The Middle of the Country is In Play: Let’s Play

by Janet K Levit

One of the lessons from last Tuesday’s election – the heartland is not indelibly red. And, as someone who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I am elated. Yet, if the Democratic Party is to keep the heartland in play in the 2008 Presidential election, it will, in short order, have to learn how to speak to the heartland.

Likewise, we, as a community of international legal scholars and practitioners, have much to learn about opening a more robust, meaningful conversation with the heartland. As many who read this blog live on the coasts, I thought that I would open with a few recent, isolated vignettes that illustrate local attitudes in middle-America toward international law, international institutions and human rights.

On Halloween eve, I distributed candy from home while my kids went trick-or-treating with friends. I was soon confronted with a young, girl, about 10 years old, dressed in red with swastikas taped on her shirt. Shocked, I asked, “What are you dressed as?” A Nazi, the girl replied. “Do you think that it is appropriate to dress as a Nazi?” I asked. “Yes.” “How would you respond if I told you that my extended family perished at the hands of the Nazis?” Her friends gazed; she giggled. I gave candy to everyone else in the group and locked the door. I hope that this is an isolated incident of bigotry – my fear is that it represents broader ignorance toward human rights and fundamental standards of human decency.

Oklahoma just re-elected (with 67% of the vote) Governor Brad Henry, a relatively moderate Democrat. Yet, in the waning days of the campaign, his challenger, Republican Representative Ernest Istook, desperately gasped for support by trying to incite popular distaste of international law and international institutions. He reminded the electorate that Governor Henry, following the lead of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, had granted clemency to Osbaldo Torres, a Mexican national who was the first of the Avena defendants to face execution following the ICJ’s decision. In debates and public statements, Istook labeled the Torres case a sad instance of Oklahoma “bowing to pressure from the Mexican government” and the “World Court of the United Nations.” Istook even featured Mr. Torres in his final television advertisement.

Why, in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the population generally conditioned to distrust international law? This is obviously a mega-question with undoubtedly a complex answer. Yet, are we part of the answer? Do we talk to the heartland? Do we spend time explaining to those who have lived and worked in the heartland their whole lives how international law, if not obeyed, will have real consequences in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma and not merely Guantanamo or Iraq? I am not sure that we do in a meaningful way. Instead, we have ceded the airwaves to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, as poignantly stated by one wildly popular local talk radio host, “We cannot cover terrorism from South Tulsa; so, we have affiliated with Fox News.”

At last year’s holiday party, I had the opportunity to thank Governor Henry for the courage he had shown in the Torres case. He explained to me all the reasons that he had granted clemency. Above all, he said, the State Department took the time to explain how guaranteeing the integrity of the Vienna Convention protects Americans and protects Oklahomans. When those armed with intimate knowledge of international law take time to talk to the heartland, some will clearly listen.

2 Responses

  1. Agree with you. If international law had been followed we might not have kids in Iraq. As to the little girl dressed as a Nazi, what can you do? Just imagine some tender caring mother or father taking the time to paste on those swastikas. Absolutely chilling. Maybe what you need there is a Holocaust museum or something honoring the 60th anniversary of Nuremberg.

    Speaking to the heartland about internatonal law is what we do here at the University of Toledo. A recent conference at Bowling Green, Ohio on Nuremberg drew 400 people with many of them from around here. People saw the pictures and learned about it again. Just because this is the heartland do not think folks are not concerned about these issues. On the contrary, they are very concerned but what we need to do is show how international law is integrated into their life. One way to do that is to go to the American Society of International Law site and download the “100 ways international law” affects you every day document which was created for the Centennial. It is a very instructive tool to show just how quotidian international law it. Also, come to the Teaching International Law Interest Group roundtable at around 10h00 am at the AALS on the Saturday morning and share ideas with other profs on what we can do. All are welcome.



  2. While this won’t do much for my reputation as a cynic, let me suggest another possible perspective on the nazi halloween costume. A lot of kids do dress up as characters that they admire or would like to be, such as a princess, Batman, etc. However, others dress up as “monsters” such as Frankenstein or Freddie Kruger. While I am not saying that I necessarily believe this, perhaps the nazi costume was an ill-conceived attempt (a la John Kerry’s “stuck in Iraq” comment) to compare nazis to monsters. Although it is hard to imagine the subtlety

    of this being appreciated by a ten year old.


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