Archive for the ‘human rights’ Category

The Long Year of BREXITRUMP

From The Hare and Hound pub, Suffolk, December 2017

From The Hare and Hound pub, Suffolk, December 2017

The year 2017 began on 24 June 2016 with the leave result in the EU Referendum and was accelerated several months later with the successful election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on 9 November.

In both events, significant proportions of the electorate in both the UK and the US had ostensibly become fed up with the status quo, and a renewed politics of resentment ushered in two astounding electoral victories that will change Anglo-American politics forever.

Much of the diagnosis of the problems of contemporary politics and governance was correct: globalisation, free trade, democratization, human rights, integration, and other symbols of a liberal world order simply had not delivered enough tangible benefit to enough people who then used their power of the vote to make their voices heard.

The solution being offered for the ills of this liberal world order, however, have been extremely divisive with their appeal to the baser instincts of human nature: relative deprivation, xenophobia, racism, isolationism, economic nationalism and an extreme over-simplification of politics that divides the world between notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

BREXITRUMP is my own neologism that captures what we experienced in 2017 and what we will experience in 2018 and beyond as the full ramifications of these two elections run their course. As 2018 begins, my deepest worries are about how profound and how long the effects of BREXITRUMP will be.

First, the campaigns for leaving the EU and Making America Great Again engaged in a certain ‘logic of equivalence’ where highly disparate groups of people are discursively constructed to be the same (or at least equivalent) with a view to galvanising supporters through a politics of ‘the other’ and fear of the unknown.

For Nigel Farage, the scion of the leave campaign, all migrants to the UK were bad, whether they were EU nationals with legal rights to movement, illegal immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers. The nadir of his appeal to voters’ darker instincts came with his billboard proclaiming ‘Britain is at Breaking Point.’

For Donald Trump, the logic of equivalence meant that significant ‘outgroups’ (Mexicans, Muslims, Syrian refugees, among others) were no longer welcome in America; a stance that manifested itself in repeated attempts at a travel ban against 8 Muslim majority countries, the fortification and enhancement of ICE, and the continued promise to build a wall to separate the United States from Mexico.

Second, there has been a dismantling or threat to dismantle long fought human rights achievements. The Withdrawal Bill, if passed, will allow the UK Government to reconsider and rescind human rights commitments found within the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as various social and economic protections found within EU directives and regulations.

More fundamentally, in the US, Donald Trump does not seem to understand the basic protections and rights set out in the US Bill of Rights (perhaps with the exception of the Second Amendment) and the US Constitution. In his recent interview in the New York Times, he declared that he has ‘absolute authority’ to do what he wants with the Department of Justice. Such a statement comes off the back of a year of firing Department of Justice Officials (e.g. Sally Yates and James Comey), lambasting federal judges for challenging his attempted travel ban, and casting aspersions on the FBI and other intelligence agencies for their work on investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Third, there has been a retreat from global alliances. The year-long process of getting past stage one in the EU negotiations has seen repeated attempts by the UK government to not honour its financial commitments to the EU, while asserting a renewed sense of national identity and independence through an appeal to changing the colour of UK passports. Whether we have a hard or soft BREXIT, the economic dip I predicted on 24 June 2016 is upon us, and likely to affect us for some time. Indeed, the World Economic Forum shows that the UK economy will contribute 1.6% to global growth in 2018 next to the Euro Zone at 7.9%, India at 8.6%, the US at 17.9%, and China at 35.2%.

Fourth, there has been an assault on both reason and reasonableness. Bold claims from many in the EU referendum simply did not bear empirical scrutiny (e.g. the claim that the NHS could see an additional £350 million per week), while Mr Trump has cast doubt on well-established scientific findings, prohibited the publication of scientific findings (particularly those related to climate change), and has gaslighted the media for false reporting, while telling remarkable tall tales himself. White House officials have either sought to present ‘alternative facts’ or have had to reinterpret what the President has said (or tweeted) to maintain some semblance of rationality in public discourse.

The assault on reasonableness is probably the most troubling. On line and off line behaviours have degenerated into more confrontation, which at times, has led to extreme inter-personal violence (e.g. the murder of Jo Cox in the UK and the ram raid against a protester at the Charlottesville ‘alt right’ rally). Public debate and discussion on fundamental issues facing society are proving elusive, as opposing groups retreat into their own news and social media bubbles. Death threats have been made against anyone who questions BREXIT negotiations and process, or those who were survivors of the Las Vegas shooting.

This descent into barbarism must be confronted and challenged through a re-centring of our politics and a re-grounding of it on reasonable discussion of facts, patterns, and evidence. There are simply not ‘alternative facts’ but competing bases of evidence and interpretation that should form the basis for rational debate. There is also an accumulation of scientific knowledge that is based on observation, theory, collection of evidence, testing of theories, findings, and refinement of theories and explanations. Pure assertion without evidence is simply not good enough and can lead to the polarised post-truth politics that are destined to destroy our societies if left unchecked.

There should be an acceptance that mainstream media (MSM) do not always get it right, but their work is grounded in reason and evidence, and their role is to hold public officials to account. When they get it wrong, they explain and retract. The honesty of explanation, apology, and retraction is not evidence of ‘fake news’ but evidence of the fallibility of news reporting and the challenges of quality reporting in an era of real time access to information.

The academy also has a role to play here. Across the disciplines is a commitment to engage in the genesis and evolution of ideas, where freedom to enquire and challenge is the bedrock of the scholarly endeavour and raison d’être of academic institutions. Many scholars are stepping out and sharing their research with wider communities, but more could be done to engage with the world’s smartest minds in order to solve some of society’s toughest problems. The dismissal of ‘experts’ in the UK is done at our peril. Legal, political, economic, and other experts have much to share on the many problems that confront us today.

All of us need to transcend our informational and cultural bubbles. We need to engage with other bubbles, read uncomfortable thoughts and ideas, and discuss problems without lapsing into vitriol and violence. Failure to address these problems now risks a prolonged crisis of politics for the medium to long term. The impact of BREXIT will, in many ways, be more profound and long lasting than Trump, but after March 2019 when the UK leaves the EU and after Donald Trump (whenever that might be), the sentiments, attitudes, and instincts that underpin much of this dark turn in politics will remain. This week’s release of the Thatcher papers show that the issue of Europe has riven the conservative party for decades, while political scientist Cas Mudde argues that a post Trump America will still harbour all the same feelings that led to Trump’s America.

Rolling Back Rights

Jenna Reinbold. Seeing the Myth in Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 208 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4881-4.

Reviewed by Todd Landman (University of Nottingham)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Rolling Back Rights

On May 3, 2017, Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, briefed staff at the US State Department on how the new “America First” policy of the Donald Trump administration should be interpreted for the planning and implementation of foreign policy.[1] He declared that there should be a decoupling of policies from values, where interventions carried out under the auspices of “America First” would not necessarily be done so on the basis of an appeal to American values such as democracy, freedom, and human rights. He claimed that even though values remain constant, policies change and the pursuit of American interests during the Trump administration will supersede American values. In other words, he was articulating a realist and pragmatic approach to foreign policy that concedes the importance of American values at home, but does not insist on those values being at the heart of its policies abroad, nor should such values be seen as a sine qua non of US foreign relations with other countries around the world.

Such a position represents a significant break from the past, where at least ostensibly, the United States has always sought to align its foreign policy to such values. Even though there is a long history of the United States ignoring human rights abroad, including recent revelations in the CIA torture report, the Abu Ghraib torture photos, and the use of extraordinary rendition, the United States has long been seen as a defender of freedom and a supporter of democracy. Indeed, the Millennium Challenge Account as part of USAID has human rights and other governance conditions that need to be met before third countries receive overseas development assistance (ODA).

In the debates during the recent general election in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May led moves to abandon the UK’s 1998 Human Rights Act, which since coming into force in 2000 brought the full protection of fundamental rights set out in the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law. The result of the June 23, 2016, referendum for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union provided additional leverage to the prime minister’s argument; however, her official positon is to wait until after Brexit is complete before looking at the protection of human rights in the UK. These anti-human rights sentiments stand in stark contrast to the United Kingdom’s history of rights that not only reaches back to the Magna Carta of 1215, but also includes British leadership in the forging of the European human rights regime.[2]

The Tillerson and May positions on human rights come at a time of rising criticism in which human rights are seen as impediments to strong government, economic efficiency, and national and international security. The “War on Terror” since 9/11, the consolidation of anti-terror legislation across many Western democracies, the rise of “illiberal” democracies, and the return to authoritarianism in countries such as the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte have seen significant efforts to roll back human rights protections and to undermine what has been a gradual, consensual, and increasingly inclusive promulgation, legalization, and proliferation of human rights.[3]

Ever since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the world has seen the establishment and subsequent growth in the international law of human rights, which includes major international and regional treaties, institutions, and organizations. Many now describe this collection of bodies and law as an international “regime” of human rights, which has grown in depth and breadth, where an increasing number of human rights have been given express legal protection (i.e., civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights) and an increasing number of countries have ratified human rights treaties.[4] More countries in the world have formally committed themselves to the human rights norms and values originally set out in the UDHR, and such formal participation in the de jure protection of human rights has been shown empirically to lead to an improvement in their de facto protection and realization.[5]

Over the last year and a half, I have been talking to human rights scholars and practitioners as part of the Rights Track podcast series ( in which we have been discussing how systematic research on human rights has developed and how human rights organizations carry out their work to advance human rights. Our discussions have revealed two very important and common themes: (1) trends in the perception and protection of certain human rights are actually much more positive than we had assumed or believed before starting the podcast series; and (2) human rights are fluid, contested and “made” by collective struggles from groups at the domestic and international levels. Demands for rights create opportunities to extend rights protections that have already been promulgated in principle or to promulgate new rights protection and expand the law of human rights. The gap between “rights in principle” and “rights in practice” becomes a space for contestation that is often used by human rights NGOs and other collective actors to seek redress from states and international actors.[6]

In the face of such positive developments and importance of human rights, the Tillerson and May approach finds significant traction in mass publics and represents a more nationalistic and isolationist turn in international relations and politics. Nativist and populist elements in the United States propelled Donald Trump to power in part due to a deep skepticism about “globalist” ideas such as human rights and fears that international governance curbs the sovereignty of America. Theresa May famously declared that “to be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of nowhere,” and Brexit campaigners traded on a similar set of discourses evident in the US that created fear of the other, suspicion of supranational governance, and strong dislike of human rights.

Beyond the rise of May and Tillerson, academic work has also seen recent books such as The End of Human Rights by Costas Douzinas (2000) and The Endtimes of Human Rights by Stephen Hopgood (2013), which are critical of the ways in which human rights have been colonized by particular sets of elites who have taken away the power of human rights from those who most need their protection. These critiques see a yawning gap between the practice and discourses of the elite international human rights lawyers in New York and Geneva (what Hopgood refers to as “Human Rights,” with large capital letters) and the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people who demand rights and basic protections (what Hopgood refers to as “human rights,” with lowercase letters). Douzinas claims that the struggle for human rights has moved from the barricades to the barristers, while Hopgood argues that human rights language has become sacralized (and is guilty of its own form of social magic) and even dedicates a chapter of his book to a critique of the architecture of human rights buildings in New York, The Hague, and Geneva.[7] Skepticism and critique of human rights such as these are not new; many people have doubted the foundations of human rights and have seen them as serving the interests of particular segments of society, but the return of strong critique and recent political developments suggest that once again human rights are under threat.

In this current climate, Jenna Reinbold’s Seeing the Myth in Human Rights is a welcome defense of human rights. In the absence of agreed philosophical foundations for human rights and despite the many positive advances that have been made in their promotion and protection, there is still a need for strong arguments about why we have human rights, why they are important, and how they have come about. Her argument reaches far beyond consideration of the pragmatism of a human rights approach that only focuses on the law, or concerns over administration or enforcement, and delves into the deeper sense of what “we mean when we speak of human rights” (p. 7). She grounds her argument in the idea of “political myth”; that unifying set of narratives that have parallels with religious beliefs and discourses, but that also encompass secular, modern, postmodern, and post-traditional notions of a binding set of ideas that become legitimized and reified. For Reinbold, myth is not fantasy or fiction as it has been traditionally understood, but it is a “dense, evocative narrative designed to generate meaning, solidarity, and order for a particular audience” (p. 8). To be effective, such myths must carry “indisputable authority” and “unequivocal assertions.”

She argues that the UDHR, the primary focus of the book, had both of these attributes of myth, and she deploys the idea of the mythopoeic quality of the UDHR: “the deliberate, often painstaking work that Commission members undertook to produce an ethico-political narrative capable of commanding a uniquely realistic status” (p. 8). In this way, Reinbold joins other scholars in examining how human rights are socially constructed, crafted and made through language and action wrapped in a powerful narrative. Her focus on the UDHR is correct in that it begins the modern process of articulating a set of universal rights drawn from historical struggles and the history of thought, and it is not a legally binding document, but a global foundational document that would shape law, politics, and practice in the decades that followed its promulgation. Reinbold’s use of the term “mythopoeic” is very much in the vein of the sociologist and social theorist Emile Durkheim, for whom myth is not valuable itself, but has a larger “sociofunctionalist” purpose. The UDHR, as Reinbold sees it, gave human rights “their capacity to command a particular moral weight within the blossoming international landscape of the twentieth century” (p. 9).

There is a strong “sacralization” logic running through this book, which sees the evolution of a secularized defense of human dignity. While Hopgood sees such sacralization as problematic, Reinbold, in keeping with other sacred arguments about humanity and the person, sees it as crucial for understanding the foundation and enduring appeal of human rights. Her mythopoeic analysis is rooted in religious beliefs and discourses, but in human rights she sees a similar function for “authoritative secular” or “quasi-secular” narratives. Indeed, she argues that the UDHR is an “avowedly secular document” designed to encapsulate a prescription for “human meaning, morality, and solidarity within an evocative, highly authoritative narrative” (p. 11). While she insists on the secular nature of the UDHR, she nevertheless concedes that the document itself is “a true spiritual guide for humanity” (citing Chilean delegate to the Commission Hernan Santa Cruz, p. 11). There is thus for me an ongoing and some ways unresolved tension in this book between the insistence on secularity and the appeal to myth, the sacred, and the spiritual.

Her evidence base for this particular reading of the modern origins and articulation of human rights is an extensive record of the negotiations of the UDHR, the public broadcasts of the framers, their speeches, and many of their essays. The success of her argument rests on three main things, in my view. First, she claims that the framers of the UDHR had effectively narrated into existence the moral and legal landscape that centered on the sacredness of the human being. Second, she deploys a flexible and fluid understanding of myth that breaks from more formulaic uses of myth found in religious studies. And finally, she is keen to demonstrate how this narrative construction of human rights has sought to move the world from one of “barbarous acts” to one of “freedom, justice and peace in the world” (p. 13).

The structure of Reinbold’s argument starts with a deeper understanding of myth, both in its sacred and political dimensions, a theoretical framework which allows her to understand the construction of human rights as mythopoeic and to bring in a fuller and more salient consideration of religion. She moves on to consider the sacred elements of human rights or the appeal to the sacred in human rights. Here, we see the powerful role of the notion of “inherent human dignity,” which can come from philosophical foundations that appeal to God (e.g., Thomas Aquinas), nature (e.g., John Locke), or reason (e.g., Immanuel Kant).[8]

While we often think the notion of the sacred transcends time and space, the particular critical juncture of the immediate post-World War II period during which the UDHR was drafted pits the notion of the sacred against the “barbarous acts” the world had just witnessed across Europe. In this way, the sacred in human rights is socially constructed, as the ideas about human rights interact with the social world in which the UDHR was being framed and crafted. Human rights so conceived do not become “empty signifiers,” but of a time and a place that can be their empirical referents and that can provide them with meaning.[9] The challenge, however, remains in making the appeal of human rights travel beyond these particular conditions in ways that appeal to a global audience.

The mechanism through which human rights have become universalized has primarily been international law, which developed through consultation, iteration, and different forms of social construction over time. The sacredness of human rights articulated in the early sections of the book is then seen through the eyes of the legal world, and the language of the UDHR, while not legally binding, sets out minimal conditions for human dignity that can be articulated through law. For Reinbold, law makes the language of the UDHR “actionable,” but even the law has evolved through further iterations, ongoing jurisprudence, and proliferation over time.

Reinbold culminates her argument through a consideration of the precarity of myth. Indeed, in 1999, New York Times author David Reiff claimed that human rights should be seen as a “precarious triumph,” which has advanced considerably since the UDHR, but which remains continually under threat and never fully realized. Reinbold has given us much to contemplate in this beautifully written account of the mythopoeic origins of human rights. Seeing the myth of human rights is not to dismiss them as nonexistent or fragile, but to show us the genealogy of an idea that has moved from the conceptual to the practical, a journey that requires us to acknowledge the role of religion, society, politics, and law. In the current period, the force of her argument and the power of human rights is now more important than ever.


[1]. Rex W. Tillerson, “Remarks to U.S. Department of State Employees,” May 3, 2017, US Department of State website, (last accessed June 19, 2017).

[2]. A. W. B. Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3]. Todd Landman, Protecting Human Rights: A Global Comparative Study (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005), Human Rights and Democracy: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), “Rigorous Morality: Norms, Values and the Comparative Politics of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly 38, no. 1 (2016): 1-20; and Salidin Meckled-Garcia, The Legalization of Human Rights: Multidisciplinary Approaches (London: Routledge, 2005).

[4]. Landman, Protecting Human Rights, 1.

[5]. Landman, Protecting Human Rights; Beth Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Christopher J. Fariss, “The Changing Standard of Accountability and the Positive Relationship between Human Rights Treaty Ratification and Compliance,” British Journal of Political Science (2016): 1-33, doi:10.1017/S000712341500054X.

[6]. Joe Foweraker and Todd Landman, Citizenship Rights and Social Movements: A Comparative and Statistical Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Thomas Risse, STephen C. Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, eds., The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[7]. Todd Landman, “Social Magic and the Temple of Human Rights: Critical Reflections on Stephen Hopgood’s Endtimes of Human Rights,” in Debating the Endtimes of Human Rights: Activism and Institutions in a Neo-Westphalian World, ed. Doutje Lettinga and Lars van Troost (The Hague: Amnesty International, 2014), 25-32.

[8]. Attracta Ingram, A Political Theory of Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[9]. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso Books, 2007).

Printable Version:

Citation: Todd Landman. Review of Reinbold, Jenna, Seeing the Myth in Human Rights. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The Turn Away From Human Dignity


Pablo Picasso, 1903, The Tragedy, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


The New Year ushers in a new era for global history and politics. The United Kingdom will officially invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union and will thus trigger the two-year process of exiting the European Union. The new Prime Minister will both trigger and oversee this process, while any legal challenges will focus on the degree to which Parliament and the courts have any formal oversight. She is also keen to revoke the Human Rights Act, which is a piece of domestic legislation that brought rights home; rights forged by Britain in the aftermath of World War II, and with the express purpose of constraining future leaders to prevent us from the worst forms of our own behaviour. On 20 January 2017 Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States; an event that is surrounded by controversy following an unorthodox electoral campaign and an unorthodox period of transition.

These developments, borne of a significant shift in popular attitudes, are likely to have profound implications for the world, and are likely to lead to similar developments in France, Germany and the Netherlands throughout 2017. Far beyond simple electoral outcomes and popular referenda, these developments for me represent a turn away from human dignity. They are centred on an inward view of self that is scared of the unknown and scared of ‘the other’. Diversity, identity, and difference have all been brought under question and positive trends in their formal and informal recognition are being cast aside with a worrying degree of casualness and without due care and attention to the full ramifications that such a course of action entails. The year will require vigilance, courage, tenacity, and hard work to limit the negative consequences that will result from these momentous changes, and it is great to see the green shoots of movement politics taking hold.

Brexit and Human Rights

The political and economic arguments over BREXIT will continue. Remainers worry about the profound disruption to the economy, polity, and culture in the UK and the wider Europe, as debates rage on over the status of EU citizens living and working in the UK, the mobility of people more generally, the status of UK financial institutions, and the net impact on trade, investment, and overall economic performance of the UK. Brexiters remain confident and buoyant about the future, ask for patience during an exceedingly complicated process of extraction from the EU, and promise a golden future of greater prosperity for a more assertive and independent United Kingdom.

Over the holidays I heard similar sets of competing views and arguments expressed at various events. I was struck by the observation from a colleague who said that her analysis suggested a large segment of the British public simply rejected the growth of the EU beyond the original promise made in 1975; the promise of greater economic integration, but not greater political integration. The enhanced political integration was not something many people wanted and the burden and constraints that come with ‘an ever closer union’ were simply too much for many to bear. The young people with whom I spoke are deeply worried as they had never known a world without the EU, and yet turnout within this demographic was remarkably low, and for many, explained why the vote on 23 June went the way it did.

Accepting that Brexit will happen, the task ahead for this year and beyond is to secure the very best outcome from the process and to have a future and outward oriented vision for this country. There are 194 countries in the world, 32 OECD countries, and emerging markets with dynamic economies in need of goods, services, and expertise that in my view are in abundance in this country. Students will continue to flock to our shores for high quality education and our UK students will continue to represent some of the best minds available for solving global problems. Industry, charity, innovation, culture, media, and many other sectors continue to produce world-leading products, ideas and solutions and are likely to do so for years to come.

The deep suspicion about human rights is nothing new. Many of my friends and colleagues raise doubts about the value and purpose of human rights, focus on the negative outcomes of rights challenges and their seemingly ‘over protective’ quality for those less desirable in society, such as criminals and terrorists. In 2000 I attended the launch ceremony for the 1998 Human Rights Act hosted by then Home Secretary Jack Straw along with senior colleagues from the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, including the late and great Professor Kevin Boyle. This event and the act that came with it domesticated international human rights, whose content, nature, and specification had been forged formally through iterative and inclusive processes since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This Declaration and the subsequent international law of human rights, as well as domestic declarations, constitutions, and protective instruments are grounded in a deep commitment to and articulation of human dignity; a dignity that recognizes the sacredness of the human being, whether derived from appeals to God, nature, or reason. From this basic underlying principle of human dignity comes a range of values and principles such as equality, respect, inclusion, participation, non-discrimination, responsibility, and accountability. Given the absence of a written constitution and a slow accretion of statute law and common understanding about rights and responsibilities, the Human Rights Act has served to cement centuries of rights commitments more forcefully into the legal, social and political fabric of British society.

Some argue that we have done very well without the act, but they miss the point that (1) Britain was one of the main architects of the 1951 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), (2) Britain remains part of the Council of Europe under whose auspices the ECHR is enforced, and (3) the Human Rights Act is merely an extension of commitments that we have already made, but which fortifies these commitments throughout our domestic legal system. To turn our back now on the ideals upheld in the act and the larger supranational commitments we have made seems folly indeed. These commitments are part of the post World War II settlement for peace and security in Europe, and the ECHR is upheld as the most successful and respected international system for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Trump and America’s Tortured Soul

On 8 November 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by over 2.5 million votes, but secured the Electoral College vote, which officially elected him President on 19 December. The campaign for the Presidency was more of a circus than ever before. Hillary Clinton spent over $1 billion, while Trump adopted a successful strategy of guaranteeing free media coverage through making a range of outrageous statements. Beyond seeing these utterances as pure electoral strategy, I am minded to heed the advice of the late Jean Beth Elshtain, who in writing about just war theory and the fight against terrorism, urges us to take what terrorists say at face value. I will thus take what Donald has said and done at face value.

He has asked us to turn away from human dignity. He has asked us to focus on making America Great Again, as if to suggest that somehow it was in serial and significant decline (the main socio-economic indicators suggested otherwise). He asked us to be suspicious of ‘the other’: to remove all illegal immigrants (many of whom are undocumented and not illegal), to ban all Muslims from entering the country, to form a Muslim registry, to refuse entry to Syrians fleeing brutal conflict, and to build physical and virtual walls around America in ways that will only lead to a decrease in opportunity and further division at home and abroad. He has asked us to congratulate African Americans for not voting, since their lower that expected turnout guaranteed his victory. He has asked to overlook his financial irregularities, multiple law suits, and overt misogyny.

During his transition he has assembled a confederacy of dunces in the true Swiftian sense of the term that is diametrically aligned against almost every policy development from the Obama Administration. Many of the proposed members of the cabinet appear to be the antithesis of the office for which they are being chosen. His casual use of social media and absence of diplomatic protocols would have made Hillary’s opponents howl with rage had she behaved in such a fashion. And yet, there continues to be a quiet acceptance and acquiescence across many quarters to the ‘new normal’ of Trump’s America.

Women’s March and the Work Ahead

Brexit and Trump have framed a new set of discourses that many thought were a thing of the past. Progress on law, culture and politics had begun to remove barriers, to liberate people from oppressive structures, to celebrate difference in all its forms, and to recognize that difference and diversity are healthy for modern societies the world over. Brexit and Trump have unleashed an unfortunate set of trends in hate crimes and racist attacks, the nature and extent of which we have not seen in some time. Brexiters have denied any direct causal connection between the EU Referendum and these new troubling trends, while supporters of Trump willingly embrace the discourse with an alarming degree of enthusiasm.

The first public event, despite its billing, that will challenge Trump (and in my view the larger turn away from dignity) is the Women’s March on Washington to be held on 21 January, a day after the Trump inauguration. In the spirit of Martin Luther King and the many other protest events on The Mall between the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial, this march is grounded in a celebration of dignity and diversity.

‘In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.’

Beyond articulating the event in women’s rights terms only, the march challenges the sentiment, discourse, and unease unleashed by the Presidential campaign:

‘The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us – immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault – and our communities are hurting and scared. We are confronted with the question of how to move forward in the face of national and international concern and fear.’

The march is also keen to promote and encourage ‘sister marches’ outside Washington and the United States, where there has been take up of the idea in other US states, Europe, and Oceania thus far.

This one event will not change what has happened, but it is the beginning of a movement that challenges the most negative consequences of Brexit and Trump and rearticulates a commitment to the values and principles that have underpinned so much global progress since the Second World War.

For me, the world has been here before, and the precarious triumph of democracy and human rights challenged oppression, repression, and intolerance. The gains of the post war period will be very hard to reverse entirely, and in my own work, I will remain dedicated to the kind of education and research that appreciates difference, opens minds to new ideas, challenges intolerance, amasses systematic evidence to reveal inconvenient truths, and upholds fundamental values and principles grounded in the idea of human dignity.

SUBVERSION: Politics, Magic and Jazz



This week has seen a fascinating array of my own public engagement. My week began with my lecture on Race, Rights and Justice in the Age of Brexit for the national Being Human Fetsival. Held in the fabulous Galleries of Justice in Notttingham, I set out my thoughts and reflections on the many challenges during the age of what I have called BREXITRUMP. My remarks urged us all to remain mindful of our common humanity and the shared values of dignity, respect, non-discrimination, equality, and inclusion.

The current turn in politics is undermining years of struggle for rights and justice, the legal codification of these struggles, and the many advances that have been achieved in the popular understandings of identity and difference. The rhetoric of Farage and Trump shares many of the same features: a simplification and dichotomisation of society into ‘us’ and ‘them’ in ways that have proved highly divisive, hurtful, and regressive. It has also invited arguments online and offline that appear more vitriolic than ever before.

With these developments at the forefront of our minds, the staging this week of my show SUBVERSION seemed more fitting than first imagined when I conceived of it. The show celebrates the common thread that joins the disparate worlds of politics, magic and jazz; worlds that have been my world since the early 1970s. Each in their own way has moments that have challenged the status quo and moved history forward. I explore these connections through the medium of performance magic, mind reading, and mentalism. Our topics have covered the ideas and achievements of over 50 of my favourite ‘subversives’; our understanding of the notion of free will; Hobbesian thought as expressed in Leviathan; the philosophy and art of surrealism; Said’s notion of Orientalism; the ‘veil of ignorance’; the value of predictions; and my own blend of psychic perfect pitch.


The show has been well received and well-reviewed, while the proceeds are being used for the Life Cycle Campaign to raise funds for research into the early detection of breast cancer, something that has touched my family and I am certain many other families here and abroad. The Djanogly Theatre at Lakeside Arts provided the perfect setting, while the sound and light crew could not be more professional and supportive.

In the middle of this performance schedule, I had the honour and pleasure of performing to a group of students from the University of Nottingham for a new film project on Academic Magic. They were from all over the world and studying degree courses in chemistry, maths, biology, business, law, finance, psychology, and medicine. After the filming they were full of questions and theories about how I managed to know what they had chosen, thought, or wrote down. It was a wonderful afternoon with the youth of today.

2016 has indeed been an extraordinary year with the death of so many icons of my youth, and significant political developments that will have huge and long lasting consequences. All eyes are on the election in France with the surge in support for Marine Le Pen, the election in Germany, as Angela Merkel seeks an historic 4th term as Chancellor, and in the UK, the Government’s plan for Brexit; the phasing, contours and consequences of which still remain shrouded in uncertainty.

I for one, will remain vigilant, continue to engage, and work hard to defend what I think are the many important principles and rights that have been secured through so many years of struggle.

Upcoming public lecture!

Norms, Values, Morality: The Politics of Human Rights


Please join the Research Priority Area in Rights and Justice at the University of Nottingham for a special lecture by Professor Todd Landman, a world-leading expert on human rights. He will discuss the evolution of the international human rights regime, different kinds of human rights measures, and systematic ways in which to map, explain, and understand the variation in human rights abuse around the world.

Professor Landman is the Pro Vice Chancellor for the Social Sciences faculty at the University of Nottingham and internationally renowned for his work on the measurement and analysis of human rights. His many books include Human Rights and Democracy: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals (2013), Measuring Human Rights (2009), Assessing the Quality of Democracy (2008), Studying Human Rights (2006), Protecting Human Rights (2005), and Citizenship Rights and Social Movements (1997, 2000). He has worked with a wide range of international governmental and non-governmental organisations, including the Inter-European Consortium for Human Rights, the United Nations Development Programme, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UK Department for International Development, and Amnesty International. He writes for and appears in The Guardian, The Conversation, openGlobalRights, Al Jazeera, and other media outlets.

For more information, CLICK HERE