Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Saviors and Survivors by Mahmood Mamdani

A very informative work that provides detailed factual information about both the current violence in Darfur and the history that lead to the problems region itself (ex: Dar Fur became Darfur). Saviors and Survivors argues that genocide was not technically occurring; that people with good intentions are often mislead; that the Western powers still engage in neo-colonial practices; and that the simplistic popular narrative (Arab settlers attacking non-Arab natives) of Darfur is incorrect. Less compelling were Mamdani’s arguments near the end of the book decrying the neo-colonial attitude of many practitioners of humanitarianism and the international instruments they use.

The book was not as saddening as I thought it might be because it did not focus on the horrors of people being killed or raped. Instead it was predominantly an analysis of how Darfur has come to be seen and how that view is overly simple and flawed. While Mamdani strongly makes the case that the popular narrative is flawed, the fact that at the end of the book he describes how many of those within Sudan believe this narrative resulted in my thinking that the situation more nuanced than initially presented (and I was less condemnatory of those who have propagated ‘false’ descriptions).
Although not saddening in the aforementioned sense, the book was infuriating and saddening in another: Saviors and Survivors describes how the Save Darfur campaign kept publishing the number of dead at 400,000 when this is not true. That the Save Darfur movement kept doing so even after it was quite clear the number was 200,000 or less, is quite problematic, as it is this number that other news agencies and celebrities picked up to use for various purposes. (While this number is psychologically irrelevant to the average person, it is important as a matter of fact and policy.) Apparently, the situation in Darfur had dropped below emergency levels in 2005, yet publicity surrounding the issue soared in 2006-07: Clooney made a speech to the U.N. Security Council, Mia Farrow wanted to brand the Beijing Olympics the “Genocide Olympics” and Spielberg withdrew from producing part of the opening ceremonies.
The well-written speech was hyperbolic and inaccurate, Farrow’s point and tactic are problematic at best, and similar thoughts go to Spielberg. Such events create within me a multilayered cacophony of sighs.
One of Mamdani’s main points is that, considering more people have died because of the invasion of Iraq, perhaps those Americans so concerned about Darfur should be more concerned with a country they are overtly involved in and directly responsible for some of the killings.

The book (re)taught me several things:
(1) Much of what you read in the news is not accurate. Information is often presented without a rigorous check of accuracy and situations get presented in certain ways to form narratives, which are variable in their validity. Omission is a key factor here, for while at least some have heard of the problems in Darfur, most have not heard of the problems in Angola or the DRC (which were/are worse).
(2) Due to the complexity of most issues, one should be cautious stating a hard opinion on a topic, instead of just engaging in discussion, unless they have been exposed to the equivalent of reading three books on the topic.
(3) Learning the history of an issue is extremely important, but I don’t find it as enjoyable as learning about current events or evaluating the logic of, and evidence for, arguments.

For those experienced in geopolitical happenings, this book will present you with themes you have encountered many a time before, so I would probably only recommend it to those who are specifically interested in the issue of Darfur.

For those less experienced, Saviors and Survivors will provide an excellent example of how complicated socio-geopolitical issues are, how labelling/framing are crucial to discussions, how different states operate to pursue their different (but similar) goals, how the media simplify and pick up certain narratives, and how most people (even those with good intentions) are uninformed, especially of the very important history of how things have come to be.


Blogger Colored Opinions said...

Interesting debate.

9:06 AM  

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