Sunday, September 21, 2014

Invoking an Inglorious Cause

A couple of weeks ago I walked past a man wearing a shirt that read, “God Bless Our Liberties”.  A nice enough sentiment.  But below, it continued, “And Its Defenders”, accompanying the sentiment with a portrait of Jefferson Davis and several Confederate generals.

I come from northern California, where the secessionist State of Jefferson represents one of the pleasanter versions of right-wing politics, and so am no stranger to seeing Confederate flags on cars and windows.  But there remains something revolting about the fact that there are people willing to proudly use the imagery of a secessionist government based on the enslavement of other human beings to talk about liberty.
Of course the people who trumpet the virtues of the Confederacy and its generals—traitors who plunged the nation into war in defence of their “peculiar institution”, chattel slavery—like to pretend that the Civil War was fought over “state’s rights”.
And that’s true, to an extent.  But there was really only one of those rights that mattered; one of them that was essential to the culture and economy of the South’s land-owning class; one that was the basis both for our federal system and for the bloodiest contestation of its viability: slavery.   Grievances associated with the “rights” of slave-holders were front and centre in the secessionist writings associated with the Civil War, with other issues serving as proxies for discussing that underlying concern. 
If you’re opposed to universal healthcare, the regulation of pollution, the protection of workers’ rights, or the equitable distribution of wealth, there are many ways of registering your disapproval.
And so when you make a deliberate choice to eschew all the rest of the language and imagery at your disposal and wear a shirt glorifying the Confederacy, you are saying something despicable about the value you place on the liberty and humanity of members of our national community.  If such a person believes they are not—snidely, with an ugly wink and nod—making a favourable statement about slavery and the racial hierarchy it engineered, they have either crawled from beneath a rock or are living in a state of self-imposed ignorance.
For it is universally known that slavery as it existed in North America was a system which allowed one group of racially-defined people to seize other racially-defined people, and own them as they would an animal, a piece of furniture, or a chunk of land.  It was a system which stripped away all of the things that make people human, and allowed those individuals who took possession of their fellow human beings to beat, rape, humiliate, and wring their labour from them.  It was a system designed to destroy people as human beings and leave them with nothing more than a physical husk around a possessed body and tortured soul.

I cannot fathom what purpose people think they are serving when they favourably invoke such a system by equating it with the protection of liberties, but I am sure that it is a deeply immoral one that is deeply disrespectful of the trauma that slavery inflicted on our nation. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Troubling Conversation About Human Rights

On 11 September, I went to an interesting talk hosted by UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute.  The topic was “Blood, Sweat & Tears: life on the front lines of the human rights struggle in Russia, Nigeria, and Iran”.  The two panelists were Wole Soyinka, fabled Nigerian author and advocate, and Azar Nafisi, an Iranian author and activist.  Both panelists have spoken out at great personal risk, and lend eloquence and feeling to human rights movements in their respective countries and globally.
Human rights debates matter, as the President prepares for a new war in Iraq

The panel was moderated by Michelle Tusan, an historian of the British Empire whose work focusses on the relationship between humanitarianism and imperialism in the context of British visions of the Middle East.  Tusan’s questions brought up developments in Iran, Ukraine, Nigeria, and other crisis spots around the world, and Soyinka and Nafisi alike provided passionate commentary on events.

But there were some troubling trajectories to the otherwise-interesting conversation.  Former UNLV President Carol Harter opened the event, and invoked the emotional events of 9/11, thirteen years ago to the day.  Both Harter and the panelists repeatedly described those who commit “savage” atrocities as “barbaric”, and their actions as unthinkable if not unexplainable, using similarly emotive if imprecise language. 

This language and approach to attacking injustice is common (goodness knows I’m guilty at times in spite of my best efforts), but deeply problematic.  It is an emotional vocabulary, to my view of the kind that led to our toxic responses to 9/11 and similarly spasmodic responses to troubles elsewhere in the world, whether the human rights abuses meted out by Kenyan police in the aftermath of terror attacks; the institutionalization of torture in Nigeria recently reported by Amnesty International; Israel’s recent punitive attack on Gaza; or the reflexive conflation of religious or ethnic identity with other characteristics by Hamas and the Israeli state alike.

Treating violence, injustice, and terror as problems of an almost metaphysical nature, beyond explanation, is an understandable reaction, but one which flies in the face of the approach necessary to combatting such ills.  It also seemed out of place in an academic setting that is supposed to permit people the freedom to think more critically, rigorously, and systematically about the language, categories, and claims we use, with an eye towards applying that rigour to the world in a way that those most immediately engaged in policy decision-making seem incapable or unwilling of doing. 

Tusan pushed the panelists to provide their views on the role of institutions in mitigating troublesome relationships between interests, individuals, and violence, but it was at this point that the panelists engaged in what I perceived as a sort of popular anti-intellectualism.  Both dismissed the need to think about fashioning institutions capable of handling our idealistic aspirations, and excoriated the “political correctness” which they saw as the more significant barrier to the effective defense of human rights.

But if Nafisi and Soyinka are disgusted by the “practice” of “political correctness”, I was even more disturbed by their careless use of the term, which fell into the trap of conflating understanding or explanation of atrocities with condoning such atrocities.  Such a caricature, which admittedly makes for an easy applause line, helps to ensure that we will not grapple with the root causes of the violence that plagues our world.

There was also a sense that there is no time for analysis when lives are at stake.  Again, this is understandable, but pays little heed to our experience in the past decades, when too many decisions have been taken under the pretext that it is necessary to do something, anything, so long as we do it now!  Such was the rationale for our decision to lash out at Iraq after 9/11, a war conducted ostensibly for humanitarian and security reasons, which killed more civilians in its first month than died on 9/11 and provided for the proliferation of terror across the Middle East.  Such was the rationale when President Obama argued last autumn for an armed intervention in Syria, without articulating a strategy or a goal…other than the need to act.  Most critically, he failed to make the betterment of the conditions of Syrians in the midst of the civil war a precondition for any action.

Acting without understanding the causes of and motivations for violence leaves the actors open to making bad choices, choices that could haunt them and do more harm than damage to the people on whose behalf they are ostensibly acting.

Such action—and this is a common critique of interventions and NGO work alike—often appears to be more about salving the affronted consciences of advocates than about doing good for victims of violence.  And that was the tone which I, unfortunately and I hope wrongly, took away from the panelists’ conversation: that it is more important to express our outrage in the most forceful terms possible than to think through the ramifications of intervention and devise sound mechanisms for ensuring that those interventions achieve something useful. 

Institutions, as Tusan’s questioning suggested, matter. 

Last week, Congress granted the President of the United States authority to wage a proxy war against the so-called Islamic State using Syrian levies.  This will take place alongside the air war the U.S. is already waging in Iraq.  And it will undoubtedly accompany some back-room deals with violent, autocratic regimes in Syria and elsewhere: regimes against which exactly one year ago we proposed to go to war.

The reason why our efforts to combat one violator of human rights requires us to ally with others is to a large degree because we have eschewed the creation of strong, rigorous, accountable institutions, preferring the comfortable belief that our moral compass—subject to wild swings toward torture, rendition, abduction, and extrajudicial murder—will take us inexorably on the right course.

The reason why every effort to combat violations of human rights on the world stage takes a piecemeal, truncated, and unsatisfactory form stems from our refusal to deal with the reality that we need institutions uncorrupted by our own complicity in so many rights violations to take the lead and set the course. 


The reason why, it seems to me, so man efforts at humanitarian intervention fail so dismally is not just for a lack of institutions, but because in the absence of such institutions, minimally swayed by narrow national, strategic interests, interventions are undertaken by and for the most powerful nations.  Those nations, egged on by commentators who spurn critical examination and historical understanding, believe that their own virtue and good intentions can transcend the experiences, histories, and interlocking relations behind so much conflict: relations which must be unpacked and understood before anyone can mount a successful defense of the beleaguered humanity according to the universal conditions towards which we believe all people aspire.   

Thursday, September 18, 2014

European History, Day 8

Today was the first of two sessions on “The Enlightenment” in European History Since 1648 at UNLV, and also the students’ first discussion of one of our longer sources. 

I provided a rough and all-too-brief (and probably too fast) overview of some of the key themes and characteristics of the Enlightenment, as well as of some of the conversations historians have about how to pin down or define the same: as a period, a constellation of ideas, a process, etc. 

From there, we moved on to group discussions in class, with students juxtaposing Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (a play about the Crusades and about tolerance) with Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and Frederick II’s Political Testament.

There was considerable thematic overlap between Lessing’s play, the treatise on reform, and the defence of “enlightened despotism”, which hopefully begin to tie together the theme for students and illustrate what seemed to emerge as a class consensus from the conversation: that the Enlightenment provided a grab-bag of ideas from which different people drew selectively according to their ambitions.


On Tuesday, we’ll continue with the theme and discuss some of the impacts of the Enlightenment overseas…

European History, Day 7

On Tuesday, the theme for European History since 1648 at UNLV was the British East India Company.  But we kicked off the class with a discussion of our two primary sources for the day, a satirical treatise praising the virtues of coffee and spelling out the rules for behavior in a coffee shop, and selections from Adam Smith on the “Wealth of Nations”.

The discussion of coffee and coffee shops led us to the commercial world of stocks and markets, and the places and methods that people used to communicate the dense information necessary to navigate the 17th and 18th century commercial worlds.  And the selections from Smith helped us to make the transition from the mercantilist ideologies of an earlier era to the laissez-faire economic outlooks of the late-18th century.  Although as we discovered, there were limits to Smith’s tolerance of the “free” market.

I like the example of the East India Company because it provides a good example of an unintuitive, corporate form of colonialism, and illustrates the relationship between politics, empire, and money.  Moreover, as a discussion of the Company’s critics reveals, the debates about the relationship between corporate power, governance, and democracy are not unique to our own era! 


Tracing the Company’s history took us from its foundation in 1600 to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th Century.  But on Thursday we were back in the 1700s discussing how to make sense of the Enlightenment, the backdrop not only to the American and French Revolutions, but also to historical events well into the 20th Century…

Friday, September 12, 2014

European History, Day 6

Thursday’s lecture in European History Since 1648 at UNLV focused on the Atlantic Slave Trade and its impact on the various parts of the world touched by the trade in human beings that moved between four continents.
One of many images used by British abolitionists in their efforts against the Slave Trade
We started off by discussing some of the various ways in which historians have suggested that the Slave Trade helped to create a modern world: the creation of much of the capital that kick-started the industrial revolution; the hardening of racial attitudes that pre-figured 19th century European colonialism; the critical weakening of African states and their abilities to respond to Europeans; the systems of accounting and calculation that emerged from the plantation economies in the south and the Caribbean; and, as people began to critique the trade in more effective terms, the genesis of what some would argue to be the first modern human rights movement.
We discussed some of the differences between chattel slavery as it emerged in this context and slavery as it existed in some pre-colonial societies, and then moved on to an overview of the trade through an examination of some of the statistics which help to bring home its scale and the wealth it generated.
But as Abolitionists themselves realized, raw numbers were insufficient to capture the horror of the abductions, the middle passage, and plantation life.  And so we discussed a selection from Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, the account of a freed slave that reached audiences around Britain in the 18th century, providing them with a first-hand narrative of a slave’s experience.
Students also had their first historiographical article as well, and we read a piece by an historian of the Caribbean who followed in the footsteps of historian and Trinidadian politician Eric Williams in arguing that Britain’s decision to end the slave trade had precious little to do with morality, and more with trying to re-tool the Caribbean economy and the British economy more broadly to compete with European rivals and fit with economic philosophies articulated by the likes of Adam Smith.

Tuesday’s class will range quite widely in terms of time, when we continue our discussions about the political economy of Europe through an examination of the British East India Company, and its role in shaping the institutions and interests of the modern world between its founding at the beginning of the 17th century and the Opium Wars of the 19th century.  Stay tuned…

European History, Day 5

Last Tuesday, we continued our conversation about the links between transportation, communication, and power while seguing into a discussion about religion in Europe during the 17th century in particular.
Witch trials took place in colonial New England as well as Europe


The class is large enough that I'm still fuzzy on a lot of student names, and so they did a brief group activity at the beginning of class so that they can begin to get to know each other.  The activity revolved around "Triads", an idea I got from a colleague Dr Paul Werth (UNLV's historian of Russia).  

He and others in the department took the concept of an ID (wherein students identify the 'who, what, when, where and why is this important?' associated with a term) up a notch.  Students are given three terms (to take one example, Colonialism, Mercantilism, and Bureaucracy), and asked to develop and argument about the relationship between them, drawing on sources from the class.  In this way, students are making connections and comparisons, very key historical skills!

We then had a discussion about how increasing mobility (primarily via road at this point) and map-making gave greater power to people at different levels of society: on the one hand, the state was better able to count, tax, and evaluate its subjects or citizens; on the other, people were able to track and follow labour markets (part and parcel of urbanization).

Having just read James Vernon's wonderful Distant Strangers: How Britain Became Modern, I also asked students to think about the discombobulating effects of this increased movement, particularly into urban settings where, as anyone who has crossed between rural and urban areas even today knows, requires vastly different social skill sets and sensibilities!  We'll return to this theme when we discuss the industrial revolution down the road.

The brief discussion of associational life provided a sketchy transition to the role which religion played during the 17th and 18th centuries.  But our two texts were more focussed on divisions that sprang up around the topic, and unfortunately we had to rush a bit through a discussion of the Edict of Nantes and the trial of Suzanne Gaudry, a woman accused of witchcraft.  Unable to do justice in our allotted time to European witch hunts, I directed students interested in learning more to a great historiographical article by colleague Dr. Elspeth Whitney, one of UNLV's Europeanists. 

True to form, after this foray back into the first half of the 17th century, we are now jumping forward to the Atlantic Slave Trade, focussing on the 18th century...

Saturday, September 6, 2014

European History Schedule

A couple of people asked if they could see the reading list for Europe Since 1648, the course about which I blog intermittently.  I've pasted the list of books and the schedule of topics and readings below.  The "reader" from which many short sources are draw is the second item on the list under "course materials".  My apologies if the formatting gets a bit strange!
Existential Comics
  Course Materials
Lynn Hunt et al, The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures.
Katherine Lualdi, Sources of the Making of the West.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan the Wise.
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o.  In the House of the Interpreter.
Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk.
Schedule (subject to change)
Week 1: Introductions
                Making the West, 461-492
                26 August (Lecture 1): Thinking about Europe and History
                28 August (Lecture 2): Beginnings

Thursday, September 4, 2014

European History, Day 4

Maps like this one enabled governments to read and interpret their territories,
facilitating the growth of state power.
In today’s rather chaotic edition of European History Since 1648 at UNLV, we once again failed to escape the 17th century, a dark age for an historian of the 20th century who likes his sources neatly typed.  In truth, the class is designed to proceed as much thematically as chronologically, and so our themes today—Transportation, Communication, and Power—built some bridges with our earlier discussions about states and societies in Europe during this period.
After reviewing Locke and Hobbes’ views of the relationship between state and society we used brief selections from Montesquieu (writing on the French court of Louis XIV), Mary Astell (writing on the subjugation of women), and Ludwig Fabritius (describing a Russian uprising) to identify some of the critics of both absolutist and constitutional order in Europe.  Each of these critics drew in some way on a notion of a voided social contract, and students began the process of making connections between seemingly disparate themes like “gender”, “the state”, “the social contract”, and the political geography of Europe that we touched on last week.
This led us, perhaps circuitously, to a discussion of the manner in which more ambitious European states were able to exercise their power.  Thinking about European rule in the Americas suggested that transportation and communication both facilitated the expansion of state power.
Our core source for this part of class was the writing of Jacques Marquette, a French missionary on the Mississippi.  Students identified how, in his descriptions of the North American landscape, Marquette described the landscape, its resources, its people, and their customs.  This information, they concluded, provided European governments—in this case the French government—with the anthropological and statistical knowledge essential to their rule over these territories. 

The fact that Marquette was a missionary on the vanguard of colonial expansion should lead us nicely into Tuesday’s session, in which we’ll discuss the role of religion in 17th and 18th Century Europe, a theme which in turn will feature in our upcoming discussions of the Slave Trade and its abolition, and Enlightenment-era Europe.