Saviours and victims

Bhakti Shringarpure has a wide-ranging conversation with Mahmood Mamdani over at Warscarpes.  It covers a lot of ground, but one of the central threads is Mamdani’s insistence on conducting a ‘history of violence’, which is to say a history of the present (Darfur, Ruanda) in ways that disclose the historical context for today’s horrors.

MAMDANI Saviors and survivorsHence Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, in which Mamdani argued that the crisis in Darfur had to be read as a vicious gavotte of insurgency and counterinsurgency rather than genocide (as many commentators in the West insist).  Explaining his insistence on a dispersed, situated agency, Mamdani sets himself against what he calls the ‘new’ narrative of human rights:

‘The conventional approach, the approach used by the contemporary human rights movement, has been to document the atrocities, [to take] testimony, to identify perpetrators, to name and shame. The perpetrator is portrayed as someone with all the agency in the world. The victim is someone with no agency. That’s the narrative….  The old human rights movement, which was born with the French revolution – human rights of man, the citizen – it sought to empower the victim and to focus on issues. This new one seeks to empower saviors to salvage this helpless victim.’

He also talks about the politics of writing (and about the part his Harvard room-mate, Michael Ignatieff, played in the development of his own style), about audiences and public intellectuals, about the book through which I first came to know his work, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the roots of terror, the role Edward Said had in its publication, and his own ‘voyage in’, and he ends with this reflection on teaching at Columbia:

The downside of American students is this thing which runs through – seems to run through – the Western experience, but seems particularly crystallized in the American case, which is this notion that you can save the world. And this determination to save the world. This conviction that they know what’s good for the world, and they know what’s good for you, better than you know. So it’s almost like the medieval Christians who burnt people to save their souls.

They can be like the modern counterpart of the missionaries. They are not particularly interested in the problem: They are there to give you the solution. By the time they leave the university, they are imbued with the sense of what should be the solution. I always tell them that, before you get unleashed upon the world, let me have a chance to talk to you. Get them to realize that the real question is not, “What’s the solution?” – it’s “What’s the problem?” And the elements of any sustainable solution have to be found inside the problem.

But it’s not a peculiarly American conceit.  One of the characteristic gestures of modern colonialism and imperialism has been, precisely, to insist on its mission to bring ‘order’ from the outside to save those souls who would otherwise be condemned to their own chronic ‘disorder’.  This has been on view most recently in Tony Blair’s athletic support for the military intervention in Egypt: ‘Bringing about stability in the Middle East is not somebody else’s job, it’s ours.’  Perhaps it’s time somebody wrote Good Christian, Bad Christian.

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