Monday, October 24, 2011

Dignity in Adversity - Human Rights in Troubled Times

Dignity in Adversity - Human Rights in Troubled Times
by Seyla Benhabib
Polity Books, 2011

Review by Ramona Wadi

This review was first published by London School of Economics and Political Science here.

A reference to Immanuel Kant provides the background for Yale Professor Seyla Benhabib’s new treatise on human rights discourse. Kant’s redefining of cosmopolitanism transforms the term from ‘citizenship denial’ to ‘citizenship of the world’. Through a discussion of topics such as genocide, citizenship, the nation state, anti Semitism and the hijab controversy, Benhabib demonstrates how an approach from this new definition of cosmopolitanism enables human rights discourse to move beyond the state, creating a realm encompassing unity and diversity across political borders.

Human rights reveal a discrepancy within various perspectives – justification, philosophy, legality, law and declarations. Benhabib argues that cosmopolitanism reconstructs the definition of citizenship and rights by defining human beings as moral persons who are entitled to legal protection by right of their identity as human beings, as opposed to citizenship and rights based on nationality or ethnicity. This position entails recognising freedom of expression as a necessity instead of a mere political right.

Two main frameworks emerge from cosmopolitanism as expounded by Benhabib. Democratic iterations are defined as “how the unity and diversity of human rights is enacted and re-enacted in strong and weak public spheres, not only in legislatures and courts, but often more effectively by social movements, civil society actors, and transnational organisations working across borders.” Jurisgenerative power allows “new actors, such as women and ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities – to enter the public sphere, to develop new vocabularies of public claim making and to anticipate new forms of justice to come in process of cascading democratic iterations.”

Major outcomes of history have defined and brought forth the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention and other treaties. However this discourse has been narrowed to an interpretation of what should constitute human rights. The categorisation of human rights into treaties and conventions may be perceived as a manipulation of the West’s perception of human rights transformed into an obligatory adherence upon the rest of the world.

The events of September 11, 2001 have also exposed the corrosion of human rights conduct. The US Patriot Act signed by George W Bush authorised pre-emptive strikes on suspicion of terrorism. The incongruence of the War on Terror has resulted in wars with no apparent conclusion, as well as a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention with regard to prisoner abuse in Guantanamo (Cuba), Abu Ghraib (Iraq) and Baghram Airbase (Afghanistan).

Human rights have also been compromised in order to sustain a nation’s identity. Hence, in liberal democracies religious expression is marginalised while, at the same time bolstering, especially in Europe and the US, the preservation of the white and Christian identity. In a manifestation of past prejudice, when anti Semitism was rampant, it is now Muslims who are targeted by racism and religious prejudice.  The West’s identity has experienced an evolution through secular ideology as well as the spread and effect of conflicts around the world. While resistance against a new concept of identity and citizenship may occur, creating a dystopia, the expansion of human rights definition due to societal change also destabilizes the power held by authorities.

Cosmopolitanism, Benhabib states, encompasses the relevance of moral sympathy and aids in demolishing the abstraction of humanity into ‘concrete others’, thus enabling society to expand its struggle for human rights. Visualising ‘the other’ as a human being prevents society from the alienation – unlike the elite in every country in the world who have disassociated themselves from the reality of the majority.

Benhabib also demonstrates the analogous, as opposed to contradictory, human rights discourse in migration. While host nations may define migrants as having crossed the borders, the same expression of border crossing can be utilized by migrants as the reason why they had to seek asylum in the first place. Decades of colonialism, usurping of natural resources particularly in Third World countries, political conflict, civil wars and the ramifications of poverty, displacement and persecution have portrayed the merging of reasons why a person flees the home country. There is no longer a discrepancy between the political and economic migration. As Benhabib states, “Political persecution, economic marginalisation and discrimination are interdependent.”

Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer. Read more about Ramona on our reviewers page.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Antonio Gramsci Prison Notebooks - Volume 1

Antonio Gramsci Prison Notebooks - Volume 1
Edited and translated by Joseph A Buttigieg
Columbia University Press, 2011

This review was first published by Irish Left Review - the original article may be accessed here

“Culture is a fundamental concept of socialism because it integrates and concretizes the vague concept of freedom of thought.” Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci’s cultural awareness permeates every single reflection recorded in his notebooks. Arrested and imprisoned in 1926 on conspiracy charges of an alleged attempt on Benito Mussolini’s life, Gramsci eroded the certainty expressed vehemently by the prosecution, who argued that “We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.”

Volume 1 of the Prison Notebooks introduces Gramsci’s reflections with a detailed synopsis of both his work and the circumstances under which this intellectual legacy flourished. The Fascist victory only succeeded in removing an influential leader of the Partido Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I) from public view but his philosophy was far from annihilated, having already meticulously planned on furthering his political analysis and reflections from the confines of jail.

Writing to his closest friends and relatives, he requested ‘paper and ink’, also a selection of books, detailing his plan to immerse himself in study, analysis and writing during his tenure in prison. Permission to write was given after several petitions - however Gramsci was not allowed to retain his work in his cell - these were locked up and only a limited selection of his notebooks were available to him on occasion. This restriction might be one of the reasons why the notebooks come across as a recording of fragmented reflections.

Gramsci’s initial reflections focused, amongst others, on the theory of history and historiography, education, popular literature, the formation of intellectuals, the Italian Risorgimento, prison life and references to Machiavelli. The seemingly fragmented and dissonant reflections gain momentum when read as a process of debate, discovery and affirmation. Rethinking culture in various forms, Gramsci reflects upon the dissemination of literature, arguing that artistic literature should be regarded as both an ‘actual element of culture’ and ‘a work of art’. The promulgation of literature is essential for civilisation enrichment, in order to prevent culture from becoming inferior.
“Otherwise, preference will be given not to artistic literature but to serial literature which, in its own way, is an element of culture - degraded, perhaps, but current.”
The first volume of the Prison Notebooks is perceived as the foundation for his later reflections. Gramsci’s philosophy is deeply entrenched in socialist ideology; affirming, through extensive reflection, that culture and socialism are necessarily interwoven, creating the conditions for people to embrace or rather, adhere to, the concept of freedom of thought.

Attaining freedom of thought is hindered by the restrictions of capitalism. Despite Gramsci’s view that each person is a philosopher due to participation, observation and the dissemination of thought through the use of language, the working classes’ alienation from culture is one of precincts which capitalism enforces upon this segment of society. Gramsci advocated that socialism should embrace culture in order to sustain the growth of intellectuals, impart a political education to the working class and further the struggle for freedom in society.

Gramsci makes a distinction between the illusion of justice and the truth of justice. The image which justice creates is decadent - an outward flourish of concern to conceal the abuse of power inflicted on people in which there is no regeneration. The concept of hegemony - a term used previously by Marxists such as Lenin, was expounded upon by Gramsci, who maintained that capitalism had assumed absolute power, resulting in bourgeoisie values dominating the working classes’ aspirations and identity. In order for the working class to develop its own culture and values, it is imperative that the oppressed and intellectuals identify with the proletariat. The dominance of the bourgeoisie relies on coercion of the masses and any revolt against this coercion results in a manifestation of force. The accord which balances the void between consent and force is corruption which, as Gramsci states:
(… is characteristic of certain situations in which it is difficult to exercise the hegemonic function while the use of force presents too many dangers); that is, the procurement of the antagonist’s or antagonists’ debilitation and paralysis by buying, covertly under normal circumstances, openly in the case of anticipated dangers - their leaders in order to create confusion and disorder among the antagonist ranks.
Referring to historical insurrections in Europe, Gramsci observes that most modern states were created through a balance in which the bourgeoisie remained in power within a system that the working class found flexible enough. The struggle for power and its achievement transforms the meaning of politics for different social classes. While politics retains its definition for the productive class, the intellectuals define politics as rationality. Gramsci states that these differences in philosophical idealism should be ‘explained on the basis of historic relations’.

Gramsci exhorts the relevance of history, revolution and political thought in order to discern the immediate realm. A consciousness of history is necessary to create the present. Criticising the past in order to adhere to the present is rational and crucial, in order to interpret our analysis hypothetically and politically. Splintering the link between past and present renders humanity unable to comprehend the process of perception, extension and revival.
“In other words, we must stick closer to the present, which we ourselves have helped create, while conscious of the past and its continuation (and revival).”

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chomsky - A Graphic Guide

Chomsky - A Graphic Guide
by John Maher
Illustrated by Judy Groves
Icon Books, 2011

Review by Ramona Wadi

Chomsky - A Graphic Guide gives an excellent portrayal of the linguist who enlightened the academic world with his theory of 'universal grammar' and continues to influence the realm of activism with his constant criticism of absolute power.

Language acquisition transcends the parameters of a single language - all children around the world learn different languages in similar ways to each other. Chomsky's argument is that language and grammar are intrinsically linked to the human brain. Refuting Skinner's behaviourist theory, which argues that children acquire language through imitation of sounds, Chomsky insists that babies have a genetic predisposition towards language - thus excluding the theory of tabula rasa and reinforcing the concept of freedom of consciousness.

Less space is devoted to Chomsky's relentless pursuit of justice. Renowned for his stance against US foreign policy, imperialism and aggressive intervention, Chomsky's disposition towards social justice was kindled at an early age. As a child growing up in the era of the Great Depression, he witnessed the suffering of the working class. Years after the wave of Fascism, World War II and the Vietnam War, Chomsky remained adamant as ever about the betrayal of the people by the intellectuals, who allowed themselves to be manipulated within a system which oppressed freedom of thought but managed to distort this reality under the banner of democracy.

Chomsky's analysis of US politics, foreign policy and freedom bares the system for what is actually is - a culture which prides itself on freedom only after assurance that intellect has been conditioned to conform. The indoctrination of the people under the reassurance of freedom is perceived as actual liberty, since the people have consented to relinquish their own thought.

Maher illustrates Chomsky's perception on the process of indoctrination with media manipulation of historical events, which is always ready to categorise, condemn or apologise for violence, depending on who the perpetrator is. Despite the brevity with which Chomsky's contribution to social justice is discussed, the book nevertheless concludes with an essential reflection about the discussed topics, and one which Chomsky writes about incessantly - the abhorrent relationship between the semblance of justice which the world's super power upholds and the reality it manupulates - a flagrant disregard for humanity's freedom.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Cloud Messenger - Aamer Hussein

The Cloud Messenger
by Aamer Hussein
Telegram Books, 2011

Review by Ramona Wadi

A poignant book delving into poetry, culture, relationships, memory and exile, The Cloud Messenger seeks to discover the essence of existence, acknowledging the fact that memory betrays the very recollections which are an integral part of identity.

Hussein's prose shifts hues as he veers from one observation to another, from incidents to memory, from academia to the essence of poetry. Through this constant motion, The Cloud Messenger is a narration that is able to evoke the ethereal and the slivers of truth, contrasting a world of words with a world of reticence.

Conditioned by the realisation of impermanence, Mehran fails to interact faithfully with the people around him. Close friendships and loves seem imbalanced, depending on who commands the narration. But there is a certainty throughout the book - Mehran remains true to his concept of self, aloof, willing to wander and discover himself within Urdu and Persian poetry, seeking a fragment of belonging which his closest friends and loves have been unable to communicate.

At once mundane and surreal, Aamer Hussein evokes the sense of exile within one's self. Creating an identity between Karachi, London and Rome, Mehran's identity is shaped by recollections. The immediate realm fails to register a sense of belonging - it is only by evoking the past that an identity is discovered.

Tragedy plays a significant part in the novel. Whether wrought by disease or a streak of self-destruction, Mahran watches and clings to Riccarda and Marvi - there is an awareness that through these two women's complex attitude towards life, Mehran manages to cultivate the character of a nomad, both metaphorically and in reality. Travel, tragedy, and memory - a character exiled in the world who finds solace within a realm that binds him to the structure of words and verses from his native land.