Sunday, August 05, 2007

Darfur without history, presence or context.


The discourse of white supremacy has a way of lingering. Yesterday, after an attack by Doreen Lawrence on Boris Johnson, The Guardian dug up some of his old quotes. We know that British rightists have a thing about 'nigger' humour - Alan Clarke's gibe about "Bongo Bongo land" over the Rwandan genocide, and Richard Littlejohn's snigger about the "Mbingo tribe" massacring the "Mbongo tribe" over the same affair, are classic examples. (Littlejohn also referred to Palestinians as "the Pikeys of the Middle East"). This is what Boris, the loveable sociopath, said about the "piccaninnies" in the Congo, during a Prime Ministerial visit: "the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird". Well, you see my point. Johnson's comment is actually a resentful, bilious update on the confident imperialism of the Victorian ruling class. Now it is air travel (which the Congo has supposedly never seen), but once upon a time, it was Europeans in imperial uniforms floating through African rivers in boats. Recall Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness': "Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world". The industrial revolution and the conquest of Africa were entwined in the European imagination: racial hierarchy, civilisation, progress, and technological advancement were of a piece, and this was a source of profound self-confidence for European ruling classes. Of course, liberal imperialists partook of this language as well, but were usually more cunning, more sophisticated, and less doctrinaire than their reactionary counterparts. They were more inclined to believe that they could civilise the natives, even if they were as content to opt for annihilation when disabused. Today's neoconservatives and New York Times liberals draw directly from this filthy tradition, as when Thomas Friedman asserted that if the Sunnis wouldn't be civilised, then they should be annihilated.

In this context, the reactions to the UN force in Darfur have been interesting. I can't resist mentioning that the Sp!ked Furedites didn't let us down with their attack on 'peacekeeping' colonists, which at least tries to locate this in a broader account of US strategy in the African continent, and does make an important point about the anti-democratic tendencies in the ideological assault on sovereignty. However, they did miss a chance to undermine the climate change conspiracy, which is odd since it is now official UN wisdom that the war is in part a climate change war. And the spiked crew never usually miss a chance to attack science on behalf of multinationals. Ban Ki Moon's claim certainly contains some truth, but risks reducing the war - in a fashion redolent of Robert Kaplan's 'The Coming Anarchy' - to impersonal forces, non-ideological issues of scarcity and so on (Kaplan's reactionary thesis has been dubbed The New Barbarism by critics, although it was popular with the Clinton administration). Anyway, the Furedites at least retain the anti-imperialism of the old RCP, even if they are dull contrarians and fuckwit libertarians in every other respect.

Anyway, it is the response of liberals that has been most curious (I very deliberately avoid the word 'interesting' in this context). Kirsty Wark conducted a raised-eyebrow piece on the topic for the BBC's supposedly analytical Newsnight programme on Friday (while wearing a seriously offensive blouse - I've curled out hot dogs I'd rather be seen wearing). There is actually no peace to keep at the moment, so it was simple enough to evince scepticism about the whole idea. And they did have a host of experts on the programme to explain matters. And then there was the Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations, who was duly asked questions in a tough and pressing manner. The trouble is that no viewer would have understood the slightest thing that was happening. One would gather that there was some sort of war on, that there had been a peace deal last year, but it failed, that there are several groups fighting rather than two, that dreadful things have happened including 200,000 deaths and 2 million refugees. They didn't name a single rebel group, interview anyone from them, explain their grievances, or the basis of the combat. It was mentioned that this UN force basically has no mandate except to observe, which means they can't disarm militias. Okay, which militias? The Justice and Equality Movement? The fractious Sudan Liberation Army/Movement? The 'Arab' nomads now engaged in fratricidal violence over land? No explanations here. The Sudanese ambassador was not asked why his government is happy to have tens of thousands of AU and UN troops stationed about an insurgency hot-spot watching a civil war go on around them like a bunch of lemons.

Same deal with this beatifically grateful commentary. The Observer's Mary Riddell enthuses that the introduction of UN troops is going to avert more bloodshed, issues mealy-mouthed bromides about a "complex war" and faceless, nameless "rebels", and writes, in a fashion that is characteristic of columnists commenting on humanitarian crises, of the images. Tear-stained maternal faces, starved children, and so on. She commends Gordon Brown for his "decisiveness". She adds: "Brown is a visceral operator for whom suffering matters." And most importantly, she takes this as a signal that "we" can intervene for the better. This is what it's all about. The story of Darfur, which is a class struggle as much as an ethnic one, is stripped bare of historical or present context. It is reduced to the bare-forked creatures of Riddell's memory, the stark morality tale with no politics, simply a crying need for intervention - which, as Riddell points out, can be extended elsewhere. After all, she remarks, the intervention in Sierra Leone "worked" as did Kosovo: again, two instances where the facts of the conflict matter less than that Western military forces intervened and didn't produce a disaster on the scale of Iraq. (Kosovo has been dissected enough, but anyone who still thinks that Britain's actions in Sierra Leone were noble needs to have a look at David Keen's 'Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone'.) And the reaction has been much the same all round. Brian Brivati, one of the Guardian's pro-war liberals and apologists for Israel, has been clamouring for military action, air strikes, something. But he seems content with this, which signals a "triumph" for Gordon Brown. Brivati, being an academic, is a little more tactful and implicitly knowledgable about the situation - though its details seem to matter even less to him.

So what has happened to this language of evangelical humanitarian imperialism that has been giving Hollywood liberals a collective boner bigger than the Statue of fucking Liberty? Why should it be that some liberals are actually satisfied that all of this hysterical hyper-babble, with its copious use of the g-word (Eric Reeves warned last year that a 'second wave' of genocide was afoot), has resulted in the 'international community' despatching a stability force to, essentially, watch a civil war? And, quite possibly, end up protecting Khartoum? After all, the AU troops are already in combat with the Sudan Liberation Movement. Relief agencies like Oxfam are being driven out of areas under the control of the SLM because of attacks by unnamed armed groups. If UNAMID troops end up in combat with them to secure relief access, for example, which they do have a mandate to do, then 'peacekeeping' could become counterinsurgency. Isn't it because Sudan, as a "strong partner in the war on terror" is being brought back into the fold? It is as well that sanctions are not being applied, that there isn't a strong mandate for this force, that it isn't being pushed in against the will of the Sudanese government, that there isn't a ban on airlines and that all of the inane solutions promoted by 'Save Darfur' have been ignored. These would have served neither the aims of justice nor peace. Nevertheless, this is a somewhat inglorious impasse for the saviours of Africa, and their gratitude reflects the fact that they were never as interested in the causes and consequences of the conflict as in asserting the moral authority of Western military power. And what if the rebels refuse to be civilised? What if Khartoum doesn't obey orders? What if the liberal imperialists are right, and this is only a beginning? Will there be mournful editorials regretting that it could have been so beautiful, but now the Furs/Arabs/Africans/take your pick will have to be disciplined? Will Nicholas Kristoff wonder if those cynical European bluebloods weren't right, and some places are simply unfit for liberation?