On the genre of “Raising Awareness about Someone Else’s Suffering”

9780307377999Aaron Bady in The New Inquiry [h/t: Meghant Sudan]:

4. Elliot Prasse-Freeman’s case study, “Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics.” Serious and vicious. Kristof isn’t the problem, but he’s a walking embodiment of it.

5. Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors, in which he argues that the War on Terror is the inescapable interpretive matrix through which to understand why American college students suddenly got so excited about Darfur, years after the violence had peaked and declined.

“One needs to bear in mind that the movement to Save Darfur – like the War on Terror – is not a peace movement: it calls for a military intervention rather than political reconciliation, punishment rather than peace…Iraq makes some Americans feel responsible and guilty, just as it compels other Americans to come to terms with the limits of American power. Darfur, in contrast, is an act not of responsibility but of philanthropy. Unlike Iraq, Darfur is a place for which Americans do not need to feel responsible but choose to take responsibility.”

If Mamdani’s book is controversial, it’s also indispensable (especially since a certain NGO working on the issue of the LRA got its start in the Save Darfur movement). But even if you ultimately answer “no” to the questions he asks, you still need to ask them. You need to think through this set of relations very carefully:  

“The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?

The most powerful mobilisation in New York City is in relation to Darfur, not Iraq. One would expect the reverse, for no other reason than that most New Yorkers are American citizens and so should feel directly responsible for the violence in occupied Iraq. But Iraq is a messy place in the American imagination, a place with messy politics. Americans worry about what their government should do in Iraq. Should it withdraw? What would happen if it did? In contrast, there is nothing messy about Darfur. It is a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as ‘Arabs’ confront victims clearly identifiable as ‘Africans’.

 6. Teju Cole’s twitter feed, but particularly his thoughts on the banality of sentimentality.