Behind The Human Rights Readers

What is behind the food for thought series
Human Rights Reader 400

I WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE HUMAN RIGHTS READERS AS A SKIRT: LONG ENOUGH TO COVER THE SUBJECT AND SHORT ENOUGH TO BE ATTRACTIVE.(i)
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(i): I apologize for this gender insensitive quote that became the title.

[Every 50 Readers, I try to write a Reader about the Readers and their relationship to me, the compiler. Here is what I have to add today].

-For over ten years, I have been painstakingly focusing on the brutal human-rights violations and exploring some alternatives and, in the process, building up a loyal audience.
For a blogger, doing means words since language, we can safely say, is also a form of action. (Geoffrey Cannon, Albino Gomez)

1. As a Chinese proverb says: “The only words that have a right to exist are those that are better than silence”. True. But mind that not all words tell; not all silences hide. (A. Gomez)

2. I firmly believe in our freedom of conscience. I believe I have not only the right, but also the duty to contradict, to criticize, to put in doubt; and, yes, also to coincide with that that I agree-with, but also to say no. (Eduardo Galeano)

3. I read and travel and think and write. I have had an intercourse with the world, a special intercourse that, as a writer, I want to bring to my readers, not only to ponder, but also to enjoy.

4. When I write these Readers, I try to say straight forwardly what I think (and what I am), but somehow I do not say what I do not think (and what I am not). …Come to think of it, maybe none of you is too interested in either (A. Gomez) …But somehow I continue writing them anyway.

5. You know? Marguerite Duras had it right: The writer is a strange fellow. To write is also not to talk; it is shutting-up and doing much listening. Writing is a type of solitude.

6. What, to me, the Readers are:

• The Human Rights Readers (HRRs) mainly focus on ideas, which include concepts and principles. They are supposed to spark and shape your inquisitiveness. They are supposed to inspire and present different conclusions from evidence I collect. (G. Cannon)
• The Readers are intended to be an echo and a revival of the human rights (HR) concepts that it repeatedly stirs. That these concepts are not always new, makes them all the more profound; old concepts can and do achieve a new incarnation.
• The Readers try to engage in a campaign against empty ‘inflatio-wordiness’? (E. Galeano)
• The purpose of the Readers is to stimulate thinking and awareness. They provide a view on global issues, often citing items that have already been published in other media, but always clearly attributed.
• The Readers provide provocative material always hoping that you will react.
• The Readers observe with dismay the current tragic decline in appealing and workable global perspectives. (Roberto Savio)
• Through the pages of the Readers, I do intend to sometimes be irreverent and impertinent –or the Readers would not be.
• The Readers attempt to attune to what Susan Kelleher calls the ‘erogenous zones of a readership’ searching for substance and relevance amid a sea of online chatter and bullpoop.
• The Readers present ‘the other side of the debate to technological and sectoral approaches to development’ –always striving to expand the awareness on the depth, complexity and resilience of combating HR violations. In a neo-liberal sense, I guess, I could perhaps simply be accused of taking-controversial-ideas-to-market. (From HRR 80)
• Ultimately, the HRRs are a mixture of political conviction, flair, and addressing good stories. Professional, yes, but (unfortunately) not written to be consumed by grassroots people, like workers or peasants. Instead, the Readers try to hear their voices; not only to speak about reality, but also to criticize reality in an effort to raise political consciousness. (E. Galeano)

7. But, the above said, I do recognize that every act of writing entails some inevitable exercise in duplicity and I am not immune to it. (Ariel Dorfman)

8. What, to me, the Readers are not:

• They are not timelessly true or false but, in practice, and depending on the case, more or less timeless, relevant, useful and/or convincing. (G. Cannon)

• The Readers are also not directed to gain praises, but rather to bare testimony. (E. Mounier)

[If you have reached this point of this Reader, it means that you are committed to a better world, and you are an unusual reader. According to a study from UNESCO, only 3% of the world population can read 5.000 words of abstract materials, without giving up. It also means that you have some commitment probably to issues that I have left out. It would be the most positive result of reading my writings if you would make an effort and think about your commitments. I aim to provide what you, by any criteria, need to know about where we are in the world. (R. Savio) You are not paying to read these words –or you are paying, indirectly, through your attention –and I have been blessed to be allowed to enter so many of your heads with my scribbling. (J. Biggs)].

The older I am, the more I like my defects (Isabel Allende)

Or, the older I get, the better I was…?

9. The further I go when I write, the sort of lonelier I become. At the end, I have learned that it is better like that and that I have to defend that solitude, because that way I work better –and time flies…and, *if I let time go by, I feel I am committing a sin for which there is no way back.* (Leonardo Padura)

10. I am sure this happens to some of you as well –and may be, or not be, a defect: When re-writing a Reader, it becomes a different one to me; if I publish the same elsewhere it becomes yet another.(ii) (Jorge Luis Borges)

(ii): Or facetiously: “I cannot write five words without changing seven”. (Dorothy Parker)

11. Can I, at some point, ask: Does HR rhetoric (i.e., ‘rights talk’) begin to do more harm than good (including to you)? I would say NO; no more harm than good; not enough good, yes (but then, what is enough…?). The question actually refers to the dichotomy between direct action and only contributing to create strategic credibility and motivation. What I mean is that, as my readers, and many like you, you have to learn to stop turning the other cheek (iii). (William Bloom)

(iii): The closest I personally get to direct action is my People’s Health Movement work. I left my native Chile after the coup (long, long ago) and have been an uprooted foreigner in the US, Kenya and now in Vietnam ever since so that my chances for involvement in direct action are limited and even dangerous (given my more radical views). So the HR rhetoric of the Readers is the avenue I use. How much does it rub off? Am I reaching 3500+ already converts that receive the Readers? Not sure. (Do not think this does not go through my mind…). From the feedback I get, the Readers are influencing some. If they use it for direct action I cannot tell –but I sure call for it every chance I have. So this is the short answer to a relevant thorny question. My aim is direct action by claim holders demanding their rights. The process is slow and I always say we are going 2 steps forwards and 1 3/4 backwards…. But if we were not there, it would be worse. Is the younger generation picking up? (We are getting old, you know? I just turned 70). I want to think yes. In PHM we certainly have a breed of new cadres.

I do not search, I find (Pablo Picasso).

-I am what I remember, but I also am what I forget.
-I prefer to cause somebody uneasiness by telling the truth than causing admiration by telling lies. (Mafalda)
-What I do want to express must be said with clarity.
-About that-what-you-cannot-talk-about, it is better not to insist and to keep quiet. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

12. To me, *being busy finding material is not the same as being productive.* It is the difference between running on a treadmill and running to a destination; they are both running, but being busy is running in place.(iv) (Peter Bregman)

(iv): The constant sending and receiving of emails has turned us into mere ‘human routers’, making for shallow work habits and keeping us from any kind of deep thinking. Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow calls for resisting this trend and for prioritizing greater depth and to produce at a higher rate –while hopefully rarely working past 6 p.m. during the workweek: Leisure time sharpens you…

13. Do I find suffering in my inquiries? Indeed, a lot. And I am interested in it. Not that I have a soft spot for victims. But most people prefer to divert their gaze at suffering –I stare at it. Suffering has things to tell me –and I can even lend a hand, so I do stare.(v) I do not, therefore, live in a state of indifference –not as the writer of the Readers anyway. Being inquisitive and then provocative is not only for the more progressive and radical essayists or bloggers –it is a necessity for all of us– and is not a shame!(vi) (Philip Roth)

(v): Let it be said that spending a week or two in a place where everybody is oppressed and miserable is indeed an eye opener.

(vi): Every time I respond to the question about our future, I try to avoid being either highly pessimistic or superficially optimistic. I try to adopt what I consider a realistic position recognizing that in the last few years we have achieved significant progress in the struggle for justice. But, at the same time, I recognize that we still have much to do and many challenges to overcome. We need new ideas that will allow us to implement action programs to end discrimination. One of these ideas is what I call the myth of time. There are individuals that purport that only time can resolve the problems of injustice and discrimination; “you have to give time a chance”, we are told. Too often, we further hear “have patience; in 30 or 50 years the problem will solve itself”. This myth about giving problems time is something that invariably comes up. The only response that I have for this myth is that time is neutral; it can be used constructively, but also destructively. And, in all honesty, I have to say that the forces hostile to our cause have used time in a much more clever way than the constructive forces have done. In our generation, we have had not only to lament the use of empty promises and of violence by bad people, but also to lament the terrible silence and indifference of good people that have not reacted and tend to say: “Time will resolve it”. At some point, it is necessary to recognize that human progress has never come from the inevitability of history; progress comes from the tireless effort and persistent work of dedicated individuals that have the drive to stick their necks out. Without that type of work, time works as an ally of the forces of social status-quo. We must, therefore, ‘help time’ and realize that it always is the right time to do the right thing. It is crucial to understand this. (Martin Luther King)

I often fear that these Readers may be coming through as lecturing rather than informing and providing action-oriented food for thought

14. I further fear that the Readers content may sometimes suffer when the rhetoric is hot. But one thing is clear: I do not shy away from polemics when discussing the major issues related to the politics of HR. I am undeniably controversial, but, then, trying to break down common beliefs, especially if inaccurate or blinding, is always fraught with controversy. As much as I can, I try to look beyond one-sided and narrow explanations so as to gain and share a stronger understanding.

15. Sometimes it helps to end an essay with a quote that sums up one’s position. Here is one from the English philosopher Bertrand Russell that defines my position. This is what he said: “A man without a bias cannot write interesting history –if indeed such a man exists.” (vii) (Quoted by Yash Tandon)

(vii): Sometimes people ask me, “What is the greatest achievement you have reached in your lifetime or that you will reach in the future?” So I reply that there was a great painter named Mordecai Ardon, who was asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted. Ardon replied, “The picture I will paint tomorrow.” That is also my answer. (Quoted by Eric Friedman)

16. Bottom line: All the good and wise in the Readers comes from others; that of lesser importance is mine.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
schuftan (at) gmail.com

Postscript/Marginalia
-Like Ulysses, I think that I am only a part of my own history and that, most probably, others are more than what I am myself. And this is a humbling thought… (H. Tizon)
-People who specialize in ‘the life of ideas’ tend to be extremely atypical of their societies. They –we– are freaks in a statistical sense. For generations, populists of various kinds have argued that intellectuals are unworldly individuals out of touch with the experiences and values of most of their fellow citizens, especially those rendered poor. Intellectuals are actually even more exclusive in practice, because the children of the rich and affluent are over-represented among intellectuals. By the standards of the larger society, intellectuals tend to be unusually individualistic. In the social sciences, intellectuals –be they professors, experts, self-proclaimed gurus, or policy making duty bearers– tend to be both biased and unaware of their own bias. Could they be accused of representing ‘bourgeois scholarship’? It may not hurt if, as a condition of career advancement, every professor, opinion journalist, and foundation expert (among other), had to spend a year or two working in a farmers market, construction site, hospital, or warehouse. Our out-of-touch-intelligentsia might there learn some lessons that cannot be obtained from books and seminars alone. (Michael Lind) Intellectuals and experts on tap, but not on top! (Colin Tudge)
-Free are those that create, not those who copy; free are those who think, not those who are obedient; to teach is to teach how to doubt. (E. Galeano)
-In now 400 Readers, over a period of 12+ years I have learned that “whenever someone agrees with me in some respect and disagrees with me in another, I have to rush into print to make clear the difference.” (H. J. Morgenthau, B. Russel)
-By opening the gates of publishing to all, the internet has flattened hierarchies everywhere they exist. We no longer live in a world in which elites or accredited experts are able to dominate conversations about complex or contested matters. Politicians cannot rely on the aura of office to persuade, newspapers cannot assert the superior integrity of their stories. It is not clear that this change is, overall, a boon for the public realm. But in areas where self-proclaimed experts have a track record of getting it wrong, it is hard to see how it could be worse. If ever there was a case that an information democracy, even a very messy one, is preferable to an information oligarchy, then the challenge of getting it right is to place the HR framework at the very center of such a direct democracy. (Ian Leslie)