Photos taken days before demolition was set to begin on twenty buildings in preparation for a casino, shops, restaurants, a museum and housing.

Who Is Responsible? An Interview with Tracy Neumann on “Remaking the Rustbelt” and the Transnational Fortunes of Post-Industrial America and Canada

Pittsburgh, in case you haven’t heard, is on the rise.

But don’t take it from us. The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States. Zagat calls it the #1 food city in the United States. Money magazine names it one of the best places to live in the Northeast United States. Travel and Leisure magazine calls it one of the places to visit in the United States. The former steel city located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in western Pennsylvania appeals, it seems, to a wide variety of audiences. The Huffington Post calls it one of several cities that aspiring techies should consider moving to. And startup founders who leave Silicon Valley or New York’s “Silicon Alley” for the more affordable setting of Pittsburgh, and its top research universities, might find themselves moving in next to retirees, as well, as Kiplinger magazine has selected it as a top location to retire. (These, and more of the myriad accolades Pittsburgh has garnered, are exhaustively catalogued by VisitPITTSBURGH, the tourism agency of Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located).

Pittsburgh, in short, seems like an island of prosperity and success in North America’s Rust Belt, a region more commonly associated with economic involution, plant shutdowns, and “ruin porn” than food trucks and hipsters. How did it avert the fate of post-industrial economic decline that blighted many a Youngstown, Ohio, Gary, Indiana, or Elkhart, Indiana? Yet perhaps the better question to ask might be why Pittsburgh embraced a post-industrial future as avidly as it did. After all, many other cities in the Rust Belt, particularly those in neighboring Canada, retained their steel factories far longer than did Pittsburgh, all the while managing a transition to white-collar employment far more successfully than did their southern cousins of Youngstown, Gary, or Elkhart. When one casts their field of vision across the horizons of Lake Erie or Lake Huron to the smokestacks and chimneys of Canada, the trajectory and choices involved in the transition of the Rust Belt from the 1940s to today looks quite different. Such a narrative frame casts into question the narrative of inevitable de-industrialization, and makes clear how post-industrialism was as much as policy choice as it was a historical inevitability.

"Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America," the recent book of Professor Tracy Neumann (Wayne State University)
“Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America,” the recent book of Professor Tracy Neumann (Wayne State University)

Such is the intervention of Tracy Neumann, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Wayne State University in Detroit, in her recent book Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). In the book, Neumann compares and contrasts the trajectory of two North American steel towns, Pittsburgh and Hamilton, Ontario, showing how de-industrialization was as much the result of a set of policy choices embraced by civic elites as it was a historical inevitability. Even before the decade of the 1970s most commonly associated with de-industrialization, policy elites in both Pittsburgh and Hamilton drew on a limited set of post-industrial urban visions as they sought to plot out what a city built more on services, rather than manufacturing—on briefcases than lunch pails—would look like.

Drawing on a number of city, provincial and state, and national archives in the United States and Canada, Neumann shows how in spite of a shared vision of post-industrial flourishing, the very different institutional settings in which Hamilton’s and Pittsburgh’s civic elites operated created a very different set of policy outcomes. Unfettered by federal or state restrictions, Pittsburgh’s corporate leaders and Democratic mayors were able to rapidly transform their city into what they envisioned would be a Mecca for white-collar workers—causing, in the process, immense pain and dislocation for the city’s actual, rather than desired, residents. In Canada, meanwhile, civic leaders in Hamilton aspired to a similarly service industry-oriented future for their city, but remained captive to provincial policies that channeled post-industrial growth toward Toronto. In Neumann’s telling, the global structure of economic change matters—but so, too, do institutions and the menu of policy choices with which elected officials and corporate elites imagine themselves presented.

At a moment when many Americans and Canadians, and other denizens of a North Atlantic Rust Belt are posing the question of whether the move from pig iron to management consulting—or, for many, from stable lifetime employment to a McJob—Neumann’s book comes as a welcome entry into the conversation. More broadly, however, Remaking the Rustbelt provides an example of how Americanists are writing urban history in a transnational and global key. Readers interested in what, exactly, the relationship of post-industrialism to “neoliberalism” in the United States will find much of value in Neumann’s work, but so, too, will scholars studying how processes of global change find their way to the ground across regions through the grinders and gears of policymaking. That makes it a valuable contribution whether the pair of cities one is interested is Pittsburgh and Hamilton, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, or Mumbai and Dubai. The Executive Director of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, Timothy Nunan (TPF), recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tracy Neumann (TN) to discuss Remaking the Rust Belt, some of the arguments of the book, and what she has in store following the June release of her first monograph. Continue reading

Maris Pacifici

How Did Water Connect the World? An Interview with David Igler on Pacific and Environmental History

The Pacific is an area largely understudied by historians, yet it is “an ocean covering more than a third of the Earth’s surface” and has “over 25,000 islands”, to borrow the words of the late Australian historian Greg Dening.  In the past thirty years or so, a growing number of historians have shifted their attention to the Pacific.  This includes such well-known scholars as Greg Dening, Anne Salmond, Gregory T. Cushman and Toynbee Prize Foundation Trustee David Armitage.

Our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Professor David Igler, numbers among the dozens of scholars who believe that the importance of Pacific Ocean and significance of environmental history.  David Bruce Igler is a historian of the American West , President of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, and Professor of History and currently Chair of History Department at the University of California, Irvine.

Professor Igler, a graduate of UC Berkeley, began his academic career as a U.S. historian specializing in the American West and environmental history.  After publishing his book Industrial Cowboys: Miller and Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850-1920, he decided to explore the waterscape and regions west of the West, namely, the Pacific Ocean.  This research has consumed him for the past decade.  The product is, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

The prize-winning monograph draws on hundreds of documented voyages, some painstakingly recorded by participants, some only known by their archeological remains or indigenous memory.  This leads to a window into the commercial, cultural, and ecological upheavals following the initial contact period, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   Do industrial development and environmental transformation often happened in the same time?  What makes Professor Igler shift from American history to Pacific history?   Can humans have a dialogue with the Ocean? Professor Igler and Tiger Li, Editor-at-Large for the Toynbee Prize Foundation, discuss these questions in the following interview.

Professor David Igler, professor of history at UC Irvine and author of "The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush."
Professor David Igler, professor of history at UC Irvine and author of “The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush.”

Continue reading


Global History as Past and Future: A Conversation with Sebastian Conrad on “What Is Global History?”

It’s a common question that teachers of global history face. We belong to one of the most quickly-moving, contested, and changing subfields within the historical profession, and the travel schedules on many of our dockets—Istanbul one week, Tokyo the next—make our colleagues who slave away in the same provincial state archive blush. The years spent learning foreign languages begin to pay off, as one can not only read the newspaper but also foreign colleagues’ peer review comments on an article scheduled for publication in this or that journal. Life, it seems, is good.

But when it comes time to teach global history as a field, one hesitates. For audiences of graduate students, of course, it’s possible to follow the tactic of assigning a pile of monographs bringing global history perspectives to different regions of the planet: China the one week, the Gambia the next. But how to put it all together into one common language that speaks to the Americanists and the East Asianists in one seminar? Worse yet: how to teach this all to undergraduate audiences for whom the monograph approach would incite revolt?

Sebastian Conrad's "What Is Global History" (Princeton University Press, 2016), the subject of this latest installment of the Global History Forum
Sebastian Conrad’s “What Is Global History” (Princeton University Press, 2016), the subject of this latest installment of the Global History Forum

Fortunately, as we’ve noted in earlier installments of the Global History Forum, scholars of global history who formerly had to throw their hands up in response to this dilemma increasingly have at their disposal an array of good introductory works to the field. One might only think of the work of Diego Olstein, for a recent work in just this niche in English, or, for German-speaking audiences, a 2011 book that fills the same need by Austrian economic historian (and former TPF interviewee) Andrea Komlosy. At the field grows and becomes more sophisticated, though, so, too, are the options for introductory texts expanding. One of such works constitutes the focus of this installment of the Global History Forum, namely the aptly-titled What Is Global History? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) by Professor Sebastian Conrad, the Chair in Modern History at the Free University of Berlin.

Billed as a “problem-oriented” approach to global history that provides much-needed criticism and pauses alongside enthusiasm, Conrad’s What Is Global History? appears at just the right time for a field in much need of explaining itself to students—and to critically interrogating its own limits. Recently, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan had the chance to speak with Professor Conrad to discuss his recent book and what he sees as the biggest challenges facing the field as it matures and grows in years ahead. Continue reading


From the Banality of Evil to the Ambivalence of Good: Discussing the History of Human Rights in International Politics with Jan Eckel

When, this past summer, the Russian Federation began sending so-called “humanitarian convoys” into the militarily occupied People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, it was not clear whether the gesture marked the ultimate success or failure of humanitarianism and human rights as an international discourse. Half a century prior to the conflict, activists around the world despaired that both decolonization and East-West détente had created a world in which states, whether capitalist or socialist, colonial or post-, were free to abuse or murder their citizens at will without international protests.

Over the next three decades, however, the concept of human rights–long present but often impotent–enjoyed a soaring takeoff in prestige, and by the mid-1990s governments were quick to speak of “humanitarian interventions” or humanitarian bombing campaigns. Most spectacularly, the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been bandied about as an international norm (if one rejected by China and Russia) to justify potential incursions into Libya or what remains of the Syrian state. In a world in which everything from familiar realpolitik clashes to debates over immigration policy (as many Kosovars seek asylum in Germany) expresses itself in a language of human rights, have only the costumes changed while the actors stay the same?

Eckel’s new monograph, “Die Ambivalenz des Guten. Menschenrechte in der internationalen Politik seit den 1940ern” (“The Ambivalence of Good. Human Rights in International Politics Since the 1940s”)

These are some of the questions that the work of our latest guest to the Global History Forum, Jan Eckel, addresses head-on in his weighty (936 page) tome, Die Ambivalenz des Guten: Menschenrechte in der internationalen Politik seit den 1940ern (English: The Ambivalence of Good: Human Rights in International Politics Since the 1940s), published this winter by German publishing house Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht. The work of Eckel, a Privatdozent at the University of Freiburg in southwestern Germany, represents a major contribution to what has been a real growth area in the historical profession in the last decade or so, namely the historiography of human rights.

Thanks to the work of Eckel and other colleagues, scholars have turned from seeing human rights as an unproblematic outgrowth of a Western tradition (whether one starting in Athens or the Bastille) to a complex ideological phenomenon whose career takes off (but does not necessarily start) in the twentieth century. Whether the subject is campaigns against apartheid to protests against the Shah’s secret police, human rights played an intense role in international politics of the 20th century, but to understand how precisely, it’s also essential to situate them along other, often since-forgotten ideological visions, like anti-colonialism or anti-imperialist socialism. Eckel’s book does that and more, which is why we were delighted to attend both a lecture of his at Berlin’s Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus, and to sit down for a more in-depth one-on-one interview about his work.

Sitting down with Eckel for coffee and breakfast, we discuss his path to the discipline. Born in Hannover in 1973, Eckel was raised in a family where people were interested in history and read historical works, but no one in the family had pursued a scholarly career. For Eckel, the choice to do history was more “out of reason (aus Vernunftsgründen)” than thanks to some long-held childhood passion. Studying Germanistik (German Studies) in Passau and Freiburg, Eckel discovered that he needed to add, in effect, a second major in order to graduate and decided, for strategic reasons, to pick history. Yet once in history seminars in Freiburg, Eckel notes, “I had my ‘a-ha’ moment and thought that this was actually pretty interesting.” Eckel had already felt a certain desire to turn away from “fiction” and towards “real life” (if in the past), and history seemed like the perfect discipline through which to do so.

Dr. Jan Eckel, author of “The Ambivalence of Good,” Privatdozent at the University of Freiburg, and our latest guest to the Global History Forum

“That,” jokes Eckel, “was the moment when I got on the history train.” Eckel’s earlier historical work, which focused on the in the intellectual biography of Hans Rothfels (a prominent historian who helped to establish Zeitgeschichte as a sub-discipline after the Second World War while he held a chair at Tübingen) was more obviously grounded in his background in specifically German topics, but when he decided to pursue a Habilitation (a second, more rigorous dissertation required for appointment as a full professor in German academia), he was forced to pick something totally different–something he views as a plus of the system.

Fortunately, when the time came to choose a topic, he caught wind of shifting tides in the historiography of human rights. Eckel had the good fortune to begin his Habilitation at precisely the time (2006) when human rights went from being a marginal research topic to one of the most lively subfields in the discipline–thanks in large part to Eckel’s contributions themselves. The field, however, attracted him not just for its novelty but also because it broadly seemed to deal with the question of how people imagine violence, and possible ways to overcome it. (Rothfels, the subject of some of Eckel’s earlier work, had at once fled Germany because of his Jewish origins, yet remained essentially committed to a conservative idea of German nationalism nonetheless freed of biological racism.) If Eckel’s earlier work had engaged more closely with “the dark side” of the twentieth century–catastrophe, war, and mass violence–studying human rights could give him an opportunity to engage with the other side of the century, namely “the many efforts that organizations, individuals, and states undertook to help ‘distant others’ and to stem violence.” The point, of course, was not just to lionize such actors as heroes of the twentieth century, but rather to underline “the ambivalence of good” that often characterized the human rights movement.

Soon, Eckel–along with a growing circle of scholars around the world interested in the topic–were tying a necessarily global and multifaceted story together. In 2010, Eckel and Samuel Moyn, then at Columbia University, organized a major conference in Freiburg, the results of which were later published as The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s. (Readers interested in a brief English-language introduction to Eckel’s work will note that The Breakthrough recently appeared in paperback.) The publication of Moyn’s The Last Utopia in the same year also helped to put the field on the map, but it still remained less than clear how one would actually “do” a history of human rights as an international history, employing archives from around the world and using sources in multiple languages. Indeed, participants at the conference had shown how human rights found expression everywhere from the anti-apartheid movement, to the opposition to the Pinochet regime, to East German state-sponsored attempts to portray the SED as a champion of human rights. Not only that, in many cases both well-known and lesser-known (the embrace of human rights as a cause by European governments, for example), there was a minimal existent secondary literature to guide Eckel ahead of his trips to the archives. How to tie this all together?

“The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s,” an edited volume and the result of a Freiburg conference organized by Eckel and Samuel Moyn (Harvard)

One place to start, in spite of the subject of the Freiburg conference, was the 1940s. Indeed, when we caught up with Eckel, it was the 66th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10)–an anniversary that is not remembered with nearly the same intensity that, say, even the Frankfurt Trials or the liberation of Auschwitz are today in Germany. This fact partly formed the background for Eckel’s intervention–even as human rights were on the global menu in 1948, their instantiation through the UDHR was “a promise that could not be kept.” Indeed, noted Eckel, they belong more to an age in which the nation-state or the nation was seen as a prime bearer of rights, anachronistic if not overly chronologically distant from our present day. One option, therefore, for a history of human rights was to track the the way in which a “political field” created by 1948 seemed to, but then did not, create a global space for the discussion of human rights, only to seemingly deliver (or be supplanted by) an international human rights movement in the 1970s. Not only that, by the 1970s, Western governments, most famously under U.S. President Jimmy Carter, even made human rights a stated core part of their foreign policies.

This, naturally, raises the question of why the 1970s were such a crucial turning point. Indeed, to a large extent, and since the publication of Moyn’s The Last Utopia, much of the debate in the human rights historiography hinges around this question of to what extent that decade did indeed mark a major turning point for human rights. While stressing his agreement with Moyn on many matters, Eckel puts the rise of human rights in a longer context that sees the 1970s as nonetheless unusual. Most important, says Eckel, was the rise of global threats like the oil crisis and environmental problems–or, more precisely, the perception that such threats really were global and interconnected in nature, rather than being confined to the Persian Gulf or Three-Mile Island, say. One reason why this new global consciousness was possible was the extraordinary rise of global trade during the period. Not only businessmen but also ordinary people began to perceive international affairs in, say, Argentina, as linked with those in Japan, in a way that would have seemed quixotic as recently as the 1950s. For such a framework of thinking, “local” crises did not exist, since any notion of international order had assumed interconnection or globality.

The infrastructure for an ethics of interdependence? The humble fax machine, now usually found on the junk heap of office backlots, was one of the factors behind the increasing sense of globality and interdependence actors (among them human rights activists) felt in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That said, it is important not to project an image of four decades of moral progress back onto the 1970s. The ideologies of then were not those of today. The Chilean coup d’état of 1973 led to international protests around the world, but, stresses Eckel, many of the protests were as much for ideological reasons–murdered Salvador Allende as a socialist overthrown by supposed fascists–as they were specifically for “human rights.” Many saw in Allende hope for removing basic injustices in the world economic system, a hope that Wall Street, the City of London, and CIA goons brutally snuffed out. The global campaign against the Pinochet regime may have later assumed a specifically human rights tenor, but its genesis was marked more by distrust towards the international capitalist economy than hatred of torture, for example.

Similar things could be said for the other usual turning point cited in accounts of the 1970s, namely the 1975 Helsinki Accords. In the deal, Soviet representatives acceded to a “third basket” of human rights monitoring arrangements in exchange for Western acceptance of their post-1945 European empire – i.e. total acceptance of Eastern European borders and the Warsaw Pact’s states’ territorial integrity. At the time, all sides saw the Accords’ recognition of postwar borders as the crucial piece to the agreement; for parties like East Germany, the Accords were crucial for its relationship with West Germany. At the time, not only the Soviets but also Henry Kissinger regarded Moscow as the clear victor of the arrangement. But over time, some have cited the emergence of Eastern European dissident movements and their ties with Western Helsinki Watch groups as an important factor in the decay of the Soviet Union and Soviet control over Eastern Europe. Here again, notes Eckel, it was the new interconnectedness of the “the 1970s” that came to matter. While the KGB exploited the territoriality of Helsinki and dismantled dissident groups inside of the USSR itself, it was the life of works like The Gulag Archipelago in a space outside the Soviet Union that helped to delegitimize Soviet socialism.

Indeed, it was in part due to this new media space that movements that seemed so impotent in the 1940s gained steam in the 1970s. Now forgotten or at best integrated into high-tech office copiers, the humble fax machine (patented by Xerox in 1964) allowed reporters in Argentina, Ethiopia, or Iran to transmit reports of brutalized protesters to wire offices in London, New York, or Frankfurt much more quickly than was possible before. Obviously, movements–often with their own quixotic and not infrequently post-colonial interests–played a big role, too. But once again, inevitable hierarchies and limited resources meant–and mean–that the human rights story is as much about the ambivalence of good as the triumph of morality. Amnesty International groups was more concerned with the abuses of a Western ally in the form of the Shah of Iran than it was later with the plight of hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing former Soviet republics for the Russian Federation in 1991-2, for example, exhibiting how dependent the “emergency-ness” of such crises can be dependent on visa access, fax machines, and imagined solidarities with far away peoples of whom we know little–think of Muslims in Burma, Uyghurs in China, or Dagestanis and Chechens in Russia’s North Caucasus.

One of the shattered glass lenses of murdered Chilean President Salvador Allende. Eckel’s book makes use of Chilean and European sources to explore the post-1973 campaign against the Pinochet dictatorship.

This mention of travel and connectivity ought to remind the reader of the sheer amount of work and travel that went into The Ambivalence of Good. Far more than simply surveying the debate on human rights through printed materials, Eckel traveled far and wide, working with materials from the files of the Pinochet regime, to discussions within the Carter Administration, to Dutch national archives. This breadth of material thus allows Eckel to piece out the nuances between, say, the human rights turn of the Dutch government under Joop den Uyl (1973-1977) and of the United Kingdom during the Foreign Ministership of David Owen (1977-1979). The reader is able to see, thanks to Eckel’s spread, the perplexed reaction of the Pinochet regime towards international human rights campaigns during the late 1970s, when economic growth (if at the cost of massive inequality) served as legitimation for the dictatorship. In short, while readers might first feel intimidated at the length of the book, it will reward the patient–particularly those interested in international history–insofar as many of its chapters in effect constitute original studies of major episodes in European and Cold War history, based on archival research in multiple countries and in multiple languages. The Chilean material reaches well into the late 1980s, perhaps making it of especial interest for researchers of Latin American history interested in extending the horizon of today’s international history literature beyond the late 1970s.

This concern itself gets back to a major question about periodization. Back in the flow of discussion, Eckel and I soon move beyond these debates about the centrality of “the 1970s”–a naming convention that reflects our base-ten numbering system and a default paradigm for asking historiographical questions–to get to broader questions of historiography. Was, I ask, the rise of human rights thinkable without their entanglement in the dual processes of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States, and the decolonization of European empires? And what is the place of these processes in a narrative centered around human rights?

Eckel stresses the entanglement of all of these factors. He notes that the Soviet-American conflict of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s was one major reason why efforts to turn the United Nations into a discussion forum for human rights abuses (however then conceived) remained half-baked. Not only did neither Washington nor Moscow want United Nations committees sending fact-finding missions to the American South or the internally exiled Chechen or Crimean Tatar nations. More than that, with relatively few member states at the United Nations, influential delegations like the Americans, Soviets, and others could simply deprive UN bodies of funding or authority to do anything substantial on the occasions when they did receive complaints. This was, Eckel stresses, not the only reason that the human rights cause stalled in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was one of them.

Granted, one has to be cautious when speaking of “the” human rights movement or projecting post-1970s concepts back upon the past: as Eckel notes, one of the causes that the American UN delegation did support, namely for a global right to information, was conceived of under the heading of “human rights.” Predictably, however, UN conferences directed towards freedom of information dissolved as parties from Stalin’s USSR to Mexico demanded qualifications to such a right, ranging from “public order” to the prevention of the dissemination of “fascist” propaganda.” One of the strengths of The Ambivalence of Good is that it has the patience to explore episodes like the abortive–yet today highly relevant–struggle for a right to the freedom of information, treating it as part of rather than separate from the ideological journey of “human rights.”

And what a journey it was. By the 1970s, however, not only had the number of nation-states represented at the United Nations increased significantly, but burnout with the causes of reform socialism, the New Left, or freedom and democracy (American-style) often led both post-colonial and Global North activists to embrace human rights causes. Détente was one way out of the classic Cold War, but a turn away from politics per se to anti-torture (to name one cause) was another, more decisive way, to reject the moral gulf dividing the capitalist world from the socialist world. The truth born by the human body locked in prison, thrown into a psychiatry clinic, or beaten by a jailer offered an alternative to the ideologies of Left and Right. If the search for certainty in political ideologies had led to broken friendships and broken hearts for intellectuals in search of global justice, human rights offered an alternative to defending the disgraces of Prague or South Vietnam.

But, stresses Eckel, this turn towards the language of human rights had ambiguous consequences. Given the rise in the number of post-colonial countries at the United Nations, “human rights” on the East River came to take on meanings that activists at organizations like Amnesty International would hesitate to endorse. Few and far between were the post-colonial leaders, like the little-known but fascinating Nnamdi Azikiwe, who propagated a vision of a parliamentary, democratic, post-colonial Nigeria that would, he hoped, participate in a post-colonial African federation defined by respect for human rights (which, then, meant something more along the lines of sovereignty than opposition to torture or state-conducted murder).

More often, as noted above, nationalists like Idi Amin or Muammar Gaddafi wrapped themselves in the language of “human rights” (meaning post-colonial sovereignty, decolonization, and economic rights) as a discourse to promote an agenda of anti-Westernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. From 1989-2010, for example, Colonel Gaddafi endowed an International Prize for Human Rights awarded to (among others) the children of Palestine, Native Americans, and Louis Farrakhan. “Human rights” was supposed to provide an escape hatch from the bitterness of Left and Right, but, so Western defenders would argue, it was all too quickly embraced by tin pot dictators who swaddled themselves in an arguable perversion of the concept. Wasn’t the escape from politics precisely what the point of the turn towards human rights had been about in the first place?

The peripatetic career of the “human rights” concept: a lavishly-illustrated stamp collection of winners from the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, an institution made defunct, needless to say, by the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011.

Rather than engage in such narratives of a noble cause hijacked, however, The Ambivalence of Good shows how different visions of human rights–anti-colonial, state-centric, or individualistic–emerged together. Different readings of the same crisis could provoke very different interpretations of the concept, which is why ambivalence remains such a key word. Consider the case of Nigeria, where the aforementioned Azikiwe reigned. Azikiwe was overthrown by a military coup in 1966, which itself spawned the Biafra War, a galvanizing point for many Western activists. As neither the United States nor the Soviet Union helped Azikiwe’s secessionist Igbo people from attack by the Nigerian state, it became clear that neither the cynical counter-balancing of Moscow and Washington, nor the once-hailed post-colonial state, could guarantee the protection of human lives. The French group Médecins sans Frontières was one of many humanitarian organizations founded in the aftermath of the war, and later earned a Nobel Prize for its activity in running medical emergency missions everywhere from Afghanistan to Bosnia. The concept of human rights it came to champion is much more similar to our own that the alternatives (human rights as post-colonial sovereignty or part of “socialist rights”), and that may be why the triumphal narrative is so attractive.

But far from signifying the replacement of a state-centric, decolonization-focused concept of human rights by a “really” moral one centered around individuals and human pain, however, this evolution of a concept came with new ambiguities. This may be the point in Eckel’s monograph–human rights as ambiguous or even counterproductive–that causes the most consternation among readers. It’s also perhaps the most important. The point is not, as MSF’s Greek chapter made when MSF conducted operations in Kosovo in the late 1990s, that a sincere desire to help the wounded can bleed all too easily into complicity with NATO “humanitarian bombing” campaigns. Readers in Beijing or Moscow looking for a slam of MSF for their violation of state sovereignty should look elsewhere. The real point that Eckel is making is more subtle, namely that new concepts of subjectivity–the ways we think about our own consciousness and personhood–played an important but often ambiguous role in the human rights turn of the last third of the twentieth century. Looking over publications by Amnesty and other groups, stresses Eckel, it’s remarkable how great a role torture came to play in human rights campaigns. The core evil, as it were, of regimes in Uganda, Iran, Afghanistan, and Cambodia was that they tortured the human body, often to a point where even brave dissidents lost control of their physical functions, or were forced to admit to fake confessions. Such varieties of humanitarian protest, in short, focused less on political despotism, the lack of what were once called “bourgeois rights”, or the bankruptcy of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and more on violations of the somatic self as the key evil committed by regimes. For some disillusioned ex-Leftists, this turn to the body may have been just the point: bodily wounds were “objective” in a way ideological disagreement was not.

The logo of Amnesty International, one of the most influential human rights organizations and whose archives Eckel plumbed for “The Ambivalence of Good”

But, stressed Eckel, this turn towards torture as the key evil has had some ambiguous results. Arguably, the international public appetite whetted by anti-torture campaigns was one trained to see torture and state violence as a phenomenon independent of state ideology. “People could get the impression of an all-present violence,” says Eckel,” that is constantly expanding everywhere.” To take Amnesty International’s most recent advertising campaign as an example, the organizations posters stress extreme bodily duress: “Two electrodes. One on the finger, the other on the genitals. The voltage is increased. The voltage is increased. The voltage is increased. Until you do something.” Or: “Barefoot on concrete. Standing. Without sleep. Standing. Without a toilet. Standing. Without End. Standing. Standing. Standing.”

Both of these posters are for Amnesty’s international campaign against torture, no doubt a worthy cause, but they make little reference to the political ideologies that fueled such activity. Deng Xiaoping, F.W. DeKlerk and Leonid Brezhnev all managed regimes that practiced torture, but China, apartheid-era South Africa, and the Soviet Union presented challenges of mis-governance and maltreatment of their citizens that went beyond just torture. Moving beyond anti-Communism or anti-racism per se promised a wider audience to humanitarian activists exhausted with Cold War politics, but this move also threatened to dilute the specific nature of the moral bankruptcy of the regimes in question. Not only that, while torture may be despicable, in other words, there are also plenty of regimes that do not torture their citizens, but still lack decent judiciaries, protection of private property, independent media, and a professional civil service. Does a focus on the body, rather than a bigger “package” focused on civic self-government, distract from the broader ideological and institutional woes under which so much of the planet’s population still lives? The ambivalence of good, highlighted brilliantly here in its historical context by Jan Eckel, abides.

We’ve traveled a long way in our conversation with Eckel. We’ve moved from the earlier debates about “human rights,” animated by concerns over decolonization and the sovereignty of post-colonial nation-states, to today’s more familiar world of concerns about the rights of individuals living in war zones or fleeing them, whether by land or by boat. Yet passionate as such debates–R2P, asylum, Frontex–can become, it’s an essential task of the historian to provide context to the very terms and concepts that guide these debates. In spite of the temptation that writing about the subject sometimes brings out, the story of human rights is something less than a story of continual moral progress, if also something more than a cynical attempt to change the discursive object of “rights talk” from states in the Global South to individuals threatened by said states.

For all of these reasons, we’re glad that Eckel’s book has seen the light of day, and hope that it finds a wide readership not only in the original German, but also in translation as soon as possible, too. We thank Dr. Eckel for his participation in the interview, and look forward to following his future scholarly trajectory.


Sandalwood Commonwealth? Traveling Across a Chinese-Australian Pacific with Sophie Loy-Wilson

Scan the news these days for news from the western and southern Pacific, and it doesn’t require too much reading for the outlines of a multipolar future to emerge. There are, of course, the obvious stories: competition between the United States and China; that relationship’s reverberating effect on the Korea-Japan-China triangle; and the effect of a dynamic and rising Vietnam and Indonesia on what is likely to be the main engine of global economic growth in years to come. Sometimes obscured through a focus on the areas of Northeast and Southeast Asia, however, can be the important role that Australia plays in the broader region. While party to numerous strategic agreements with other Commonwealth countries and the United States, the world’s twelfth largest economy plays a role as a key trading partner for China. Indeed, one of the major ongoing debates within Australian politics is how this former Dominion, so far from “old” British and former Imperial markets and so close to a region with a near-unlimited appetite for raw materials (plenty of those in Australia’s arid interior) should balance between the Angloworld and the East, China in particular.

Such debates about Australia’s economic, political, and to some extent cultural orientation have, of course, not only a history of their own but are themselves influenced by the work of journalist, scholars and activists on the meaning of Australia’s place in the world. And it’s precisely because of her contribution to these debates that the Toynbee Prize Foundation sat down recently with Dr. Sophie Loy-Wilson, a member of the Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney.

Sophie Loy-Wilson (Sydney), our guest to this most recent installment of the Global History Forum

Refreshingly for a country whose political culture can sometimes play up images of Australia’s aloofness from a wider Oceanic and Asian world, Loy-Wilson seeks to unearth the often obscure history of Chinese-Australian relations from the nineteenth century to the present day. Using Chinese, Australian, and British sources, her work locates business history and cultural history in a transnational context to examine the web of exchange and ideas about the other in which Chinese-Australian relations have formed for nearly two centuries. Such a package of skills and interests is no doubt likely to make hers a voice to watch from Beijing to Canberra for years to come. It also made for a stimulating conversation as we sat down with her recently to discuss her intellectual formation and her ongoing scholarly work. Continue reading

victory day_cleaning up

Wartime Ghosts and Souls in Transit: Placing Soviet History in a Global Context with Franziska Exeler

Even at a time of a supposed turn towards more global history, our perspectives of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remain dogged by an insistence on the inescapability of regional specificities. Not least among these are the names for these places themselves – Eastern Europe, itself a relatively recent moniker, cuts off places that once tallied among the richest in all of geographical Europe, like Prague, from a “real Europe” of Paris, London, and Rome, as if “Eastern Europe” itself has a specific, idiosyncratic but common character in a way not true of “Western Europe.” Even if the process of EU expansion and economic integration has rendered formerly ridiculed “Polacks” into Europeans, the same courtesy is not always extended to Ukrainians or Belarusians. As recent Western discourse over the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine shows, commentators are eager to ethnicize and classify “Russian-speakers” from “Ukrainian-speakers,” as if the place is explainable only through reference to ethnicity and identity.

Obviously, the experience of both the Cold War and, for countries further east, membership in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, matters greatly for the present and future of countries like Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and, not least, Russia. But to acknowledge the importance of local specifics or the Soviet heritage is not to admit to its monolithic mattering for the direction of those societies. Kiev and Warsaw as much as Singapore and London can be interrogated with the same array of questions, and with the same comparativist’s gaze, that seemingly “more global” sites might invite.

Franziska Exeler, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

That’s why we’re delighted to welcome as our guest to the Global History Forum Franziska Exeler, a historian of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, whose research explores the impact that extreme violence has on state and societies. In her work, she analyzes the choices that inhabitants of the Soviet European borderlands made and were forced to make under Nazi wartime rule, and examines their political, social and personal repercussions. By locating the Soviet case within the larger, indeed global moment of legal, political, and personal reckonings with the Second World War, she also investigates how community rebuilding could occur within, and at times through, an illiberal regime.

Franziska, who completed her PhD in History at Princeton University in 2013, is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. We had the chance to sit down with her recently to discuss her work and her reflections on how historians of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union might profitably situate their work in an international or global context. Continue reading


Getting to (Global) Work with Andrea Komlosy: Discussing “Work: A Global History”

Work remains ever-present with us, yet somehow elusive. We spend more time doing it than anything else, other than sleeping, and yet defining what, exactly, the term means can be a challenge. Part of the reason may be the decline of solid salaried work, where one punched in and out of the factory, and knew that hours logged meant hours logged. For a time, even white-collar workers had the certainty of knowing that the weekend was just that – physical and infrastructural distance from fax machines, cell phones, and the papers, mountains of paper at the office. Today, however, many people not only allow office e-mail to intrude into the weekend; more than that, they embrace working from home.

 Others are less lucky. Among historians, those who wash out in the brutal competition for the promise of tenured lifetime employment sometimes submit to the even crueler reality of the adjunct route. The root of the term itself demonstrates their precariousness: in linguistics, an adjunct is an optional, a “structurally dispensable” part of an utterance. All the same, as more and more work seems to become “casualized” (another telling term), organizers demand rights and privileges that were traditionally bundled with “full-time” or “traditional” employment. All the while, back at home, partners may grumble that there is precious little talk of unionizing or granting medical insurance to those of us stuck doing dishes, vacuuming, or putting a hot meal on the table.

The cover of Andrea Komlosy's "Arbeit: eine globalhistorische Perspektive" ("Work: A Global History Perspective")
The cover of Andrea Komlosy’s “Arbeit: eine globalhistorische Perspektive” (“Work: A Global History Perspective”)

The vocabulary that we use to talk about work remains, in short, of massive political importance, but all too often, we don’t scrutinize it very closely. Not, at least until Andrea Komlosy‘s 2014 book Arbeit: Eine globalhistorische Perspektive (Work: A Global History Perspective), published by Promedia Verlag. We recently had the chance to speak with Komlosy about her road to writing about social history and the history of work, as well as what it means to apply a global history perspective to a theme that necessarily stretches across hundreds of years. Let’s get to work, then, and dive into a discussion about Work. Continue reading


Thinking Big … and Small About U.S. History in a Global Context with Daniel Immerwahr

Whether they know it or not, Americans are a people ruled by community organizers, indeed fascinated by them. Barack Obama, many will know, worked as a community organizer in Chicago for three years in the late 1980s, while former Secretary of State and 2016 Presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton wrote her thesis on the community organizer Saul Alinsky. The current slate of potential Republican challengers may not boast quite the same communitarian credentials – Scott Walker was a Boy Scout and Bobby Jindal a volunteer at LSU football games – but the once-touted David Petraeus was, of course, famous as a master of counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, a man who (prior to his resignation as CIA Director) was famed to have mastered the community scale as the proper war against Iraqi rebels and the Taliban. Fittingly for a nation that supposedly bowls alone, Americans are obsessed with community – what it was, how to get it back, indeed, how to develop it.

Daniel Immerwahr, assistant professor of History at Northwestern University and our most recent guest to the Global History Forum
Daniel Immerwahr, assistant professor of History at Northwestern University and our most recent guest to the Global History Forum

As our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Daniel Immerwahr, shows, this American fascination with community is not some recent invention. Indeed, even as the scholarly literature on the United States in the world these days is in the midst of a focus on development in the Third World, typically the term (“development”) means heavy infrastructure. “Dams are the temples of modern India,” said post-independence Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru, and the same could be said of the 21st century historiography of the United States in a global context. Yet as Immerwahr, an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University, shows in his recent book Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, this dream of large-scale development was always accompanied by a parallel drive to use the small scale – the group scale – of community development as a tool to guide Third World societies away from the temptations of Moscow and Beijing.

How did we forget this story? Given the prominence that the historiography today tends to assign to dams, power plants, and railroads, why did we lose the focus on community in America’s outreach to the world? Most importantly, given that community development’s accomplishments in both the Third World and in America itself are so ambiguous, why do Americans remained fascinated with it as a panacea for poverty? These are precisely the questions that were in our mind when we had the chance to speak with Professor Immerwahr about his latest work and his forthcoming projects on American international history. Continue reading

A Russian woman traveling to Italy, captured in Sergeĭ Prokhudin-Gorskiĭ's immortal color photography. Many of Hetherington's subjects ended up in places less idyllic.

Down Under, Transnational, Global: Exploring Russian and Soviet History with Philippa Hetherington

The Black Sea is in the news for all of the wrong reasons these days. Whether it’s the Russian annexation of Crimea, uncertainty surrounding the outcome of parliamentary elections in Moldova, or the breakdown of Moscow’s plans to conduct a natural gas pipeline to Europe via the Balkans, these former Tsarist borderlands (and shores) have become an object of geopolitical intrigue that few would have predicted only a year or two ago.

Lost among fears of a revived Cold War is another ongoing crisis in the region: namely, sex trafficking, or what earlier generations would have known as “the traffic in women.” Even as countries like Russia are some of the largest destination for immigrants from other parts of the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s former western borderlands–Ukraine and especially Moldova–constitute some of the largest “exporters” of women into the international sex trade. Sold into criminal gangs as “white” women, women from these countries may find themselves trafficked to brothels in Russia, Turkey, Israel, the UAE, or other destinations. For countries like Ukraine and Moldova, where per-capita income is the same as in Sudan, human traffickers find ideal conditions, helping make human trafficking the third most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, according to the United Nations.

The human trafficking crisis may be forgotten in the light of the region’s other ongoing problems, but like disputes over Ukraine’s place between Europe and Russia or the geopolitics of energy, it, too, has a history. Indeed, perhaps obviously more so than these other two regional problems, the history of “the traffic in women” has obviously global dimensions. Women kidnapped from Chisinau, Kiev, or Minsk may belong to individual nation-states, but the networks that disappear them–and the states and international agencies that sometimes seek to rescue them–are engaged in a battle that takes place above, over, and through the lines on a map. But more than simply reifying all-too-frequent panics over sex trafficking, global history scholarship on the history of sex trafficking must not ignore larger dimensions of racial hierarchy or global migration writ large.

Philippa Hetherington, our latest guest to the Global History Forum
Philippa Hetherington, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

Such nuances lie at the heart of the work of the latest guest to the Global History Forum, Philippa Hetherington. In her work, the recent Harvard PhD explores the emergence of “trafficking in women” as a specific crime in fin-de-siècle Russia, arguing that the legal battle against sex trafficking needs to be understood in terms of larger, global dynamics not unique to just Russia. Working at the intersections of Russian and global history, Philippa recently took time out from her current post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Sydney in her native Australia to speak about her work. Continue reading

Seminar on Apartheid, Racial Discrimination and Colonialism

Of Nation-States and the United States: An Interview with Ryan Irwin

It’s hard to escape the conclusion today that writing about American decline is a growth industry. For at least the last decade, pundits have spoken of a “post-American century” in which, China, the BRICS, or the “Next Eleven” will constitute an alternative power center to Washington. Scanning global headlines, whether it’s the recently published The Governance of China (a collection of speeches on global governance by Chinese General Secretary Xi Jiping), Vladimir Putin’s assertion of a “Russian world” or the inauguration of the Eurasian Union, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pretensions to lead the Muslim World against an alleged upswell in anti-Islamic attitudes launched by Europe, the world does not lack today for leaders of global and regional powers claiming to articulate a post-American moment. Conversely, in the United States itself, neoconservatives like Robert Kagan argue that “superpowers don’t get to retire“–that the United States must re-assert itself globally around the world to respond to challengers like China, Russia, or Turkey.

Lost, however, in all of the debates about new powers or the reinvention of old ones is what exactly the American project stood for in the first place. What do we mean when we talk about a “post-American world”? About an international system of rules and practices anchored by Washington? True, look to the writings of pundits like Walter Russell Mead or Thomas Friedman, and you can find some articulation of this vision. Even then, however, it’s difficult to understand the roots of our current global system of economic and financial globalization secured by overwhelming American military might and the embedding of American power into alliance systems in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. How did America, “the most belated of all nations” (Theodore Roosevelt), come to occupy such a dominating position in the international system? Why did American élites come to favor this style of internationalism, as opposed to flat-out imperialism and annexation of territory? Assuming this system is actually coming to an end today, challenged by the emergence of a multipolar world system, why didn’t the whole house come crashing down when faced with the Soviet challenge, the explosion in the number of sovereign nation-states through decolonization, or the collapse of Bretton Woods?

In short, understanding the present and future of American internationalism requires understanding its past–not only through the lens of America, moreover, but understanding how the American project interacted with exogenous shifts and shocks to the international system, too–the ebb and flow of German, then Russian power, or decolonization, for example.

Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

It’s for this reason that the work of Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum, is so valuable. Irwin, an Assistant Professor of History at SUNY-Albany, writes on the United States in the world, but from an international perspective that makes his work unusual. As comfortable in U.S. national archives as in those of the United Nations–or South Africa, Irwin seeks to understand the trajectory of American power as it interacted with an international order of its making, but not always under its control. We were delighted, then, to sit down with him this winter to discuss his evolution as a historian, his early work, and his ongoing projects.

Continue reading