- The Americanization of Human Rights: Iranian, African, and Chinese Lives in American Autobiography by Sunčica Klaas
The United States has a paradoxical relationship with the modern human rights movement. On the one hand, the US positions itself as progenitor and champion. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch, arguably one of the world's most important human rights organizations, evolved from the US-based Helsinki Watch. On the other hand, the US is an international outlier that has refused to ratify key international treaties from the Rome Statute to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The ideology of exceptionalism makes the US a selectively fierce defender of the movement, quick to identify atrocities abroad but—in something like an internationally-scaled fundamental attribution error—slow to see patterns of violation at home. In academia, I see the latter most frequently when helping design human rights curricula at universities and colleges, where legal scholars often firmly resist the idea of counting coursework in US civil rights toward a human rights requirement (the history of African Americans is a matter of citizenship and constitutional protections, they argue; it is technically not a human rights concern).1
Sunčica Klaas takes the contradictions of US human rights exceptionalism as a conceptual frame for her new book, The Americanization of Human Rights. Reading survivor autobiographies from the Iranian Islamic Revolution, Sudanese civil wars, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Klaas shows how the narrative desires and expectations of US publishing markets allow certain classes of survivors to tell their stories, while systematically silencing others. Acceptable narratives, she writes, "enable the American reader to witness the continuous desirability of America as a multicultural safe haven, making good on the promises of humanitarianism and benevolence of its people and institutions"—but only by "discriminating between ideal and non-ideal applicants for empathy and rescue."2
Klaas's first case study focuses on the US publishing market's fascination with stories of women's vulnerability and disenfranchisement in the Islamic Republic of Iran—a fascination that, in her argument, has as its necessary counterpart an aversion to narratives from Iranian men. Klaas provides detailed socio-political readings of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (2004), Haleh Esfandiari's My Prison, My Home (2009), and Roxana Saberi's Between Two Worlds (2010). She sees these autobiographies as collective participants in a "New Orientalism" that together earn lavish US literary attention for three reasons. First, they downscale human rights to the question of women's rights in Muslim societies, thereby brushing aside a range of concerns about rights neglected at home that could make US [End Page 761] readers uncomfortable. Second, they present the US and its democratic values as the final global site of rescue and opportunity, satisfyingly embodying the beloved "American success story" that dates as far back as the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. And third, because the authors "divest themselves of their cultural difference,"3 they enable US women readers to engage in the pleasurable experience of exercising their perceived "universal, benevolent and civilized,"4 capacity to identify across national borders in the very act of consuming the Other as an exotic cultural artifact. Klaas writes cuttingly: "On the one hand, there is the object of reading and looking, the supposed protagonists, 'naked' and 'fixed like a Rodin statue' by the readers' gaze. … On the other, there are the dynamic, cosmopolitan readers, literate in all registers and locations, and capable of shifting between various book clubs with ease since they are supposedly not tied to any specific locality."5
Klaas's second case study focuses on the immense public attraction to autobiographies from the Lost Boys of Sudan, including Benson Deng, Alphonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak with Judy A. Bernstein, They Poured Fire on Us (2005); John Bul Dau with Michael Sweeney, God Grew Tired of Us (2007); John Bul Dau and Martha Arual Akech with Michael S. Sweeney...