Some lesser-known images of this horrific period in the history of capitalism, but striking nonetheless:
In an older post in this series, I’ve argued in favor of a certain amount of direct citizen participation in modern representative democracies. Referenda in particular are useful as a means to correct certain deficiencies of purely representative systems. However, this argument is often vehemently opposed, even by true defenders of democracy. Referenda, it is said, are open invitations for demagogy and citizen manipulation. They distort the normal representative process and they can lead to horrible decisions based on nothing more than emotion and prejudice.
Indeed, there are many examples of problematic referenda in the history of mankind. The German Anschluss of Austria is one. Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria just before WWII, scheduled a referendum on the proposed Anschluss in March 1938 (before the Anschluss actually took place). Schuschnigg was opposed to Hitler’s ambitions to absorb Austria into the Third Reich. He set the minimum voting age at 24, as he believed younger voters were supporters of the German Nazi ideology. He never had time to go through with his referendum because Hitler invaded in April. Had the referendum taken place, the results would obviously have been biased. The fact that Schuschnigg’s efforts were in a good cause did nothing to reassure opponents of referenda in general.
And those opponents have an even better reason for their opposition. After the German invasion, Hitler decided he needed a referendum of his own, which took place in April 1938. As one can guess, this referendum was utterly and completely biased. It officially recorded a support of 99.7% of the voters (with a turnout of also 99.7%). This was only possible because of large-scale propaganda, the arrest of 70,000 opponents, and the abrogation of the voting rights of around 400,000 people (nearly 10% of the eligible voting population, mainly former members of left-wing parties and Jews). Officials were present directly beside the voting booths and received the voting ballot by hand (in contrast to a secret vote where the voting ballot is inserted into a closed box) (source).
Furthermore, the ballot looked like this:
One would call this a “subtle nudge” nowadays. Just in case the much less subtle means of interference cited above didn’t pay off.
However, I fail to see how the history of the Anschluss invalidates referenda in general. Let’s not forget that Hitler also abused the representative process in his own country, and yet few people cite the events of 1933 in Germany as a reason to abandon representative democracy. If there is a risk of manipulation in referenda, deal with the risk. You don’t get rid of your car because you have a problem. You fix the problem. Things are different, of course, when one can point to a general pattern of problems with referenda. But one can’t. There have been many successful referenda throughout the world in very different circumstances.
By the way, after his efforts to keep Austria independent had failed Schuschnigg resigned his office. He was arrested by the invading Germans, kept in solitary confinement and eventually interned in various concentration camps, which he survived.
More posts in this series here.
- New: “When Hitler Took Austria: A Memoir of Heroic Faith by the Chancellor’s Son” (insightscoop.typepad.com)
In 1989, 24 years ago tomorrow, a pro-democracy demonstration by Chinese students ended in bloodshed as soldiers tried to clear Tienanmen Square in the center of Beijing. No one knows for sure but thousands may have died. The Chinese government puts the number at 241 dead, and continues to pretend that really nothing important happened. Here’s the story of the event, told by way of maps:
On June 3rd, thousands of troops converge on the square from all directions. The protesters take to the street in order to block the troops. The latter then open fire. Many are believed to have been killed by tanks driving over people.
Here’s another map, showing the places where 176 victims were killed or the hospitals to which their bodies were taken (nothing is known about most of the other victims):
(source, click image to enlarge)
The story of the “tank man” has come to symbolize the events. The day after the crackdown, an unknown man carrying shopping bags steps out in front of a column of tanks. The first tank tries to drive around him, but the man moves sideways to block its advance. Ultimately, he even climbs on top of the first tank and argues with the driver. He is then pulled away by “onlookers” and “disappears”.
Here’s a video:
The purpose of human rights measurement, as I’ve stated many times before in this blog series, is to get some idea about progress. Are human rights better protected now than they were before, or vice versa? There are different ways to measure respect for human rights, and therefore also different outcomes. However, most measurements indicate that there is some progress, at least for certain human rights.
Now, here’s something strange: if we look (again) at Google Ngrams*, then it seems as if the Golden Age of human rights ended somewhere in the 1970s:
Or perhaps we shouldn’t over-interpret this. It’s possible that until the 70s people had other ways of describing cruelty and oppression and that human rights only became lingua franca after 1970 (another ngram seems to confirm this).
However, I still find this rather hard to understand. Almost no mentions of human rights violations in the millions of books written before 1970, and then a steady and steep rise. After all, human rights were “invented” in the 18th century, and their seeds were planted long before that. Also, it’s not as if the last 3 of 4 decades saw a large increase in the number or gravity of human rights violations. On the contrary.
So, why the increase in mentions? Perhaps it is simply a matter of increased consciousness. Or perhaps we’re seeing the famous Tocqueville effect again: Tocqueville has famously argued that the more a society liberates itself from injustices the harder people find it to bear the remaining injustices. And the harder they find it, the more they talk about it. Vice versa, when injustice is widespread and and permanent it may feel like destiny and then there’s no use even mentioning it.
* If you don’t know what the Ngram viewer is, go here first.
Not that the Chinese were generally better treated in the US. Anti-Asian sentiment in the US and elsewhere dates from well before WWII. For example, there was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a ban on Chinese immigration that lasted until 1943:
The original Yellow Peril rhetoric focused on the Chinese, not the Japanese. Chinese immigration into the US – and other Western countries as well – was important in the 19th century. The term refers to skin color and the fear that the mass immigration threatened white wages and standards of living and that the immigrants would eventually take over and destroy western civilization. The notion continued to have some currency until late in the 20th century, when it became associated with fears of Chinese overpopulation.
And did they need protection. Here’s the story of the Denver riot of 1880:
Denver had a section of town, populated by Chinese laborers, known as “Hop Alley”. The name was in reference to the widespread use of opium amongst the “Celestials” as some people referred to the Chinese at that time. A group of railroad laborers entered a bar in the area and confronted two Chinese men playing pool, hit one of them with a cue stick, and was promptly shot at by the other pool player. He missed, but word quickly spread that a Chinaman had killed a white man. A large crowd gathered with the intent to destroy the Chinese, along with all their possessions. (source)
Another example is the Asiatic Exclusion League, an organization formed in the early twentieth century in the United States and Canada that aimed to prevent immigration of people of Asian origin. In 1907, riots erupted in Vancouver when League members besieged Chinatown. Shouting racist slogans, as many as 10,000 people marched into Chinatown, vandalizing and causing thousands of dollars worth of damage. A small Kristallnacht. The mob then rampaged through Japantown, where they were confronted by residents armed with clubs and bottles with which they fought back (source).
Here’s a print from Mexico about the “terrible diseases of the Orient”, from 1932:
And here’s one from New Zealand:
Here’s another fine illustration betraying prejudice:
Sentiments like these have become rare nowadays, but haven’t totally disappeared. Here’s an Australian job ad:
More collections of images are here.
History has seen many genocides and large scale killings. Some of those resulted in more deaths than the Holocaust. So why is the Holocaust special? It’s special because it was the first and last example of the industrial production of corpses. It was, quite literally, a murder machine. The murders were not the actions of specific individuals who did what they did because of their identity, motives or pathologies. They were not like the brutalities of the Roman Emperor Nero, which were clearly his. Nor were they like the crimes of Saddam Hussein or any other identifiable criminal. In the case of the Holocaust, it was impossible to recognize an identity in the deed. The killers were impersonal, insignificant, loyal, conscientious and hardworking civil servants operating together in an organized, efficient, systematic and planned extermination, characterized by division of labor and the industrial production line. Everyone knew exactly what to do, and often that was a very small part of the process. Shared responsibility is often seen as diminished responsibility, and makes it easier to produce corpses. The detailed planning, organization and execution of the project sets the Holocaust apart from other genocides. Eichmann protested against spontaneous pogroms in the east, not because he was a humanitarian but because those unorganized interventions messed up his bookkeeping and made it difficult to count how many exactly were killed by the otherwise machine-like operation.
The Holocaust was not the action of an individual or a small group of people. Nor was it motivated by egoism, the will to power, money, hate, rage, revenge, sadism, war or the elimination of opposition. The victims were not guilty of opposition or even crime. The perpetrators weren’t motivated by self-interest (for example, the Nazis prohibited private confiscation of Jewish goods for personal use). Neither was it primarily the hatred of Jews that led the Nazis to try to exterminate them. It was the love of humanity – or better what they considered to be true humanity – and the need to protect it. The Holocaust wasn’t a war crime either and wasn’t part of the normal atrocities of war. It started well before the war and the German war effort suffered substantially from it: potentially useful labor forces were eliminated, soldiers and other means that could have been used in the war were diverted to the extermination effort etc. The Jews were murdered, not because that would have allowed soldiers to fight rather than guard prisoners, but because they were Jews. The extermination continued even in the final days of the war, when Germany was losing and all military resources should have gone to the war effort. And, finally, the purpose of the Holocaust wasn’t to instill fear. Normal state terror serves to scare the population and convince it to submit and to behave in ways that are acceptable to the rulers. Not in the case of the Holocaust. Fear had become useless because it couldn’t serve to guide actions and to steer away from danger. Danger would have found you anyway. Everyone knew that you were a Jew, and tactical maneuvering motivated by fear could have helped you escape only in very few cases.
Self-interest, power hunger, sadism, revenge or other utilitarian motives were seen by the Nazis as diversions from the genocidal operation that was undertaken for the benefit of mankind. As was the military self-interest of Germany’s success in the war. The project of extermination of the Jews and the protection of mankind was more important than the risk of a possible military defeat of Germany. Pity as well could not stand in the way of the demands of nature and history. The pleas of the victims were not heard and people convinced themselves of the historical and natural necessity of the Holocaust. Like pity, the taking of money from a victim as a bribe for letting him or her live was a betrayal of nature. Germans had to be the superhumans that they were destined to be, free from all that makes us ordinary humans: pity, self-interest, hate and the will to power.
The Holocaust wasn’t a crime. A crime is a deed that goes against social order and established law and that challenges the powers that represent social order. In this case, we have an atrocity that emanated from the state and that had become the moral and legal law. Murder had become a form of government. Evil no longer had to fight the Good, and no longer had to hide and to be hypocritical. Evil ruled. There was only evil. The world was without a horizon, without hope or salvation. Another reason why the Holocaust can’t really be called a crime is the fact that the perpetrators didn’t have criminal motives. They just carried out the verdict of nature and implemented the laws of nature. A deeper legality defined the actions of government. Murder had become the law of nature as well as the legal law and the law of morality.
More on the Holocaust here.
Here are some general observations inspired by the recent talk of a possible amnesty for Assad as a means to convince him to give up power in Syria.
Imagine a country in which roughly 20% of the population ruled the other 80% during several decades or even centuries. The members of the ruling class owned the land and controlled much of the economy, are of a different social class (perhaps even race) and made sure that the rest of the population lived in constant poverty, oppression and discrimination.
The combination of an internal uprising and external intervention produced a successful transition to a fully democratic form of government. A strong and independent judiciary is now in place, able to effectively enforce a constitution that includes a wide array of human rights.
How should this new democracy deal with the horrors of the past and the rights violations of the now defunct regime? There are two seemingly incompatible needs: victims of rights violations in the past now demand justice, but the society as a whole may be better off without justice, at least in the short run immediately after the democratic transition (and later it may be too late to bring the perpetrators to justice because they’re all dead). Justice can make it more difficult to integrate the old ruling class into the new state. Given that most of the members of that class were heavily implicated in the horrors of the past, justice can’t be a simple matter of punishing a few key perpetrators. And punishing large groups of people will alienate those people, with potentially fatal consequences for the stability of the new state. It may even be the case that one can identify a few key perpetrators, but that those are still quite important for stability even though they’re not very numerous. For example, it’s likely that the military was implicated in past injustices, but the military – especially the top brass - is very important for stability and the new state can’t risk alienating this group, even if it’s not very large. An internally divided society is not at peace with itself and risks upheaval.
However, failure to pursue justice will also divide society. Failure to do something about past injustices will result in impunity and will undermine the moral authority of the new state. Also, what would that imply for future respect for human rights? Why respect rights when past disrespect was without consequences? And if only new rights violations are prosecuted, then there will be a feeling of injustice because of double standards.
A solution to this dilemma can perhaps be found in the fact that there are degrees and different kinds of justice. Justice doesn’t have to be penal or focused on retribution or revenge. Better perhaps to emphasize truth, also a traditional element of justice. Truth, as in the so-called truth commissions, can foster repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Judicial prosecutions can still play a part, but their potential divisiveness can be softened by measures such as amnesty, pardon or limited punishments, on the condition that the defendants cooperate in truth commissions. It’s often the case that truth is more important to victims than retribution.
Of course, some major perpetrators may still have to be punished and perhaps even severely punished. Some types of responsibility are simply to heavy to warrant amnesty. It may be impossible for a society to exist given the presence of monsters continuing their lives as if nothing happened. It’s not necessary to “buy” the allegiance of every single individual in society, not even individuals who still have a broad base of support. In addition, we have to avoid coerced amnesty: perpetrators can blackmail the new state by threatening large-scale unrest or upheaval.
So we need to balance the needs of the past and the future. Both needs should be acknowledged and neither should be sacrificed for the other. Of course, that’s easy to say and very hard to do.
- Analysis: Justice in doubt for Congo atrocity victims (reuters.com)
- Action needed to investigate a decade of crimes in DRC (yubanet.com)
It sounds like a somewhat antiquated concept and it may very well be true that it’s useless as a descriptive device for current politics. However, I believe that it remains a necessary tool for the correct understanding of 20th century history. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China were very different countries and very different political regimes, but it can be argued that what they had in common was more important than what separated them. And what they had in common separated them from all other authoritarian governments before and after them. (Hannah Arendt was one of the first to notice this). That is the reasoning behind the concept of totalitarian government. Those three governments – and perhaps a few others – can be described as totalitarian states and were therefore instances of a separate type of government, like oligarchy or democracy. They were not just particularly brutal forms of dictatorship. We’re not talking about a difference in degree. Of course, some of the elements of totalitarian rule which I describe below can be found in other dictatorial governments as well, but other elements can’t. (Just like some elements of democracy can be found in non-democracies). And what certainly can’t be found elsewhere is the combination of all those elements.
Totalitarian government is a post-democratic form of government. It couldn’t exist in the era before mass democracy. It’s post-democratic in the sense that it is an outgrowth of modern democratic traditions. Political parties, party ideologies, mass movements and mass mobilization, the pseudo-popular legitimacy of rigged elections and referenda, the mass idolatry, the personality cults, mass indoctrination, propaganda, Potemkin constitutions, show trials etc. all show the totalitarian debt to democracy. The same is true for the focus on re-education and rectification of thought when some parts of the popular will are considered to be deviant: this is proof of the importance of popular consent (when consent is absent, it’s fabricated).
Contrary to older forms of despotism, totalitarianism admits that the state is no longer the natural property of a ruling class, the private tool of a sovereign or a gift of God. It is the expression of the will of the people. Not, as in a democracy, of a divided people or of a people who’s identity fluctuates over time as a consequence of public debate. The will of the people under totalitarian government is permanently defined as a unified whole. The people are defined as a race or a class. The people have a homogeneous project, namely racial supremacy or the liberation of the proletariat. The will of the people, which is also the basis of democracy but which is always kept vague, heterogeneous and fluctuating in a democracy, now becomes a singular, clear and permanent will. All individuals and individual projects or interests are identified with a collective project. Everything which is in accord with this project, is part of the people; everything else is not – is foreign, alien, “entartet”, bourgeois or capitalist – and must be destroyed. If it’s the whole of the people that works towards a certain project, then those with another opinion are enemies of the people and have to be destroyed to protect the people and its project.
That is the origin of the genocidal nature of all totalitarian governments but also of their less extreme forms of exclusion of the other. Every internal division is seen as external. The other is not part of the people. Society isn’t divided but is divided from its enemies. Every sign of internal division is externalized: dissidents are foreign spies, the other is a member of the international jewish conspiracy, a tool of international capitalism, the fifth column etc. For example, long after it was clear that the attack on Hitler in 1939 was the work of a single German individual (Georg Elser) the nazis maintained that the British secret service was to blame. The other attack by von Stauffenberg in 1944 was framed as the work of aristocratic officers who were alienated from the German people. This division between internal and external is consciously cultivated because it confirms the image of the people as a unified whole. If real foreign spies or class enemies can’t be found then they are created. and duly suppressed. Hence everyone can become the enemy, even the most loyal followers.
The fixed will of the people is subsequently represented by the party and the state. The party doesn’t represent a majority, but the people. Hence, other parties have no reason to exist. All people and the whole of the people are represented by a single party. And since this party perfectly represents a perfectly clear and unified popular will, it can infiltrate all parts of society: school, church, labor union, factory, the press, the judiciary, the arts and all other social organizations cease to be independent. The party is everywhere and submits every organization to its will. It believes it can do so because its will is the will of the people. And the party uses the means of the state to be everywhere: the secret service, the department of communications, the police… As a result, the state is also everywhere. Totalitarian government simultaneously bans people to the private sphere – all free and deviant public actions and expressions are forbidden – and destroys the private sphere, to the point that people can’t even trust their friends and family. All private actions are potentially public. Wiretapping, surveillance, public confessions… Even the most private things of all, your own thoughts, are attacked by way of propaganda and indoctrination. Totalitarianism strives for total control of private and public life. All spontaneous and independent individual or social projects are doomed unless they are completely trivial. They can only survive when they are part of the common project, because they make sense only when they are part. When they are not, they are potentially in opposition to the common project.
But we should understand that the identification of the party with the state is only temporary. The state in fact is bound to disappear. That becomes clear when we consider the imperialism that is typical of totalitarianism (to a lesser degree in the case of China). By definition, the projects of totalitarian governments – racial supremacy or a classless society – go beyond the borders of a state. Aryans aren’t only meant to rule within the borders of Germany. They deserve global supremacy in part because they are the best race and in part because the Jews are a worldwide threat. And the classless society can’t exist when it is surrounded by a capitalist world; the proletariat in other countries also deserves to rule.
Totalitarianism is a form of rule that goes beyond the state. A particular state is just a convenient tool for a certain stage in the popular project. The people as well is a concept that goes beyond the group of citizens of a given state. There are also Aryans and workers in other states. In non-totalitarian dictatorships, political rule is essentially tied to the state. A normal dictator may attack other countries, but will do so while enhancing his state or expanding his country. His rule will never go beyond the rule of a state, suitably redefined if necessary. If necessary he’ll redraw the boundaries of the state, but he will never go beyond the state as such. Totalitarian rule, on the other hand, is ultimately larger than the state. It’s the rule of a race or a class, on a potentially global level.
As the people and the state are subject to the rule of the party, so the party is subject to the rule of one individual. The leader makes sure that the party remains unified, because a divided party can’t claim to represent a unified people. So there’s a series of identifications going on: the people is identified with a class or a race; this unified people is then identified with the party that represents it; the party in turn identifies itself with the state because it (temporarily) needs the tools of the state to realize its project (class rule or race rule); the state then takes over society and identifies with it; and ultimately a single leader takes over everything in order to guarantee unity.
The people are like a collective individual, a body with a head controlling all its coordinated movements. State terror and genocide can then be seen as the body removing sickness and parasites. The other is often explicitly identified as parasitical or infectious. Violence and oppression are medicines used to safeguard the integrity of the body of the people and their purpose. The Great Purge wasn’t called a purge by accident. The Jews weren’t depicted as pestilent rats for no reason.
The image of the body also means prophylaxis: why wait with punishment until the crime is committed? We know that certain persons are enemies of the people. Crime in the sense of opposition to the project of the people is a fatality for them, sooner or later. There may be good Jews, but we can’t take the risk that they marry an Aryan and defile the race. And some capitalists may be less harmful than others, but why wait until their presence undermines collectivization or until they betray the country and invite an invasion?
Totalitarian government isn’t like a normal lawless and arbitrary dictatorship. Of course, the laws under totalitarian government are regularly broken or changed to serve certain goals. But there are deeper laws that the totalitarian government has to protect, namely the laws of nature (in the case of Nazism, and more specifically the laws of natural selection) and the laws of history (in the case of communism, more specifically the laws that say that economic and industrial development will necessarily destroy capitalism and inaugurate communist production). Those “deeper” laws aren’t human laws; they are historical laws that drive mankind towards the realization of the project that animates totalitarianism. Totalitarian government serves to facilitate and fasten the operation of those deeper laws. Jews are exterminated because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of Aryans. Capitalists, bourgeois, kulaks etc. are exterminated (or reeducated in order to become communists) because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of the proletariat (the proletariat is doomed to rule given the evolution of capitalism, but its rule can be hastened).
There is no “regis voluntas suprema lex” as in previous forms of despotism. The legal lawlessness covers a deeper lawfulness. Legal laws have to be adapted to best serve the deeper laws. If terror and violence are required for the realization and hastening of the evolution postulated by the deeper laws, then the legal laws will mandate and require terror and violence. Terror and violence don’t only serve to intimidate, destroy opposition, isolate people from one another and coerce compliance. They serve the project of the people.
I think all this justifies grouping Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China under a separate form of government. That doesn’t mean that everything about those regimes was new and typical only of totalitarian government. Obviously, genocides, terror, show trials etc. have occurred before and since. Those are not inventions of Hitler, Stalin or Mao. There are historical parallels, just as there are parallels between contemporary art and ancient art, but still we prefer to distinguish these two forms of art. We have to look beyond the phenomenology of despotic regimes throughout history, and identify the particular logic of different forms of despotism.
It’s hard to believe, but at this very moment an estimated 10% to 20% of the population of Mauritania – 340,000 to 680,000 people – still live in slavery. This is despite the fact that in 2007, the country became the last in the world to outlaw the practice. Anti-slavery activists are arrested and the government acts as if there is no problem. Only one slave owner has been successfully prosecuted.
It’s the nuances of a person’s skin color and family history that determine whether he or she will be free or enslaved. Most slave families in Mauritania consist of dark-skinned people whose ancestors were captured by lighter-skinned Arab Berbers centuries ago. Slaves typically are not bought and sold — only given as gifts, and bound for life. Their offspring automatically become slaves, too.
The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 during the Bosnian War. They assaulted the city from the surrounding hills. An estimated 12,000 civilians were killed or went missing.
The Sarajevo Red Line is the name of a memorial event commemorating the Siege’s 20th anniversary. The installation of 11.541 chairs represents the number of people killed in Sarajevo.
The Nanking – or Nanjing – massacre occurred when Japanese troops occupied the city of Nanking in 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers were murdered and raped by the Japanese. Read the full story here.
There’s also this particularly gruesome one, but I couldn’t verify its authenticity:
More iconic images here.
Some of the iconic photos taken by Margaret Bourke-White during the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, in April 1945:
At the end of and immediately after WWII, millions of ethnic Germans were cleansed from the eastern parts of Europe and sent to the areas which would become post-war Germany and post-war Austria, partly in retaliation for wartime cleansing by Nazi Germany. The areas of expulsion included pre-war German provinces as well as areas which Nazi Germany had annexed or occupied.
At least 12 million people - the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16 - were expelled from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland. Those who survived the journey – about 500.000 did not – found themselves among the ruins of Allied-occupied Germany to fend for themselves as best they could.
This was the largest movement or transfer of any population in modern European history. A part of those fleeing did so “voluntarily”, in fear of the advancing Red Army. Others were forcefully expelled in an effort by the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union to redraw the European post-war map and to create ethnically uniform nations and territories. By 1950, the ordeal had ended.
Retaliation and “reparation” were the most commonly cited justifications for the expulsion; ethnic peace was another one: “defusing ethnic antagonisms through the mass transfer of populations”.
To make the horror complete,
tens of thousands perished as a result of ill treatment while being used as slave labor (or, in the Allies’ cynical formulation, “reparations in kind”) in a vast network of camps extending across central and southeastern Europe—many of which, like Auschwitz I and Theresienstadt, were former German concentration camps kept in operation for years after the war. (source)
A gruesome anecdote:
The screams that rang throughout the darkened cattle car crammed with deportees, as it jolted across the icy Polish countryside five nights before Christmas, were Dr. Loch’s only means of locating his patient. The doctor, formerly chief medical officer of a large urban hospital, now found himself clambering over piles of baggage, fellow passengers, and buckets used as toilets, only to find his path blocked by an old woman who ignored his request to move aside. On closer examination, he discovered that she had frozen to death.
Finally he located the source of the screams, a pregnant woman who had gone into premature labor and was hemorrhaging profusely. When he attempted to move her from where she lay into a more comfortable position, he found that “she was frozen to the floor with her own blood.” Other than temporarily stopping the bleeding, Loch was unable to do anything to help her, and he never learned whether she had lived or died. (source)
Ishikawa Goemon (1558-1594) was a semi-legendary Japanese outlaw hero who stole gold and valuables and gave them to the poor. Goemon is notable for being boiled alive along with his son in public after a failed assassination attempt on the civil war-era warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
(source, where you can read the full story)
(source unknown, more on capital punishment in China is here)
(source, no doubt inspired by Lenny Bruce)
More images of capital punishment are here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. More on capital punishment in general here. Some data are here. And other collections of human rights images are here.
This image by Lyle Conrad, taken in the late 1960s, shows a seated, listless child, who was among many kwashiorkor cases found in Nigerian relief camps during the Nigerian–Biafran war. Kwashiorkor is a disease brought on due to a severe dietary protein deficiency.
Depicting the enemy as some kind of animal is a time-honored method of dehumanization. And once the enemy is no longer human, a lot of our usual moral inhibitions fall to the wayside. Here are some examples:
More on animalization here.
Europe – contrary to the European Union, the Council of Europe or individual European countries – is not a legal entity; it’s just an idea. And not a very clear one at that. The vagueness here isn’t limited to concepts such as the “European identity”, the “European culture” or the “European people” (what is the most defining characteristic of Europe: Christianity, humanism, economics or liberty/equality/fraternity?). Even the geographic extent of the “continent” is disputed and changes over time. The geographical uncertainty is in part the consequence of the conceptual uncertainty, although there are also some purely geographical reasons why it’s difficult to say where exactly Europe is. Changes in the geographical meaning of Europe sometimes follow from conceptual changes, as I will make clear below. I will also argue that this has some relevance for human rights.
But before that, a bit of history. Europe is not like Africa or America. It doesn’t have a nice clean shape with natural borders. The northern, western and southern borders are pretty evident since those are formed by the coastlines of the Arctic Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea respectively. But there has always been and there continues to be fervent disagreement about the eastern border. Some use geographical facts, such as the Ural mountains, the Black Sea and the Dardanelles (or Hellespont) in order to say where Europe stops in the east. That would result in the exclusion of Turkey – or most of Turkey.
However, these geographical facts are hardly determinant, or at least not as determinant as the geographical facts that determine the other three borders. They often have an arbitrary ring to them. Which is why discussions about the eastern border are really about non-geographical facts even if they are ostensibly about geographical ones. They are about identity, culture and religion. The elusive concept of a European cultural identity is central to determining the geographical concept of Europe: can Muslims be Europeans? Or only Christians? Or is religion irrelevant? Answers to these questions will determine the geography.
(Of course, generally speaking it’s quite correct to say that geographical issues may be independently determinant in discussions about the composition of continents: it’s unlikely that a continent includes a land area thousands of miles away from the main land area of the continent and separated from it by countries belonging to another continent; e.g. South Africa will never be European, even if a large segment of its population is culturally European, whatever that means. In the case of the eastern border of Europe, however, geography cannot be determinant).
Those who focus on identity, religion and culture to determine the nature of Europe often use the history of geography as a means to exclude Muslim countries in general and Turkey in particular. They can do so because historically, the word “Europe” had a very limited meaning:
Europe was merely that bit of land on the continent that the Persians had to cross to get from the Hellespont to Greece proper. (source)
This is the Hellespont:
That the area above the Hellespont was originally called “Europe” can still be seen from this Roman map:
Extrapolating from this historical fact, one can argue that Europe stops at the mainland of Turkey – Istanbul and everything north of the Hellespont is then still European, the rest of Turkey is not. And one can also argue that those “European” areas of Turkey – often called Thrace although Thrace was originally smaller than that – aren’t really Muslim anyway, since Istanbul was once Constantinople and as such a center of Christianity.
However, it’s just as easy to use the same historical reference in order to argue that Turkey does, historically, belong to Europe: if the “original” Europe was in Turkey, why shouldn’t Turkey be in today’s Europe? Again, geography by itself does not determine the nature and extent of Europe.
The more northern part of the eastern border is less controversial than the southern part – at least it is now. Most do now agree that the Ural mountains are a nice and convenient natural border. There aren’t any cultural or religious issues in play here. In other words, there aren’t any Muslims there we need to keep out. The only problem that had to be solved is Russia: difficult to exclude completely from Europe – they are Christian after all – but equally difficult to include entirely. If you include it entirely, then why not also Mongolia, Alaska and some of the old Soviet republics? So people have come to accept the more or less arbitrary geographical cut in the middle of Russia. However, this decision followed centuries of uncertainty and movement, as you can see from this map:
Some continue to dispute even this. The Ural doesn’t neatly cut Russia in two: what about the areas above and below the Ural? And why the Caucasus?
The conclusion of all this is that discussions about the geographical extent of Europe – and therefore also discussions about the nature of Europe – are difficult and far from settled. As a result, there’s a wide variety of views. Some claim that Europe is the collection of the countries that cover the relatively small area of that curvy western peninsula of the larger Asian continent that starts at the Atlantic Ocean and stops at the border of Turkey, or perhaps even at the borders of the Balkan countries (some of which are Muslim as well). Others see Europe as a giant continent spanning the globe from Iceland on one side – Iceland being geographically closer to America than to the European mainland – to the Bering Strait, close to Alaska, on the other side. Some include the UK, others do not. Etc. The maximalist view would include some 50 countries in Europe, including Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
Why mention all of this under the heading of “human rights maps”? Questions such as “what is Europe?”, “where is Europe?”, “how far does Europe reach?” and “which countries belong to Europe?” have a cultural and historical significance, but they can also have an impact on human rights. For example, if Europeans – whoever they are – agree that a country is inside Europe, then it can become a member of the European Union (if also certain other conditions are fulfilled). This membership offers a lot of advantages to the citizens of member countries and many of these advantages mean better protection for certain rights: freedom of movement, easier reunion with family members already living in a “European” country, looser visa restrictions for traveling to certain countries outside of the European Union, the advantages of free trade, subsidies, bailouts etc. Membership of the Council of Europe is also reserved to “European” countries, and this membership offers citizens access to the European Court of Human Rights, the most powerful international court for the protection of human rights. I’m sure many Turkish citizens are eager to profit from being accepted as Europeans, as do the citizens of other countries that may or may not be European.
So the question about the definition of Europe is an important one. Below are some bonus maps illustrating the uncertainty about the extent of Europe. This one seems to suggest that certain parts of the Middle East belong to Europe (the Judeo-Christian parts):
(source, click image to enlarge)
And this one omits Greece and the other territories occupied by the Ottoman empire:
(source, click image to enlarge)
When the Turks controlled large parts of the Balkans, those areas were considered to be beyond Europe, the eastern edge of which was the border between the Austrian and Ottoman Empires. (source)
More human rights maps are here.
On May 12, 1937, more than 25,000 workers went out on strike at the Jones and Laughlin Corporation steel plant in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. The next day a photographer caught this scene of striking steelworkers preventing Reverend H.L. Queen, a storekeeper at the plant, from crossing the picket lines. In the scuffle Queen suffered a black eye and bit a picket’s hand. The strike ended the next day, after J and L management agreed to negotiate with the union if a majority of its employees voted to join the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. (source)
were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States in 1961 and following years to test the United States Supreme Court decisions Boynton v. Virginia (1960) and Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946). …
Boynton outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines. Five years prior to the Boynton ruling, the Interstate Commerce Commission had issued a ruling in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company that had explicitly denounced the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of separate but equal in interstate bus travel. The ICC failed to enforce its ruling, and Jim Crow travel laws remained in force throughout the South.
The Freedom Riders challenged this status quo by riding various forms of public transportation in the South to challenge local laws or customs that enforced segregation. The Freedom Rides, and the violent reactions they provoked, bolstered the credibility of the American Civil Rights Movement. They called national attention to the disregard for the federal law and the local violence used to enforce segregation in the southern United States. Police arrested riders for trespassing, unlawful assembly, and violating state and local Jim Crow laws, along with other alleged offenses, but they often let white mobs attack them without intervention. (source)
[We] have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot ever trod, we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were. Lord Salisbury
It’s common knowledge that the territories of African countries are an inheritance of colonial rule. These territories correspond to the borders between the old colonial empires, which in turn were the result of occupation, aggression, imperialism and balance of power politics. The “scramble for Africa” resulted in a partition of the continent that took little notice of ethnic groups or pre-colonial African states and that has survived the end of colonialism:
[T]he “Scramble for Africa” … started with the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 and was completed by the turn of the 20th century. In this brief period, the prospective colonisers partitioned Africa into spheres of influence, protectorates, colonies, and free-trade areas. The borders were designed in European capitals at a time when Europeans had barely settled in Africa with little knowledge of the geography and ethnic composition of the areas whose borders they were designing. Despite their arbitrariness these boundaries endured after African independence. As a result, in most African countries a significant fraction (around 40-45%) of the population belongs to groups that have been partitioned by a national border. (source)
However, before we get into the story about the link between this historic fact and current ethnic troubles in Africa, I have to make a few general remarks about borders and diversity. All countries, not just those in Africa, are culturally and ethnically diverse. They are all the product of aggression and none of them correspond to divisions between ethnic groups. And this diversity is not in itself a problem. On the contrary: diversity is good because it helps to promote tolerance and it enriches our thinking and feeling. Purity, on the other hand, leads to exclusion and expulsion. The ideal of national purity is therefore not acceptable.
It follows that political states which do not perfectly align with pre-existing ethnic or national communities are not, by definition, problematic. And neither are they “unnatural”. If anything, ethnic diversity is the natural condition of states.
At the same time, we have to admit that national or ethnic groups may desire national self-determination and a state of their own, separate from other groups. This desire may spring from a history of hostility between groups, a hostility which is believed to endanger the cultural, linguistic or ethnic survival of groups. In extreme cases, this hostility leads to more than just difficult cohabitation and results in separatist conflict and civil war. To some extent, this is also the case in Africa. With the emphasis on “also”.
We should also remember that well-functioning democracies can deal with such problems, to a certain extent, and can do so a lot better than alternative forms of government. A democracy protects minority rights, religious freedom, tolerance and local self-government. The idea that a strong government is necessary to keep hostile groups from attacking each other is a myth. Violent suppression of antagonism will only make it worse in the long run.
However, those democratic solutions may not always prevent extreme hostilities between ethnic groups within a political state. Hence, secession or other ways of redrawing borders may be necessary.
The fact that many African countries have their fair share of ethnic conflict is, in part, the consequence of dysfunctional or absent democratic governance, but also of the history of colonialism. The colonial powers imposed the borders of African countries without consulting the populations or their leaders. These powers had neither self-determination nor peaceful coexistence in mind, only their own interests. African national liberation movements took those borders as given and had no interest in questioning them, which was understandable given the risks of conflicts with newly independent neighboring countries.
Because African borders cut across ethnic lines, politics in many African countries has, to this day, a strong ethnic and tribal component. (But, again, the same is true in many countries outside Africa). When combined with dysfunctional or absent democratic governance, tribal politics often leads to violence: minority ethnic groups feel excluded from power or discriminated in other ways; ethnic brethren in neighboring countries may feel the need to intervene; and so on. Difficult to say which is the dominant cause: 19th century map drawing or bad governance, or perhaps something else entirely, such poverty, resources or crime.
When we look at governance, the Europeans share part of the blame for present-day authoritarianism in Africa:
Africans often didn’t live in anything like the absolutist ethnic states which Europeans wanted them to live in — which would have made it easier to govern them [and extract labor and resources] — so Europeans colonial administrators worked very hard to create absolutist ethnic tribal groups and then force Africans to live in them. This is not to say that ethnicity didn’t exist before colonization; that sort of generalization is also hard to sustain, as most continental level generalizations are. But the general rule was that the sort of political state which was suited for organizing and controlling a population’s labor and resources did not exist before colonial rule, and had to be invented, and was, by Europeans. (source)
And Europeans also share part of the blame for the role of ethnicity in present-day conflicts. Not only did they draw the borders without regard for ethnicity, they in a sense enhanced the importance of ethnicity in Africa:
“Gikuyu,” for example, means “farmer,” and it distinguished the people (in what is now Kenya) who lived by farming, and took a pride in it, from the people who lived a more pastoral life in the same area, and spoke a different language. But the groups intermarried, crossed over, and traded with each other when they felt like it, and neither was a single political group anyway; there was no Maasai state or nation, nor was there a Gikuyu nation. That is, until Europeans — with their maps and censuses — decided that there was, and codified it into colonial law. After that, there were such “ethnic” groups. (source)
Not surprising then that there’s authoritarianism and tribalism in Africa today. However, there’s more than that. The colonial experience and the colonial need for authoritarian government created long running authoritarian national structures as well as national feelings and “peoples”, despite the artificial nature of African states. That’s why there are strong feelings of patriotism across ethnic groups in most African countries. Again, just like anywhere else in the world.
So, with this bit of context, I hope we can avoid simplistic and monocausal narratives about artificial African countries torn apart by ancient tribalism, and about the long term effects of 19th century map drawing by ignorant and self-interested Europeans. A lot of other stuff also explains current violence in Africa, and Africans aren’t simply tribalists.
how arbitrary border decisions have affected war and civil unrest in Africa, particularly among split ethnic groups and their neighbors. Not surprisingly, the length of a conflict and its casualty rate is 25 percent higher in areas where an ethnicity is divided by a national border as opposed to areas where ethnicities have a united homeland. Examples of divided (and conflicted) groups are the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, and the Anyi of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The conflict rate is also higher for people living in areas close to ethnic-partitioned hot-spots. … Using a 1959 ethnic homeland map from ethnolinguist George Peter Murdock, the authors studied African conflicts from 1970 – 2005 (the “post-independence period”) and found that “civil conflict is concentrated in the historical homeland of partitioned ethnicities.” (source)
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here’s a more detailed version of the Murdock map:
And here’s a simplified version of the ethnic map of Africa:
(source, click image to enlarge)
The following map shows that African borders correspond less to ethnicity than borders in most other parts of the world:
In light of the recent Trayvon Martin case, a few historical examples of how fear of the “other” has led many Americans to acts of intolerance and discrimination:
- In 1654, Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of New Netherland, tried to have Jewish refugees expelled, claiming they would “infect” the colony.
- In 1732, founders of the Georgia colony, which was seen as a religious haven, drew up a charter that explicitly bans Catholicism.
- In 1844, Mormon founder Joseph Smith is murdered in an Illinois prison by a lynch mob. Soon after, many of his followers migrated to Utah.
- In 1854-56, nativists formed the Know Nothing Party (yes, that was their name), which called for strict limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries.
- In 1865-66, following the end of the Civil War, riots erupted during Reconstruction, and African American churches and schools were burned in Memphis and New Orleans.
- In 1882, strong anti-Chinese sentiment in California led to the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration from the East.
- In 1883, the Department of Interior declared many Native American rituals to be “offenses” punishable by jail sentences of up to 30 years.
- In 1942, FDR signed an executive order establishing “exclusion zones,” which led to the forced internment of some 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans. (source)
Needless to say, fear of the other isn’t a exclusively American problem.
Many of the people who are considered poor in developed countries have a higher living standard than the average middle class citizens of some centuries ago. If we bracket the minority of the extremely poor in developed countries (the homeless for example), poverty today seems to be a relatively comfortable position to be in, once you see it in a historical perspective.
The same is true for people in poor countries. In 1820, average income per person was low everywhere in the world: about $500 in China and South Asia, and about $1000-$1500 in Europe (1993 US$ PPP). In developing countries today the range is between $1000 and $3100 (the world average is about $6000, the US has more than $40,000). So, the poor of today are equally well off or even better off than the average world citizen 200 years ago. 75% of the world’s population lived on less than $1 a day in 1820. Today, almost no one does in the West. In China it’s less then 20%, in South Asia 40%, in Africa half. Globally, it’s less than a quarter. Historically, almost everyone was poor; today it’s a minority.
So it seems almost futile to talk about poverty today. What is defined as poverty now was the normal way of life not so long ago. However, if that’s the way you want to go, the concept of poverty evaporates. You’ll always find someone who’s worse off. You just need to go sufficiently far back in time (or move in space) to find people who are more deprived and who make the current poor (or the local poor) seem relatively well off. The baseline is then the caveman and everyone else isn’t really “poor”.
Hence, if you want to keep talking about poverty, you can’t engage in historical comparisons. Does that mean that poverty can only be measured against the current average standard of living? That poverty is a percentage of current median income? In that case, there will always be poverty and the fight against it is a Sisyphean task. I’m not entirely convinced of the usefulness of the concept of relative poverty – that you should compare people’s living standards to society’s average standard (where poverty becomes basically income inequality) – and the historical rather than spatial version of relative poverty reinforces my doubts. However, I know that people commonly see poverty as a relative thing and that they may feel deprived because they compare themselves to their living compatriots and not only because they are below a certain absolute level of income, consumption or capabilities. Conversely, the middle classes of some centuries ago, even if they had the same standard of living as some of today’s poor, felt good about themselves because they looked at the poor of their time and felt that they had done comparatively well.
Still, relative poverty is not the only solution to the problem of historical comparisons. Poverty can be measured relative to average historical or current standards of living, but can also be measured by comparing consumption, income or capabilities to a commonly accepted absolute minimum level (for example a minimum amount of calorie intake).
In the latter case, it’s not important how rich the rich really are, or what the median income is, or how poor the poor were centuries ago. It’s important to know what are people’s basic needs, how much they cost, and how many people currently can’t buy the stuff to fulfill their basic needs. Of course, these basic needs can’t always be determined scientifically (as in the case of calorie intake) and some level of arbitrariness is unavoidable. A lot depends on the capabilities we believe are necessary in order to have a minimally decent life, and that’s controversial.
I also understand that social norms evolve and that basic needs can change over time. Several centuries ago a microwave and a cellphone were obviously not a basic need; now you will be considered poor if you lack these tools. In a pre-modern agrarian society, you would have been considered poor only when you were on the brink of starvation. You didn’t need technological tools, child care, education etc. in order to have a minimally decent life, because no one had those things and your functioning in the economy didn’t require them. Today, if you don’t have them, you’ll feel excluded, less than normal, weird, “trash” and in certain cases you’ll end up deeper in poverty because you’ll have a hard time finding a job if you don’t have a car, a cell phone or child care.
Also, why shouldn’t we become more ambitious over time? Should we be content if we’re able to avoid only the worst kind of deprivation? Or should we try to continually improve many different capabilities? The latter is I think a sign of civilization and progress. That doesn’t mean we should scatter our attention and forget to focus on the worst deprivation. It only means we shouldn’t stop after we’ve dealt with the worst. And we haven’t dealt with the worst simply because the percentages of those worst off have been coming down (see the numbers cited above). Indeed, a smaller share of the world’s population suffers from low income than some time ago. But because of population growth – which is a good thing resulting from higher life expectancy rates – the total number of people with low income is now higher. And total numbers also count, just as much as percentages. As Thomas Pogge has argued, the Holocaust wouldn’t be any less horrible if it turned out that the number of people killed was a smaller percentage of the world’s population than initially thought.
Allow me to engage in some simplistic historical generalizations. Although, like most us, I have abandoned my youthful illusions about the overall progress of humanity, I still think we’ve taken giant steps towards the moral ideal of human equality. See what you think about this:
- During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, with the formation of the nation state in Europe and the development of the virtue of patriotism, citizens of those new states – and their copies elsewhere in the world – stopped acting as if members of neighboring tribes were somehow subhuman. Human equality, equal concern and equal rights were extended from the tribe to the nation.
- After the end of the religious wars in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the gradual acceptance of religious liberty, adherents of other religions were no longer viewed as sinners who had to be destroyed, but rather as equal citizens enjoying the same rights.
- From the middle of the 19th century (with the abolition of slavery) to the middle of the 20th (with the Civil Rights movement), non-whites gradually won equal rights.
- During roughly the same period, workers and the workers’ movement convinced the other social classes that someone who has to sell his or her labor power for a living isn’t destined to an animal-like life in filth and misery.
- From the beginning of the 20th century (with the suffragette movement) until the end of that century, women gradually won their equal place in many areas of society: politics, the labor market, etc. This movement, like all the previous ones, isn’t complete, but at least nowadays it’s rare to encounter the view that women are lesser men and should be relegated to the home.
- The Holocaust, ironically, resulted in a dramatic acceleration of the emancipation of Jews.
- The end of colonialism in the mid-20th century was the culmination of a long process during which westerners convinced themselves that the people they had colonized were not animals or subhumans but rather human beings like themselves.
- The latest step forward in the history of human equality can be witnessed in our own time: gays and lesbians are now in the process of achieving what other outgroups have achieved before them.
So these are all consecutive steps during which the circle of people who are considered as “people like us” has been widened again and again. Sure, this is history painted with a very rough brush. I obviously don’t mean to say that the inclusion of new groups into the class of “equal human beings” has been complete or final after each step. There are many racists left after the Civil Rights movement; many intolerant religious fundamentalists after the acceptance of the right to freedom of religion etc. Also, there have been major steps backward: nazism came after a long period of Jewish emancipation; the end of slavery in the U.S. resulted in renewed racism etc. And neither do I mean to imply that prior to the abolition of slavery there wasn’t a single soul who believed blacks were equal human beings, or that there were no women considered as equal before the victories of feminism.
There’s no reason to believe that this inclusionary movement is about to stop. I can see at least three additional steps:
- Our current treatment of criminals may come to be seen as unacceptable. There’s already a strong movement for the abolition of capital punishment, but I’m convinced that our whole system of criminal punishment is without justification. And I’m not just talking about overcrowding, prison rape, excessively long sentences etc. Read more here.
- Migrants as well may become more accepted, to the point that an open borders policy will be generalized. Currently, we still condemn people to misery for no other reason than the fact that they are born in the wrong place, like older generations condemned people to slavery for no other reason than their skin color. The causes of this exclusion are an insufficient awareness of the benefits of immigration and lingering prejudices against outgroups.
- And, finally, the inclusionary movement may one day lead to better treatment of animals: our current system of industrial meat production will then be considered barbaric.
Do I forget something?
What if the events captured in some iconic images had not occurred? Pavel Maria Smejkal has altered some images, to great effect:
This is so evocative: it shows an alternative history, the history of a better humanity.
More iconic images of human rights violations are here.
These are the locations of prisons and burial sites during the Cambodian genocide:
This more or less tracks population density:
More human rights maps here.
The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. … Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by … indicate at least 1,386,734 victims. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of around 8 million. (source)
(source - The painting refers to the English Reformation, formally sanctioned by the Act of Supremacy of 1534, whereby Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome and was established as head of the Church of England. The painting was in the collection of Henry VIII who owned at least two other anti-papal pictures. The composition comprises a pope sprawling on the ground, flanked by two female figures representing avarice and hypocrisy, all of whom are being stoned by the four evangelists. On the ground in front of these figures are a cardinal’s hat and a document with four seals (probably a Papal Bull). The city in the distance on the left may be Jerusalem. Above the city is a burning candle, which contrasts with another in the immediate foreground that has been extinguished by a cooking pan. These candles have been interpreted as symbolizing respectively the true light of the Gospels and the false doctrine of Rome)
Rights are often described as correlates of duties: if you have a right to something, someone else – or maybe everyone else – has a duty to respect your right. However, it’s also possible to conceptualize your right as a means for you to execute your own duties. So, rather than your rights being my duties, your rights are your duties. This may sound weird but bear with me for a second.
Many early Protestants conceived of their rights exactly in this way. And if you know that Protestant thinking was one of the main driving forces behind the human rights revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, then you also know that it’s important to understand the early Protestant mindset.
How exactly did they view human rights? The individual, according to early Protestants, has certain duties towards God: to exercise his or her religion, to honor God, to worship, to rest on Sunday, to proselytize, and to treat neighbors with care and love. These duties were then transformed into rights, not the rights of others but the rights of the duty bearers. A right became the expression of a duty. If it’s a duty to proselytize, then Protestants should have the right to free speech as a means to proselytize. If it’s a duty to worship God, then Protestants have a right to religious liberty. Etc. Protestants didn’t demand their rights and their freedom from government in order to pursue their desires and private wants, but in order to better be able to perform their religious duties.
Why do I mention this? It’s ancient history by now. These days, hardly anyone conceives of their rights in this way, and Protestants – especially American Protestants – are no longer at the frontline of the battle for human rights (if anything, they oppose many contemporary interpretations of human rights, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, social security etc.).
I mention it because it’s interesting to see how different people belonging to different traditions and cultures can account for human rights in different ways, using the resources available in their own heritage. I don’t think this particular Protestant interpretation of human rights is a convincing account – neither for me personally (I’m an agnostic) nor for present-day Protestants. But I do think that it can inspire others, and particularly those who belong to traditions that contain strong anti-rights strands, to have another look at their heritage and try to find an account of human rights that can be supported by other strands of the same tradition. I mean, if what we would now call fundamentalist Protestants could do it centuries ago, why not pious Muslims today?
All this boils down to the problem of the justification of human rights. Why do we need human rights? Even if you share Richard Rorty’s skepticism about foundationalism - as I do – you’ll still have to answer the question “but why?” if you talk about respecting rights to those who are hostile to them. There’s no way around that question. A particularly powerful answer is one that uses the resources available in the traditions of those who are hostile. An even more powerful answer is one that those people can come up with themselves. Seeing how others did it may inspire them. And I have no problem with different people coming up with totally different and even incompatible justifications of human rights. To put some words into the mouth of Jacques Maritain: I don’t care why people adhere to and respect human rights, as long as they do.
(source, photo by Peter Leibing)
On 15th August 1961, Hans Conrad Schumann, a 19-year-old soldier in East Germany’s Bereitschaftspolizei became world famous when he defected across the newly installed Berlin Wall.
At that time, the wall was only a low barbed wire fence. From the other side, West Germans shouted to him, “Komm rüber!” (“Come over!”), and a police car pulled up to wait for him. Schumann jumped over the barbed wire fence and was promptly driven away from the scene by the West Berlin police. West German photographer Peter Leibing photographed Schumann’s escape, and this picture has since become an iconic image of the Cold War era. (source)
The iconic moment has been commemorated by way of this statue:
More iconic images of human rights violations are here.
(source, photo by Lawrence Beitler)
This infamous lynching took place in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930.
[Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith] had been arrested the night before, charged with robbing and murdering a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and raping his white girlfriend, Mary Ball. A large crowd broke into the jail with sledgehammers, beat the two men, and hanged them. When Abram Smith tried to free himself from the noose as his body was hauled up by the rope, he was lowered and then his arms broken to prevent him from trying to free himself again. Police officers in the crowd cooperated in the lynching. A third person, 16 year old James Cameron, narrowly escaped lynching thanks to an unidentified participant who announced that he had nothing to do with the rape or murder. (source)
The photograph was the inspiration for a poem by Abel Meeropol, called “Strange Fruit”, immortalized in the song of the same name, performed by Billie Holiday:
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a worse case of commercial cynicism:
Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse … engaged in a nasty battle over alternating and direct current, known as the “War of Currents.” Both men knew there was room for but one American electricity system, and Edison set out to ruin Westinghouse in “a great political, legal and marketing game” that saw the famous inventor stage publicity events where dogs, horses and even an elephant were killed using Westinghouse’s alternating current. The two men would play out their battle on the front pages of newspapers and in the Supreme Court, in the country’s first attempt to execute a human being with electricity. …
DC power … was very difficult to transmit over distances without a significant loss of energy. … [I]n alternating current … high-voltage energy could be transmitted over long distances using lower current—miles beyond generating plants, allowing a much more efficient delivery system. …
Thomas Edison had an idea. Surely Westinghouse’s system must be more dangerous, what with all that voltage passing through the wires. “Just as certain as death,” Edison predicted, “Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months after he puts in a system of any size.” …
In November 1887, Edison received a letter from a dentist in Buffalo, New York, who was trying to develop a more humane method of execution than hanging. Having witnessed a drunk man accidentally kill himself by touching a live electric generator, Alfred P. Southwick became convinced that electricity could provide a quicker, less painful alternative for criminals condemned to death. … Edison, who opposed capital punishment, at first declined to get involved with Southwick’s project. But when the dentist persisted, Edison, recognizing the opportunity that had landed in his lap, wrote back to say that although he would “join heartily in an effort to totally abolish capital punishment,” he did have some thoughts about electric currents in which to dispose of “criminals under sentence of death”. “The most effective of these,” he wrote, “are known as ‘alternating machines,’ manufactured principally in this country by Mr. Geo. Westinghouse, Pittsburgh.” …
In June 1888, Edison began to demonstrate the lethal power of alternating current for reporters. He rigged a sheet of tin to an AC dynamo and led a dog onto the tin to drink from a metal pan. Once the dog touched the metal surface, it yelped and the little cur dog fell dead.” …
Electricity will kill a man “in the ten-thousandth part of a second,” Edison told one reporter shortly after the demonstration, and he was quick to remind him that “the current should come from an alternating machine.” …
An electricity salesman named Harold Brown was commissioned by the state [of New York ] to build an electric chair, and Edison was paying him behind the scenes to use alternating current in his design. …
When New York State sentenced convicted murderer William Kemmler to death, he was slated to become the first man to be executed in an electric chair. Killing criminals with electricity “is a good idea,” Edison said at the time. “It will be so quick that the criminal can’t suffer much.” He even introduced a new word to the American public, which was becoming more and more concerned by the dangers of electricity. The convicted criminals would be “Westinghoused“. …
Westinghouse was livid. He faced millions of dollars in losses if Edison’s propaganda campaign convinced the public that his AC current would be lethal to homeowners. …
[O]n August 6, 1890, Kemmler was strapped into Harold Brown’s chair at Auburn prison and wired to an AC dynamo. When the current hit him, Kemmler’s fist clenched so tight that blood began to trickle from his palm down the arm of the chair. His face contorted, and after 17 seconds, the power was shut down. Arthur Southwick, “the father of the electric chair,” was in attendance and proclaimed to the witnesses, “This is the culmination of ten years work and study. We live in a higher civilization today.”
Yet behind the dentist, Kemmler began to shriek for air.
“Great God! He’s alive!” someone shouted.
“Turn on the current! Turn on the current instantly!” another screamed. “This man is not dead!”
But the dynamo needed time to build its current, and Kemmler wheezed and gasped before the horrified witnesses as the electricity began to course through his body. Some witnesses fainted while others vomited, as it appeared that Kemmler was on the verge of regaining consciousness. The back of his coat briefly caught fire. Minutes passed until Kemmler finally went rigid. The current stopped and he was pronounced dead by Dr. Edward Spitzka, who predicted, “there will never be another electrocution.” …
Westinghouse was horrified by the reports of Kemmler’s execution. “It has been a brutal affair,” he said. “They could have done better with an ax.” …
Despite all of Edison’s efforts … the superiority of the AC current was too much for Edison and his DC system to overcome. (source)
And because this first electrocution was so successful, it became the standard method for the next decades.
Starts a bit slow, but interesting nonetheless: the numbers and places of nuclear explosions throughout the years:
- Japan Commemorates 65th Anniversary of Hiroshima Bombing [Pic Of The Night] (gawker.com)
- “1945-1998″ by Isao Hashimoto: 2003 (edugeek.net)
“A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies”, written by the Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas in 1542, is one of the first attempts by a Spanish writer of the colonial era to depict the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in colonial times. The description was sent to then Prince Philip II of Spain. It’s remarkable in the sense that it was written during the early stages of the Spanish conquest.
The Spaniards first assaulted the innocent Sheep, so qualified by the Almighty … like most cruel Tygers, Wolves and Lions hunger-starv’d, studying nothing, for the space of Forty Years, after their first landing, but the Massacre of these Wretches, whom they have so inhumanely and barbarously butcher’d and harass’d with several kinds of Torments, never before known, or heard. …
Those that arriv’d at these Islands from the remotest parts of Spain, and who pride themselves in the Name of Christians, steer’d Two courses principally, in order to the Extirpation, and Exterminating of this People from the face of the Earth. The first whereof was raising an unjust, sanguinolent, cruel War. The other, by putting them to death, who hitherto, thirsted after their Liberty, or design’d (which the most Potent, Strenuous and Magnanimous Spirits intended) to recover their pristin Freedom, and shake off the Shackles of so injurious a Captivity. …
Finally, in one word, their Ambition and Avarice, than which the heart of Man never entertained greater, and the vast Wealth of those Regions; the Humility and Patience of the Inhabitants (which made their approach to these Lands more facil and easie) did much promote the business: Whom they so despicably contemned, that they treated them (I speak of things which I was an Eye Witness of, without the least fallacy) not as Beasts, which I cordially wished they would, but as the most abject dung and filth of the Earth; and so sollicitous they were of their Life and Soul, that the above-mentioned number of People died without understanding the true Faith or Sacraments. And this also is as really true as the praecendent Narration (which the very Tyrants and cruel Murderers cannot deny without the stigma of a lye) that the Spaniards never received any injury from the Indians, but that they rather reverenced them as Persons descended from Heaven, until that they were compelled to take up Arms, provoked thereunto by repeated Injuries, violent Torments, and injust Butcheries. …
[T]he Spaniards …, mounted on generous Steeds, well weapon’d with Lances and Swords, begin to exercise their bloody Butcheries and Strategems, and overrunning their Cities and Towns, spar’d no Age, or Sex, nay not so much as Women with Child, but ripping up their Bellies, tore them alive in pieces. They laid Wagers among themselves, who should with a Sword at one blow cut, or divide a Man in two; or which of them should decollate or behead a Man, with the greatest dexterity; nay farther, which should sheath his Sword in the Bowels of a Man with the quickest dispatch and expedition. They snatcht young Babes from the Mothers Breasts, and then dasht out the brains of those innocents against the Rocks; others they cast into Rivers scoffing and jeering them.
More human rights stories here.
Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day. Of the people who died on the day of the explosion, 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling debris and 10% from other causes. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians.
In Hiroshima, the radius of total destruction was about one mile (1.6 km), with resulting fires across 4.4 square miles (11 square km). The residents of Hiroshima were given no notice of the atomic bomb.
Let’s focus on the area near ground zero, the hypocenter of the explosion, which is this part of the map above (the green lines are the rivers):
Below are a few 3D maps/maquettes of this area – which obviously suffered the most destruction – taken from an exhibition in the Hiroshima museum. They show the area before and after the explosion. In each one, you can see the famous dome structure which has become iconic for the event (I marked it on the images).
From another viewpoint:
Gender inequality means different levels of protection of human rights according to gender. No need to say which of the two gender’s rights are usually violated more or protected less rigorously. Gender inequality occurs in many areas of life:
- in political representation or participation
- in income or labor market participation
- in labor sorting (when women are relegated to certain professions)
- in family life (when women do not have the same marriage or divorce rights, inheritance rights etc.)
- in criminal justice (when the testimony of women is considered less valuable) etc.
Too many areas to mention, unfortunately.
When you read about the causes of gender inequality, the usual suspects are religion, patriarchy and all sorts of anti-women prejudice. A different and interesting perspective, focused on inequality in the labor market, is the following:
Ester Boserup … argues that gender role differences have their origins in different forms of agriculture practiced traditionally. In particular, she identifies important differences between shifting and plough cultivation. The former, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labor intensive and women actively participate in farm work. The latter, in contrast, is more capital intensive, using the plough to prepare the soil. Unlike the hoe or digging stick, the plough requires significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it.
Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women. Also reinforcing this gender-bias in ability is the fact that when the plough is used, there is less need for weeding, a task typically undertaken by women and children. In addition, child-care, a task almost universally performed by women, is most compatible with activities that can be stopped and resumed easily and do not put children in danger. These are characteristics that are satisfied for hoe agriculture, but not for plough agriculture since large animals are typically used to pull the plough. …
[T]his division of labor then generated norms about the appropriate role of women in society. Societies characterized by plough agriculture, and a resulting gender-based division of labor, developed the belief that the natural place for women is within the home. These cultural beliefs tend to persist even if the economy moves out of agriculture, affecting the participation of women in activities performed outside of the home, such as market employment, entrepreneurship, and participation in politics. (source)
And there does seem to be a strong statistical correlation between historical plough use and prejudice against women. More human rights facts here.
In remembrance of Custer’s Last Stand, which earlier this week was 135 years ago to the day, a few words and maps about the Indian wars. This is the name for the series of violent conflicts between the native peoples of North America and the colonial settlers assisted by the federal U.S. government, lasting roughly from the beginning of the 17th century till the end of the 19th. The European settlers wanted to open land for westward settlement, land that was often occupied by native Americans. Although initial contacts were normally friendly and peaceful, increased settlement and westward expansion provoked resistance on the part of the natives, who saw their lands and other resources taken away from them. This resistance was also caused by cultural differences as well as mutual feelings of superiority.
Cultural differences–the failure of each side to understand the assumptions of the other–led to frequent misunderstandings that in turn led to warfare. One of the most elementary forms of misunderstanding, for example, was the anger felt by the Indians over the colonists’ allowing their cattle and hogs to roam in unfenced freedom. The consequence was often the destruction of the Indians’ corn, which led to the Indians’ killing the offending animals, which led to retaliation by the settlers upon the Indians who had killed the animals, and so on. And too often those retaliating failed to discriminate between the Indians who were responsible for the “offense” and those who were not. (source)
Another example of cultural differences leading to conflicts:
[T]he northern Europeans made only limited use of Indian labor. Rather, they wanted land; if it had not been acquired through war or simple occupation, they sought to purchase it. But often the Indians assumed they were conferring on Europeans only the right to use the land without losing their own right to continue to use it for hunting, fishing, or gathering food. (source)
These cultural differences, together with other factors such as railroad expansion, new mining ventures, the destruction of the buffalo, the deliberate slaughter of Indian horses and the often barbaric attacks on both parts led to bad faith and escalations in hostilities. The settlers and the government regularly engaged in scorched-earth policies, the destruction of entire villages and the murder of women and children.
A turning point in the history of the Indian wars was the American Revolutionary War. Most native Americans perceived the colonial pioneers as a greater threat than the British government, and hence sided with the latter, a decision for which they would pay dearly after the war’s end.
For the American rebels the American Revolutionary War was essentially two parallel wars: while the war in the East was a struggle against British rule, the war in the West was an “Indian War”. The newly proclaimed United States competed with the British for control of Native American nations east of the Mississippi River. The colonial interest in westward colonization, as opposed to the British policy of maintaining peace, was one cause of the war. Most Native Americans who joined the struggle sided with the British, hoping to use the war to reduce settlement and expansion onto their land. The Revolutionary War was “the most extensive and destructive” Indian war in United States history. … When the British made peace with the Americans in the Treaty of Paris (1783), they ceded a vast amount of Native American territory (without the consent of the indigenous peoples) to the United States. The United States treated the Native Americans who had fought with the British as a conquered people who had lost their land. (source)
Other Indian wars soon followed (there a list here) and lasted until the end of the 19th century. The French, Russians and Spanish also fought Indian wars, but obviously not to the same extent as the Settlers and the U.S. government.
The wars resulted invariably in the conquest of native Americans, their assimilation or forced relocation to Indian reservations, and ultimately in the near-destruction of the indigenous peoples. There’s disagreement about the claim that the settlement of North America was a genocidal assault by more powerful intruders upon weaker, more “primitive” peoples. Conservative estimates put the total population of native Americans at about 8 million before the arrival of the Europeans. Although infectious diseases brought over by the Europeans were the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the American natives, many of the latter, probably tens of thousands, died a violent death during the Indian wars or the forced resettlement. The fact is that by the end of the Indian wars, at the end of the 19th century, only around 200.000 native Americans remained. Some say that the destruction of the tribes was largely involuntary because it resulted from the imported diseases for which the Indians had no immunity. Others point to widespread murder, the destruction of the Indian economy, and the forced removals. Also, if the Europeans brought diseases, they could have done something to protect the natives. They didn’t. Some even claim that there have been cases of groups of Indians being purposefully infected.
Here’ a map depicting some of the battles in the Indian wars:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here’s an interesting artistic rendering of these events, in quasi-map form:
Traditional African religions used to be adhered to by the majority of Africa’s population. However, colonialism and the rapid expansion of Christianity and Islam have had detrimental consequences for the indigenous African cultures, including religion. (Some would call it cultural aggression). Traditional African religions have now become minority religions across much of the continent, although Christianity and Islam in Africa are often mixed with some aspects of the original religions.
This evolution can be clearly shown in map form. First, there is this map from 1913, in which the traditional cultures are dismissed as “heathen”:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Today, only in a few countries are traditional religions still the religions of a majority:
Excluding the remaining traditional religions and just focusing on the two main religions, we get this:
Some noteworthy historical quotes about poverty (I’m not vouching for their veracity):
“The poor man [should] rest contented with that state or condition in which it hath pleased God to rank him”, Robert Moss, 18th century.
“The poor are like the shadows in a painting: they provide the necessary contrast”, Philippe Hecquet, 1740.
“Poverty is a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilization”, Patrick Colquhoun, 1806.
“Poverty is the schoolmaster of character”, Antiphanes, 4th century BC.
“Whenever there is great prosperity, there is great inequality. For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many”, Adam Smith, 1776.
“Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty: permit the distinctive sign of our order to be that it does not possess anything of its own beneath the sun, for the glory of your name, and that it have no other patrimony than begging”, Francis of Assisi, 13th century.
“For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always”, Bible.
“Thank God for poverty That makes and keeps us free, And lets us go our unobtrusive way, Glad of the sun and rain, Upright, serene, humane, Contented with the fortune of a day”, William Bliss Carman, early 20th century.
“Patiently bear the burden of poverty”, Dionysius Cato, 4th century.
“Content with poverty, my soul I arm; And virtue, though in rags, will keep me warm”, John Dryden, 17th century.
“The hermit doesn’t sleep at night, in love with the blue of the vacant moon. The cool of the breeze that rustles the trees rustles him too”, Ching-an.
“Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him”, Benjamin Franklin, 18th century.
It seems that poverty used to be viewed as either a vice, a necessity or a virtue. The poor had to blame themselves, accept their fate, be content or even be glad that they were poor. Of course, there have been other voices as well, but it’s interesting to note that most of those quotes sound rather quaint to modern ears, whereas they probably represented a large part of public opinion at the time they were expressed. There’s still some talk about the poor having only themselves to blame but most serious commenters view self-inflicted harm as only one possible cause of poverty, among many. And practically no one sees poverty as a necessity or a virtue (although there’s a strong anti-consumerism movement, but that’s rather an anti-riches than a pro-poverty movement).
These days, poverty is generally viewed as a multi-causal, negative and rectifiable state of affairs. It has also become much more central to our concerns than it used to be. Here’s a Google Ngram of the word “poverty”:
(Google’s Ngram viewer is a tool that allows you to calculate the frequency of keywords in the millions of books available in Google’s book collection; such frequencies can be thought of as approximations of the general use and popularity of a word at a certain time)
With the exception of a few decades before and after the French Revolution, poverty has never been a more central concern than today. Why is that? Part of it has to do with the distinctly contemporary view that poverty is indeed rectifiable. If poverty is the law of nature or God’s will, then there’s no reason to agonize over it. We now understand that it is rectifiable because we’ve seen enormous progress. The incredible economic development of these last centuries – and especially these last decades – has led to a sharp reduction in the number of people living in poverty. At least in relative numbers. This is all the more astonishing given the large population growth over the same period. We’ve been able to escape the Malthusian trap, and even reverse it:
(source, click image to enlarge; the circle size and color change as GDP per capita increases)
When you’re convinced that something is rectifiable, you agonize more over it the more you progress. The remaining poverty becomes less and less acceptable the more poverty we manage to eradicate. When science, industry, technology, trade and entrepreneurship have been able to produce greater and greater wealth, the marginal existence of poverty becomes proportionally more problematic.
Another and a related reason why poverty has become a more central concern is urbanization. With economic development comes urbanization, and poverty is much more visible in an urban setting. Urban living makes it possible for the wealthy to see the reality of poverty and this experience pushes some of them to take action. The poor themselves have the contrary experience: they see how wealthier people live and start to aspire a better live, since such a better life is now clearly a visible possibility. Urban living also makes mobilization and agitation easier.
A third reason why poverty has become a more central concern is democratization. There are now more democracies than ever before and the poor have a much louder voice in a democracy than in an authoritarian state. They can express themselves, demonstrate and elect representatives. Those representatives, in turn, have an electoral interest in keeping the eradication of poverty on the political agenda.
And, finally, the struggle against poverty has shifted gears because some erstwhile beliefs about the causes of poverty (divine punishment, divine sanction of social stratification, poverty as a religious ideal etc.) have gone out of fashion.