Friday 22 August 2014

My First Gay Wedding: An Affirmation of Human Dignity

My First Gay Wedding: An Affirmation of Human Dignity
On August 3, 2014, I attended my first gay wedding. It was a very moving event, at which I was privileged to be a witness. The wedding was held on the 16th anniversary of the day the two partners met. They come from a developed, democratic country in which gays cannot marry, but which will recognize their marriage if they have the ceremony performed elsewhere. 
In Ontario, where I live, gay marriage has been legal since 2003. Gay marriage became legal in all of Canada in 2006. For a while, before some US states began to legalize gay marriages, the city of Toronto was the marriage location of choice for many Americans, and travel agencies sprang up specializing in gay wedding packages. Toronto has a big Gay Pride parade every year, and this year hosted World Pride, an enormous event.  I keep thinking that I should join the parade, as part of the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays: I have several gay and lesbian friends) but I don’t like crowds.
I asked one of the partners in the wedding I attended if he had taken part in the World Pride event. He replied “Not sure if I am politically for pride (must one celebrate privilege?).My own view is that a World Pride parade is hardly a celebration of privilege, when so many countries still penalize gays and some even execute them for engaging in homosexual acts.  Even here in Canada, gays are not privileged, unless you think marriage is a privilege for anyone (such would be the case in totalitarian countries where no one, gay or straight, can marry anyone without state permission).
Why should the right to marry be so important for gays? Lots of people, gay and straight, criticize the institution of marriage, and others don’t want to marry for personal reasons. Why aren’t civil partnerships enough for gays, giving them rights, for example, to be designated next of kin when one is hospitalized, to inherit from each other, and even to sponsor each other’s immigration?
The answer lies in the definition of human dignity.  The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states in the first paragraph of its preamble that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The drafters of the UDHR never could agree on what dignity meant, but they knew it was important. They certainly didn’t mean the right of gay marriage back in 1948. Although article 16 of the UDHR says “Men and women of full age…have the right to marry and found a family”, the implicit assumption was that men and women would marry each other, not someone of the same sex. In 1948 homosexuality was illegal in most Western countries. People didn’t speak of it. British people of my mother’s generation used the term  “confirmed bachelor” to describe gay men, meaning there was no point in considering them as future heterosexual marriage partners.
In 1995 I was trying to figure out what exactly human dignity meant. I concluded that “dignity requires personal autonomy, societal concern and respect, and treatment by others in society as an equal.’ (see Rhoda E. Howard, Human Rights and the Search for Community, Westview Press, 1995, p. 17). The legalization of gay marriage does allow gays and lesbians to autonomously choose to marry, or not.  It implies that they are legally equal to heterosexuals. And it demonstrates some societal concern and respect: it show that others in society want to respect gay relationships and are concerned that gays be treated well,
Doron Shultziner
Another, perhaps better, way top put this is to talk about the need for recognition. My friend and colleague Doron Shultziner wrote an entry on recognition for the second edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Doron writes: ‘To recognize…means to behave in a manner that satisfies expectations of respect and contributes to a sense of positive self-esteem in those who are recognized.” He explains that philosophers have discussed the concept of recognition since Plato, who spoke of the soul’s need for pride and honor. From slaves to women to minorities, Doron says, people seek this recognition, or honor, both as individuals and as collectivities. Honor means that the individual is no longer stigmatized; he is no longer considered deviant, less than fully human, outside the community of obligation.
This is particularly important in North America, if not elsewhere, because of the intensified persecution of gay teenagers in high schools, not only through traditional face-to-face methods of bullying but also through cyber-bullying. Gay teenagers have extremely high rates of suicide. In my own high school days, gay teenagers were somewhat protected by schools’ and society’s disinclination to speak about sexual matters at all. When I was in grade 12, a couple of boys I knew were quietly separated, one being sent to a different school because they were gay, but I don’t believe they were bullied. Nowadays, we have the paradox that despite homosexuality being more accepted in Canadian society, gay children suffer intensely. And there is nothing in the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child that specifically protects gay children. This is not surprising, because there is still no United Nations Convention on gay rights.
So the “privilege” of gay marriage is not a privilege at all. It is a method of acknowledging, recognizing, and honoring gay relationships, just as straight relationships have always been honored. It is a furthering of the core human rights mission of human dignity. Gay children need this dignity too.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Book Note: War, Guilt and World Politics after WWII

This is a book review that I wrote for International Studies Review.  I am posting it on my blog with their permission.  If you are interested in history, or in transitional justice, you might find this review worthwhile.

War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II. Thomas U. Berger. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012. 259 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-02160-0 hardback; 978-1-107-67495-0 paperback.

This fine volume compares the stances of Germany, Austria, and Japan towards the crimes they committed during World War II and the ways that they did, or did not, compensate for them after 1945.  It is based on extensive research in the secondary literature, including literature written in Japanese and German, supplemented by some elite interviews.
Thomas U. Berger decided to write this book because when he gave lectures on German and Japanese antimilitarism he was frequently asked why Germany had acknowledged its WWII sins, but Japan had not.  At first, he thought this contrast politically irrelevant, but later he began to understand that historical memories in fact have political resonance. Indeed he argues that in the current era “the past has been politicized as never before” (p. 10).
Berger begins with three hypotheses, which he calls historical determinist, instrumentalist, and culturalist. The historical determinist school assumes that “what really happened” determines acts of penitence by a state. The instrumentalist school assumes that states are penitent only when they have instrumental reasons to be so; depending on their interests they manipulate collective memories to create narratives that are less or more penitent about past actions. The culturalist school assumes that people’s interpretations of historical events are mediated by their culture. Not surprisingly, Berger concludes that none of these hypotheses is an adequate explanation of the various levels of penitence in his three case studies.  His own perspective is historical realism, by which he means that collective memories of the past are conditioned by how states shape national narratives. In turn, states are influenced by “practical consideration” of economic gain and national security (p.2).
Thomas U. Berger
Berger shows how apologies, reparations, and other means of compensating for past political sins don’t just happen. In his scheme, Germany is the model penitent, Austria the prodigal penitent, and Japan the model impenitent (this last with a question mark). Germany began its penitential journey soon after WWII, intensifying its penitence over the decades, most recently by introducing reparations for former (non-Jewish as well as Jewish) slave laborers. By contrast, Austria avoided any sense of penitence for several decades.  Rather, it presented itself as “Nazism’s first victim,” a phrase originally introduced by the occupying Allied powers, referring to the annexation of Austria to Germany in 1938. It was able to regard itself as a victim despite the fact that a disproportionately high number of Nazis, concentration camp guards, etc. was Austrian. In Japan, leftist and liberal attempts to come to terms with the crimes of WWII were thwarted by Japan’s victimhood as the target of American atomic bombs.
In all three cases, internal party politics influenced decisions to try to repair or to ignore past depredations.  Germany took an aggressive stance of “militant democracy,” banning neo-Nazi parties that Austria permitted, thus creating a political culture in which certain extreme views were not only illegal but also culturally beyond the pale. In Japan, liberals wanted to recognize and atone for past crimes such as medical experimentation and sexual slavery, but nationalists argued that Japan’s militant stance before and during WWII was justified by its struggle against Western colonialism; this debate continued into the 21st century.  In both Austria and Japan, veterans and their families constituted important voting blocs that opposed penitential policies. Another domestic factor that influenced Germany’s turn toward a “culture of contrition” (p. 228) was the rise of the student movement in the late 1960s. These students were very critical of their elders’ implications in the Nazi genocides.  By contrast, no such movement arose in Austria or Japan. 
International factors also influenced penitential stances. After WWII, Germany was faced with the pressing need to integrate as quickly as possible into the Western democratic world and the European Union, not only for reasons of self-respect or economic gain, but also to strengthen itself against the Communist threat to the East. The victorious allies required that Germany adopt a penitential stance before it could be reintegrated into the Western democratic world. Austria, a neutral state, was less concerned by the threat of communism and was not interested in joining the European Union. After the American occupation, Japan was relatively isolated from international pressures until China began to rely on nationalism as a new justification for Communist Party rule, and to tolerate—if not encourage—nationalist memories of Japanese crimes such as the rape of Nanjing. 
 Happily, Berger disposes rather quickly of the shibboleth that Japan is a “shame” rather than a “guilt” culture, rooted in socially-derived judgments of right and wrong rather than in an inner sense of guilt for taking wrong actions. He shows that many Japanese were both ashamed of their government’s crimes during and immediately after WWII, and felt personally responsible for them. Culture, in Berger’s reading, is not a static set of beliefs or customs, but a malleable and changeable underpinning of social behavior. National narratives influenced both by states and domestic actors such as students and NGOs become part of the cultural underpinning of the society so that, for example, it would be very difficult in Germany today to deny the collective responsibility of the nation for past Nazi crimes. So also, as the elite quarrel over the national narrative penetrates younger and wider sectors of Japanese society, the culture may change to acknowledge both Japanese victimhood at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japanese responsibility for massive war crimes.
Much of the literature on political apologies discusses whether apologies are effective, but does not discuss the political conditions under which apologies are forthcoming. Yet Berger shows that apologies and reparations are the result of careful consideration of both domestic and international factors. This is also one of the themes of a forthcoming volume by Tom Bentley entitled Empires of Remorse, comparing apologies for colonialism from Britain, Belgium, Germany and Italy. Berger’s book is a must for any scholar interested in general theoretical questions about political apologies, reparations, and other forms of post-conflict justice. It would appeal to scholars in the fields of international relations; transitional justice; and the role of memory and narrative.
 The book is also very readable and interesting as a history of post WWII attempts by Germany, Austria, and Japan to repair relations with former victims. In particular, Berger wends his way very clearly between Japanese apologies, quasi-apologies, and counter-apologies. Non-Asia specialists will be grateful for his detailed historical explanations of the debates and disagreements in Japan, such as the two “textbook debates” about how Japanese children should be taught their own history. No one should take for granted that criminal states are likely to repent for their crimes.

Friday 8 August 2014

The "Genocide" Charge: Israel vs. Iraq

The “Genocide” Charge: Israel vs. Iraq
Scrolling through various Facebook entries lately and reading reports about pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Canada, I’ve come across the old charge that Israel is committing genocide
Why is this? The false equivalence of Israel with Nazi Germany is a common trope, yet what is the basis for this so-called equivalence? As I argued in my blog post “On Criticizing Israel” of June 21, 2013 ( if Israel were committing genocide in Gaza now, or had done so in the past, the death toll would be far greater than it is. Israel already has Gaza completely surrounded, except for Gaza’s border with Egypt. It wouldn’t be very hard to commit genocide if Israel wanted to, but it does not.
 As I write, about 2,000 people have died in Gaza in the latest war, now about six weeks old, many of them civilians, hundreds of them children. This is extremely sad and heart-rending, and it may well be that Israel has committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in this latest round of fighting, as the Goldstone report on the 2008-09 invasion of Gaza also suggested was a possibility (  Hamas also seems to have committed crimes against humanity and/or war crimes, such as hiding its weapons in or near schools, but those who charge Israel with genocide don’t usually mention Hamas’ potential crimes.
What explains the desire of so many people to equate Israel with Nazism?  It may simply seem like a good comparison, since some Israelis consider theirs to be a Jewish state, and the Nazis ‘principal (but not only) victims were Jews. But anti-Semitism is probably the real reason.  Calling Israelis Nazis dehumanizes them and implies that they have no legitimate political aims, such as having the right to exist as a state or protecting their own citizens against attack.   
Yazidi men. Wiki Commons
A much better comparison might be the exchanges of populations between Greece and Turkey after the Balkan wars in the early 20th century. For example, a late friend of mine, a Turkish Muslim, once told me that his grandparents had actually been Bosnian Muslims expelled from Europe during these wars. Israel expelled Palestinians at the time of independence, and Arab states retaliated by expelling an estimated 800,000 Jews. A comparison to the Balkan wars does not absolve Israel of its obligations to Palestinians, nor does it justify Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But it lowers the rhetorical tone of the debate and does not imply that Israelis are the genocidal heirs to the Nazis.
Meantime, there is a real, very serious threat of genocide in Iraq. The Islamic State terrorist movement has threatened to wipe out Iraqi Christians and Yazidis (a pre-Christian, pre-Islamic group of ethnic Kurds of whom I had previously never heard.). This is an actual threat of genocide. Genocide is defined in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to apply to racial, religious, ethnic and national groups.  The Iraqi Yazidis and Christians are religious groups. Anyone who watched television footage of the terrified Yazidis fleeing into the mountains yesterday with nothing but the clothes on their backs cannot help but be worried about their fate.
Israeli Attack on UNR'A School in Gaza 2014. Wiki Commons
President Obama announced last night (August 7, 2014) that he was authorizing American air strikes against the Islamic State because it was in the United States’ interest to do so, as IS was advancing toward the Kurdish city of Erbil, where there are American consular officials and other American citizens. But in a case of potential genocide, American or any other national interest is legally irrelevant. All states party to the Genocide Convention “undertake to prevent and to punish” genocide (Article 1). The United States is Party to this Convention, as is Canada.
Speaking of Canada, in February 2013 the Prime Minister established, with great fanfare, the Office of Religious Freedom.  This was supposed to be a singular Canadian contribution to international human rights. Its mandate included the obligation to “protect, and advocate on behalf of, religious minorities under threat.” On July 20, 2014, Canada denounced the persecution of Iraqi Christians, and I presume it will soon also denounce the persecution of the Yazidis.  But now is the time to give the Office of Religious Freedom more clout to protect the innocent non-Muslims in northern Iraq, for example by urging the government to start a special immigration program for them and by contributing to the humanitarian air drops the US started yesterday evening.