We Are All Historians of Human Rights
Linda K. Kerber, October 2006
This month we remember the 100th anniversary of Hannah Arendt's birth on October 14, 1906. Were she alive today, the philosopher and political theorist would find that many of her perceptive reflections—on the vulnerability of the refugee and the stateless, on the indispensable role of terror in sustaining totalitarian regimes, on the ironies of the Enlightenment's "inalienable rights" that are unenforceable without the power of the state of which they are supposed to be independent—have retained their force. Indeed, our need to ponder such themes expands as we seek solutions to multiplying disasters that seem to surround us; not surprisingly, in the last 18 months or so, some two dozen articles have appeared that focus on Arendt's work as a major subject.1
When historians gather in Atlanta in January 2007, we will find that the theme we chose for our annual meeting more than a year ago—"Unstable Subjects: Practicing History in Unsettled Times"—is, alas, even more appropriate than we had supposed. "Millions of people," the Program Committee wrote in the call for proposals last fall, "have lived and today continue to live constrained by the logic of the nation-state and yet do not share fully in the rights it promises. Political, economic, religious, and environmental changes of recent decades have destabilized ideas about human rights, conditions of citizenship, and national boundaries." Destabilize is an understatement. Fluid and uncertain national boundaries and conditions of citizenship are at issue in the wars in the Middle East. Argument about the responsibility of the United States to the terms of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 (which includes a provision that forbids torture) was central to the U.S. Supreme Cour's decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, handed down last June.2 In that decision the Court asserted its "duty, in both peace and war, to preserve the constitutional safeguards of civil liberty" and concluded that the military commissions authorized by the president "violate basic tenets of military and international law, including the principle that a defendant must be permitted to see and hear the evidence against him." The Supreme Court held that the law of war includes the Third Geneva Convention; that Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni national captured in Afghanistan, was "entitled to that Convention's full protections until adjudged, under it, not to be a prisoner of war"; and that whether or not Hamdan is properly classified a prisoner of war, the structure and procedures of the military commission convened to try him violate both the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949.
I doubt that I'm the only historian whose response to this decision included embarrassment that I have not found ways to include in the various courses I've taught over the years, including the U.S. history survey, attention to the Geneva Conventions (first initiated to protect the sick and wounded in 1864 after the Austro-Sardinian War but generally understood to refer to the four conventions developed in 1949 and subsequently expanded). The reflection is a sobering reminder that what counts as the "canon" of essential historical knowledge is itself historically constructed, and that "classic" texts are made so by the uses we continually and freshly make of them.
The AHA annual meeting in Atlanta in January 2007 will include many sessions that explicitly engage the history of human rights: "Interrogation, Imprisonment, and American Empire"; "Warfare and Human Rights"; "The Dilemmas of Asylum"; "Past Atrocities and Contemporary Debates: Historians, Human Rights, and Justice"; "Starvation in the Twentieth Century"; "Comparative Responses to Genocide"; "Humanity, Cruelty, and Moral Responsibility: Categorizing Pain and Violence in Britain and America"; a series of important panels that focus on the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade two centuries ago; and "Citizens, Refugees, and the Right to Have Rights: Remembering Ken Cmiel," a session whose title invokes Hannah Arendt.
But to be content with this list is to ignore the richness and complexity of the meanings of human rights, and to limit arbitrarily the sites of historical inquiry where the history of human rights is examined. Wherever one turns, it is easy to predict that ethical issues will be at play in sessions that seem, at first glance, to fit other categories. Surely considerations of human rights will appear in panels that address the history of women, of feminism, and the history of sexuality ("Feminism and History in a Post-Colonial World"; "Women and War Protest"; "Creating Gendered and/or Racialized ‘Others–"; "Unstable Anatomies: Castrati, Hermaphrodites, and 'Reproductive Wonders' in the Eighteenth Century"); panels that address the history of labor (notably a series of sessions that examine "Labor, Migration, and Global Trade" but also others such as "Incorporating Migrants: Settler and State Perspectives" and "Workers as Problem, Specter, or Hope: Brazil, 1850–2000"); panels that consider aspects of the history of religion ("The Politics of Pilgrimage" and "Pursuing Trade, Seeking Knowledge, Chasing Heretics: Networks of Affiliation in the Early Modern Iberian World"), and the history of childhood, which are likely to address the distinctive vulnerabilities of children.
The practice of historical scholarship embraces a commitment to think with great care about the physical, social, political, and moral contexts in which human choices have been made. In seeking as complex an understanding of events as we can, we necessarily engage large ethical issues. Serious historians will lay out—in text or in footnotes—the evidence on which they rely, not least so that others can themselves examine critically the choices that have been made about what matters. Writing history is not just an exercise in precise reading of documents. It is also the asking of subtle questions, it is also listening to people who are rarely in a position to contest the interpretations we make of their meanings. Because we have the dead or the vulnerable in our power, we must practice our art with a certain modesty, even as we argue with each other.
In 1975, the mathematician and poet, Chandler Davis, devoted a poem to a historian—Natalie Zemon Davis, president of the AHA in 1987—who wrote of people who lived "four hundred years away":
The songs you think are vanished once they're sung,
The pleas you think are wasted if turned down,
Jokes you dismiss if no one laughs or winces,
She listens for. You speak sometimes too soft.
And since there is no God she notes your prayers.
And since there is no God she marks your fall.3
When talk turns to the state of the historical profession these days, it is often full of complaints about the splintering of a once unified profession, contrasting imagined halcyon days of the first two-thirds of the 20th century when there were a minimum of subspecialties, a handful of journals, and far fewer learned societies devoted to historical scholarship. But the crucial work of gathering the evidence on which large moral choices can be made is at some level the historians' unified field. We are all historians of human rights.
—Linda K. Kerber (Univ. of Iowa) is the president of the AHA.