The World Reimagined: An Interview with Mark Bradley, Part 3

By Lael Weinberger

History and Methodology

This week, we're interviewing Mark Bradley about his recent book, The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge 2016). Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2.

LW: It seems to me that a book like this would have been impossible to write ten years ago.  In The World Reimagined, you build on and synthesize a small mountain of relevant literature, not only on human rights, but also more broadly on international and global histories of culture, politics, and economics.  You call this book at one point a second-generation history of human rights.  Can you elaborate on that?  What do you see as the generational differences?  Do you see signs of fatigue in the first generation approach?

Mark Bradley: Maybe third generation, or at least 2.5.  The first generation was quite clearly a recovery moment.  Human rights had played almost no role in how international historians approached the second half of the twentieth century.  The master narrative was Cold War, one eventually challenged by postcolonial histories.  In both, human rights were to the side.  Virtually invisible. 

First generation histories of human rights, in ways that I think parallel the first generation of women’s history or African-American history, needed to retrieve what had become a lost history.  They have been criticized as celebratory narratives, and too concerned with lifting up human rights heroes and heroines.  Perhaps so, but I am deeply grateful for their efforts.  As even the most critically minded human rights historians should acknowledge, it was this initial work that provided the building blocks to construct this new field.  Even a document like the Universal Declaration, now seen as fundamental to the making of a global human rights order after 1945, had essentially gone down a memory hole before this pioneering scholarship got its start. 

A second generation was considerably more critical, with Sam Moyn’s Last Utopia leading the charge.  The strength of this work was its more searching perspectives, pushing on the why question rather than offering more descriptive narratives.  But its seeming delight in going after the celebratory had limits.  One weakness, I think, was the insistent focus on finding a takeoff moment.  Was it the 1940s, the 1970s or in Stefan Ludwig-Hoffman’s most recent accounting, the 1990s that set global human rights in motion?  This kind of chronological sweepstakes has its conceptual thresholds.  But perhaps more importantly, it still tended to hive off human rights from other histories, histories that shaped and were shaped by the emergence of global human rights politics.  So for instance in the 1970s, as I argue in World Reimagined, the new global advocacy for human rights was inconceivable without fundamental shifts in the structure and affect of world order, transformations that gave rise to the force of moral witness as instrumental in the making of novel political claims in the global sphere.  This “new” history of human rights, of which I hope my book is a part, is also more attentive to bottom up or middle over perspectives on the making of human rights norms and practices.  Much ink has been spilled on how various international human rights declarations, conventions and covenants came to be made.  And to be sure, it is important work.  But it privileged a certain kind of international actor, often international lawyers (apologies Lael!), and a top down perspective on human rights history. 

For me, some of the richest most recent work goes in quite different directions.  Daniel Cohen, Atina Grossman, Liz Borgwardt and my colleague Tara Zahra have made clear how mid-level actors in the 1940s, often international social workers (or in Liz’s case non-canonical juridical and political actors at Nuremberg) played critical roles in making concrete the necessarily fuzzy aspirational human rights declarations of the 1940s.  Recent dissertations on the 1970s and beyond – to name just three, theses by Patrick Kelly on Latin America, Ingu Hwang on South Korea, and Margaret O’Donnell on the emergence of human rights forensics – go to granular accounts of local and disaporic actors to unpack the power and the limits of non-state human rights practices.  For me, these are among the most generative approaches for deepening and thickening how we write human rights history. 

Read Part 4 of the interview here.