Saturday, April 25, 2009

"I saw the best minds of my generation..."

Eris Reeves and Alex de Waal have a catfight. I can't even begin to explain how discouraging their exchange is.

# Eric Reeves:
April 24th, 2009 at 6:25 pm

“We should ask why leaders find if acceptable and meaningful to use words like ‘evil.’”
[Alex de Waal, April 2009]

“This [counter-insurgency in Darfur] is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power: it is genocide by force of habit.”
[Alex de Waal, August 2004]

I think it’s fair to ask why de Waal’s description of 2004 may not serve as an occasion to ask him the very question he poses in April 2009. I’m not sure there is necessarily any difference between “routine cruelty,” “withered humanity,” “genocide by force of habit” and what I and others mean by evil.

Speaking just for myself, I’ve spent the entirety of my careers, literary and in Sudan advocacy, reflecting on the issue of human evil. It is a word I use with extreme hesitation, but find unavoidable in speaking of the leadership of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party. I don’t see why this should make me subject to the relentless homogenizing of Darfur advocacy and the caricatures that seem a staple method of dismissal (de Waal is in this post explicit about his initial caricaturing; elsewhere—a strategy he shares with Mamdani—this is not the case).

Until there is a frank acknowledgement that “Darfur advocacy,” or even “American Darfur advocacy,” is a more representative designation than “Save Darfur” (with its inevitable connections to the “Save Darfur Coalition”), it seems unlikely that there will be improvement in the discourse between what de Waal elsewhere refers to as “landscape painters” and the real experts, the “mountaineers.” The implicit assertion is of a trumping expertise, made endlessly with the dismissive use of the loaded phrase “Save Darfur.” This in turn depends upon an untenable account of American civil society efforts on behalf of Sudan, a number going back more than a decade. Such relentlessly invidious distinctions invite a harsh rhetoric of response.

Eric Reeves
# Alex de Waal:
April 24th, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Dear Eric,

it is deeply unfortunate that your health has prevented you from visiting Darfur, and that you have never had the opportunity to visit Khartoum or to live in Sudanese society. It is also a shame that you have never had the chance to match your literary study of evil with first hand experience of countries and communities that are going through traumatic events. Were you to benefit from such chances, I am confident you would understand at once that the deductions and characterizations you make today would need to be revisited.

As I wrote, there are phenomenal strengths in the ‘Save Darfur’ movement (it’s an odd quibble for you to condemn that phrasing as ‘loaded’ or ‘invidious’). It has been phenomenally energetic and, at its best, reflective and effective. But one of its weaknesses has been its difficulty in acknowledging its own successes. The ‘Save Darfur’ movement (for me this label carries no derogatory baggage) contributed to a remarkably successful humanitarian operation. Without it, relief agencies would have struggled for funds. It helped deter the levels of violence seen in 2003 and 2004 from recurring. Other forms of engagement have helped keep the key provisions of the CPA more-or-less on track.

As the English say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Please show me that you are not a caricature, a standard formula that doesn’t change.

Eric Reeves the caricature will lose no chance to lambast any commentator or diplomat for any form of constructive engagement with Sudan. This caricature will predict doom, knowing that nine times out of ten he won’t be proven wrong.

But Eric Reeves the person who cares for Sudan and for mitigating its traumas will welcome the progress that is being made, week in and week out, and will nurture these small but real openings that will, once or twice out of ten tries, bring a real transformation in the lives of the Sudanese. Which one is it to be, Eric?

with best wishes for your rapid recovery.


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