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Truthdig Radio: How the U.S. Co-Opted Human Rights

Posted on May 11, 2011
Photo illustration from an image by Colin Grey

(Page 4)

Peter Scheer: We’re speaking with James Peck, the author of “Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights.” Let me ask you, you’ve been framing a lot of these—this is sort of like a manipulative strategy by people who are really interested in war for, maybe, other reasons to help sell war. Are there people—Tony Blairs, people like that—who are really committed to this idea and maybe misguided? Are there people who truly believe this is, perhaps … I don’t know, Hillary Clinton, Samantha Powers, people like this, who are truly committed to the idea of human rights, or …?

James Peck: I think the real core issue is, there are—and I wouldn’t include Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton in this—but I think there are indeed people who are deeply committed to human rights. But the problem is, as I try to—as I do, as I try to point out about the various currents of human rights, is usually what we mean by human rights does not involve the issues of inequality, or war, or occupation, or how you restructure resources, or how you gain control over corporations. These are all the kind of issues that would have interested a Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King, or we could go through a long list of people. And it’s the bifurcation of those two things, so that they almost stand against each other, that makes the advocacy of human rights so narrow and limited to a very individualized, and often a very individualistic thing.

And there are good things there, you know; civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights—all of those are terribly important. But if you set up human rights so it leaves out these other issues, and you look at the struggles of people who are dealing with those issues, and you don’t really figure out a way to insist that they be brought in to as much of the mainstream as the first current of what we’re very used to, of what we normally think of as human rights—then basically you’ve structured the issue against people who are really, profoundly trying to change—and are in the desperate straits they are—who are trying to change their world.

I came across a statistic recently that I thought was sort of graphic in this way. It was done by somebody at the World Bank—not one of my favorite institutions [Laughter]—but nonetheless, he was trying to point out how people actually lived on the planet. And the statistics exist: 65 to 70 percent of the planet lives less well off than the bottom 5 per cent of Americans. And if you’re trying to think about the kind of desperateness and need for radical transformation that’s necessary and that has long historical roots that go back—if we can—if those were really brought into human rights with the fervor and intensity that is often, say, used about an individual prisoner in another country, or—then I think we have a very, a more fluid and a far more dynamic conception of human rights.


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Josh Scheer: And the question now is, should these countries be allowed to make their own history, even if their behavior upsets and sickens …

Peter Scheer: No, but I want to—I want to complicate that, Josh. Because you have countries, if you expand this issue, like you said, of human rights to religious freedom, you have a situation now where France has banned the veil, and Switzerland has banned minarets. I mean, you know, there are countries that we consider, you know …

Josh Scheer: Peter, can you explain to the—most of the KPFK audience—what a minaret is?

Peter Scheer: I think the very sophisticated KPFK audience knows that a minaret is the tower of a mosque.

Josh Scheer: OK, thank you.

Peter Scheer: But the point is that, you know, who is off-limits? Who do we not go to war with? This is insane.

James Peck: The issue of who we go to war with is … such a pivotal one, because the inclination has been so—I mean, Libya is an example …

Peter Scheer: Well, there President Obama laid out these reasons, why Libya, why not else, and obviously there’s reason to be skeptical of that. But can you talk about …

James Peck: Well, that gets us into, sort of, what I call back, once again, the hypocrisy issue, in terms of why it works. You’re asking a very valid and central … question of why the involvement in Libya, and not the involvement in Bahrain. And I think …

Josh Scheer: Or France.

James Peck:… or France. [Laughter] In one sense, it’s obvious. And what I try to get at is, why, if we get stuck at that level of discussion, we don’t get away from seeing certain systematic ways in which American power operates. For example, if we had to look at American power operating, but could hear no words to describe it—if we just had to watch the actions through some sort of silent screen—I think you’d see a great deal of consistency. But it’s the words that often play out. In other words, there are ways that American power can operate in certain places, and it appears to be promoting certain progressive changes temporarily. Then it doesn’t quite work that way, and it keeps working out somewhat differently.

So if you can take away the words, you’d see more of the consistency. Put the words in, people say, ah, but it’s hypocritical. Well, it is hypocritical. But that doesn’t take us far enough into the fundamental issue. And it goes right back to when the human rights movement began, about Vietnam—was Vietnam a hypocritical exercise, or did it reflect something which people like Martin Luther King and others really did try to raise? That it was something very systemic about American power, as it has operated ever since 1949.

Peter Scheer: He said “the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and, sadly, that appears to still be true.

James Peck: Yes.

Josh Scheer: One last thing for me—I don’t know about Peter—but the question would be, how do we shut down the ideological weapons that Washington has, and should we watch these human rights groups even though they’re trying to do good things with kind of a—should we take them with a grain of salt, watch them with, you know, our good eye?

James Peck: Two things—I’d push them incredibly strongly on why they are so limited in their conception of human rights. Because—as long as they’re so limited, they cannot push a certain kind of critique of power. But the other one is, the only way that you, I think, in the end truly create empathy and compassion and understanding of the world you live in, is if you have struggled in your own society that, as King himself argued, collectively based, that are trying to meet the needs, empathetically and compassionately, of your own people. There’s a trajectory between that and the rest of the world. I think we’ve moved into the stage where we’re in a rather increasingly hardened attitude at home, that feeds and is fed in for a long time. But there is—there is something to be said—not that the U.S. is a model; it isn’t; not that the U.S. should show the world how to do things; it shouldn’t. But if its own people are involved in struggles to actually create and deal with certain needs, and do so compassionately, that will have an implication for how it sees the rest of the world in a more meaningful way.

Peter Scheer: James Peck is the author of “Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights.” Thank you so much for joining us.

James Peck: Thank you. It was a delight to be here.

Josh Scheer: Have a great day.

* * *

Peter Scheer: And now, Reese Erlich reports from Cuba.

Reese Erlich: Pedro Luis Ferrer is a household name in Cuba. He became famous in the 1970s, and then the government banned his music from being played on radio and TV during the late 1990s because of his highly critical lyrics. But he’s back, playing public performances once again with a new style of music he calls “Changuisa.”

For years, Cuban musicians like Ferrer were employed by the Cuban government at a good salary. But after Cuba’s economic crisis in the early 1990s, those salaries became meaningless. In the midst of socialist Cuba, musicians were forced to become entrepreneurs. The government loosened restrictions on travel abroad. Ferrer says musicians scrambled to find gigs overseas and sign international recording contracts.

Ferrer says normally musicians get a salary from the government’s musicians association. “But we have the option of not taking a salary. The musician pays for expenses to put on the show and then takes a percentage of the ticket sales.”

Musicians use leaflets and the Internet to advertise live gigs.

Ferrer says, “You don’t have to have support of state-owned TV and radio anymore. You have our own, independent methods of reaching an audience.”

In some ways, musicians were early practitioners of the economic reforms now under way in Cuba. The Cuban government plans to lay off 500,000 unproductive state workers and increase the number of small businesses.

Nestor Garcia, a former U.N. diplomat, agrees that both musicians and academics have been entrepreneurs for some time.

Nestor Garcia :“Cuban music is very popular in the world. I know a lot of professors that have been invited to universities in the United States, in Canada, in Mexico, in Spain. You know? And they pay a good amount of money to give conferences in those places. So those people, when they come back to Cuba, they bring their money, they pay their taxes, and they have no problem with that.”

Reese Erlich: Diplomat Garcia says the reforms don’t mean Cuba is giving up socialism. Education and health care will remain free. Government subsidies will make music concerts and other cultural events affordable to ordinary Cubans.

For the reforms to succeed, however, Cuba needs foreign investment, much of which is hampered by the U.S. trade embargo.

Ferrer points out that the embargo hurts Americans as well as Cubans, because many world-class Cuban musicians don’t perform in the U.S. Ferrer says, “I can’t work in the U.S., even though the two countries are very close [physically]. It’s a natural market for us. Musicians always have a lot of hassles getting visas from the U.S. government. Over the past few years, I’ve forgotten about the U.S. and performed in Europe instead.”

Over the past six months, the Obama administration has allowed more Cuban musicians to obtain visas. But Cuban artists still face far more difficulties touring in the U.S. than going to Europe. And, of course, the U.S. still prohibits most Americans from legally traveling to the island. So, at least for now, Americans must visit Canada or Europe to hear live performances of some of the world’s best musicians.

For Truthdig, I’m Reese Erlich—Havana.

* * *

Peter Scheer: …Thanks to our guests; thanks to our engineer, Stan and our board-op Jeff. For Robert Scheer, Reese Erlich, Josh Scheer, Alan Minsky and myself, thanks for listening.


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