The New York Times Magazine published a glowing tribute to John Prendergast in its December 5, 2010, issue. Prendergast, the co-founder of the anti-genocide group Enough, is a fixture in DC discussions about African conflicts, particularly Sudan. Prendergast is both good-looking and facile enough to give the impression that he thinks he's starring in a movie about himself: Bwana saves Africa, Part 3276, as Howard French, a former Africa bureau chief for the Times, twitted after reading the article. Most people I know tend to roll their eyes at the mention of Prendergast's name; then again, most people I know don't shepherd Hollywood stars around Africa's hot spots or get invited to meetings at the White House. My hopes for the article rose in the second paragraph when the writer described Prendergast "rak[ing] his fingers through wavy gray hair that fell to the shoulders of his T-shirt." Why yes, I thought, that explains a lot. So I fired this letter off to the Times, which they were kind enough to publish. (I've made a few edits and restored a couple of cuts.)
Political activism often requires some simplification of the issues to garner public support. It's a long way from the several thousand pages of the IPCC Report on Climate Change to the bumper sticker that urges "Stop Global Warming." The question about Prendergast is whether his simplifications undermine the causes to which he is dedicated. I think they do. First, they under-state the scale of the interventions needed to effect change, even as they exaggerate US clout. Second, they under-state the complexity of the problems, which can lead him to champion proposals that will be ineffective or potentially counterproductive. Thus we have the "blood minerals" campaign, which seeks to implicate users of high-tech devices (that is, nearly all of us) in the tragedy of eastern Congo, but which won't begin to improve the situation on the ground; or the aggressive push for southern succession in Sudan, without a commensurate effort to prepare for the internecine conflicts that could harrow the new nation from within. Underlying these simplifications is a deeply American faith in our own capacity--for doing good, for getting things done--a faith that Hollywood has always been happy to indulge. I wish that Prendergast would focus more on the capacity of local people, many of whom are working at extraordinary personal risk to bring peace to their lands. The question shouldn't be, "What can we do to end the suffering in these countries?" but rather, "what can we do to help people within their societies overcome the enormous political and economic challenges they face?" The difference is all in where you place the emphasis.