PRESIDENT OBAMA OFTEN REMINDED US THE ARC OF HISTORY IS LONG; BUT DOES IT BEND TOWARDS JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS? BENDING THE ARC OF HISTORY WE MUST.

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Human rights: Food to right a distorted thought

 

Human Rights Reader 422

  1. Here are a bunch of questions that have for long puzzled other critics and me

 

  • Why is it that those who have chronicled history have not felt the chains of injustice and oppression? Is it thus made-up-dreams that fuel history’s recount? (Albino Gomez, Julio Monsalvo)
  • Are historians bound by circumstances, condemned to whatever partial, (sometimes distorted) view their sources grant them? Is it their only recourse to keep on-and-on looking hoping to get it so that the facts they gather ‘make historical sense’? So what are they actually seeing when they look? Do historians sometimes perhaps deliberately describe what never was? …or claim more than there was?*

*: Tolstoy once wrote that, in his writing, he could not be governed by historical documents, because they did not reflect the truth. (as quoted by Richard Taruskin)

  • Why have historians decided for us which forms of popular upraisings prevailed and where and which were to be chronicled into history textbooks?
  • Why does the history of power struggles and of the consequences of its exercise continue to be so often totally hidden and unexplored? (Michel Foucault)
  • Is it true that the struggle against ‘evil’ has resulted in the greatest atrocities of history? Is not the banner of ‘the good’ always used to exercise violence against the defenseless? (A. Gomez)
  • When chronicling social violence, why do historians not add chronicling violence of the state?
  • Is the history of economic development more about great men (and they are almost all men), or is it primarily about the broader processes that create widespread wellbeing and stronger, more protective human rights (HR)? (Simon Johnson)
  • Do we live under the-tyranny-of-simple/simplistic-historical-explanations? (Philip Ball)

 

Conventional history is in part made up of fallacies, forgetfulness and sophisms (i.e., apparently clever, but flawed arguments) (Ernesto Sabato)

 

  1. Here is a sampler:
  • What happens in conventional history is that it is dotted with disasters, and goes from one disaster to the next, i.e., the narrative crumbles under the weight of these endless stories of bad news for the HR victims. (Philip Roth)
  • What the science (?) of history has too often done is turning disasters into accounts of epic glories.* (Philip Roth)

*: Never forget: History is not a science, in the conventional sense, it is the art of showing a clean face and hiding a sinister ass. (Leopoldo Marechal)

  • Contemporary conventional history has lost its capacity to suggest solutions for the future.* (Marc Auge)

*:We simply have to refer to the past fairly, precisely because it is absolutely relevant for the present; the future depends on it. (A. Gomez)

  • Conventional history often dramatizes what has been called ‘somebody else’s reality’, e.g., that of the nobles of Europe. There is nothing wrong with rectifying and ‘defatalizing’ this past –if such a word exists –i.e., showing how history may have been portrayed differently about things that did happen, e.g., the harsh life of serfs in Europe, echoing their feelings voiced as what it meant to be vulnerable and abused. So, what we schoolchildren studied as ‘history’ (or harmless history) –where everything is chronicled in its own time by the winners– has been inevitably biased. (Moreover, as an aside, when you study history, you memorize dates and ‘facts’ …and then you pass the exam). (Philip Roth)
  • Standard historical accounts have privileged the role of western actors, and their perspectives on historical causalities. The reason for this state of affairs lies in a complacent approach to historical research that itself is too often focused on a celebratory or commemorative approach to the historical evolution instead of a more critical approach. (Steven Jensen)

 

  1. So, what it is all about is to question the many versions of ‘official (conventional) history’ that have in-visibilized the conditions of power and that have rationalized and maintained inequality, the inferiorization of whole peoples and the ingrained discrimination against them. The call is for resurrecting and re-interpreting the true historical roots especially of resistance and liberation processes leadered by social movements that never gave up building the societies they yearned-for –in short, struggling for universal justice and HR. (Jorge Osorio)

 

A bit of true history

 

  1. The first point to acknowledge is that HR came-in from the South. The year 1962 was a major turning point, because of an important redefinition of the HR project around race and religion, and the emergence of an unprecedented momentum and leadership during the decolonization period. The legal and diplomatic breakthrough was brokered by a key group of countries, namely, Jamaica, Ghana, the Philippines, Liberia, Costa Rica and Senegal. These countries pushed the HR agenda and built alliances at the United Nations for a vital period during the 1960s. They fought for and delivered a stronger HR system, including its legally binding components. Jamaica was the global leader in HR diplomacy within two years of the country’s independence in 1962. The global South’s contribution was, therefore, foundational with long-lasting legacies that are still with us today.

 

  1. From 1963-1968, a core group of these states initiated a diplomatic effort to develop an international HR system with mechanisms at the global, regional and national level. They believed such mechanisms were necessary if the United Nations was to function as an organization for collective security in the post-colonial world. They therefore placed issues such as fact-finding missions, national human rights commissions, treaty body monitoring and regional HR mechanisms on the UN agenda. Ghana and the Philippines led the process that laid the foundation for the treaty body system in the mid-1960s. They faced much resistance and progress was slow, but this agenda-setting would have a lasting impact.

 

  1. Global South actors from 1962 also redefined the international HR project around racial discrimination and religious intolerance. They challenged the major Western powers to engage more fully with the emerging international HR diplomacy. The evolution of HR was never just a Western project. It was a pluralist project emerging through a multitude of historical processes with a diverse set of actors involved. This is what conventional historians have failed to acknowledge. This is a paradox that remedy we must. (Steven Jensen)

 

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

schuftan@gmail.com

all 400+ Readers are available at www.claudioschuftan.com under ‘Readers’

Postscript/Marginalia

Let’s face it, most great nations in history owed their existence to conquest. They then established themselves legally and economically as the privileged class of the conquered nations. They secured for themselves the monopoly of the ownership of the land and appointed priests from among their own. These priests then controlled education fostering the division of society into social classes making this a permanent feature and, through that, inculcating a value system through which, in a way, social behavior could be controlled. We have not really overcome the ‘predatory phase’ of human development. For too long we assumed that historians are the only ones who have the right to tell us all questions that affect and have affected the organization of society. Looking back in time, they make it seem that there were periods in which groups of individuals fully enjoyed their privileges; those times are gone forever though. Individuals are now more conscious than ever of their dependence on society. But they do not see this dependence as a positive fact, like an organic link, like a protective force, but rather as something that threatens their human rights or even their economic existence –and that needs to change. (Albert Einstein)

 

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