The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Shhhh! Read quietly.

Posted on: April 16, 2007

This link round-up starts with this increasingly relevant LA Times article by Sarah Miller on all you noisy people who choose the public library as your meeting ground! (Via Ed Rants.) Yes, you people doing your ESL lesson right by the study carrel, yes you old person who should know better answering your cell phone, and yes YOU the librarian who apparently needs to TALK AT THE TOP OF HER VOICE to show someone where some government publications are. For heaven’s sake. Is there no sacred quiet space left? (No, I’m not taking my backpack and laptop into a church, even if it does have wireless.)

Although I think Miller’s friend has it worse–they keep drum lessons at his library. Wtf. (Coffee shops?? Huh??) Don’t even get me started about the ones on-campus. I swear they make the frosh dumber every year. (Entrance English exams bear this out, I’m not being mean. Ok, maybe I am.)

Here’s something you’re allowed to shout about (in an appropriate venue) an interview with everyone’s favourite Paris Review fiction contributor: Mohsin Hamid. His latest book The Reluctant Fundamentalist is out and if the NYT Besteller’s list rank doesn’t sway you (it shouldn’t), an enthusiastic recommendation from David Treuer should. He wrote the ridiculously, I mean ridiculously good The Translation of Dr. Apelles. And if that’s still not enough (it should be) just check it out at the local book store (I’m sure it will be there if it was at my local chain, it’s getting a big push it seems) and read the first page. That’s what made me buy it. (Despite the loud, hot pink book jacket on the Canadian edition.)

The London Review of Books proves again and again the importance of literary journals as newspapers serve information in smaller, over-simplified bite-sizes. Mahmood Mamdani wrote The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency for the March 8th issue. The dangers of de-politicising Darfur, the contradictory positions of those who wish to pull out of Iraq but march in to “rescue” those in Sudan, and the culturally and politically important ambiguities in the terms’ “African” and “Arab”as they are used in Sudan, are written with a clarity that never betrays the complexity of the issues being addressed. The LRB has been doing the best coverage of Sudan of all the periodicals that I’ve read, save perhaps The Economist which covered the situation long before it became a Western cause. I’ll be doing a post on the LRB but the article was so good I had to link to it now.

The Valve is holding another book event this time on The Novel of Purpose by Amanda Claybaugh. If you’re interested in authors like George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Henry James the posts are worth a look. Considering that Claybaugh is “historicizing” the selected 19th century Anglo-American fiction it isn’t exactly my cup of tea, it’s an interesting one and The Valve typically has good writing.

Then finish it all with Geoffrey Philp’s insightful reading of Olive Senior’s popular poem Colonial Girls School, one of my favourite poems. (It’s listed along with others on my Assortments page.) She’s an alma mater, former head girl too, I’m sure, of my high school in Montego Bay.

9 Responses to "Shhhh! Read quietly."

Isn’t Mamdani just stating the obvious, i.e. that war/genocide/sectarian violence are basically political/economic? Is this a news flash for people? And so what? Are we supposed to stand by and watch if people are being killed for their fields rather than for the colour of their skin? Is political/economic violence somehow none of our business?

Errr…I’m not sure if you’ve actually read the article or not. Perhaps I should have made the point clearer that there are specific political and economic situations that are being fazed out in the general discourse, or at least the most influential discourse on the matter in Darfur. Your comment on the “colour of their skin” is related to the particular kind of point Mamdani is making–which colour? An easy framing of the matter would assert it was the lighter ‘Arabs’ killing the black ‘farmers’ but it actually isn’t so neatly divided, not least because ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ are understood differently, depending on context, in Sudan.

And I knew before the article that certain factions are placing it in a Muslims vs. Christians conflict, and others like Nicolas Kristof of the NYT, so Mamdani argues, place it in wider, moral terms as “good vs evil”–which again seeks to eclipse the more complex matters on the ground (for eg. that the rebels have been as ruthless many a time as the government-sponsored janjaweed). It’s not so difficult to think of another situation given such a moral frame that’s developed into even a bigger disaster.

My personal beef, which is touched on in the article, is that the world has been very content to stand aside while a far worse conflict in Congo has been raging and still rages on, but for whatever reason isn’t nearly as popular on university campuses. Where’s the outrage about that? If I didn’t read The Economist I wouldn’t even know it still existed.

Mamdani didn’t suggest anyone should simply stand aside. So again, I have to ask, did you read the article? Because it doesn’t read as if you did. :p

I did read the article (:P) and it seemed like Mamdani was saying that because there are complicated political and economic issues involved in Darfur that it must therefore not be genocide. It seems to me that genocide is *always* about complicated political and economic issues. I think it’s Mamdani who is oversimplifying the concept of genocide, not the world community.

Wow, I did not get that at all. He certainly seems hesitant to unequivocally deem it a genocide (though he uses the term itself, interchanging it with “civil war”) but if anything it’s based on the UN’s definition of genocide which involves the “intent” of the perpetrator to wipe out a specific racial group. And then he goes to show how a) this is not as clear cut as some would have it an b) that the insurgents/rebels are not the innocent party here. (I don’t think, and Mamdani from what I read was not implying that if the situation was not “genocide” that meant that things in Sudan weren’t so bad.)

And he did not say that the world community was using an overly simple definition of genocide–it’s quite clear that he thinks something of the UN via the Security Council’s concept.

For me the article was less about what is seen as the general definition of a genocide and more about how it is manipulated by political perspective. He was trying to get readers to appreciate the fact that, as Iraq (and Rwanda was and Congo is) is a place with a history and culture and politics that will have a large effect on how foreign military intervention would and has worked there, so is Darfur. And I don’t think anyone can argue that the general media has not been providing that kind of information. It’s usually just another report on the state of humanitarian aid there, or a fresh estimate on how many have been killed. Good enough to invoke shock and horror, but what of an informed response?

The definition of genocide leaves the question of motive completely open. It’s only “clear cut” for those who don’t enquire as to why one group of people is slaughtering another, and even CNN does that.

Mamdani seems to be arguing against imaginary people who are saying that the situation in Darfur is “good guys versus bad guys, end of story.” I certainly hope Mamdani isn’t wasting his time arguing against people who are so uninformed that they would never encounter his article anyway!

So who is he arguing against? Who in the informed concerned community really thinks the situation is as simple as Mamdani accuses them of thinking it is? Here is almost the first thing Amnesty says about it: “The causes of the conflicts in the south, east and west of Sudan are complex…” What more does Mamdani want?

Incidentally, this is why I don’t have a political blog. Be thankful.

Incidentally, this is why I don’t have a political blog. Be thankful.

Ha! I just saw this. This is why I don’t either. 😀 We could go on forever.

I think this is why it read to me as if you were going off more my description of the article than the actual thing.

The UN Commission on Darfur was created in the aftermath of the American verdict and in response to American pressure. It was more ambiguous. In September 2004, the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, then the chair of the African Union, visited UN headquarters in New York. Darfur had been the focal point of discussion in the African Union. All concerned were alert to the extreme political sensitivity of the issue. At a press conference at the UN on 23 September Obasanjo was asked to pronounce on the violence in Darfur: was it genocide or not? His response was very clear:

“Before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing, we will have to have a definite decision and plan and programme of a government to wipe out a particular group of people, then we will be talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing. What we know is not that. What we know is that there was an uprising, rebellion, and the government armed another group of people to stop that rebellion. That’s what we know. That does not amount to genocide from our own reckoning. It amounts to of course conflict. It amounts to violence.”

There is more on a 2005 report that speaks of “genocidal intent”, commissioned by the Security Council which includes the qualification that there are two parties perpetrating the violence, with one noticeably exceeding the other. Are you asserting that they’re working on an erroneous definition or that the situation has changed radically since then?

I think this is why I half-jokingly asked if you had read the article. Your responses until the last were very general points about there always being other issues surrounding any violence, any genocide so that’s neither here nor there. But Mamdani makes very specific points about the situation that directly impact how we apply to label of genocide to Darfur. I’ve mentioned the points referring to this already.

He specifically named at least Kristof at the NYT as perpetrating the simple moral view of Darfur specifically, and Gourevitch about Rwandan genocide (the one most often compared to the Darfur conflict). He referred to western media in general as highlighting only the violence to invoke a specific moral outrage without any real context. Can you truly say that this has not been the case? The NYT reports (not opinion columns, which I don’t read) has been the only outlet (that I’ve read) that has gone into any detail beyond mere description of how the things have escalated. He has a whole paragraph on how he believes the campaigners have presented themselves to US congress. (And I think it’s fair to keep in mind that he is specific on which campaign, and does not refer to some worldwide “informed concerned community”. He is clearly looking at the American situation here, and I’d assume American arms of certain groups.)

Basically, I’d like you to start referring to the points he actually makes. Every time I read your comments I keep on wondering which article you read. (I even checked the link again, just to make sure.) Edit:I’m not sure if this came off rude? I’m tired and should stop commenting. I left it there so it wouldn’t look sketchy, but I do apologise if it’s unduly terse.

Contrast this with the UN commission’s painstaking effort to make sense of the identities ‘Arab’ and ‘African’. The commission’s report concentrated on three related points. First, the claim that the Darfur conflict pitted ‘Arab’ against ‘African’ was facile. ‘In fact, the commission found that many Arabs in Darfur are opposed to the Janjawiid, and some Arabs are fighting with the rebels, such as certain Arab commanders and their men from the Misseriya and Rizeigat tribes. At the same time, many non-Arabs are supporting the government and serving in its army.’ Second, it has never been easy to sort different tribes into the categories ‘Arab’ and ‘African’: ‘The various tribes that have been the object of attacks and killings (chiefly the Fur, Massalit and Zeghawa tribes) do not appear to make up ethnic groups distinct from the ethnic groups to which persons or militias that attack them belong. They speak the same language (Arabic) and embrace the same religion (Muslim). In addition, also due to the high measure of intermarriage, they can hardly be distinguished in their outward physical appearance from the members of tribes that allegedly attacked them. Apparently, the sedentary and nomadic character of the groups constitutes one of the main distinctions between them’

Another quote. Do you see what Mamdini was getting at? I went to the AJS website and none of this is mentioned, but they were pretty comfortable about calling it a genocide.

I went to the Amnesty website and from their description of the background of the “Sudan crisis” but they describe the horrific acts of the government’s proxy army but don’t characterise it as a genocide, nor they do describe it in purely, simple racial terms. In fact their language is in sync with the UN reports Mamdani cites in his piece. Another angle to this is that all this discussion of whether or not it is a genocide is another stupid delay in the matter, but the article is about what kind of situations and motivations are behind people calling one matter this and a remarkably similar situation something else.

Edit: Maybe we should take this to e-mail? I’m not pleased with what I’ve made of this comment space; there’s a 0.01% chance that anyone will add something that’s not related to this. :/

No worries. My interest tends towards the theoretical, going beyond what’s in the article, which is why it seems I’m not addressing the article. Incomprehensible leaps of logic are my speciality. I never did learn to “show my work.” Again, be thankful I don’t have a politblog!

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