Reliving For a Night

A creative writing class from the UAB English department attended the Nazi Germany and Jim Crow South symposium in February. Six students, including Taylor, submitted their reflections on the interview with Riva Hirsh, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, daughter of lynching victim, Elmore Bolling. Their honest and emotionally raw selections will post over the course of this week. — AR

a picture of a barn in the middle of a field at night
Source: Brian Spratley, Creative Commons

Riva Hirsch scans the room with wide eyes and white hair. Her shoulders are draped in purple and gold, her veiny hands clutched around her microphone. When the interviewer asks her to tell the room about her childhood and family, she stands up and brings the microphone to her lips.

“I had everything I needed until the murderer came.”

Her voice comes out grainy and loud, her lips probably kissing the microphone. She shakes with emotion I’m sure she’s felt for a lifetime.

The interviewer turns to Josephine Bolling McCall, who sits in her chair with her ankles crossed, robed in shades of emerald. Her hair is as red as fall leaves before the separate from branches and litter sidewalks. Like Riva, she wears glasses. The interviewer asks her the same question and she stands. Her voice is softer, as steady as a librarian talking while leading you through the stacks and pulling the book you need from the shelf.

“I lived in Lowndes Country, Alabama. It was known as ‘Blood Lowndes’,” she reveals. I look around the room and watch a few audience members shift in their seats. One squints his eyes, as if trying to imagine just how bloody it had been. “I was only 5 when my father was killed.” Even I shift in my seat.

Riva begins the heartbreaking tale of bring separated from her family by the Nazis. She was seven when war came to her town. A family friend named Joshua warned her family to leave. The second time he came, Riva tells us “I could smell human flesh.” Riva and her family were forced to leave their home, taking only the packages her mother and grandmother made. Joshua hid them until he could hide them no more. One day Joshua came running.

“The SS are coming!” Riva and her family were forced into the forest, where they lived in sickness, became covered in lice. Eventually they were caught and separated by the SS. Riva tells the room of alert eyes and open mouths that her mother was beat in front of her when she refused to let go of her children. They were forced to wear the yellow star and told they would be taken to a better place. She tells us of the trains they were forced on and leaves us with an image that chills to the bone and boils blood all at once.

“There were piles of dead bodies on the train. We were all moving from life to death, death to life.”

Josephine tells us about her father, Elmo, before he was killed. “He had airhorns on his truck,” she reminisces. Her father would blow his horns as he passed the family in the shop or the house. But in December of 1947, gunshots could be heard some time after the airhorns. No one thought anything of it until they were told her father was dead. “He was laying there in the ditch and his eyes were still open,” she says, looking down into the microphone. I know we all imagined a 5-year-old mind replaying that image, understanding more of its horror as time passes.

When asked about the community’s reaction to her father’s murder, Josephine admits that everyone was afraid to talk. “Keep your mouth shut, stay inside, and don’t say anything,” she recites. This was the law of their land. Josephine’s brother saw the murder of their father and saw the car that appeared to be following their father before the murder. Her brother wrote the tag number in the dirt in front of a sheriff, trying to give him the information. The sheriff had no interest. “My father’s murder had been planned,” Josephine says. And the room understands that the sheriff already knew.

Riva is asked to talk about her savior, a man who spoke German. “A man put his hand on my mouth,” she says. “I was so sick with malaria and typhoid. He told me to play dead. He put me on his shoulder and started to run with me.” The German man hid Riva in a carriage to smuggle her out of the camp. The carriage was stopped, but Riva went undiscovered until she was brought to a convent. “He handed me off to a nun and then she started to run with me,” and I imagine a nun’s black clothing flailing in the still of night, a sick child limp in her arms. She was brought to a place where more children were hidden and told the nuns would bring them food as often as they could, but not too often as to draw attention. “They were my guardian angels,” Riva confesses.

After Josephine’s family fled Lowndes County to Montgomery, she found information that would launch her into an investigation about her father’s murder. In the Montgomery Advertiser had an article about her father’s murder. “He had been shot 6 times with a pistol, once in the back with a shot gun. What does that tell you? That there was more than one person there,” Josephine urges into the microphone. After retrieving the article from historical archives and interviewing others, Josephine discovers that many people had known her father’s murder was planned. She also discovered that by definition, her father’s murder had been a lynching. In a Chicago newspaper headline about her father’s murder, the word “lynch” appeared.

The interviewer asks, “Why was it important for your father’s murderers to not make it look like a lynching?”

“Counties were being held responsible and fined,” Josephine responds. “The Association of Southern Women to Protect Lynching (ASWPL) came to Lowndes County to stop the lynching from happening.” The murderers were trying to protect themselves.

Riva tells us about her life after the way. She never went to school, but taught herself 7 languages. She married another Holocaust survivor, who lost his whole family to the gas chambers. He was the only survivor. 28 years ago, Riva came to Birmingham. Her daughter and step-daughter and still with her. She lost her husband 4 years ago, her son 9 years ago. She still claims with excitement, “America is the best place in the world.”

Josephine started a foundation in memory of her father. She wrote a book, The Penalty of Success: My Father was Lynched in Lowndes County, Alabama, and had two book signings a day for a week in Boston. She continues to share her story.

Both women leave us with their own words of advice. Riva cautions, “Make sure you speak to educate our students because the future is in their hands.” She pins us all with a determined stare before finishing, “Never ever let it happen again.” Josephine follows Riva, urging that “we have to acknowledge what has gone on before we can reconcile and come together.” Finally, she points us to Bible, Hebrews 13:1, “Let brotherly love continue.”

 

Taylor Byas is a graduate student at UAB pursuing her Master’s Degree in English, Creative Writing. She aspires to teach Creative Writing at the collegiate level.

Everyday Expectation: Complicity in the Third Reich and Jim Crow South

by Derrick J. Angermeier

a picture of a sticker in Germany
“Ultras,” are “Super Fans” of FC Nürnberg, the soccer team of Nuremberg, Germany. This picture, taken in May 2017, is of a sticker placed on a lamppost in Nuremberg. Ultras use the Confederate Battle Flag to assert the city’s and its people’s “unreconstructed” position within not only Germany but the south German state of Bavaria. Believing themselves exceptional within Germany, this aspect of U.S. Southern identity helps point out an overlap in everyday identity politics between the nationalist cultures. Photo by Derrick Angermeier.

My research seeks to answer a complicated question: Why did everyday people participate in the systems of racial oppression known historically as the Third Reich and the Jim Crow South? Historians have focused on these two national cultures and the wide variety of ways in which they excluded racialized others while elevating their own preferred racial makeups. Much of my graduate career has been spent studying the prejudice that emanated from Nazi Party leadership down to the German citizenry. However, when I took a graduate seminar on Southern History with a preeminent scholar, I was struck by the fact that, at the structural level, histories of the South resembled many of the German histories I had already consumed.

Both fields attempt to sort through complex pasts by debating continuity over time. In Germany’s case, scholars asked if there was something essentially German that caused the rise of the Third Reich by the early twentieth century? Was there a direct path from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler, or was the development of German history more complex? Similarly, U.S. Southern academics often argued over whether the antebellum South had ever truly given way to a New South built on technology and industry. Both arguments created a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts that has consequentially damaged historical interpretation in both fields. By setting up a world where the U.S. South was always at its heart magnolias and bigotry and Germany was always a peculiar nation susceptible to authoritarianism, no one needs to take ownership of their horrendous racial legacies. Exceptionalist narratives paint a deterministic picture where the racial castes that evolved into brutality and violence were inevitable outgrowths of inherent flaws. Nobody could help themselves; it was simply meant to be.

Such determinism has long had its opponents and supporters amongst historians, but both fields tackled this problem in remarkably similar ways: memory history. Southern and German historians embraced a historical methodology that called scholars to probe historical actors’ memories. How did exceptionalist myths like the “Lost Causes” and “Special Paths” (Sonderweg) get formed? Scholars of both cultures claimed that historical actors chose to selectively remember and internalize false memories which were then purposely perpetuated to future generations. One of the most blatant of these efforts was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization defined by a desire amongst white Southern women to give permanence to the “Lost Cause” illusions of the Confederacy. Through textbooks, statues, speeches, public events, and other cultural activities the UDC ensured that a Neo-Confederate lifestyle would exist well beyond the South’s military defeat. Germany similarly internalized powerful false memories regarding militarism. Many young German men willingly went to war in the Spring of 1914 hopped up on tales of glory from Germany’s imperial wars; the fact that these conflicts were inherently one-sided and genocidal did not make it into travel accounts and youth magazines. These same myths would influence another generation; instead of seeing the First World War as brutal meat-grinder of humanity, many Germans sought glorification in the Nazi cause. False memories had indeed defined both regions and by extension their historical studies.

The more I read Southern history and reread German history I noticed more similarities. Neither regions’ academics seemed to address one another in any significant way. There were Cursory mentions here and there, footnotes in an epilogue, an occasional article. German historians and Southern historians seemed unaware of how significantly their methods of analysis overlapped. It was maddening! How could either of these places consider themselves exceptional when their histories were so painfully similar?! How had no one else really dug into this subject? The possibilities were staggering! I wrote a paper for my Southern History course on this overlap, and the whole exercise was produced more in the name of catharsis than course completion. However, the paper would not be enough, I did not find myself satisfied.

I read more and more and continued to find considerable overlap, but meaningful comparisons were few and far between. So, my new obsession slowly shifted into my dissertation proposal. I refined my original project, stripped it down to its bolts, and completely rewrote it. I added a research prospectus where I outlined my major argument, my answer to the question I asked above: Why did everyday people participate in the systems of racial oppression known historically as the Third Reich and the Jim Crow South? People were subjugated, excluded, and made the easy victims of violence and deprivation. The answer would not be found in studying politicians, demagogues, and the elites that had often defined my research. No, the similarity between these two regions, the element that formed the foundation of a transnational system of racial intolerance and exclusion was everyday people. The racial castes of Jim Crow and National Socialism may have had the force of law, but everyday people were the ones who enforced and followed the boundaries of racial propriety. Those boundaries were often set and adjusted at very local levels in countless interactions far away from any state supervision.

Many historians have argued that events and circumstances dictated complicity- in other words a historical actor’s present world left them little choice. Other scholars assert that historical actor’s memories of the past informed their complicity. I depart from these arguments; I insist that the answer to everyday complicity in the Third Reich and Jim Crow South lies not in past or present but in the future. I study the various expected futures that these historical actors internalized, which I call “Expectation” for shorthand. Expectation is a fact of human existence; we all walk around with some form of expectation of the future, be it a political identity, a five-year plan, or even what to eat for dinner. Historical actors similarly had expectations. In my research I have unearthed those hopes and fears of countless possible futures that provided considerable motivation for a wide variety of actions that lent credence to Jim Crow and Nazism.

Model for the components of historical “Expectation” as it relates to everyday complicity in racial caste systems. Graphic by Derrick Angermeier.

Identifying and explaining expectation has been a fascinating endeavor that has taken me across six Southern states and all across the Southern German state of Bavaria. This particular German state and its people have long considered their culture to be highly distinct from the rest of Germany, harking back to an aristocratic tradition that thrived long before Prussian led unification “reconstructed” their region into a united Germany. As such, it offers a very proximate point of comparison with a Southern culture that deals with its own hatred of reconstructions. I have assembled pamphlets, newspapers, sheet music, broadsides, tourism brochures, flyers, letters, diaries, and a wide variety of everyday kitsch to assemble a clear picture of white supremacist hopes for the future. These items help illustrate a wide variety of wants, needs, and fears that informed everyday expectations for the future and by extension the justifications people internalized to vindicate their position in racialized states.

My research has shown five key components of expectation, each one of vital importance to understanding everyday complicity. First, tradition: the idea that people expect some form a remembered past will carry over into the future. Second, continuity: the hope that the institution, customs, and society of the present will continue to exist. Third, potential: the desire to maximize the potential of humanity and society to thrive in the future. These three ideas embody expectation generally and can be found outside of Jim Crow South and the Third Reich. However, the next two components help bridge the gap between expectation and complicity. Fourth, urgency: the pressing fear generated by either stressful times, political demagogy, or the perception of changes to the status quo that motivate historical actors to become more ardent in realizing their expectations. Finally, entitlement: the idea that historical actors considered themselves entitled to their expectations of the future at the direct expense of other people.

To fully explain how tradition, continuity, potential, urgency, and entitlement form expectations for the future and motivate everyday people to participate in racial states I use a series of vignettes to tackle each topic and illustrate a component of expectation as it existed in both the U.S. South and Bavarian Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. For example, to study the idea of tradition, I look at the Lost Cause and postwar Confederate worship to demonstrate that Southerners generally expected their futures to contain some vestiges of moonlight and magnolias. In Bavaria, an emphasis on agricultural roots and Bavaria’s separate monarchy demonstrate that Bavarians hoped to honor their separatism of yesteryear. In assembling this argument, I have called on debates over Women’s Suffrage, Bavarian Catholicism, white supporters of Marcus Garvey, sterilization and eugenics, the Scopes Trial, Bamberg tourism, Prohibition, and so much else to unearth everyday expectation in a clear and compelling fashion.

When we consider the factors that contributed to everyday complicity, we must not only look at the usual suspects hierarchy, heritage, racism but also reflect on the role of people’s entitlement to expected futures and the fear of losing those futures. The world of the 1920s and 1930s was truly tumultuous with the rise of communism, a global war and an epidemic that combined wiped out much of a generation, a global depression, and many other destabilizing events. People needed and craved stability; in the case of the Jim Crow South and the Third Reich, that stability was offered by politicians and demagogues in exchange for participation in a strict and violent racial system. This stability afforded everyday whites in both the U.S. South and Bavaria Germany the opportunity to achieve their desired futures and to avoid imagined apocalypses. The opportunity to realize their expectations convinced far too many people to enforce, support, or at least look the other way as African Americans and Jews were stripped of their human rights, their dignity, and sometimes their very lives.

 

Derrick J. Angermeier is presently a PhD candidate in the History Department of the University of Georgia. His dissertation, titled Both Hitler and Jim Crow: Lost Causes and Imagined Futures in Nazi Bavaria and the New South, 1919-1939, explores the expectations, hopes, and fears for the future held by everyday people in the U.S. South and Bavaria, Germany during the 1920s and 1930s as vehicles to understanding complicity in racialized states. Derrick has been awarded multiple research grants and fellowships which have taken him across the U.S. South and to the southern German state of Bavaria. This May he will be a Graduate Fellow of the Berlin Seminar in Transnational European Studies. Derrick prides himself on sharing his expertise and research with the public. He has spoken at multiple events sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; most recently in February 2018 when he discussed the role “Expectation” played in everyday complicity in the Third Reich and Jim Crow South at a symposium co-sponsored by the UAB Institute for Human Rights.

Relevant works

  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1991).
  • Kenneth Barkin, “A Case Study in Comparative History: Populism in Germany and America,” in The State of American History, Herbert J. Bass (Quadrangle Books, 1970).
  • Peter Bergmann, “American Exceptionalism and German Sonderweg in Tandem,“ The International History Review, vol. 23, no. 3 (2001): 505-534.
  • Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005)
  • James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • David C. Engerman, “Introduction: Histories of the Future and Futures of History,” The American Historical Review, vol 117, no. 5 (2012): 1402-1410.
  • Paul Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).
  • Johnpeter H. Grill and Robert L. Jenkins, “The Nazis and the American South in the 1930s: A Mirror Image? The Journal of Southern History, vol 58, no. 4 (November 1992): 667-694.
  • John Haag, “Gone with the Wind in Nazi Germany,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 73, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 378-304
  • Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983)
  • Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1790: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • Ian Kershaw, “Hitler and the Uniqueness of Nazism,” Journal of Contemporary History, 2, (2004): 239-254.
  • Jürgen Kocka, “German History Before Hitler: The Debate about the German Sonderweg,” Journal of Contemporary History 23, no. 1 (1988): 3–16.
  • George L Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (Howard Fertig: 1964).
  • Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning and Recovery, Jefferson Chase (Metropolitan Books, 2001).
  • Nina Silber, The Romans of Reunion: Northers and the South 1865-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
  • Martina Steber and Bernhard Gotto, eds., Visions of Community in Nazi Germany: Social Engineering and Private (Oxford University Press, 2014).
  • Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: The Rise of Germanic Ideology. (University of California Press, 1974).
  • Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 1980).
  • Andrew Zimmermann, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South, (Princeton University Press, 2012).

The Importance of Art in Human Rights

How does art affect humanity and human rights? Does it play an important role in human rights advocacy? Throughout history, people have used the arts as a form of self-expression by reflecting on their lives and what they observe. Art and design are constantly changing, and growing, with history. It is constantly being influenced while influencing societal events. As an artist and graphic designer, I believe that use of imagery influences societies, helping raise awareness of social and political issues. In the vast world of social and political arts, there are a few examples of work that stood out to me because of their contribution to society, namely: “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin, “All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerilla Girls, “Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman, “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, and “America” by Touba Alipour. These are a few good examples of how art and design can impact human rights with solidarity, awareness, and protest.

“The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin. June 30, 1917

The symbol of the clinched fist has been a symbol of solidarity as early as 1917. “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin is an illustration referring to the IWW (Industrial Workers of The World). Industrial unionism began when skilled workers were displaced by modern machinery and the monopolization of industries. It was a union that believed industries should be controlled by the workers, benefiting the many instead of enriching the few, and create better working conditions. In this image, the workers are uniting their arms and creating one giant fist, which represents solidarity and unity, while holding tools, representing manuallabor, while factories in the backdrop symbolize the machinery displacing the workers.

“All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, March 9, 1969

The Black Panther Party was an African-American organization founded October 15, 1966 in Oakland, CA. One of their greatest successes was using imagery to reach people across the country about their movement. According to The New York Times, even though the Black Panther Party was associated with armed resistance, their most powerful weapon was reaching out to African-American communities through works of art. Emory Douglass, the artist behind many these images, has a background in printmaking and activism, pushing him to create images that show the injustice toward communities of color in the United States. His illustration “All Power to the People” is another example of the solidarity symbolism employed by the raised fist. The raised fist and the words “All Power to The People” brings a sense of unity to the viewer. Also, the person’s expression speaks on an emotional level, as if they’re shouting these words, making it a very powerful piece of artwork.

“The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerrilla Girls, 26 Feb 2016

The Guerilla Girls are feminist activist group comprised of more than 55 artists. They describe themselves by saying: “We wear gorilla masks in public and use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture. We undermine the idea of a mainstream narrative by revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.” This group of activist artists started in 1985 and, by the early-21st century, have expanded their awareness into the media world, namely the film industry. “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” brings awareness to the racism and sexism in the film industry by portraying a white male holding his genitals with text boxes demonstrating the percentage of people of color that have won Oscars in the past 86 years. The Guerilla Girls displayed this billboard in Hollywood a few months leading up to 2016 Oscars, noting, “the people we want to reach will see it…There is so much positive press around the Oscars – the gowns, the stars – that we decided it was time for another point of view.

“Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman

Molly Gochman’s “Red Sand Project” is a worldwide instillation that takes a hands-on approach of bringing awareness to human trafficking. This project encourages all communities to pour red sand into cracks on sidewalks to recognize the overlooked populations (refugees, immigrants, girls, and others) that are at risk of slavery and exploitation. “These interventions remind us that we can’t merely walk over the most marginalized people in our communities — those who fall through the metaphoric cracks”, explains Molly Gochman. This informative, and largely interactive, work of art takes simple, yet powerful, gestures and to bring worldwide awareness through photography and social media. It is an ongoing project, raising action for those who are overlooked and vulnerable to human trafficking.

“The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, 2011

In 2011, various outbursts of popular protests swept the Middle East and North Africa, causing a revolutionary wave called the Arab Spring. Staring from Tunisia and later spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, people were rising against their oppressive leaders. As the protests grew larger they were met with violent responses from authorities. One of the striking things that came out of this short period was the growth in street art, graffiti, and calligraphy. “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, located in Cairo, Egypt, is a great example of protest of oppression. This graffiti is part of an instillation called “Thousand Times No” which Shehab explains, “represents a rejection of both the conformity and the repression that often stifle the Arabic speaking region and Islamic cultures.” The text above the Blue Bra is saying “no stripping the people” and the sole of the military boot reads “long live a peaceful revolution”, calling the incident of a veiled girl who was stripped and beaten by police on December 18, 2011, and happened to be wearing a blue bra. In another location, Sheab installed a calligraphic graffiti which is an Arabic translation of Pablo Neruda’s quote, “you may crush the flowers, but you cannot delay the spring”.

“America” by Touba Alipour, 2017

Touba Alipour’s “America” is a mixed media artwork, curated by gallery director and artist Indria Cesarine, placed in The Untitled Space gallery’s “ONE YEAR OF RESISTANCE” exhibition in January 2017, shortly after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. This exhibition, which included over 80 artists, addressed and protested policies that challenged human rights in our society such as immigration rights, health care, reproductive rights, climate change, transgender rights, white supremacy, gender equality, gun control, sexual harassment and many others. Among these artists, Touba Alipour addressed the travel bans placed by Trump which prevented people from six Muslim countries to enter the United States. “Being from Iran, it definitely affected me in different ways”, mentions Alipour, “I’ve seen families being torn apart, and they had green cards, they were living here, they just went to travel, and when they came back they were told they can no longer enter the country”.

Art is a way for people to express themselves, whether for the sake of imagination or to express ideas. It has been used effectively today, and throughout history, to send public messages about social and political issues. Human rights and the arts go together because of the expressive nature of both subjects. As people, we can stand up for our rights through expression. Due to their ability to create visual interest and to promote solidarity, awareness, and protest, artists and designers play a pivotal role in society by promoting human rights advocacy. Especially in the modern age, where people rely heavily on technology and media, it is important to send messages that work toward creating a society that respects human rights for themselves as well as others.

The Struggle Against Modern Babylon

Marlene Dietrich during the Weimar Republic. Source: Unknown, Public Domain.

“Maria, you come out of the stable and look at the lights of Bethlehem with chaste eyes. Where the bird is. And now Archangel Gabriel, please,” the director shouts at his cast, motioning them to their positions. He continues, “Frieda, you’re receiving the Redeemer. I can’t see that.” At first glance, an unsuspecting observer might err in thinking that they were witnessing a rehearsal for a biblical reenactment or a Christmas pageant; however, a closer look would swiftly reveal the naked truth: a pornographic film in the making. Actors of both sexes in varying stages of undress, young boys in sexualized cherubic costume – if any misgivings remained about the reality of the production, they would soon be laid to rest by the arrival of the police. “Ladies and gentlemen, form an orderly row, pack away your genitals and keep your mouths shut,” the police inspector commanding the raid barks, referring to the director as “a rat” for his role in spreading “the filth with those little boys.” How does the director defend himself against such allegations? “Art is free,” he protests, “you will have to prove I’m not an artist.”

Although one would not be remiss in thinking this scenario occurred in a modern-day United States in which nearly eighty million people visit Pornhub every day and the boundaries of cultural libertinism seem to be constantly extended, in actuality, it occurred in a new Netflix series – Babylon Berlin – accurately dramatizing the Weimar Republic of interwar Germany. Constructed atop the ruins of Imperial Germany in the aftermath of World War One, the Weimar Republic represented the first German experiment in mass democracy and classical liberalism, an ideology oriented around the idea that individuals inherently possess certain natural rights. With this newfound emphasis on the individual, many Germans – theoretically liberated from the emphasis on community and tradition promoted by the elites of Imperial Germany – began a decade-long process of transforming their country into a laboratory in which the social experiments of the twenty-first century originated (Moeller, 2009).

However, intertwined with more questionable experimentation – as detailed in Babylon Berlin – existed one of the first attempts to institutionalize human rights, even though such rights failed to achieve codification until the aftermath of World War II. The German League of Human Rights, although founded as early as 1914, advocated for freedom of speech for political dissidents, civil rights for sexual and ethnic minorities, and opposed the rising tide of anti-Semitism in interwar Germany (Wildenthal, 2008). Meanwhile, the controversial founder of the Institute for Sexual Research, Magnus Hirschfield, established the first gay-rights organization  – the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee – and pioneered arguments in favor of granting rights to individuals identifying as transgender (Lind, 2007). Even the Weimar Republic itself, almost completely dysfunctional due to political infighting and polarization, sought the establishment of group rights in order to protect German minorities separated from the Vaterland following partition after World War I (Mazower, 2004). Inspired by these events in the place of his birth, Henry Gerber emigrated to the United States where he sought to continue the struggle for human rights by founding one of its first human rights organizations, the Society for Human Rights.

Although the Weimar Republic initially achieved great progress in immunizing the national culture against human rights abuses, its other experiments – particularly those of a sexual nature – afflicted interwar German society in the manner of a deadly contagion. Even in a healthy body, a powerful contagion possesses the capacity to generate tremendous amounts of damage, however, interwar Germany did not constitute an ideal host – it suffered from two distinct deficiencies allowing the contagion to gain more strength than normally possible. From the beginning, the Weimar Republic, as the product of military defeat, failed to achieve widespread legitimacy in Germany (Peukert, 1993). This lack of legitimacy combined with the deleterious aftereffects of World War I:

Culturally, it discredited optimistic and progressive views of the future, and cast doubt upon liberal assumptions about natural human harmony. Socially, it spawned armies of restless veterans (and their younger brothers) looking for ways to express their anger and disillusion without heed for old-fashioned law or morality. Politically, it generated economic and social strains that exceeded the capacity of existing institutions – whether liberal or conservative – to resolve.   (Paxton, 2005, p. 28)

Ultimately, these deficiencies proved the Weimar Republic, and its advances in human rights, ephemeral. However, the ideas of the Conservative Revolution demonstrated far greater resiliency – they continue to influence the global political scene through the rhetoric and ideology of both the European far right and political Islam.

German infantry on the Western Front. Source: US War Department, Public Domain.

A Conservative Yet Revolutionary Critique of Human Rights

Coming of age in this time of systemic failure, a group of German intellectuals and philosophers – later referred to as the German Conservative Revolution (Mohler, 1989) – developed much of the modern rhetoric against human rights and liberalism. At first glance, the term German Conservative Revolution appears incoherent; however, unlike traditional conservatives, these intellectuals did not seek to preserve the established order, nor did they simply seek to turn back the clocklike mere reactionaries. Instead, they sought to combine select elements of the past with acceptable aspects of the present in order to construct an alternate and, in their opinion, much improved modernity. As Göran Dahl notes, the movement appeared:

Conservative in that they wanted to save the nation and protect German culture, and revolutionary because they thought one had to be active and decisive in order to create a new order beyond liberalism, socialism, capitalism, individualism, and parliamentary democracy. The key difference between the leftist and rightest conceptions of revolution was that while the former called for a change in ‘structure’ – political, economic, and social conditions – the latter emphasized a need for a different consciousness, a spiritual reawakening of both heart and mind. (Dahl, 1996, p.26)

In this new order, human rights receive no role – indeed, they effectively cease to exist. Profoundly influenced by the political trends of their era – namely, Social Darwinism and Nationalism – the German Conservative Revolution awarded very little credence to the idea of a common humanity. Martin Heidegger, a leading member of the German Conservative Revolution and one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century (Barrett, 1990), contended that the term people “cannot mean humanity, but an organic collective sharing identical ‘cultural’ values” (Dahl, 1996). Likewise, Carl Schmitt posited a Manichean universe populated by a variety of different groups, each of which relates to the others by labeling them either as friends or enemies (Schmitt, 2007).

This idea of a fractured humanity became especially influential among those who served in the trenches along the Western Front during World War I. These individuals, such as Ernst Jünger and Helmut Franke, scoffed at “all the pacifist and international theories of humanity” (Woods, 1990). How could anyone, they ask, believe in a common humanity after witnessing a “jagged piece of iron [as it] bursts out of the dust and noise senselessly in front of staring gazes and knocks them down, tears them to pieces, obliterates them” (Woods, 1990)?

Despite their loss of faith in humanity, they did not perceive humans primarily as individuals either. In their experience, the individual soldier – alone and atomized – suffered from anomie, depression, and anxiety, dwelling on his own mortality in the shadow of artillery explosions and machine-gun fire. The individual rights championed by the Weimar Republic possessed little appeal for them. On the other hand, the soldier as a member of a unit received support, protection, and distraction from his war-weariness while in the company of his fellow infantrymen. Their service in the trenches crystallized within them the importance of their national community, their fellow ethnic Germans – as evidenced by their mantra that “suffering and dying is meaningless; suffering and dying for a grand idea is honorable; suffering and dying for the fatherland is sacred” (Woods, 1990). Upon their return to Germany, the returning soldiers hoped to create “a state based on the experience of the soldiers in the front line,” an organic collective rooted in tradition and sustained “by the values of comradeship, fraternity, and community which were learnt in the face of mortal danger” (Woods, 1990).

At a more abstract level, Heidegger argued that the individual only achieves “true being” – true existence – as part of “a mutual and collective project”united by a “mutual context of understanding” (Dahl, 1996). The ethnically homogenous nation represented the highest and most sacred of these projects, and a combination of shared ethnicity, language, religion, and other factors created mutual understanding between members of the nation. However, this shared understanding presumed hierarchy rather than equality – the ethnic German took precedence over the foreigner, those able to further the nation through reproduction took precedence over those who could not. To Heidegger, “there is no freedom outside of organic communities, no rational individuals beyond their boundaries, and if there is opposition, it must be crushed in the name of the true and great existence” (Dahl, 1996). The rights of the collective receive precedence over the rights of the individual, while the prescription for those who refuse to conform entails removal or elimination.

While conflict between collectives does not represent an inevitable outcome, the German Conservative Revolutionaries routinely single out one country for criticism: the United States. In their eyes, the United States represents:

The ultimate example of civilization without culture; rich and comfortable, materially advanced but soulless and artificial; assembled or at best constructed, not grown; mechanical not organic; technologically complex but without the spirituality and vitality of the rooted, human, national cultures of the Germans and other “authentic peoples.” (Lewis, 2004, p. 69)

Responsible for abstract human rights, consumerism, individualism, materialism, sexual libertinism and other undesirable aspects of modernity, the United States – in the eyes of its German critics – becomes the modern equivalent of the sinful and decadent city of Babylon.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French “far-right” National Front, at a convention. Source: Driss Hadria, Public Domain.

The Modern Offspring of the Conservative Revolution

Eventually, the German Conservative Revolution succumbed to an even more radical movement, the NSDAP of Adolf Hitler, which appropriated and repackaged many of its ideas (Mohler, 1989) to appeal to the segments of Weimar Germany distraught by the cultural changes dramatized in Babylon Berlin. However, as Robert Paxton notes, the intellectuals of the German Conservative Revolution, “though sometimes considered the creators of fascism[,] actually account better for the space made available for fascism than they do for fascism itself” (Paxton, 2005).

At this point, some may ask themselves, “What does an early twentieth century political movement and its critique of human rights matter to a citizen of the twenty-first century?”

Mere decades after World War II, the ideas of the German Conservative Revolution began circulating throughout Western Europe once again. The Nouvelle Droite of Francein conjunction with its various sister movements in neighboring countries, exposed the European population to this German ideology through influential media organs, such as Le Figaro and Junge Freiheit (Bar-On, 2012). According to Tamir Bar-On, “the entire European extreme right-wing political spectrum from the Italian Lega Nord (Northern League – LN) to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) in Belgium have been influenced by” the Nouvelle Droite (Bar-On, 2012) and, thus, by extension the German Conservative Revolution. The spread of these ideas through the previously mentioned parties and media organs “helped engender the Pan-European cultural shift” (Bar-On, 2012) that made the current far-right populist wave a reality.

However, the ideas of the German Conservative Revolution did not halt at the frontiers of the European continent. The main ideologues of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 – Ali Shariati, Ahmad Fardid, and Jalal Al-e Ahmad – employed these ideas increating the intellectual superstructure of the Islamic Republic (Mirsepassi, 2011). During the same time period, major Islamist politicians and philosophers in both Turkey (Aydin, 2006) and the Arab world (Tamimi, 2001) similarly adopted this rhetoric.

In the twenty-first century, the main opponents of classical liberalism and human rights constitute the European far right and Political Islamists, both of which employ the arguments of these German intellectuals. Therefore, understanding the appeal of the ideas of the German Conservative Revolution to these movements and their voters represents a matter of increasing importance for those dedicated to defending both liberalism and human rights.

To those cocooned for their entire existence within an era dominated by a liberalism seemingly possessing no viable opponents, the idea that many people around the globe view liberalism as artificial, oppressive, and even dehumanizing seems irrational – after all, Americans regularly hear the virtues of individualism, consumerism, secularism, and other aspects of liberalism. Yet, for others, the anti-liberal, anti-human rights ideas that originated with the German Conservative Revolution possess a concrete and thoroughly rational basis for belief. Young Germans, emerging from the brutal trench warfare of World War I, developed these ideas as a response to the tremendous social and cultural dislocation they experienced upon returning home to a Germany they barely recognized. In the twenty-first century, these ideas appear in response to similar contexts: a Middle East undergoing a rapid series of modernization, industrialization, foreign humiliation, secularization, and cultural experimentation (Mirsepassi, 2011; Lewis, 2004; Aydin, 2006); and a Europe suffering from post-industrialization, large numbers of migrants, and a crisis of identity (Murray, 2017).

As in the 1920s and 1930s, cultivating empathy for the “Other,” understanding these ideas and the conditions that spur their popularity, remains the fundamental challenge facing supporters of liberalism and human rights. Although the path often seems perilous and difficult, the active cultivation of this empathy represents the only meaningful path towards bridging the divides currently surfacing throughout the world.

References

Aydin, C. (2006). Between Occidentalism and the Global Left: Islamist Critiques of the West in Turkey. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East26(3), 446-461.

Bar-On, T. (2012). Intellectual Right-Wing Extremism – Alain de Benoist’s Mazeway Resynthesis since 2000. In U. Backes & P. Moreau (Eds.), The Extreme Right in Europe: Current Trends and Perspectives (pp. 333-358). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Barrett, W. (1990). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Dahl, G. (1996). Will ‘The Other God’ Fail Again? On the Possible Return of the Conservative Revolution. Theory, Culture, & Society13(1), 25-50.

Lewis, B. (2004). The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York, NY: Random House.

Lind, A., & Brzuzy, S. (Eds.). (2007). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality (Vol. 2). Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Mazower, M. (2004, June). The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950. The Historical Journal47(2), 379-398.

Mirsepassi, A. (2011). Political Islam, Iran, and the Enlightenment: Philosophies of Hope and Despair. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Moeller, R. G. (2009). The Nazi State and Germany Society. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Mohler, A. (1989). Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland, 1918-1932: Ein Handbuch. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Murray, D. (2017). The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Paxton, R. (2005). The Anatomy of Fascism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Peukert, D. (1993). The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. (R. Deveson, Trans.). New York, NY: Hill & Wang

Schmitt, C. (2007). The Concept of the Political (Expanded ed.). (G. Schwab, Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tamimi, A. S. (2001). Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wildenthal, L. (2008, September). Human Rights Activism in Occupied and Early West Germany: The Case of the German League for Human Rights. The Journal of Modern History80(3), 515-556.

Woods, R. (1990, January). The Conservative Revolution and the First World War: Literature as Evidence in Historical Explanation. The Modern Language Review85(1), 77-91.

 

Music: A Cultural Expression of Identity

**This blog is a repost as we invite you to join us for a series of events with Violins of Hope Birmingham, April 11-14, 2018. The centerpiece of the project will be the Violins of Hope Concert at the Alys Stephens Center on April 14, 2018, featuring the Alabama Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Music Director, Carlos Izcaray. 

a picture of a unique violin
violin. Source: z s, Creative Commons

If identity were a sound, what would it sound like? For Jews, it sounds like the notes that rise from the striking of the bow across the tension of the strings on a violin. Elie Wiesel, in Night, writes of a brief encounter with Juliek, a dying violinist. This encounter, without full understanding of the context and the role of the violin in Jewish culture, may remain overlooked and misunderstood. It did for me until I began researching for this blog.

Violins, often heard in a piece of classical music, a genre that as Wang describes as “a special form of culture widely defined within an ideological and social sphere in people’s everyday life”, speak to the universal accessibility of music and the cultural complexity of creative expression within the social identity of Jewish people. “Always when people asked Isaac Stern why so many Jewish people are playing the violin, his answer was very simple: ‘It is the easiest instrument to pick it up and to run away!'” The embedding of music in Jewish tradition resulted from their persecution. Music provided a refuge and an outlet for emotional expression, whether pain or joy because music has the power to transcend.

A violinist is an essential figure within the sociocultural dynamic of Jewish high society. Gilman, highlighting the life of Albert Einstein, explains how the violin is “an emblem of the integration of the Jews into Western high culture… [and] links both personal and historical meanings.” Spotts insists that to the Nazis, “Theater, music, art, and literature were inherently ennobling, unless… practiced by the Jews.” Music for Einstein and other Jews allowed for the continuous expression and validation of individuality, in conjunction with and apart from religion. Conductor Franz Welser-Most maintains, “An instrument becomes part of the person which plays it. It’s the voice of that person comes through the instrument.” Violinists and their violins reinforced the humanity of all Jewish people, thereby undermining Nazi anti-Semitic ideology.

Albrecht considers art, including music, an institution. He identifies three characteristics of art: structure, function, and universality. The institution of art exists within the social structures of a society due to the ability of music to fulfill the human psychological need for creativity. While conceding that art is not a primary institution, one needed for the survival of society, he does suggest that it should no longer remain a secondary (or throwaway) institution either. Art should remain as important as religion, philosophy, and science. In other words, societies needs to recover the value of art by understanding its characteristics.

First, the structure of art is expressive and social, exposing what Parsons defines as “the paradigm of social interaction”. The paradigm of social interaction is the triad reciprocal relationship among the author, the critic, and the public based upon a supply and demand existence, or needs-based approach. For Parsons, human behavior consists of patterns of belief systems, which incorporate and appropriate objects, like violins, into the fabric of an individual or group experience based upon meaning. The repetition of the pattern creates a culture that, over time, produces a heritage. For Bortolotto, “Heritage is created …with authenticity understood as an important quality in the perpetuation of a sense of historical continuity and cultural ancestry.” Therefore, the social structure of art features this triadic interaction over a period and this historical interaction creates solidarity. Art is an essential link in the network of social and cultural relations.

Second, art satisfies curiosity, creates balance, and reduces stress. Spencer concludes that art permits “prolonged rest of the nerve-centers, which build up energy in excess of demands for immediate instrumental activities”, creating a satisfaction that comes from being a part of art through its creation or experience rather than simply participating in it. Weber equates art with ‘salvation’; not salvation as in eternal life but salvation that comes as a means of transcending one’s immediate situation or circumstance. Art allows for momentary escape; this quality contributes to the enrichment and augmentation of an individual and society.

Lastly, art is universal. Hoebel asserts, “Man could survive without art; yet man and art are inseparable.” Human beings are creative beings, yet the limitations of art classification detach the social and cultural significance of artwork or performance, whether it be resistance or propaganda. Take rap as an example. Martinez argues rap of the late 1980s and early 1990s utilizes lyrics and sounds as a form of expressing resistance to some cultural norms about music, and as propaganda when considering the urban decay of black communities, in direct contrast to white communities. In other words, regardless of classification, art, including music, possesses the power to influence, to give voice to the minority, and to symbolize resistance.

Amnon Weinstein is a violinmaker. More than 50 years ago, a customer brought him an old violin in need of restoration. Unplayed violins lose their sound and their spirit over time; therefore, a well-played instrument sounds richer and more open. Weinstein, over the course of the conversation, learned that the owner, a Holocaust survivor, “had played on the violin on the way to the gas chamber, but he survived because the Germans needed him for their death camp orchestra.” When the Nazis outlawed prayer, Jewish violinists played as a means of communion and defiance. “And just knowing that some of these people who have owned these instruments did not survive, but their personality is still within these instruments, I find that very moving”, acknowledges Welser-Most. The restoration of more than 30 Holocaust violins has become Weinstein’s method of harnessing the power of music to influence, returning voice to the minority, and to continually cultivating a resistance against the cruelty of the Holocaust and the silence that descended when the war concluded, by listening to the stories told by the violins.

This Sunday, September 17, 2pm at Temple Emanu-El, musicologist and author James A. Grymes will discuss his book, Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour, and the work of Amnon Weinstein. Event organizer Sallie Downs, when asked what inspired her to bring the Violins of Hope story to Birmingham, replied:

I am free to bring them; and they are free to come. All musicians, regardless of who they are and what they believe, are free to play the instruments when they want and where they want, and they are free to play whatever music they wish to play. Jewish musicians didn’t have that opportunity. They did nothing wrong. They were persecuted and too many people didn’t believe it could happen and they stood by until it was out of control. With all the hate and evil we are witnessing in this country, and the ignorance and resignation with which it is viewed, I can’t stand by quietly and do nothing. G-d help me, if I ever find myself on the wrong side of a barbed-wire fence, like those who were tortured and murdered during the Holocaust for no good reason, I will never regret that I did nothing when I had the opportunity to do something. The power of music on the Violins of Hope is a call to action. The Violins are giving voice to the voiceless and providing us an opportunity to help them say “Never again will good people stand idly by and watch innocent life be desecrated.  Never again will we allow the voices of the weak to be silenced.” Not here. Never again.

Violins of Hope is a bearer of intangible cultural heritage. By “establishing a relationship with the past by turning it into an authentic historical object”, Weinstein who restores the violins, and the musicians who play them, are “encouraging social practices that allow cultural objects and expressions to be produced and performed by community members”; thereby creating a living exhibition maintaining a focus on perpetuity.

Keeping the Memory Alive: A Conversation on Confusion and Suffering

On Thursday and Friday, February 22nd and 23rd, the UAB Institute for Human Rights co-hosted a two-day symposium entitled “Bystanders and Complicity in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South” alongside the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.

The Symposium was intended to demonstrate the importance of civil society leaders galvanizing the general population to rebuff state-sanctioned racism, antisemitism, and violence. Dialogue brought forth by the symposium showed how, when, and why people supported, complied with, ignored, or resisted racist policies and violent practices in systems of intentional discrimination, oppression, and attacks on the basis of race and ethnicity.

On Thursday night, a panel entitled “Keeping the Memory Alive: Personal reflections on the Legacies of Racial Violence and Genocide” featured two speakers: Riva Hirsch, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, who lost her father during an Alabaman lynching in 1947. This blog post focuses on my personal reflection of the panel and the conversation between the two powerful speakers.

I felt an immediate connection to Riva; she reminded me so much of my grandmother. Riva began by telling the story of how her family went on the run from the Nazis (she was seven years old at the time). It was not difficult to create vivid mental images, as Riva illustrated her story with extreme details. Rita’s horrors of that night continued to progress with the separation from her family and the beating of her mother when she fought to keep the family together.

 

Panelists kicking off the discussion, courtesy of Nicholas Sherwood

I tried to think of what my life was like at seven year’s old, and I could not pinpoint a memorable moment of comparable fear and horror. The stark contrast in my and Riva’s experiences as children was upsetting and confusing. It was more difficult to think of what my life would be like if I were forcibly separated from my family at such a young age and painful to think of seeing my mother get beaten.

When Josephine spoke of her father – his characteristics such as being hardworking and selfless – I thought of my grandfather who is the same way. Josephine’s father was murdered when she was five years old. The terrible story of Josephine running to the end of their driveway with her mother and seeing the corpse of her father was heartbreaking. Josephine’s story continued with how her mother reported the murder to the local sheriff, only to have him reply that no justice will be served.

The loss of a loved one can be painfully impactful, and the loss of a parent can be devastating. I was never met with the loss of a loved one until my early teens and it certainly was not at the hands of a murderer. If I had lost a parent when I was younger, the fact that it would be handled effectively and efficiently is a light comfort, but that was not the case for Josephine or her family simply due to the color of their skin. It was incredibly difficult to hear first-hand about the failure of our police force in the pursuit of justice. How easy it was for the sheriff to shrug off the murder of one of his citizens made my skin crawl.

Josephine (right) giving her testimony, photo courtesy of Nicholas Sherwood

Each story was authentic and emotionally impactful in their own ways. It was a dialogue about suffering, not a comparison on who suffered the most. The stories built off of one another and showed the importance of personal stories when it comes to educating on dense topics.

The final message conveyed by the two speakers was, “Keep talking about it so that love will prosper and hate will lose.” It is important for us to continue the conversations about atrocities that have plagued our societies so that we can gain the necessary means to prevent them from happening again. We are destined to repeat our mistakes if we do not recognize and learn from them. It is our job to confront the denial that these events ever took place, to ensure that they never happen again, and denounce the hate that stems from it.

To see what other events we have coming up, visit our events page here.

 

An American Peacemaker

In honor of the 50thAnniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Institute for Human Rights is publishing various outlooks on the life and contributions of Dr. King. This is the second entry in the series.

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9

photo of a dove midflight
peacemaker by Mohamed Mula, Creative Commons

The Peacemaker Defined

When confronted by a system permitting injustice, denying universal human rights, and thwarting peace for marginalized groups, many of us are deeply unsettled. To fully understand the destruction humans have wrought on one another is to simultaneously accept one’s own capacity to perpetuate evil in the world. Humans are capable of peace and war, justice and violence. A critical question arises here: what compels an individual to choose peace in the face of adversity? What inspires an individual to rise above violence, utilizing an ethos of peace as both a means and an end? In short, how can we become peacemakers?

Informed from many interviews of indigenous persons weaving peace from conflict, Marc Gopin offers the following personal traits that embody the peacemaker:

Responsibility; courage; independence; evangelical passion

A desire to inquire

A strong sense of ethnic roots that is combined paradoxically with universal love

Patience

Dignity

An embrace of love and the way of the heart as the key to peace

Emotional honesty

A consistent desire to seek out shared values across the boundaries of groups

A desire for leadership through social network creation

Long-term engagement with adversaries and faith in the value of ongoing debate and slow and steady influence

In Bridges Across an Impossible Divide, Gopin (2012) is quick to add that any and all of us can be peacemakers – if we so choose. It boils down to choice: choosing how to move through conflict, choosing to leave the world better than we found it.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Peacemaker

There is no doubt Dr. King ushered a new wholeness to American culture. His contributions to American society are legendary: leading the American Civil Rights Movement, raising collective American consciousness to address structural discrimination, and developing innovative strategies of nonviolent social protest still used throughout the globe. He taught a generation of civil and human rights footsoldiers, he constructed new theological language grounded in human equality, and he personally transformed the lives of those around him. He was a person of immense spiritual power– calling on his training as a man of the cloth to inform his philosophy and theology demanding racial equality in the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among the most prominent and revered peacemakers the world has ever seen.

Per Gopin’s definition, peacemaking describes not only works but also the personality of an individual. Being a peacemaker is not just directing policy change or charismatic leadership, but an ethos of resilient gentleness, and formidable commitment to the transformation of conflict to better the human experience. It is an understanding that peacemaking is not a vocation – it is a divine calling. Today, we remember that his faith and deeds literally transformed the soul of America. Dr. King was a true American peacemaker.

References

Gopin, M. (2012). Bridges across an impossible divide: The inner lives of Arab and Jewish peacemakers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Where Do We Go From Here? An Event Recap

On Wednesday, February 28, the UAB Institute for Human Rights hosted Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child, to talk about her experiences working in war zones. During her conversation entitled “Where Do We Go from Here? Stories from the Frontlines of the World’s Major Crises”, Dr. Nutt covered topics from ranging from personal stories from her time in Somalia to gun violence statistics in the United States. You can read more about her background here.

The illicit and licit automatic weapons market is incredibly saturated in Somalia and the United States. In this post, I argue that this oversaturation and easy access creates a gateway for violence.

Dr. Samantha Nutt at the UAB Hill Student Center Ballroom
Dr. Samantha Nutt. Source: Tyler Goodwin, author.

Recap

The talk began with Dr. Nutt explaining how she began working in warzones – she was a volunteer doctor assigned to work in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, Somalia. She was contracted by an organization who was unable to pay her more than one dollar for her services, yet she decided to go anyway. To this day, Dr. Nutt carries with her the four quarters she received as payment.

Living in Somalia, Dr. Nutt met many people who considered this crisis area as their home. She told the story of a woman named Edith, who was a single mother who came to Dr. Nutt for medical assistance. The first time Dr. Nutt met with Edith, she was told of when Edith attempted to take her newborn child to the medical facility that was down the road. On the way there, she was ambushed by a group of boys armed with firearms who would not let her pass until she paid them a toll even though she possessed no money. As a result of being denied access to the medical facility, Edith’s child died due to malnutrition.

After suffering the loss of her child, Edith asked, “Do people where you are from know what is happening? Do they know what we go through?” Dr. Nutt replied with “I am afraid not.” On the international black market, an AR-15 can be purchased for ten dollars or less apiece; this happens in Somalia and many other states, according to Dr. Nutt. The AR-15s found in Somalia are commonly made in the United States. Upon further research, Dr. Nutt revealed that other women in surrounding villages were blockaded from accessing medical facilities by young men wielding guns as well.

Dr. Samantha Nutt giving her lecture with gun violence statistics in the background
Dr. Samantha Nutt with gun violence statistics. Source: Tyler Goodwin, author.

“Globally, we are currently spending about $249 per person on war; that is twelve times more than what we spend on humanitarian assistance across the world.”

Glancing at the statistics, one may assume that, globally, we prioritize the sale of guns and military weapons over the safety and welfare of humans. At home and abroad, we are quick to sell a rifle but question whether or not humanitarian action is necessary at every turn.

Dr. Nutt told of another visit by Edith, immediately after Edith was subjected to an act of violence. Dr. Nutt was in her office with her phone, laptop, water, and other items an average American would consider a necessity. Edith pointed Dr. Nutt’s possessions and said, “all of this is for you. We die for nothing.”

Addressing the faults of a failed state is necessary. Ignoring these issues perpetuates cycles of violence we see in war-torn Somalia, which causes Edith and countless other people to lose their families and threatens their very existence. Education provides the tools to combat issues that threaten peace. With knowledge of what is happening in Somalia, we are indirectly fighting for Edith and the other Somali citizens that say they “die for nothing.”

“We begin to tip the balance in favor of peace when we question the institutions that infringe upon it.”

Dr. Nutt also presented on the massacre in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen high school students were murdered. She mentioned the gun used in the Parkland shooting was the same grade as the ones commonly used in Somalia to block access to health facilities. Bangalore and Messerli of the American Journal of Medicine argue that the easier it is to access firearms, the higher the chances of violence are. With the average price of an AR-15 being about ten dollars on the black market, it is safe to say that these firearms are easily accessible.

In Dr. Nutt’s recent post on the Parkland shooting titled “The Kids are not Alright,” she calls for legislative action within the United States by citing other nations’ gun control legislation:

“…every developed nation that has imposed stricter gun control in the wake of mass shootings saw a precipitous decline in mass shootings and other gun related deaths. In Australia mass shootings dropped by 93% percent after a successful government gun ‘buy-back’ program following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which saw 35 people slaughtered. In the United Kingdom, after strict gun control measures were introduced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre of 15 kindergartners, there has not been another mass shooting in the 22 years since. Gun homicides have dropped to one third of their former levels. In Canada, a country with looser gun laws than the UK but tighter controls relative to the United States, gun related homicides are 8 times less per capita than the country’s southern neighbours.”

We have seen the Parkland shooting survivors gather support across the nation and assemble at our nation’s capital. By calling for change, they are calling for their form of peace. This is not to say that all gun owners disrupt that peace, but a military grade assault rifle should not be available for purchase on the black market for ten dollars and should not be available to purchase at your local Wal-Mart.

Dr. Nutt concludes by stating, “It does not matter how much you give, it matters how you give.” In her post mentioned above, she says, “Political candidates who openly advocate for gun control need financial and volunteer support. And those who resist gun control measures should be actively and consistently opposed, until NRA endorsements and contributions are seen as politically toxic.”

Human rights education gives us the tools to prevent acts of violence and teaches us how to fight against it when we see it. Like the students of Parkland, it is our duty to fight for our peace both at home and abroad. By fighting against the oversaturation of guns and regulating the market here in the United States, we can hope that the number of guns circulating through the black market, and ultimately Somalia, will decrease. As human rights activists, it is our duty to fight for peace. So, where do we go from here? We go toward peace.

Peace sign
peace. Source: Ken Swinson, Creative Commons

“Invest in peace, not war.”

To see more upcoming events hosted by the UAB Institute for Human Rights, please visit our events page here.

 

Disclaimer: emboldened quotations were provided by Dr. Samantha Nutt on the February 28, 2018 IHR Event.

Covenants without the sword: International humanitarian law (IHL) and sexual violence

by LISA SHARLACH, PhD

Miss Jiuliancheng and the Russian soldier (Kyûrenjô no heiki). Source: LOC Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 2009630462.

**Trigger warning: this blog speaks about sexual violence against women.

How do we stop sexual violence in civil war?  My goal is not to offer a comparative assessment of various tactics to stop war rape.  Instead, I look at the ineffectiveness of one particular tactic – law, both domestic and international.  In the mid-1600s, Thomas Hobbes wrote that “covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all”.  Unfortunately, even today, international law and, to a large degree, domestic law on rape in conflict have not had the backing of the proverbial sword of justice.  No legal code condones rape, whether in war or peace. Regardless, as I demonstrate in the book manuscript I am completing, the international community and individual states’ willingness to prosecute the crimes has been lacking.  The end result has been near-complete impunity for wartime rapists.

This topic is not one limited to academia.  The London Summit of 2014 increased popular awareness of the problem of wartime rape.  Grassroots activists and transnational human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have amassed country-specific information on sexual violence and, in their words, “demanding accountability” from governments.  These are positive steps, but insufficient.  Condemnation alone has not stopped mass rape.  For example, newspaper and television stories, human rights watchdog organizations’ reports, and U.N. General Assembly resolutions all condemned the political use of rape by ethnic Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s.  However, none of this prevented Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries from using similar rape warfare tactics against ethnic Albanian women and girls in Kosovo in 1999.

The book I am finishing focuses on few case studies of mass rape:  Bangladesh; Cambodia;  Guatemala;  Peru;  Bosnia-Herzegovina;  Rwanda;  and India. (Rapists may, of course, target anyone, but the preponderance of these attacks have been upon women and girls).  I assess patterns and the scope of rape in these conflicts, and the miniscule numbers of convictions that courts and tribunals were able to secure for the rapists thereafter.  That only an infinitesimal fraction of rapes in the conflicts were ever prosecuted, much less convicted, sends a message to combatants today that they, too, most likely will be able to rape, if they so desire, without fear of punishment.

Bangladesh, Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Rwanda have tried or are trying sexual violence through international tribunals and/or truth commissions; the process has been expensive and ineffective.  In these countries’ civil wars combined, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, rapes took place.  Only a couple of hundred sexual violence cases ever actually appeared before an international tribunal in all these countries combined, and the numbers of convictions is, of course, even lower.  The total number of rapes or other episodes of sexual violence in these countries that went to any sort of trial at all is approximately seven thousand.   The vast majority of these appeared in Rwanda’s informal gacaca courts, and a sizeable number were tried in the national courts of Bosnia-Herzegovina.   The percentage of the seven thousand or so trials that resulted in conviction of the rapist is unknown.  When there are only a few thousand convictions for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of rapes, the unintended message sent by the tribunals to militants around the world is that they can almost certainly rape – and get away with it.

This finding is likely to make one despair of the value of international law in convicting wartime rape.  Unfortunately, the lesson learned from the case studies concerning the efficacy of national courts in this regard is that they are no better.  In India, Peru, and Guatemala, advocates have used the national court system to try to win justice for survivors of mass rape.  Guatemala and Peru have each convicted two of the men determined to have raped in those countries’ protracted, Cold War-era “dirty wars.” In India, only a few men have been found guilty of rape during the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat.  (Throngs of Hindu-nationalist men gang-raped hundreds of Muslim women, most of whom they burned to death immediately thereafter.  Their incineration, a Hindu funerary ritual, precluded a Muslim burial – and also destroyed forensic evidence, which in India is necessary to prosecute most instances of rape. The only Hindu women similarly attacked had Muslim husbands).  In sum, one may count on one’s hands the total number of men found guilty of raping during the riots in Gujarat, India and the wars in Guatemala and Peru combined, even though these instances of mass rape transpired at least fifteen and most often not quite forty years ago.

At present, legal covenants, whether domestic or international, are clearly an ineffective deterrent to rape in conflict.  The question of what might be a better deterrent is a subject open for much-needed discussion.  It is likely that Thomas Hobbes would suggest that “the sword,” or military might, is required, as law – words on paper – is meaningless without it.

In some instances of genocide or gross ethnic/racial inequality, such as during apartheid in South Africa, international actors have, in conjunction with domestic forces, deemed a violation of the norm of sovereignty to be warranted.  Third party governments, coalitions, or armies have intervened and stopped the killing, and, in the case of South Africa, pressured the white oligarchy to give up its monopoly on political power. Why should instances of gross sexual inequality – resulting in mental trauma, bodily injury and even death — matter less?

In recent history, there has been no international intervention intended specifically to protect women’s human rights, although mass rape has been used by governments as additional legitimization for a military campaign that was already underway for other reasons.  An example is President George W. Bush’s frequent allusion to Saddam’s alleged “rape rooms” as one justification for the U.S. invasion.  We do not know that these “rape rooms” ever existed; Bush ceased referring to them after the photographs of sexual violence at occupied Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison became public.  We are all familiar with the rape accompanying the wars in Syria and in South Sudan;  with the kidnappings and sexual slavery perpetrated by ISIL and by Boko Haram;  and with the daily femicides, or sexualized murders, of women in Central America for which almost no one is ever charged, much less convicted.  And, to date, world leaders seem helpless to stop such increasingly open and aggressive sexual violence.  As long as the international community demurs that violence against women is of little consequence, a cultural practice, a matter of course or of nature, an unfortunate side-effect of ethnic rivalry, a domestic rather than an international problem, not a threat to our vital security interests, or a private affair, then the use of rape as a political weapon is likely to continue and perhaps even to increase.

 

 

Lisa Sharlach is an Associate Professor of Government and the Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis, in political science. The focus of her research is the intersection of ethnicity, gender, and political violence.

Iran and the Conflict Over Human Rights

An Iranian propaganda poster in Tehran.
Teheren_US_Embassy_propaganda_statue_of_liberty. Source: Phillip Maiwald, Creative Commons

Throughout his work, the Iranian poet and academic Hasan Honarmandi vividly illustrated the predominant Iranian view of the West in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In his poem The West is Fast Asleep, Honarmandi claimed “[f]rom the land of glitter all happiness has left / Chains abound, but of faith it is bereft / Naught but numbers fill the Western brain / For joy without anxiety you’ll search in vain / […] No longer has the West a message to convey.” Yet in his own life, the poet failed to take heed of his own message, succumbing to the mind-numbing alienation and atomization he associated with Western modernity. After moving to Paris to continue his studies, Honarmandi, “who never married and lived in a small apartment”, “committed suicide by ingesting sleeping pills and drinking cognac,” forever doomed to slumber in the West.

With the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport on the first of February 1979, Iranians believed they successfully defeated the symptoms of modernity to which Honarmandi surrendered. Although many rose up against the monarchical regime of the Shah in protest of its “corruption, repression, despotism, and the plight of the disenfranchised,” the vast majority of the millions of ordinary Iranians from every walk of life that greeted Khomeini upon his return rose up in opposition to the same concepts of modernity condemned by Honarmandi:

The grassroots of society […] opposed the Shah’s Westernization programs, which contrasted sharply with Islamic values. […] Ayatollah Khomeini highlighted the cultural decadence and spectacularly mobilized the masses by a reinterpretation of Shi’a theology fused with anti-Americanism.

As the Shah fled from country to country after the collapse of his regime, Khomeini victoriously proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which would exist in a “permanent state of revolutionary fervor” deemed necessary to ward off “cultural imperialism and […] ‘ethnocide’ at the hands of their Western adversaries.” Khomeini ultimately received his wish, although presumably not in the manner in which he originally intended. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran continually suffers from protests, such as those in 1999, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, and now in 2017-2018. In all of these instances, the Iranian government employed physical force – ranging from rubber bullets and water cannons to armed militias and counter-protestors – against its domestic detractors, often resulting in deaths and always drawing swift condemnation from its Western peers. However, where the West observes a government violating its citizens’ human rights, the Iranian leadership and its supporters genuinely believe “some Western countries intended to impose on other societies their own social ethical decline, to which they themselves confess, within the attractive package of human rights.”

Ultimately, the differing perspectives of the Islamic Republic and the West demonstrate a crucial question facing the human rights community: Are human rights, in fact, universal? Or, do they differ based on history, culture, and other factors?

Iranian women protest against the Shah.
Iranian_Revolution_Women. Source: Khabar, Public Domain

“No longer has the West a message to convey”

At its very essence, the Western conception of human rights contends such rights apply to all humans, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, or creed. But what if a society rejects core aspects of this conception? If a large enough segment of the human population expresses opposition to many of these rights, can the Western conception of human rights legitimately be referred to as “human” rights? Indeed, at its core, the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iran represents a struggle between two, often-contradictory, worldviews.

In the years prior to 1979, the West – in the eyes of many Iranians – sought to impose its worldview on Iran through the Shah, who, for all intents and purposes, served as a Western puppet. Their White Revolution promoted the abolition of the veil, suffrage for women, Western-style judicial and education systems, and neoliberal economic reforms, among other supposed hallmarks of modernity. As noted by Ali Mirsepassi, this resulted in:

ideas of “home,” or being and belonging, [having] very strong resonance in Iran during the rapid modernization program imposed dictatorially by the Shah, and greatly helped to shape the “nativist” philosophy of the revolution in terms of both a “spiritual” sensibility and a defense of “local” culture against universalism grounded in a […] “return” to a “pure source” of being or “authentic” identity.

From the very beginning, therefore, the Islamic Revolution represented a categorical rejection of Western values by the people of Iran. Although the majority of the revolution occurred relatively peacefully, protestors regularly assaulted symbols of Western culture, such as alcohol stores and movie theaters. This opposition to Western modernity continues in the Islamic Republic to the current day, according to Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Shahir Shahidsaless, who observe:

Within Iran, there is a debate […] on how to address the issue of human rights. There are some who adamantly believe that the West seeks to impose their own version of human rights at the expense of Islamic values. Proponents of this view are reluctant to accommodate a Western interpretation of human rights and will not succumb to pressure – specifically on issues such as hijab (the wearing of a scarf or veil) and corporal punishment. Another school of thought recognizes the innate differences between Islamic and Western values. […] The focus is on seeking to understand and accommodate such cultural variety.

On one hand, the conservative viewpoint, espoused by figures such as Supreme Leader Khamenei, essentially subscribes to the clash of civilizations theory, contending culturally and ethnically distinct civilizations (i.e. the West, Asia, the Middle East, and so on) will naturally conflict with one another as globalization brings these civilizations into greater contact with one another during the twenty-first century. This political faction, known as the Principalists, view Western Modernity and Islam in terms of an irreconcilable dichotomy – one can possess their “variant and traditional familial, tribal, ethnic, religious, and national identities/attachments” or one can possess “the tediously monotonous materialism of the present age.”

On the other, the moderate viewpoint, as championed by current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, believes in a world organized along the idea that societies and cultures should remain separate, but ultimately equal, based on qualities such as mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs. However, unlike the conservative school of thought, the Reformists do not perceive the necessity of conflict between cultures – instead, they stress emphasizing commonalities in order to minimize conflict between Islamic and non-Islamic societies.

Despite their nominal opposition to one another, these Iranian schools agree on a crucial point – both reject the universal conception of human rights as “the Trojan horse of the powerful West.” Indeed, “every political faction in Iran, including moderates,” believes that the West employs human rights, economic sanctions, and other elements of its soft power “either to change the nezam’s identity and impose Western values, or to completely topple it and replace it with a puppet state.”

A rally supportive of the Iranian regime.
Qom_rallies_2018. Source: Mohammad Ali Marizad, Creative Commons

“The West which itself is helpless now, in a torture test”

While the Islam of the Iranian Revolution seeks to “export the revolution” throughout the Middle East, Western liberalism seeks to force its values – including its particular conception of human rights – on the rest of the world. Countries must possess liberal democracy – the choices of the voters, without which democracy does not exist, do not matter if they choose illiberal democracy. The constant attempts to undermine the Islamic Republic illustrate this fact, as does Western support for the military coup against President Morsi of Egypt and European Union threats to sanction Poland over its judicial reforms. Countries must accept the Western conception of human rights or potentially risk a politically motivated, “humanitarian” intervention.

Both Western liberalism and the Islamic Republic – despite their apparent antagonism – exhibit a similar drive towards universalizing their values; however, they also possess drastically different conceptions of values and the world. Different values necessarily result in different conceptions of human rights, especially when “both sides also claim to be champions of universal values, justice, equality, and dignity.”

Ultimately, these arguments weaken the underlying assumption that human rights are universal. Critics of this viewpoint suggest the universality of human rights emerges from the various international documents that codify such rights. Yet this ignores the fact that Westerners – specifically, the Western liberal political elite – overwhelmingly participated in the drafting of these documents. Furthermore, the conception of these documents served an explicitly political purpose – buttressing the post-war, liberal world order as conceived by President Roosevelt and American planners. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights played a direct role in crafting the appearance of universality for the Western conception of human rights.

Throughout history, political systems and values developed slowly – city-by-city, region-by-region, and nation-by-nation– over the course of several thousand years. The true radicalism of the modern, Western-conceived human rights regime lies in its attempt to ignore this fact, imposing its rules on the entirety of the globe in barely seven decades. Seeing as many countries only recently received independence from the last Western attempt to impose its values on the world, it should not surprise that many possess little appetite for this latest iteration of Western universalism.

The solution lies in what Guillaume Faye refers to as the “Autarky of Great Spaces” and Samuel Huntington denoted as “civilizations.” Rather than jumping directly from the nation to the globe, this solution calls for the implementation of human rights regimes at the level of civilizational blocs (i.e., Europe, Eastern Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA, etc.) as an intermediate step. As observable in the Western culture wars and the Iranian-Saudi proxy wars throughout the Middle East, even within civilizations – “defined by common objective elements, such as a language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” – there exist significant divides; therefore, the attempt to engineer a universal, human rights philosophy without intermediary steps towards practical implementation and the negotiation of wide cultural differences represents putting the cart significantly before the horse.

The term “autarky” refers to the idea that “only those things that cannot be produced domestically [by a country] are imported.” Although Faye, as well as most others, employs it in a purely economic sense, autarky also makes sense in terms of values and culture. Different civilizations possess similar core values, yet differ on the implementation and applicability of these values– hence, the clash of civilizations over these values as globalization increases contact between them. Ultimately, these should serve as the basis for the human rights regime of each civilization or Great Space.

For the conflict between the West and Iran, such a human rights philosophy promises to reduce conflict for various reasons:

1) This regime acknowledges human diversity, both in opinion and in culture. Thus, both the West and Iran receive independence in crafting their own, culturally relevant human rights systems.

2) The principles of mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs – often specifically demanded by Iran and other non-Western nations – serve as key components. Emphasizing these principles also addresses non-Western concerns regarding the selectivity the West displays in terms of its use and endorsement of humanitarian intervention.

Only once the intra-civilizational divides on values and human rights reach a sufficient conclusion can inter-civilizational divides hope to receive adequate attention and a truly universal human rights regime formulated. Ultimately, the implementation of this human rights regime could serve as a veritable Peace of Westphalia for human rights.