Favourite Readings 2022 – On Epistemic Injustices

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Anu Bradford, The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World (2020)

Chelsea Clinton and Devi Sridhar, Global Health Governance: Who Runs the World and Why? (2017)

Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (1986)

Thomas M. Franck, Recourse to Force (2002)

David Grossman, To the End of the Land (2010, Jessica Cohen transl.)

Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012)

George Lichtheim, Europe in the Twentieth Century (1972)

Judith Shklar, The Faces of Injustice (1990)

As in previous years, EJIL review team, Gail gail.lythgoe {at} manchester.ac(.)uk" data-hovercard-owner-id="98">Lythgoe and Christian J. Tams, have asked colleagues to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year.  No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Jan Klabbers. You can read all the posts in this series here

One should not judge a book by its cover, it is often said. Neither should one judge a book by the identity of its authors, I learned this year. A few years ago, in an actual bookstore, I stumbled across a book co-authored by Chelsea Clinton, daughter of a former US President and former US Secretary of State. It addressed a topic I have some interest in (global health governance, discussing amongst others the World Health Organization) but I suspected it would be something of a vanity project, not to be taken too seriously. I was wrong. Clinton’s and Devi Sridhar’s Global Health Governance: Who Runs the World and Why? is not brilliant and its subtitle a little over the top, but the book is nonetheless an eminently sensible and informative discussion of in particular the role of four major players in global health governance: the WHO, the GAVI Alliance, the Global Fund and, surprisingly perhaps, the World Bank. The governance structures of these institutions are discussed, as are their normative powers and the way they are financed, with enough critical bite to be interesting. It sometimes reads a bit too much like a bureaucratic report (does ‘universal health care’ really have to be abbreviated to UHC?), but is otherwise a pleasant enough read. The book was published two years before Covid-19 burst on the scene, but still makes for worthwhile reading; and it taught me not to rush to judgments, lest I commit an epistemic injustice.

Russia’s senseless but bloody invasion of Ukraine finally urged me to read Tom Franck’s Recourse to Force. I have always enjoyed reading Franck, in particular because of his rare blend of doctrinal craftmanship and philosophical erudition, but never got around to Recourse to Force, perhaps partly because I suspected the characteristic blend would be absent (as indeed it largely is), and perhaps partly because my main research interests lie elsewhere. It turns out though that Recourse to Force is an excellent study of the prohibition of the use of force and the main exceptions thereto, especially noteworthy for Franck’s powers of synthesis. Many studies of the use of force end up providing useful and detailed discussions of what happened in various conflicts (who said to what to whom, when and where), but the attention for the individual trees makes it sometimes tricky to spot the forest. Not so with Franck: in some 200 pages he sketches a general pattern, with just enough detail to show that he knows what he is talking about. Excellent stuff, by possibly one of the last great generalist international lawyers. The book is more doctrinal than philosophical, but even so, Franck’s appreciation for common sense and what Aristotle would call ‘practical wisdom’ shines through.

Franck, of course, spent many years at New York University, as did Tony Judt, albeit that the latter was affiliated with the history department. I re-read his and Timothy Snyder’s Reading the Twentieth Century this year, just because I can. Judt is one of my intellectual heroes and I usually find comfort in revisiting his work. The book has the form of a conversation between two giant intellects (Snyder is no slouch either), with Snyder starting a conversation and Judt, already struck down by the muscular disease ALS which would eventually kill him at a relatively young age, answering, often from memory it seems, in broad strokes. Many topics pass by, from the origins and merits (and de-merits) of government planning to political responsibility, and from Camus to identity politics. Judt and Snyder artfully blend the personal and the political, with an irresistible intellectual feast as the result.

As it turns out, one of Judt’s role models as a historian was George Lichtheim, whom I was unfamiliar with but, in one happy circumstance, whose Europe in the Twentieth Century I had found in a second-hand store just a few weeks before reading Judt and Snyder. Lichtheim was a deserved role model: an almost complete auto-didact with sensible left-wing sympathies and a fiercely independent and critical mind – and a good writer to boot. He knew his Marx, wearing it lightly, as well as his Proust, his Ravel and his Bauhaus, and made a point (importantly) of also studying authors whose political sympathies he did not share, and sketching them in the best light possible – as one should. The book is a tour d’horizon of Europe between 1900 and 1970 (being published in 1972), taking in not just political events, but also social and economic history and broader cultural developments. One can see what attracted Judt, and it is probably not too far-fetched to suppose that Judt’s own magisterial Postwar owed something to Lichtheim’s example.

Mary Douglas’ How Institutions Think does not really deliver on its title (if only…) but makes the more general point that our social life tends to owe an enormous amount to institutions, both tangible and not so tangible (such as language). This turns the book into a wry dismissal of anything even reeking of rational choice theory (in which institutions tend to be largely absent, after all, for some inexplicable reason), and it is perhaps best read as a critique thereof.

Most timely – and somehow related to Douglas’ critique of rational choice – is Judith Shklar’s The Faces of Injustice. Shklar was a political theorist (for want of a better term), perhaps best categorized as a reluctant liberal, critical of liberalism but unwilling to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The starting point of The Faces of Injustice is the observation that in everyday life, we are much more prone to identify injustice (‘How unfair!’) than justice, yet political philosophy tends to be obsessed with theories of justice. So she thought it worthwhile to investigate injustice and the various forms (the faces of which the title speaks) in which it can come to us, and the most striking aspect is the injustice stemming from popular apathy: many of the injustices of life are the result of our own political disinterest, starting with how we prepare our children for the future. As she strongly but compellingly puts it (at 45): ‘we choose to be passively as well as actively unjust’, and eventually ‘there is no possible way to reduce injustice significantly without a massive and effective education in civic virtue for each and every citizen.’

There should be an honourable mention for Anu Bradford’s The Brussels Effect. Bradford usually works in a genre I ordinarily have not too much patience with (the rationalist genre), but has produced a very worthwhile study of what she terms the Brussels effect: how and why the EU exercises regulatory power over much of the world. This is akin to the identification of the exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction as a form of global governance, but with a twist: in many instances, the EU does not need to claim jurisdiction – its prescriptions are voluntarily taken on by other actors, whether foreign industries or foreign legislators. The Brussels effect itself, qua effect, is not all that novel: other studies have noted the broad reach of US criminal law, e.g., and she generously attributes inspiration to earlier work on the similar California Effect. But Bradford makes her case with verve, and with a great eye for detail. At times the book is a little repetitive, and the subtitle perhaps a tad too sensationalist, but even so, Bradford has written a very fine study indeed – once again confirming that one should neither judge a book by its cover nor by its author.

And that also applies to the best novel I have read in a long time, David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, a harrowing account of an Israeli mother’s attempt to avoid hearing about the death of her soldier son: if she is not at home, she cannot be informed. So she and the son’s father go on a soul-searching trip through the desert, to the end of the land, largely incommunicado to the outside world. In the process, Grossman dissects Israel’s complex society with surgical precision and a commendable sense of balance. The characters are people of flesh and blood, and the reader at times can feel their despair. And yet, Grossman manages to send a ray of hope into a world of darkness: if the various factions of Israel’s population and that of the wider Middle East can still hold on to their humanity, maybe not all is lost. In today’s world of stark divisions and seemingly unbridgeable divides, that is a decidedly hopeful message, all the more so upon realizing that Grossman himself lost a son this way. Surely, a message for all seasons.


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