On the genre of “Raising Awareness about Someone Else’s Suffering.”
A propos of absolutely nothing, a few texts I’ve found helpful in unpacking the aforementioned genre, in no particular order:
1. Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa.” You’ve probably read it already – and if you haven’t, get on that – but I need to get that out of the way first. It’s the entrance to any serious conversation, the prerequisite. Not just because he’s right, but because it’s funny. And its funny because it comes from a place of exhaustion, of total and complete exasperated frustration. That’s important, because it helps you understand how omnipresent this shit is, what an unstoppable energizer bunny of neverendingness it is. Humor isn’t enough, is never enough – after all, how can you satirize people who satirize themselves? – but the recourse to it tellingly reflects an experience that you need to come to terms with, the experience of living in the world created by such discourse. As he wrote in a reflective essay, later:
“How to Write about Africa” grew out of an email. In a fit of anger, maybe even low blood sugar — it runs in the family — I spent a few hours one night at my graduate student flat in Norwich, England, writing to the editor of Granta. I was responding to its “Africa” issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known, a sort of “Greatest Hits of Hearts of Fuckedness.” It wasn’t the grimness that got to me, it was the stupidity. There was nothing new, no insight, but lots of “reportage” — Oh, gosh, wow, look, golly ooo — as if Africa and Africans were not part of the conversation, were not indeed living in England across the road from the Granta office. No, we were “over there,” where brave people in khaki could come and bear witness. Fuck that. So I wrote a long — truly long — rambling email to the editor.
“Fuck that” and “truly long – rambling” are important words to note when they come from Binyavanga Wainaina, also the author of one of the most profoundly thoughtful and careful – and utterly genius – meditations on what it means to write about a place, his 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write about this Place. Oh, and also this 52 minute podcast interview with Binyavanga is worth listening to.
2. “Photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus…[But] no “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” –Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.
3. Alex De Waal’s Famine Crimes. It’s a book worth reading, but the basic argument is also penetratingly simple: by underminging popular and international expectations of government accountability, anti-famine charities actually make famines more likely and more deadly. In countries where elites pay a political cost for allowing famines to happen – and famines are always a function of elite politics – those elites will take a consequent interest in preventing them from happening; in countries where this is understood, and where famines hurt the powerful as well as the weak, the powerful therefore have an interest in preventing food prices from going through the roof, etc. De Waal’s argument, then, is that “Feed the Children” type stuff is on the one hand, practically inefficient –since by the time a famine becomes visible enough to raise awareness and cash and buy food or whatever, the famine is already well underway – and on the other, politically counterproductive, since it raises precisely the wrong kind of awareness: by allowing local elites off the hook for famine prevention, and naturalizing as inevitable something which is always a man-made occurrence, the international community gives local political elites an excuse for inaction.
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’.
7. Nicholas Dirks on the political function of scandal:
“Scandals point to the underlying tensions and anxieties of an age, even as they work ironically to resolve crises by finding new ways to repress these tensions and anxieties. Scandals require careful management, and they elicit widespread vicarious attention, because they invariably produce a spectacle in which we see how the mighty have fallen. Whether caused by sexual indiscretion, extreme political ambition, undue greed, or other appetites driven by the desire for self-fulfillment and self-aggrandizement, the public unfolding of scandal provides public titillation at the same time it becomes a morality play. Despite either that authority will be subverted or the rules and conventions of public (or private) life radically changed, scandals in fact usually lead to far more benign outcomes. For the most part, public scandals become ritual moments in which the sacrifice of the reputation of one or more individuals allows many more to continue their scandalous ways, if perhaps with minimal safeguards and protocols that are meant to ensure that the terrible excesses of the past will not occur again. Scandals often do lead to reforms, but the reforms usually work to protect the potential agents of scandal rather than its actual victims. Indeed, it is the scandal itself that must be erased, not the underlying systemic reasons for scandal. The scandal is only the tip of the iceberg, the moment of excess that in the end works to conceal the far more endemic excesses that, at least for modern times, have become normalized…” (Nicholas Dirks, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain, p.29-30)
We get upset about things which crystalize an anxiety, he argues, but are enabled to do so only because these things are not – themselves – the true source of it. We scapegoat, in other words, so that we can continue to do what we still need to do.
Dirks’ book is about the moment when Edmund Burke put Warren Hastings on trial for the scandal of British empire in India, an imperial form that in the late 18th century was too new and too vicious for Britons to be comfortable with. But in doing so, in scapegoating a single man, a system was not only let off the hook but given an opportunity to actually come into existence as itself. And while the specific argument Dirks makes is specific to then and there, I find myself turning to that quote every single time a new scandal pops up, and I almost never find it failing me.
8. Amitav Ghosh, “The Greatest Sorrow:”
As a writer I have tried to live by the credo that nothing human should be alien to me. Yet, my imagination stops short as I try to think of the human realities of what it must mean to plan a collective suicide over a span of years or to stand in a check-in line with people whose murder has already been decided on; of what it takes to speak of love on a cell phone moments before one’s death or to reach for a stranger’s hand as one leaps from the topmost floor of a skyscraper. These are new dimensions of human experience, and I realize that they will become a part of the generational gap that separates me from my children: their imagining of the world will be different from mine and that very difference will create a new reality. From my own childhood I remember a day when I stared at a newspaper, mesmerized by a picture of a Buddhist monk burning at a crossroads in Saigon. At that time, this too represented a new addition to the armory of human motivation: this was the moment that inaugurated the era of political suicide in the modern world. Since then such suicides have become so commonplace as often to go unreported. They have become a part of the unseen foundations of our awareness, present but unnoticed, like the earth beneath a basement.
The thickening crust of our awareness is both a sign and a reminder of our unwitting complicity in the evolution of violence: if that which mesmerized us yesterday ceases to interest us today, then it follows that the act which will next claim our attention will be even more horrific, even more resistant to yesterday’s imagination, than the last.
This is about 9-11. Or is it?