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American Vernaculars: the United States and the Global Human Rights Imagination


DOI: 10.1093/dh/dht123

Bradley, M P. “American Vernaculars: the United States and the Global Human Rights Imagination.” Diplomatic History 38.1 (2014): 1–21. Web.

p.2: Why had the suffering of a distant stranger come to matter so much to the members of Amnesty International USA Group 11? -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.2: The history of twentieth-century global human rights politics, and the American place in them, has only recently begun to be told. The flagship American Historical Review did not publish an article with the phrase “human rights” in its title until 1998, and it would be 2004 before an article dealing with modern human rights history appeared in the journal. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.2: The most enduringly influential accounts of the making of world order—think here George Kennan, John Lewis Gaddis, and Melvyn Lefer—left human rights to the side, as did most textbooks on American diplomatic history, beyond a brief and seemingly obligatory nod to Jimmy Carter’s “discovery” of human rights in the 1970s. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.2: Skepticism has often been the default mode for observers of the human rights scene. For these self-styled realists, any apparent triumph of a human rights regime is little more than a smokescreen or illusion, what Jeremy Bentham famously called “nonsense upon stilts.” Nor, realists argue, should the emergence of global human rights talk obscure the ways in which the more fundamental exercise and hierarchies of power within and between states and societies remains largely unchanged. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.3: More recently, scholars have begun to excavate the global explosion of human rights concerns in the 1970s, including innovative and path-breaking monographs like Samuel Moyn’s 2010 Last Utopia, Sarah Snyder’s Human Rights Activism, and Barbara Keys’s 2013 Reclaiming American Virtue. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.4: Barbara Keys agrees, suggesting the fluorescence of a 1940s human rights vocabulary was a “tepid” wartime “inspirational fiction” whose “rhetorical flourishes” were “regarded as an alien, un-American force.” -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.4: In Moyn’s view, it was the collapse of the major twentieth century utopian visions of revolutionary socialism and postcolonial nationalism that provided the space for a global human rights politics to flourish as what he terms a minor utopia. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.5: My approach to these questions is informed by a conceptual posture that seeks to decenter or provincializes the presence of American actors on the world stage. A part of this method is simply pragmatic, disaggregating American state and nonstate actors to better capture the multiplicity of positions Americans could occupy in global human rights politics and the intensity of their various engagements. It also involves a willingness to look beyond still prevailing notions of American exceptionalism to recognize the ways in which the lexicon of human rights was constituted in transnational space. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.6: In speech after speech in early years of the war, American statesmen and diplomats pointed to the “spirit of human rights and human freedom” as a primary aim of thewar. But there was more than a little official worry that Americans were not paying close enough attention. A January 1942 poll revealed that only 21 percent of Americans had heard of the Atlantic Charter. Six months later a July 1942 poll reported only 35 percent had heard of the Four Freedoms. Even more distressing for policymakers, only 5 percent had heard of the freedom from fear or freedom from want. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.7: Or, put more broadly, how might American publics have made the unfamiliar language of human rights that drove so much of wartime rhetoric their own? -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.9: Lynn Hunt’s pioneering exploration of how human rights came to occupy a central place in early modern Europe and her examination of the changing nature of eighteenth-century print culture and its impact on thought and behavior illustrates how this might be so. Hunt suggests that the rise of epistolary novels like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1770) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie (1747 – 1748) tied communities of readers together in ways that transcended older boundaries of social distinction and produced a novel subjective sentimentality and moralization of politics. “For human rights to become self-evident,” Hunt argues, “ordinary people had to have new understandings that came from new kinds of freedom.” -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.9: In all these senses it is perhaps no surprise that the Office of War Information chose visual forms to make legible the human rights dimensions of the Second World War. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.13: At war’s end human rights found a prominent place in the United Nations Charter in its novel, if not revolutionary, claim that the promotion of individual human rights was a fundamental purpose of global community. That it did so is less of a puzzle set against the explosive shift in contemporary visual culture through which images of social suffering offered a scaffolding for building an empathetic appreciation of what having, and losing, human rights might mean. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.14: Carter closed the debate by arguing “[w]e ought to be a beacon for nations who search for peace and who search for freedom, who search for individual liberty, who search for basic human rights. We haven’t been lately. We can be once again.” -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.15: The exceptionalist currents of American thought about its own primacy in the making of a global human rights imagination run deep. As one Carter political operative put it, the United States is “the one nation where human rights is center stage for the world.” -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.15: In fact, human rights moved from the margins of global political discourse to become a central optic through which a variety of states and peoples saw the world around them long before it did for most Americans. Not only was Amnesty International, the leading global human rights nongovernmental organization in the 1970s, a European importation into American politics, it was a broader and diverse network of translocal actors in the Soviet Union, Western Europe, Asia, and Latin America whose protean conceptions of human rights would deeply shape the contours of human rights thought and politics in the United States. Soviet dissidents came to the language of human rights in the late 1960s. So too did West European states, both in their reaction to political repression in Greece and the preparatory meetings that led to the Helsinki Accords. Anti-torture activists in Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, and South Korea found human rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In all this, American actors were, initially, bit players. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.17: In part, the content and reception of Gulag are essential to understanding Solzhenitsyn’s transformative impact on his readers. Over the course of four volumes, he traced the history of the imprisonment, brutalization, and murder of tens of millions of Soviet citizens by their own government between 1929 and 1953 in “that amazing country of Gulag which, though an archipelago geographically was, in the psychological sense, fused into a continent—an almost invisible, almost imperceptible, country.” -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.18: But more important than Gulag’s subject and vast circulation for an emergent American human rights consciousness was the impact of its form. Solzhenitsyn’s subtitle for the project was “An Experiment in Literary Investigation,” and his method consciously relied on confronting readers with first-person testimony. He was intent upon viscerally pulling his readers into the narrative, insisting on their engagement with the clear intent of altering how they saw and felt about an unfamiliar world. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.18: The “I” is omnipresent throughout Gulag. For Solzhenitsyn it was rendered with a mix of indignation and pity to craft a self-styled voice of authenticity that challenged and discredited the prevailing strictures of Soviet official speech. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.19: For his American readers, bringing the “I” into the gulag offered a palpable window into distant suffering and a visceral sense of the fragility of the human condition. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.19: Not only was Solzhenitsyn decoupled from late Soviet history, many of the nonstate actors at the forefront of the human rights campaigns of the 1970s were by conscious choice indifferent to context. Political repression and its history were more commonly presented as moral parable rather than a causal network of political and social relations. Substituting the universal for the particular brought human rights much of its popular appeal in 1970s America but it left open, and indeed deliberately suppressed, the multiple and sometimes conflicting structural forces and local particularities that gave rise to the violations of rights in the first place. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014

p.20: The social movements of the era for civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights only infrequently invoked human rights as a way to frame their causes. And in the rare instances that they did, it was almost always in a minor key. Rights questions in the United States throughout the 1970s remained almost completely decoupled from what would be increasingly vigorous American attention to violations of human rights elsewhere in the world. Forty years on, that same insularity in American rights talk persists. -- Highlighted mar 29, 2014