Friday, November 30, 2007

The Trouble with Genocide*

In a city that doesn't want for them, I think the NYPL Live series is one of New York's great resources (Paul Holdengraber* notwithstanding; although undoubtedly I unfairly discredit his contribution on account of my allergy to his attitude. About which I am nevertheless willing to modify my impressions, see below). Sadly, I find myself too often unable to attend events, usually because of my travel schedule. That said, I hadn't realized how much I'd missed until I heard that tonight's Robert Silvers Lecture with Nicholas Kristof was the final NYPL Live event of the season. The talk was preceded by a screening of excerpts from the recent event with Norman Mailer-- evidently his last public appearance. I really hadn't paid a lot of attention to him after 'The White Negro' which I read when I was reading everything about race and can't actually recall the essay but guess I didn't think it that important. Mailer didn't really figure for me; not my period, not my paradigm. But he was keen and unsparing in this final video which will send me back to the text. If I were a writer, that's the kind of legacy I'd want.

Anyway that was a preamble, delirious and bracing: Felix the Cat to the main event.

Nicholas Kristof's presentation was surprisingly unpolished and correspondingly effective. I hope that doesn't sound cynical, a quality I do not attribute to his performance. In large part, it was his coverage that introduced and engaged me and so many many others to and with the situation in Darfur. His courage in pursuing the story and the personal commitment were both evident and evidently sincere tonight.

But so too was a hopeless humanism. Clearly, Mr. Kristof is moved and motivated by the pathos of the individual. I think I remember now that
he bought a sex slave
in SE Asia at one point in order to free her from bondage? There's no question that the stories he told (and the pictures he showed) are outrageous, and no question that the conditions obtaining in Darfur are unacceptable, that pressure from the international community is necessary and right.

I have to give credit to Mr. Holdengraber* for demonstrating an unaccustomed restraint in his role this evening, as well as for carefully synthesizing what he said were over 100 comments submitted in writing during the talk (written submissions are a wise programming decision, I think) into a few relevant questions. Apparently a number of people wanted NK to justify his argument that the crisis in Darfur merited priority attention from the international community (and individuals in the audience) over against say malaria, or the Congo where the deadliest war in recorded history supposedly ended in 2003.

The gist of Kristof's response was that genocide-- defined as a state policy of extermination of a race, ethnicity or other characteristic believed to be heritable or otherwise essential-- is the greatest challenge to our humanity and therefore automatically belongs at the top of the agenda of those who would pursue peace and justice for the peoples of the world.

A post-Enlightenment subject would find it difficult to reject this argument out of hand. Indeed, I confess that there were points during his presentation when I reached for my handkerchief. (I'm cutting back on kleenex). But I also find it incredibly uncomfortable. Leaving aside everything else, it reflects a quaintly modernist and decidedly 'western' conception of how power is organized and effected much less of the role of the state in its engagement and exercise. There's the whole ISA thing which I think is very important, and beyond that something I'm just beginning to glimpse from my recent exposure to part of the middle east, about which I don't feel sufficiently well versed, instructed, or experienced to comment beyond saying that I begin to realize, to my horror, that the Enlightenment project (within which I have understood my entire life) was likely always more idiosyncratic than I was aware, and even more minor tomorrow than today.

*with apologies to Walter Michaels.

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