The Book List: Human Rights

Note from the Author

Welcome to The Book List, a new recurring book review column in The Bagpipe! I’m Will, a senior studying Biology and Community Development. I love good books, and over the last four years, I’ve encountered a lot of exciting works in a variety of genres. This column features some of my favorite books, which I hope will inspire other Covenant Scots to jump into new topics outside their interests or disciplines.

In each issue, The Book List will tackle a new theme, covering an eclectic variety of social, literary, and scientific works. For instance, a few upcoming topics include “The Case for Long Books” featuring Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” and David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”, and “Understanding The American Church” featuring Frances Fitzgerald’s “The Evangelicals” and Jemar Tisby’s “The Color of Compromise.” 

The authors we’ll talk about here offer fresh approaches and challenging perspectives. You may not find that you are comfortable with everything in this column. But no matter the topic, each book here will be emotionally engaging, innovatively written, and ideologically challenging. So, with no further ado, let the column begin!

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Human rights: this is a term we usually hear in the context of international law and grandiose political rhetoric. Often, human rights are distant concepts used to make a point, or to construct aspirational creeds like the International Declaration of Human Rights. But what does it mean when these rights are brought down to the level of personal stories and specific systems? Frequently, we find that human rights are not nearly as universal as we might hope—they are often luxuries of the rich, or simply reservoirs of pleasant language that are used to mask injustice. This week, The Book List reviews two influential books in the social sciences which investigate overlooked injustices. They tell the stories of conveniently ignored people—people without power, enmeshed in systems of power which cause them harm.

“Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor”

Author: Paul Farmer

Genre: Medical Anthropology

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In One Sentence: A bitingly acerbic, inspiringly optimistic call for moral responsibility in global health, which links the spread of disease to a set of unjust social, environmental, political, and economic systems.

Paul Farmer is a physician and medical anthropologist who has worked in Haiti since the late 1980s. He is a pioneer in the study of medicine and social justice, and his passionate writing makes “Pathologies of Power” one of my favorite books in any genre. Farmer approaches these issues from a unique moral standpoint: liberation theology. Liberation theology is an exegetical approach that focuses on the “preferential option for the poor,” a reading of biblical passages on poverty which calls Christians to a preferential focus on remedying economic injustice. Liberation theology explicitly intends to “liberate” the poor from oppressive systems.

Farmer questions how anyone committed to the equal dignity of all people—which he takes to include doctors bound by the Hippocratic Oath, Christians bound by their faith commitments, and anyone with a moral vision of human equality—could accept the modern status quo in international health. Through compelling anecdotes from global sites of public health crises—AIDS in rural Haiti, TB in Russian prisons, health system access in Chiapas, Mexico—Farmer crafts a forceful polemic against reigning concepts in foreign policy, international health, global development, and medical ethics. 

“Pathologies of Power” is highly readable—a unique sense of urgency pervades the book, calling readers to consider the plight of real people in real places, disadvantaged by global systems which many people think are forces for good.

If you read this book, you’ll be challenged to re-examine many concepts you probably take for granted. By stepping into Farmer’s mind, with his crystal-clear view of human rights and universal human dignity, you’ll be challenged to more carefully define your own beliefs about human worth and wellbeing. You may even be spurred into action.

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“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”

Author: Matthew Desmond

Genre: Sociology, Urban Ethnography

Available in Kresge: Yes

In One Sentence: An intensely personal, meticulously researched, and narratively heartbreaking account of housing insecurity in America, combining novel-like writing with true stories and extensive data.

“Evicted” is a uniquely authoritative work, because it is essentially an act of storytelling: instead of approaching the problem of housing insecurity from the 30,000-foot view of theory, Matthew Desmond focuses his narrative on real individuals on the brink of eviction, empathetically recounting their stories. 

To write “Evicted,” Desmond moved into an economically depressed area of Milwaukee, WI, for two years, not knowing what he might find. He emerged with the stories of eight families struggling to keep a roof over their heads, along with the perspectives of two landlords who rented property to them. As the title implies, “Evicted” is about an American crisis of eviction, a slow and hidden malignancy that is eating the economic systems of American cities and harming the most vulnerable residents. In 2016, four legal evictions were filed every minute in America. Desmond estimates that for each one of these, two more evictions were informally negotiated between landlords and tenants. Intimidation, legal deception, and predatory financial arrangements are regularly used to boost profits from rental properties, and the legal system is usually unable to help.

“Evicted” is a remarkable book for its ability to link individual stories to the broader forces of economic blight in the American city. It is an upsetting, challenging narrative about the American urban underclass, told using some of the most engaging ethnographic research in recent publication. It reveals the hidden plight of millions of economically insecure Americans, and invites readers to identify with their stories.