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mass appeals

[a book project]

How do mass media and popular culture shape campaigns for human rights advocacy and humanitarian appeal?

The framing question informing this manuscript addresses not only a matter of interest to scholars and practitioners, but also describes a defining feature of 21st century global life. Whether manifested as the 2011 version of “We Are the World” to support Haitian earthquake victims, George Clooney’s engagement on behalf of Darfur, or the enormous resonance of #KONY2012, mass media and popular culture provide the lenses through which average people confront international crisis. Cynical pundits may dismiss these attempts as silly while utopian globalists laud these tactics as revolutionary—-but Mass Appeals is the first project to rigorously investigate the origins and the impacts of the dominant paradigm for transnational advocacy.

Inspired by critical theory of the Frankfurt School, I argue that the strategies for outreach, fundraising, and mobilization do indeed encourage ethical global participation, but the means of engagement are at odds with the ends of human rights: When venues of mass consumption become platforms for advocacy, the radical impulse of human rights becomes muted yielding depoliticized, ineffectual interventions.

Through an historical inquiry, this project spans many of the major global flashpoints of the past forty years. These events constitute landmark moments in which the humanitarian sensibility developed, evolved, and diffused throughout Western societies. In each episode, my account details how human rights organizations utilized devices to raise awareness among ordinary people so as to promote fundraising efforts, build public enthusiasm, and motivate political will. Yet, despite noticeable shifts in the absorption of human rights ideas, crisis after crisis lacked an ability to identify and affect the structural causes of the very suffering that provoked popular outrage. Rather than a sustained movement for emancipation, mass appeals invoke an uncritical politics that undercuts the potential for human rights to serve as a global force for equality and autonomy. Prioritizing mainstream cultural penetration—-form over substance—-weakens human rights claims and threatens to doom the movement to the fate of any other fad or fashion. Rescuing human rights requires reconnecting principles to practice, privileging the insurgent nature of human rights to challenge, not accommodate, the exercise of power.

Table of Contents

Introduction. You, Paris Hilton, and Elie Wiesel 

Chapter 1. Celebrities, Benefit Concerts, and Constituencies of Compassion

Post-Script. Solidarity through Shopping: The Anti-Apartheid Movement

Chapter 2. The Spectacle of Suffering and Transnational Witnessing

Post-Script. When Seeing is Not Enough: Bosnia and Rwanda

Chapter 3. Bumper Sticker Advocacy and the Branding of Genocide Prevention

Post-Script. Sharing Means Caring: The Viral Sensation of #Kony2012

Chapter 4. Reclaiming the Insurgent Nature of Human Rights