Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tasteless Activists Strike Again

So Chris Blattman and the gals at Wronging Rights are in a lather over Invisible Children, an NGO devoted to helping children abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army. They have a number of specific concerns--Blattman is worried, for example, about the implications of showing the children's faces on camera. But what really seems to irk them--and the many correspondents who wrote in to agree with them--is the self-indulgent, aren't-we-cool, "let's save Africa," tone struck by the founders of the organization.

I don't know IC at all. They seem to have a development wing as well as an activist wing, and I have no idea whether either is effective. But charity is about making water run up hill. Adam Smith noted more than two hundred years ago that the prospect of having to cut a wart off your finger focuses your attention in a way that the prospect of a million starving people in China never will. So I'm prone to be tolerant of any effort that aims to harness people's capricious attention to a broader humanitarian project. It ain't easy to coax that trickle upstream.

Nor is IC the first to indulge in a little sentimentality. Uncle Tom's Cabin has rarely been described as Chekhovian. And am I the only one old enough to remember "We Are the World"? For that matter, what, really, could be in poorer taste than Nick Kristof's opening sentence in today's op-ed: "When the International Criminal Court issued its arrest warrant for Sudan’s president on Wednesday, an 8-year-old boy named Bakit Musa would have clapped — if only he still had hands." (This complete with a large headshot of the poor darling waving his stumps in our face. Blattman take note.)

IC's critics are particularly vexed about the group's forthcoming consciousness-raising event, in which high school and college students in dozens of US cities will "abduct themselves" and camp out overnight in public parks. Well, sure, it's a gimmick, but so is the Holocaust Museum giving you a ticket with the identity of a holocaust victim and telling you at the end of your visit whether "you" died or not. And so is Oxfam's Hunger Fast, where a group of students gather for dinner--some of them to dine on lavish cuisine while the majority subsist on beans and rice. Centuries ago, when I was in college, I helped organize one of those events. A black South African friend--this was in the days before apartheid was dismantled--happened to pass by, and I rather awkwardly apologized to him for the crassness of the spectacle. "No," he said, wryly observing the gathering, "they are learning." And indeed they were: the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

If anything, my problem with most activist organizations is that they aren't tasteless enough. We need more Act Up outfits disrupting meetings, more GreenPeace types piloting their inflatable rafts between the whalers and their prey. The polite petitions, the congressional testimony of a Hollywood star you've chaperoned around Africa on a two-week visit--these aren't enough. In "The Invisible People" Greg Behrman describes how in 2000 a few determined activists embarrassed Candidate Al Gore into reversing his position on intellectual property rights for AIDS drugs in Africa. They followed him around New Hampshire, disrupting his rallies and throwing "blood money" into the crowd. Crass, yes--but it worked.

The truth is that the number of people in Western countries who can be mobilized to care about far-off tragedies will always be relatively small and their influence slight--far less than we might like to believe. Even in domestic affairs, people who have a material stake in the matter are usually more influential than reformers who come to the table armed only with their ideas and aspirations. In foreign policy, where the elite tend to view human rights as a distraction from the real business of transacting international relations, the triumph of national interests over humanitarian concerns is almost an iron law. Witness Hillary Clinton's recent remark about not letting human rights "interfere with" our relationship with China.

Case in point: Madeleine Albright and William Cohen recently chaired a genocide prevention task force, underwritten by the Holocaust Museum, the US Institute of Peace, and one or two other Washington institutions. At its debut, an Armenian reporter rose to ask why the two chairs had recently signed a letter advising Congress to not pass a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. "This is basically about the future," said Albright, who had spoken minutes earlier about the need to learn from the past. "There are no absolutes in this," chimed in Cohen, whose consulting firm, it would later emerge, enjoyed a profitable alliance with a lobbying group hired by Turkey to deny the Armenian genocide. In any case, Cohen assured the reporter, they too "were concerned about the human suffering that took place between 1915 and 1923." This was a dog whistle--meant to sound one way to the uninformed, but in fact a circumlocution that nicely toes the Turkish line: that the alleged genocide was in fact merely an unfortunate series of reciprocal killings during a time of war. Read this note from the Southern Poverty Law Center if you don't understand just how much of an historical obscenity that claim is. Were they saying similar sorts of things about the holocaust, Albright and Cohen would be consigned to the far margins of American discourse--to the place where the David Dukes and Ramsey Clarks reside.

To the extent that we can ever hope to change this state of affairs, we need people who aren't afraid of transgressing the boundaries of good taste, of contradicting the complacent accounts of our grandees, of disrupting the rituals by which they affirm their status. We need groups like Invisible Children to agitate more, not less, to engage in even more visible demonstrations, to not only call out but mock the emperor for his nakedness. Tasteful people don't change history.

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