The World Reimagined: An Interview with Mark Bradley, Part 1

By Lael Weinberger


This week, we’re doing an interview series with Mark Bradley about his recent book, The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge 2016). Mark is a professor of history at the University of Chicago and the faculty director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, his new book is both a good read and an important contribution to the human rights literature. Much of the human rights historiography has been caught up in a debate about the relative importance of the 1940s and the 1970s in the modern history of human rights and its themes are most commonly a part of political history. Mark’s book stands out from the beginning in that it covers both periods (the 1940s and the 1970s) and presents a subtle and sophisticated cultural history of the different connotations and contexts in which Americans talked about human rights. If you haven’t read the book yet, you should. You can also learn more about it if you check out Steven Jensen’s review on H-Net or listen to this podcast on the New Books Network.

LW: Thanks for joining us on the blog, Mark! To start our conversation, I want to talk about the concept of "imagination." Why is a "human rights imagination" important to understand?  Maybe more fundamentally, what is it?  

Mark Bradley: What I wanted to try to uncover in this book was how and why human rights became believable to Americans, essentially moving from an exotic aspirational language in the 1940s to an ubiquitous moral vocabulary today.  In a sense to reconstruct how it felt to have, or to lose, human rights.  Imagination was key for me in figuring out what was in people’s heads at particular moments when they heard the phrase human rights.  But I employ imagination in another sense too.  In my reading of them, global human rights were a complete novelty in the mid-twentieth century.  Yes, rights talk goes way back and not only for Americans.  But human rights were conceived as something that transcended the state.  That individuals held political, civil, economic and social rights rooted in universal global norms – the essence of the 1945 UN Charter human rights guarantees and the promises of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—were, and are, revolutionary claims that required a fundamental reimagining of the bonds between individuals, states and the world community.  So imagination works in at least two registers in the book.

Read Part 2 of the interview here.