This post is part of a series celebrating Human Rights Day authored by members of the former AAA Committee for Human Rights (CfHR), now represented on the Members’ Programmatic, Advisory, and Advocacy Committee (MPAAC). This piece was submitted by Tricia Redeker Hepner, former chair of the CfHR and current chair of MPAAC.
It’s a cold, wintery day in Munich, Germany. I am acutely aware that these mornings of hot coffee and steam gathering on the window edges, puffing fragrantly from the 680-year old Augustiner Brewery across the street, are soon coming to an end. The sojourn of a semester abroad has de-centered for me the madness of the “World According to Trump.” And while Germany certainly has its share of problems, I have come to appreciate more than ever life in a society where reason and rationality still thrive, where civility and respect remain largely intact, and where the toxic mix of nationalism, white supremacy, and economic dysfunction is a visceral social memory not yet forgotten. I am deeply ambivalent about returning home. And yet the words of one my students, a Somali-American social justice activist, keep pulling me back: “Don’t you dare stay there, Dr. H. We need you to come back and fight!”
And so I turn to the news of the day. Here in Germany, airline pilots have grounded over 220 flights in a refusal to participate in the deportations of Afghani asylum seekers. I follow a link in related news: the US has pulled out of the New York Declaration for Migrants and Refugees, citing its inconsistency with an America First approach to immigration. I can’t help it; now I’m drawn in by the train wreck. More grisly details about the social and economic impact of the Tax Reform Bill, passed in the Senate, are detailed. The Trump administration dismisses warnings about the incendiary impact of moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The world lurches closer to both climate and nuclear disasters. National parks and more sacred indigenous land will be opened for drilling. Even the Mueller investigation brings no cheer. For how robust can American laws and institutions really be if we’ve already reached this point?
International news, too, details endless suffering: a genocide has unfolded in Myanmar, slavery has returned with a vengeance (actually, it never went away), more migrants have drowned at sea in full view of European authorities. As in Walter Benjamin’s description of the angel of history, the world seems to pile wreckage upon wreckage. “Where we perceive a chain of events, [the angel] sees one single catastrophe. . . . This storm is what we call progress.”
But is it? I disagree with Benjamin this morning. What we once called progress – when we believed in such things – was moments like December 10, 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Far from perfect, not least for its emergence in a world beset by colonialism and legally sanctioned white supremacy, the UDHR nonetheless represented “progress.” It made the audacious demand that irrespective of nationality, citizenship, religion, gender, or any other axis of division humanity might devise, inalienable rights and dignity are paramount. It was not the first time such demands were made, of course. But it was vitally important for setting in motion the subsequent development and promulgation of a body of international laws and concepts that have remained, above all, reminders of what we could be, what we should be. Although human rights hardly float in some neutral space above the fray of power struggles, political and economic agendas, or cultural contestations, the work of anthropologists has demonstrated again and again how people throughout time and space have referred to this body of laws and concepts to give voice and legal traction to their demands. If nothing else, human rights is grounded in a shared belief in basic human morality and the primacy of reason.
But let’s be honest. It’s difficult to maintain belief in human rights concepts and laws today. Each year, when I teach the Anthropology of Human Rights, I guide my students along the tightrope between a critical, realistic analysis of what human rights actually looks like in practice versus its normative, ideal constructions. It’s a struggle to keep them from pitching off into the abyss of cynicism. For how can human rights have any meaning whatsoever when the words have so often been hijacked by those with unaccountable power, and the laws ineffectively and unjustly applied? What can human rights possibly mean in a world where immorality and unreason seem to have won the day?
It’s a valid, even urgent, question. And it’s one that I think we as anthropologists not only can, but must, answer. Our collective voice is essential to rediscovering, reframing, and perhaps even helping to rescue the ongoing project of human rights. In the coming years, I hope to help inspire and motivate my colleagues in AAA to retool our position on anthropology and human rights. It’s high time that we bring our wealth of empirical knowledge, our theoretical acumen, our practical experience – indeed, all of our critical faculties – to bear on fortifying basic morality and reason against the forces that threaten daily to hurl it on the ever-growing pile of wreckage. Like Benjamin’s angel of history, we must resist the storm that has got hold of our wings, we must stay and make whole again that which has been smashed. We must redefine the meaning of “progress.”
Who’s with me?