world and reflect on others related to milieus of social and political justice from not particularly distant pasts. I’ve been interested to enter into general conversation – conversation from the positions in which I stand – as well as to latch such conversation into discussions about and concrete regimes of human rights; that with rights standing as perhaps the preeminent socio-political discourse of our times. The issues to which I’ve responded to are simply those which entered my view over a particular period of time: roughly the end of 2014 to the first half of 2016. The notion of “general conversation” emerges from my sense of the role of the academic: that some need to be generalists and broader-scale, more subjective communicators over and above dedicated specialists whose call sign is the deepest levels of science. The focus on rights again derives from notions that they’re the present day’s ultimate socio-political concept – the idea or ideal by which many of us register how things “ought” to be and which represent mile-markers regarding successful approaches to international affairs and domestic politics. This book’s pieces are “scholarly;” they rely extensively, perhaps decisively, on academic convention and debate. Still, I prefer notions of “academic journalism” and “historical commentary” – that as I’ve attempted to speak in a somewhat different voice and with a different purpose and style. If I could classify this book as The New Yorker with footnotes, I would. Unfortunately, such characterizations don’t fully work as the writing isn’t up to that kind of snuff and the articles can get a little caught in the academic muck and mire. Still, I have attempted to work subjectively and based on opinion wherein, though invoking a particular set of academic knowledges and skills, I’ve sought to paint with a broader brush and work via a slightly more “public intellectual” approach.

I’d like to say something about the latter concept first. Modern academics is a mixed bag. It’s filled with dedicated teachers, supporters of general education projects, individuals invested in civic enlightenment ideals as well as more than a few activists. The increase in disciplinary specialization since the end of the Second World War is a well-known trend. With the expansion in both the size and number of global universities, detailed work that’s beyond the reach of most members of the general public has become much of what modern academic life is about.1 Still, academics descend the stairs of the ivory tower frequently enough. I.e., regardless of demands that they often write primarily for those in their field, ← 12 | 13 → many in the humanities and social sciences – those I know anyway – would characterize their work as concerned with a higher purpose: amelioratory projects of one kind or another, or general attempts to do good.2 That means critical thought. It means investigations of how things “are.” It means breaking down cultural assumptions and getting audiences – us – to think about the socio-political issues by which we find ourselves confronted. Indeed, some even line themselves up with specific sets of causes or the work of one or the other political party. There is an active and in fact quite public element to contemporary academic life.3

Still, the ivory tower can be high – how many from the general public in fact could read the works written by most in the contemporary liberal arts? – and the demand that academics carve out niches for themselves often means that while many university and college professors have opinions about the goings-on of their times, those opinions have to be expressed obliquely and with discomfort, sometimes great discomfort, about stepping outside the zones in which they are technically “expert.” One critic has discussed “myopia” – that whereas college faculty were once automatically figures with public roles, today’s professorial class is boxed into modes of expression so narrow that senses of the at-large intellectual have gone into retreat.4 “Myopia” feels harsh. Again, at least among those I know, more than a few keep an eye on the larger picture and have concerns about ranges of socio-political issues. Still, the nature of scholarship qua business is that it can from time to time be difficult to speak out of one’s values first and that it’s less than easy to find ways to bridge the kind of writing one finds, say, in feuilletons, with something also leading readers to the depth and maze of closer scholarly ← 13 | 14 → debate. Simply put, it’s not easy being a commentator and at-large essayist at the same time that one tries to be an academic technician too.5

I haven’t combined those things perfectly here – far from it. Indeed, I’ve perhaps attempted to do something one can’t – write at the interstices of newspaper reporting, the personal essay and articles of a peer-reviewed kind. I’ve perhaps tried to make an impossible landing at the crossroads of the academic monograph and the casual observer’s blog – the “me” and something more substantive. Indeed, reflecting on some of the essays in this book, one finds some funny elements. Explanatory footnotes sometimes take up more than half the page, and there’s a good deal of material to be mined in those notes (ironic when “academic rigidity” is something I’ve tried to avoid). The “straight” scholarship sometimes happens in those notes while the main text stands as something more mannered. The “artistic” parts of the writing – the “essayistic” dimensions of the pieces – sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Writing in a more subjective, impressionistic and “activist” style is new to me, and the smoothness of the prose hits rather more bumps (sometimes many more) than I’d like. This book’s essays can be back-loaded – there’s a lot of historical scene-setting, and it sometimes takes some substantial introductions before the central points set in. The language occasionally gets caught up in its own momentum as there can be a lot (a lot) of ideas at play at once. The impetus, however – the goal – has been attempting to offer at least some plain statements and a more “natural” approach to discussing particular issues at the same time as allowing non-academics to hold at least some of the ropes that those in universities and think-tanks use to repel down every day. I.e., I’ve sought to stand as some kind of example of the spirit of commentary while tipping my cap to the fact that scientific researchers have complex perspectives on points many assume to be particular ways – wherein we should learn from those who live up close with topics for extended periods of time. This book constitutes my reactions to social and political scenes – scenes in which I sometimes also step well outside my comfort zone to put in my own two cents. Non-academics or students who pick up this volume may well say “ok, there’s an academic at work” – that while there’s some in the academic world who may ask “what precisely is this?” If there’s any way in which I’ve combined both – a spirit of art and adventure with a modicum of scholarly knowledge – I’ll count the project as a win.

A word about that on which about I’ve chosen to write. This project moved forward in fits and starts. It began as an attempt to write a traditional monograph ← 14 | 15 → about human rights’ nature, arguing that while rights are perceived as an “absolute” (they’re understood as near-metaphysical, or simply “there”), they are, in fact, historically-based. Rights didn’t exist once, and they may well not exist again.6 That’s at the same time that, though rights might not be something towards which all human history has pointed – a “necessary” end to our historical experiences – we have the right to believe in them nonetheless (i.e., rights man-made nature doesn’t detract from their value). Now, I can hear some readers asking “how come he didn’t write that book; that sounds interesting to me?” My problem was that, in what seems to be an era when reference to rights has become especially rife, so many issues came across my television set, into my online space, were featured in the newspapers that I read and entered my personal domains – issues revolving around rights – that I felt compelled to discuss those problems as well. There were simply so many problems and goings-on about which I felt I had something to say. As any writer knows, time is always a problem. One can’t do everything one wants. I thus choose the latter path: commentary on contemporary and historical events with a view towards how I reacted to issues given an interest in speaking broadly and deploying the particular knowledge bases that I have. That work began in October 2014. Over the end of 2014 and the start of 2015, it generated a range of essays that gained critique, and then had to be rethought and sometimes reset (framed in relation to different topics and events). Practical issues of teaching and administration generated a pause in the writing. The project took off again from the beginning of 2016 on. Therein, in terms of the dates of the essays, there’s an early piece before a temporal gap, after which the other twelve pieces are noted as composed. I’ve simply decided to present the essays based on their compositional chronology – that as opposed to thematic arrangements suggesting a more monographical focus than there actually is.

Now, if the dates we’re talking about roughly are October 2014 to May 2016 (a little over a year and a half), there are massive numbers of issues about which I could have written. One issue that fell out of this book, e.g. – an area on which there originally was a piece – is the problem of the right to health, development and a clean environment; something I packaged in an earlier essay on the Ebola ← 15 | 16 → crisis. That was left out in deference playing to my strengths – social, political and historical issues. That was again in view of the amount of time I had. To write about events as they unfold, including in a manner picking-up on at least some degree of scholarly literature and debate, is no easy task. The choices here reflect one man in his lifeworld – a bit like a game show contestant grabbing whatever dollar bills he or she can as they stand in one of those booths that blow them around.

I don’t want to overdo issues of process – the ultimate question being what one has said as opposed to how one has said it. The “grabbing dollar bills” idea, however, has importance to this work as one of its goals, including the choice of a chronological, diary-esque presentation, has been to reflect how we operate – the ways in which we relate to flows of information, how we come into contact with socio-political issues and the ways in which we see the unfolding of history’s “concatenations” from the perspectives that we do. Throughout this book, I try to avoid much name-checking or extensive references to academic schools or philosophical movements (at least I largely attempt to leave such things to the footnotes). Still, I have always been attracted to notions advanced by a group of philosophers towards the start of the twentieth century which claim that there’s an inevitability to one standing where one does, and that one must and only can speak from the perspectives and locations that one has (that movement being Phenomenology, an early twentieth century forerunner to existential philosophy).7 That’s a large – extremely large – component of the writing here: me speaking from where I am in relation to what has caught my eye. I.e., the “process” or “genre” issue suggests two things. First, people have the right to be interested in what they want. Ideas that everyone “must” take notice of something may be true in a way; many activists want attention paid to their causes, and justly so. Still, we need to tune-in to the fact that people will take interest in ← 16 | 17 → the things that they do, and that approaching the world from our perspectives – those that we have for whatever reasons we have them – is humanity’s basic work. Second, my sense is that what professional humanists and social scientists might do is magnify such tasks – i.e., the liberal arts academic might do what everyone does anyway, just with more detail, or perhaps a bit more provocation or aplomb. I’ve thus written in the way that I have – again, in a style I would call “academic journalism” and “historical commentary” – to signal that I am who I am and that we have to accept the ways that each one of us is. That becomes an invitation for others to be who they are, explaining what they might see – that so dialogue can begin.8 This book represents a quite subjective enterprise based on the suggestion that we all muddle through the situations we have as best as we can.

Now, that being said, it is appropriate to say something about the themes of this book – to exceed the formal discussion, as such. Again, human rights are this book’s unqualified focus – a point to which I’ll get in a moment. In the context of discussing rights, however, I often engage themes of historical evolution and cultural identity – issues stemming from the domains of historical and cultural studies in which I in fact have some modicum of background. I.e., there’s a tendency among this book’s essays to dodge in and out of simply asserting that things “are” a particular way, and to lean heavily on qualification. There’s a lot of looking at different angles of identity and historical evolution, and speculating on how things might be considered or thought about were they to be a particular way. That’s derived from my sense of how history tends to be written – the fact that historians do little if not take multiple positions on issues that are one and the same. It also concerns problems of pinning down identities in any concrete, or “final,” sense – a cultural studies concern. E.g., was the Holocaust a “unique” event, or did it involve trends present in every genocide? Are histories of global conflict tied primarily to the role of great powers, or are they generated mainly at levels of region and locality? Must oppression be the lens through which we view the pasts of women and ethnic minorities, or have disenfranchised groups often exercised what might be surprising – indeed, decisive – levels of agency while appearing to be pushed to history’s margins? There are advantages and disadvantages to multiple sides of various arguments. In any case, such questions are the bread and butter of historical and culturological investigation. They involve basic analytical sensibilities regarding historical, social and cultural issues. Providing a feeling for those sensibilities plays into the background of nearly all this book’s ← 17 | 18 → essays. It doesn’t always help lighten the writing. Intellectually, however, they felt important to engage.9

In this vein, however, another problem that emerges in this book is some of the presumptions I use regarding relations between the “West” and the “non-West” – or, as I prefer, the world to which the West expanded and colonized in more than one sense, and those who did the bulk of the expanding and the colonizing. I.e., though attempting to introduce a degree of historiographical finesse and sensitivity to cultural identity, I often argue that what’s been characterized as the world’s political, economic and cultural “core” has historically retained and currently retains essentially oppressive relations with much of the world around it. Now, that’s not indefensible. As eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm once phrased it, it’s hard to discuss the difference between the “developed” and developing worlds without feeling “frustrated” – that as there’s an industrialized world with European roots that has done well for itself over the past two or three hundred years while the destiny of so many others has been so often thrown into doubt.10 I.e., many lead precarious existences, and the reality of exploitation, not only in economic senses, but in social, cultural and political senses, means that arguments about global “peripheries” may not be so far-fetched.11 That’s while we need take care. There are questions about what “exploitation” means, and one has to recognize that intense levels of independence have been fought for and won, sometimes at considerable cost.12 When one advocates for basic justice – something at the heart of each of this book’s essays – there can be a risk that one sees so much oppression that one disenfranchises those who have in fact worked tirelessly to throw off imperialism’s yolk. One can sometimes minimize those who have shed significant blood, sweat and tears to become free.13 ← 18 | 19 →

No doubt. Using the vocabularies of one scholar of cultural imperialism – though in some ways reversing the meaning from what she intended – the “subaltern,” or those on the margins, may well “speak.”14 I.e., pop the lid off our presumptions about the past and one can see “whole world[s] of struggle and resistance,” to say nothing of decided wins.15 Massive regions have been decolonized, and oppressed peoples have found liberation of a kind that’s more than just chimera. Still, it’s not just that important historians may have taken the view that locales like Europe and North America have often used the rest of the world as their personal playgrounds. It’s also not only that historically, a small number of players once retained significant control over large portions of the globe. It’s that one has to explain distributions of global cultural power and economic wealth as well as questions of who holds what amounts of the world’s military might and why today. One has to clarify how we’ve ended up in situations where global privilege continues to unevenly play out, and that certain global regions appear to sit more in the driver’s seat than others. Of the twenty wealthiest countries in the world by per capita GDP, e.g., seventeen lie in North America and Europe. Extend the list ten more spaces, and one adds another three or four more Western states ← 19 | 20 → (perhaps five, if one somehow includes Israel in that count).16 Obviously, NATO stands as the world’s largest military alliance (a Euro-American concoction), and be it Coca-Cola, Hollywood or global standards for fashion and style, intense arguments can be made that the preponderance of influence regarding the form and function of consumer items, media artifacts and the aesthetics of public space are also dominated by European and North American ideas. There are always exceptions. One has to be careful with blanket statements. However, politically, economically and culturally, one may need to fight to be seen. That’s especially if one isn’t from the privileged locales of North America or Western Europe.17


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (June)
Human Rights Politics History International Relations Culture Commentary
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 222 pp., 1 b/w ill., 13 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Ben Dorfman (Author)

Ben Dorfman is Associate Professor of Intellectual and Cultural History and Head of the Language and International Studies program at Aalborg University (Denmark).


Title: 13 Acts of Academic Journalism and Historical Commentary on Human Rights
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226 pages