Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Quotes of the Day - April 4, 2012

I'm still reading David Rieff's A Bed for the Night, but I'm nearly done. I've changed my mind about the book a bit. I think he makes a lot of great points about the problems of intervention today. Like I did when I read Power and the Idealists, I found myself dog-earring page after page. There are a number of noteworthy statements that I want to highlight.

Rieff argues that since humanitarianism has been used as a pretext for Western military intervention for the past twenty years, the word not only has lost its meaning but also now connotes some kind of neocolonialism with a human face.
"The prestige of the humanitarian movement and the humanitarian ideal has meant that almost everything became susceptible to being described as a humanitarian emergency, a humanitarian dilemma, or, with increasing frequency, as an occasion for humanitarian intervention. If this is not quite the same as saying 'Take up the White Man's Burden,' it is equally categorical and unself-conscious [my emphasis]. This time, the battle cry seems to be, 'Take up the humanitarian's burden,' with that fictitious entity 'the international community taking the place of the nineteenth-century colonial power."
This passage comes in the midst of a discussion of the way abolitionists used humanitarianism to expand colonial influence:
"It is haunted by the difficulties of getting right the new global architecture it calls for. But the possbility that the 'right of intervention' might be the modern versino of Kipling's 'white man's burden' does not resonate with most human rights activists, just as many ninetheenth-centruy abolitionists were untroubled by the notion that abolitionism went hand in hand with European domination."
I think Rieff is spot on, but it makes me ask a question that cannot be answered: is the motivation of state humanitarianism always mercenery?

Rieff then goes on to discuss what I think can be called the "Kristof Effect", which is best illustrated in this article, "Be Aware: Nick Kristof's Anti-Politics". Essentially, Rieff argues that the new faith in humanitariasm obviates our duty to actually alter the status quo - that is, oppression, genocide, famine and exploitation - since people are told about the problems and then informed that someone is addressing them or that they are impossible to address.
"The actual practice of humanitarianism is not at the center of any new international order but at its margin, and that by elevating humanitarianism in the way that it has been elevated, we delude ourselves into thinking the answer to the world's horror lies within our grasp, when the fact is that it does not."
Of course, the "Kristof Effect" is a bit more sinister. Believing that we have the answer to the world's horror when we do not is dangerous because it allows us to believe that things can be changed without out altering our current way of life or without recognizing our role in the exploitation and starvation we find so appauling. The belief that things can be fixed now obfuscates the fact that we are part of the problem that should be fixed. He again demonstrates this:
"Humanitarianism - indeed [Ignatieff's] entire revolution of moral concern - is also this modern conscience given an alibi - a way of feeling better about those parts of the world without some seemingly redemptive effort, to which no decent person, once informed could possibly be reconciled. Far from being a story of unparalleled engagement, might not the real significance of the revolution of moral concern be that the modern conscience is thereby allowed to delegate its guild and its anxiety to the designated consciences of the world of relief, development, and human rights [my emphasis]?"
Rieff also takes on Tom Friedman directly, noting that for all their differences Communists and neoliberals share a fault in their tendency to believe in the historical inevitability of their respective utopias.
"Utopias are moral fables. Some, like Communism, have been drenched in the fantasy of revolutionary violence as the midwife of the radiant future. Others have promised paradise on the cheap. Think of The New York Times's Thomas Friedman, whose immensely influential but intellecutally vacant and provincial notions about globalization were all the rage at the end of the 1990s. Friedman seems to think that globalization - by which he means Americanization - is both inevitable and the only road to prosperity, and will therefore take place whether anyone wants it to or not."
To my unsophisticated eyes, it initially appears that Rieff spends much of his time criticizing NGOs for taking sidse on the one hand and lamenting the NGOs' inability to distinguish between victims and perpetrators of injustice on the other. His true critique is much more nuanced. Western powers, he argues, use the moral credentials of NGOs to legitimize withholding aid or engaging in military intervention.
"At best, the false morality play that this engendered was one that presented wicked warlords and innocent victims, and conveyed the impression that the actions of those warlords were stopping well-intended humanitarians from helping. In the case of a Rwanda, the result was far worse, for the availability of the humanitairan alibi actually allowed the great powers, above all the United States, to prevaricate until it was too late for military intervention to succeed. As Brauman put it, the presence of the humanitairans, 'far from representing a bulwark against evil, was in fact one of its appendages.' And he added pointed that 'the social and political role of humanitarian aid was simply to stage-manage goodwill, to organize the spectacle of compassion."
Rieff quotes Odysseus Boudouris, the president of MSF-Greece, who deftly describes the end of humanitarianism.
"As Bourdouris said, quite correctly, 'the instrument' - humanitarianism - 'had ceased being used in the service of the idea.' Instead, 'the idea had become the pretext for [the deployment] of the instrument."
If it wasn't enough to describe the end of humanitarianism's moral legitimacy, Rieff also describes how neoliberalism threw humanitarian groups into crisis:
"For all the NGOs' supposed new spirit of self-criticism, the same old result kept getting produced every time a crisis erupted for which massive funding from donors and massive opportunities for fund-raising from the public presented temselves. In the increasingly business-oriented cultures of U.S. relief groups, this was being referred to as the need for acquiring a substantial 'market share' of each humanitarian crisis."
And of couse, once the act of saving lives is viewed as an opportunity to increase market share, the humanitarian idea is dead.

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