I’ve decided to inaugurate this blog as a side-project of the main site to record some thoughts every so often. They are all incomplete and a bit winding, but I hope that the process of writing will help me sort out some of these ideas and hopefully spark some discussion in the process.
What sparked the idea for this post was a translation I did for the newly-launched Intercontinental Cry Español, for which I am currently the Spanish editor (I hope dearly that we will grow to have a more horizontal group of editors in the future), El gobierno de Sudan prepara para el ‘asalto final’ contra el pueblo nubio (original here). Reading and translating the piece made me think of George Clooney’s recent stunt, and sparked a whole bunch of things I just had to get down ‘on paper’ while they were still fresh. So what follows is a half-edited, half-intact stream of consciousness reflection on what I’ve called “George Clooney, Sudan, and Meaningful Anger”. Hope you enjoy!
I never know what to make of things like this–in general he is just a liberal, but when he does something like this he gets all sorts of props for ‘putting himself on the line’. Still, I find it very difficult to idealise–with something like Sudan, the U.S. has very little to lose in someone taking a public position for or against some kind of intervention, humanitarian, imperialist or otherwise (imperialist-humanitarian? a new trend as we can see w/ Libya, Syria…).
What I mean to say is, there is very little to leverage–and therefore very little performative value in Clooney’s act–because of two facts: 1) the level of involvement of the U.S. in Sudanese affairs, and 2) the lack of an organised social movement. The U.S.’s relationship and position with Sudan hinges on its secrecy and covertness–unlike its relationship with say, Israel. The US-Sudan relationship is much more dispersed, works through a variety of indirect and secondary forces, and operates at too high an echelon of government for this kind of action to be meaningful or produce long-term results. The US-Israel relationship, on the other hand, is too critical to the grand narrative of US intervention in the Middle East, too out in the open and too official to be kept under wraps, almost suffering from its own hubris: in its loud, open pronouncements it exposes itself to being attacked. Not so with Sudan, where the fact of decades-long so-called ‘low-intensity’ warfare is all but a mystery to activists and non-activists alike.
So at a very basic level, George Clooney’s protest does not threaten any kind of status quo simply because there is no conversation to be threatened. This is connected to #2: an organised social movement exists and comes about in a situation of repression and silencing, and is precisely what a) forces the hand of popular discourse to actually create a conversation and open up a space where there previously wasn’t one, and b) makes public action meaningful by linking it to concrete ends which serve the needs of the population in question directly.
This latter revelation leads us to the unfortunate truth about the kind of “activism” Clooney is engaging in and the “movement” he is evoking/working with when he does what he does. As far as I can tell–and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but–Sudan/South Sudan “awareness” campaigns boil down to mostly that: awareness. Or better yet, self-satisfaction. And who are they dominated by? Mostly government aid and NGOs, with shady links to the military and the Pentagon. This is not to deny resistance and social movement activity within Sudan or neighboring African states; but it is to expose the hypocrisy of development aid and the NGOisation of human rights. Only when resistance has globalised itself to include the legitimate action and participation of the “international community”–here understood as everyday people, not governments and the UN–does public, “solidarity” agitation for change make sense; otherwise we fall into the trap of what Warscapes writer Dinaw Mengestu explains in their recent article on the “Kony 2012” debacle: the intricate politics of nations and conflicts “are reduced to a few simple boilerplate propositions whose real aim isn’t awareness, but the gratifying world-changing solution lying at the end of our thirty-minute journey into enlightenment.” Clooney has not been invited into a movement as a companion, but has waltzed in as a self-appointed spokesperson.
And when we do a little bit of research, it turns out that the picture is much uglier than we thought–or maybe exactly as ugly as we expected it to be. In an article titled US-Israeli War in Sudan Masked by Clooney, Keith Harmon Snow says:
“Like Angelina Jolie, Clooney travels to and from Sudan with official Pentagon and intelligence support and protection. The United States and Israel and our NATO partners are involved in a full-scale military conflagration in Sudan involving guerrilla and covert operations forces. This should be exposed like the Iran Contra scandal – but of course all the US government officials know what is going on. The US covert war against Islamic Sudan began in 1990 and through decades of simmering low-intensity warfare we have slowly but surely eroded the power of the Khartoum government and usurped their sovereign lands through all kinds of mass atrocities paid for by US taxpayers.
Of course, look a little deeper and you find extensive right wing, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, anti-labor union, pro-corporate interests backing them. George Clooney and Reeves and Prendergast and Royce and Kristoff should be indicted for supporting war crimes in Sudan.”
Again, I am not arguing that the U.S. does “not” have a policy on Sudan or that the situation could not or should not be changed (obviously, South Kordofan could go from not receiving the support it needs to avoid a famine to receiving said support; people could go from being targeted & killed to not being targeted & killed). What I am saying is that when we let ourselves be lulled into the glamor of this kind of “activism for social change”, we miss that we are essentially negotiating over a faucet, not transforming a situation at the root. I do not feel it is a big stretch to make this argument, and there is plenty of literature out there by the likes of Thandike Mkandawire, James Ferguson, Frederick Cooper and others about the ‘faucet’ (in other words, ‘development’) problem in regards to Africa specifically. It is nothing to new.
But it is also, for me, about the more general notion of a whole network of international institutions that have increasingly come to govern the economic, political, and social life of non-Western spaces in the last 50 years, and the implications of trying to confront them with conventional methods of social movement activism without the social movement (another unfortunate parallel with Kony 2012–the vanity of assuming one can will a social movement into existence). The UN, governmental, military, and NGO elites that have access to spaces like South Kordofan are not, ultimately, interested in shifting the balance of the scales back towards the self-determination of tricontinental nations and peoples. Not because they can’t fathom the idea of popular resistance (I’m sure that any number of them feel their hearts swell watching Avatar), but because it simply isn’t in the DNA of such efforts, linked as they are to a global bureaucratic elite of “country experts”, “aid specialists”, and “theaters of operations”, to be a part of that shift.
If that were the case they–and Mr. Clooney–would be joining ATTAC, or the Committee to Abolish Third World Debt, the growing World Social Forum formation which has become its own front in trying to re-establish a kind of Bandung consensus among tricontinental countries, or any number of anti-war, anti-militarisation, or anti-capitalist groups trying to bring attention the structural causes that bring about crises like that in South Kordofan, which is not just about famine and civil war but about indigineity and sovereignty and the international “Fourth World” in relation to the “First”. If that were the case, they–and Mr. Clooney–would be trying to link up to Sudanese and Nuba on the ground who can take advantage of the kind of uneven visibility and access celebrities like Clooney have to directly confront the main perpetrators of this situation and others like it: the IMF, the World Bank, G8, NATO, NAFTA, and so on. It would be linked to a critique of that very real relationship the U.S. has with Sudan, both historically (supporting dictator Nimeiry) as well as presently, supporting al-Bashir militarily as an “ally” in the fight against al-Qaeda, thereby fomenting crisis conditions in “his” own country. It would therefore be a stand against AFRICOM, intervention in Libya, and the list goes on.
All of these require real, cross-cultural collaboration and concerted activity to confront, and do require a real sacrifice and entail a real risk for participants, as it involves fundamentally challenging the Order of Things. As a famous actor and one of the “100 Sexiest Men of All Time”, among other noble titles anointed to him by the media circus, Clooney has the full support of the cameras (the press)–so what it means to “use” that privilege and that visibility is very different for something truly unpopular and controversial, versus whatever the flavor-of-the-month charity case happens to be. The theme this unseemingly warm March seems to be an old colonial standby: Africans in need of white saviors. In the words of Snow,
“…what we are seeing is simply a sub-saharan extension of the full spectrum military and propaganda attacks against Iran and Syria, just as we have already seen with Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq…This is not the black and white picture George Clooney and Dr. Eric Reeves and Nicholas Kristoff paint of the Government of Sudan RANDOMLY raping and starving people. These US agents like Clooney and Mia Farrow and Reeves don’t talk about the Israeli shipments of weapons into south Sudan, for example, or the huge land grab by Wall Street investors.”
In this context, what could Clooney’s statements and arrest truly mean? Do they have political value or are they rather part of a larger horse-and-pony show, more ornamental than substantive?
It is for this reason, too, that I have a very hard time with any public action regarding China, Tibet, Iran, and so on in the United States “in general” as truly transformative work. There are too many entrenched interests that are not being exposed, not being challenged in these efforts and many times they play into the hands of the US foreign policy machine, either wittingly or unwittingly. They tend not to rouse the anger of authorities because oftentimes there is no real threat to detain not in the sense that there ‘isn’t’ an issue, but in the sense that nothing is actually being targeted. And we need to think about being threatening–about being a threat. This is what social movements are all about–not about playing nice, not about making a good show. About making things quake.
A final point. I brought up Israel earlier for a reason. I believe that a good counter-example to the kind of “activism” we see George Clooney engaging in here can be found in the Palestine solidarity movement, particularly through the adoption of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), in a lesson from the South African anti-apartheid movement. Here is a situation which is, indeed, problematic to agitate for in the U.S. context. Here is an occupation which, unlike, say, Tibet, is not popularly recognised as such, and which enjoys the full support of both the U.S. media and government. Here is a situation enforced directly by the very public and undisguised collaboration of the two states, a relationship which (unlike the situation in Sudan) receives the undivided attention of the “American” public on a regular basis and which by and large goes unquestioned–until, that is, a space is opened up by social movement activity. The U.S. has quite a bit to lose by its relationship with the colonial settler state of Israel being put into question, and this is partially so because there is now an organised threat working to end that relationship which has been gathering success after success in the last 10 years. Finally, this movement is only possible because it works in concert with Palestinian voices on the ground, not with political parties, governmental entities, or official channels, much as these try to weasel their way into the social movement space. It is the existence of this organised, grassroots movement that makes possible meaningful solidarity in the West, not the other way around.
And that, I think, is the rub of what I’m trying to say: arguments, statements, do not have abstract political meaning measured against a set of objective political facts, but only take on meaning in relation to the space from which they are articulated. Let’s call it the difference between James Cameron making Avatar and subsequently fashioning himself an advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide and Marlon Brandow refusing an Oscar and having Sacheen Littlefeather go up to speak for him instead. That is to say, recognising the specificity of different political spaces, what their power relations are, and the kinds of leverage one has in trying to reverse or alter those power relations. Ultimately, asking “the government in Khartoum to stop randomly killing its own innocent men, women and children”, in Clooney’s words, is a nice soundbite, but it allows its speaker to take on a righteous moral indignation that isn’t properly theirs because it falls on deaf ears. To get those ears to perk up, we have to put the system which causes these crises–the colonial/capitalist world system–in jeopardy.
POSTSCRIPT: It was John Schertow of Intercontinental Cry who pointed me to the work of Keith Harmon Snow quoted above after I had already written this piece. I thank him for deeply expanding my understanding of the situation and exposing me to Snow’s amazing work.