On both CNN channels in Kathmandu, you will see repeatedly the same promo, the same bit of self-deception: To understand the story, it says, you have to understand the people—and not only does CNN, but it can also communicate this understanding to you, with analysis.
Nevertheless, as the earthquake in China, still unnamed, and the lingering, ineluctable devastation in Burma of Cyclone Nargis continue to dominate the news here, CNN continues to display a American-centric view of China that, one presumes, both reinforces the extent of the devastation and the dominance of our national and nationalistic conceptions to their viewers. The reporting on Burma is scarce, usually a bare-bones reading of factoids and changes in the situation, the anchor staring straight into the camera, solemnly, making unidirectional eye contact with thousands and perhaps millions of people: a plane has arrived, a ship has left, there are now some-thousands confirmed dead.
There is little actual analysis, but then the television has never been a real form for analysis; like a speech or the theater, it is a form for performance, for inspiration to action. The level of evil that necessitates action, that necessitates Intervention, is the most present issue that arises from both Nargis and the Burmese government (and, in CNN's intimations, from the earthquake as well)—but like many historical events, the failure of all of us to intervene will be both tacitly recognized and tacitly buried, marked but forgotten.
The issues in Intervention are much the same as the issues in Development: self-determination and agency; imperialism; power and hegemony; issues of world view and culturally-enforced ethos, of cultural relativism and cultural absolutism; exploitation and cultural appropriation; exoticism and exoticzation; and presentism, the belief that what is now is both all there is and all there could be. And just as the major actors in Development are confined and constrained by the narrow world view of a certain, small segment of the developed world, the major actors of Intervention—nations and those that hold power in national governments—are bound by a view of politics that lies similarly unexamined and unchallenged, but is similarly partial and fractional.
Perhaps the best way to understand this is via the New York Times Magazine article this week, written by David Rieff. He writes of an idea "enshrined in a United Nations-approved covenant as the 'responsibility to protect'—the idea being that a state that engages in criminal behavior toward its own people has forfeited not just its moral but also its legal right to sovereignty."
Later, Rieff writes, entirely earnestly:
The harsh truth is that it is one thing for people of conscience to call for wrongs to be righted but it is quite another to fathom the consequences of such actions. Good will is not enough; nor is political will. That is because, as Iraq has taught us so painfully, the law of unintended consequences may be one of the few iron laws of international politics.First, it should be noted that Rieff is taking something of an intellectual risk by talking about intervention at all—as he notes, even though the coalition concerned about Darfur is exceptionally broad in its politics, mainstream American culture fails to consider Intervention as anything but a fantastic option, neither feasible nor plausible. But unfortunately the article's conception of what Invention is and what it means is constrained by the limits of American political discourse, constrained by the limits of mainstream American imagination and memory.
I don't mean to be particularly critical of Rieff alone here—I certainly have little expertise, whether credentialed or autodidactic, on the complex interplay of power relations between governments—for his article is not so much an apology for certain values as it is a reflection of them. So that I take exception to his conception of politics, his conception of agency, his conception of morality as our moral duties stretch across borders, is more an offense that comes from the limits of my own culture. This view is hierarchical and oddly non-judgmental, as if acknowledging difficulty, perhaps extreme difficulty, is sufficient justification for inaction. It's a view in which we, as more or less non-empowered citizens, bear neither responsibility for our governments inaction nor responsibility for the results of that inaction; a view that is informed by an unfortunate conception of propriety and agency.
The paragraph I've quoted—the penultimate paragraph, by the way—is entirely specious and is ergo both easy pickings and a good place to begin. The point he makes—that we can have good intentions but not understand the consequences of our actions—is true of literally every decision we make in life. I may order a mojito at a bar that takes the bartender far longer to make than a normal drink and puts him in a surly mood, even though my intention was not to do so. I may choose to take a bus for environmental reasons and unwittingly step on someone's foot as I climb on or off, or as I shift on the rubber mat in the middle to make more room.
We can expand this idea to bigger areas as well, were the stakes begin to become a microcosm of those involved in international politics, where part of the responsibility lies with our own, chosen1 ignorance. If I'm a new, experimenting college student at UCLA and buy (or even smoke) marijuana in a cinder-block dorm room with Sovietistic furnishings, I bear partial responsibility for the perpetuation of system that makes the foggy, hidden hills of Humboldt County dangerous places, though of course the agents of the US's drug war bear much, much more, even as most of them are less directly involved.
Likewise, if I am a parent and buy Chiquita bananas because they are a good source of potassium for my kids, I've unwittingly bought into a system of exploitation economics—pick fruit for solely subsistence pesos or get shot—in Central and South America.2
That we come in with our best intentions, and that we strive to do right continuously, that we are aware and awake and adaptive enough to change our actions when life elucidates the unintended consequences—and when, as sometimes happens, our best intentions do more harm than good—is in fact the best we can do as people constrained by bodies and brains and the very real limits of what we can possibly know.
(Of course, the UN document that Rieff refers to has unintended consequences of its own: it confers an idea of legitimacy on the illegitimate; it uses the status, deserved or not, of the UN to begin or continue a checklist of minimum qualifications that somehow define any government as “acceptable”; and in doing so, indeed moves governments like China's and Zimbabwe's towards legitimacy, by placing a threshold that they can argue they have crossed. Even if in the end arguing that somehow a 17-year-old Tibetan from Shigatse has “consented” or is legitimately subject to caprices of a commissioner in Beijing, 2000 miles away, because his grandfather's grandfather was made a vassal and his grandfather's bid for autonomy crushed is plainly foolish, simpleminded, such a document grants other states, like the US, a means to avoidance, to allowing the detention or torture or death of the 17-year-old because of his place of birth, because something entirely fortuitous.)
What Rieff reinforces is essentially a rightist idea of agency, of action: that our actions are not justified unless an authority figure gives us the ok, the go-ahead. In the case of the United Nations, the authority is an undemocratic, unelected, and insular group3 of people who have declared themselves the arbiters of morality. Rieff, like most American center-leftists, considers the UN to indeed be a moral authority; the American right, generally very critical of the UN, has no qualms with this authoritarian model but instead with who is the ultimate authority.
In other words, Intervention belongs at the level of governments, and even they must get permission before intervening. It's this model that I take issue with.
There is another model, however: that of the Spanish Civil War. The Republicans—the democratic government and its allies—were supported by the Soviet Union and little else. That is, except for the International Brigades, more than 30,000 full volunteers who defied their governments and fought and struggled, literally, for their principles, for their own, personal moralities. On the other side Franco's rebels, usually called the Nationalists, were supported by not only Germany, Italy, and Portugal but also tacitly by the Great Britain, France, and the United States—indeed, Texaco provided fuel on credit to Franco's troops, directly abetting massacres at Guernica and elsewhere, and Britain provided the transit for Franco to come out of exile and let him station weapons at Gibraltar.
Since that time—and here I intend no causality—we've become slowly and increasingly suspicious of cultural concepts and constructs like honor and glory, and rightfully so, concepts to which we could heretofore appeal; to say that George Orwell was “honorable” for defying his government and attacking and defending against fascism now invites furrowed brows and scrunched faces appealing for definition, appealing to reason. We as a society have denounced the sort of public shaming, or threat to shaming, that circumscribe ideas of honor and glory; on the left, we have idolized resistance, fetishized it—and this is how we choose to understand the acts of Orwell and others, as resisters.4 Indeed, on an international level, one of the things that the current Tibetan uprising has shown is that international pressure and shame—here, on China—have no effect if the target has or chooses to feel no shame.
But the act of shouting No! is itself an accession to power; to decline, to demur, to protest or complain or appeal to other authority are all ways that acknowledge and ultimately accept the power that another holds. Power is never unidirectional.5 If I am your boss and I order you to dig a ditch, although I have an economic and structural power, you can still press back with other power: you can go fast or slow, you can do the job haphazardly, you can decline to let me know that the soil is unstable and will collapse overnight, you can get me sent to see the HR manager for speaking to you too harshly. Or you can tell your trainee to do it, and he can reserve all the same mechanisms of power in his relation to you that you reserve in your relation to me. And just because a government or association of governments works to constrain not just individual agency but the possibilities of individual agency does not mean that those possibilities do not exist.
The point is that agency is not reserved for governments alone, nor, because of this, is responsibility. Just as corporations often serve as a mechanism for perpetrating acts that would be gravely immoral when performed by a single individual by dividing and diluting blame among employees and stockholders, governments can perform the same function. To ignore or, worse, fail to conceive of a place for individual agency and individual responsibility is at the same time a way of consolidating power among the enfranchised-and-empowered and also an ethical failure.
In fairness to Rieff, most likely he believes that the United Nations is an effective or at least baseline moral way of building consensus—that is, acting in ways that other peoples with other biases and perspectives, both national and historical, believe is right. But the UN doesn't build consensus—if a bare minimum of votes pass a resolution and no one on the also-anti-democratic security council objects, that's not consensus but a failure thereof.
In the end, as we all recognize, morality is not democratic. I am not bound to your ideas of what's right any more than you are bound to mine. And though essays like Rieff's limit appropriate action by lowly citizens to advocacy and harassment, to calling our representatives and writing letters to the newspaper, there are further possibilities, possibilities for direct action. Just as Development recognizes a place for non-governmental actors, and just as the Spanish revolution held a place for non-Spanish combatants, Intervention has a place for the individual. It's valid to ask Why doesn't the US do something? or Why won't France intervene?, but also valid to say Why don't you intervene?, Why don't you do something?
1 Chosen in the sense that one can choose which subjects and fields to remain ignorant of and in, even as moral responsibility is diluted because one must choose fields to remain ignorant of and in.
2 I am perpetually amazed that anyone would ever buy a Chiquita banana after the outright evil of United Fruit—the real event that the massacre of 3,000 Macondoans in A Hundred Years of Solitude was based on. That the company still exists at all is a failure of previous generations; and a failure of my own.
Or, to put it another way: In college, I had a classics professor who liked to paraphrase from Aeschylus. Once blood is shed, who can call it back? he would ask.
There is ignorance of evil; there is doubt; and there is complicity.
3 People generally don't conceive of it as such, I think because its bureaucrats tend to be harmless-looking tall men from Germanic Europe, but the UN is deeply undemocratic. Did you vote for your UN representative? Are you as equally represented as a person from China? Or, to perhaps be more fair, as a person from Canada, or from Indonesia, or from Mauritius? Does the UN—the "authority"—act in the interests of people or of its paying members, which are governments?
As for being insular, I'll relate an anecdote: I was sitting in the Imago Dei cafe in Kathmandu on Monday, and in a bid at procrastination I began eavesdropping a conversation between Americans on the black couch by the door. A younger woman—white, dark hair and plastic frame glasses—had just had an interview with the UN and was telling the other woman—older and rounder, skin now just beginning to sag—about the questions they asked, which were more in the form of a test or interrogation than a traditional American job interview.
At the end of her story, the younger woman said that she didn't think she would get it: "He said, 'With your passport, it's going to be very difficult to get a job with the UN.'"
I was incredulous, and as I made sure to type, word for word, and save and save again what she said, the two of them talked about this as if it were normal and acceptable.
4 This is of course the idea of honor in a different form, though the discussion that this idea begs is out of my scope.
5 Michel Foucault and Raymond Williams come to mind first as excellent exponents on the nature of power, but I'm sure there are many, many more that one could look to for reference.