Todd Landman Academic Magician
December 31, 2016Todd Landman

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.

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