Tag Archives: Activism

The Left and Policing in Burns, Oregon

6 Jan

The takeover of federal property at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon is a most unwelcome development. Personally, I think violent protest is tactically and morally problematic, but I’m less worried about a couple dozen angry white men who think America’s ripe for a conservative revolution than the ramifications of the response, particularly on the Left. I say this because America has been down this road before, with horrific and far-reaching consequences.

There’s a lot of history that’s relevant to this incident, but from what I’ve read, the story largely begins in Waco, Texas in 1993. The Branch Davidians, a fundamentalist religious group, began a standoff with federal agents after refusing to allow them to serve a search warrant. After an initial attack was fatally repulsed, the FBI launched a second assault that started a fire and killed 76 people, including many children.

Considering the massive death toll, Waco should’ve been an example of the dangers of militarized policing, but in fact the exact opposite happened. Fear, that was not totally unfounded, of far-right domestic terrorism prompted tougher terrorism laws and an increase in the adoption of military tactics and equipment by police forces (which is excellently and extensively detailed in Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop). The perpetrators of attacks like Oklahoma City were white reactionaries, and in response, the most strident supporters of tougher anti-terrorism forces, like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), were liberals. Joe Biden, for example, was a major proponent of increased police militarization. However, the effects of policies originally designed to target conservative extremists were mainly felt in low-income, minority communities in the middle of the Drug War. Because terrorism is rare and drug raids are not, police and other federal agencies with an armed component mostly utilized the anti-terrorism tactics and equipment on drug raids and in everyday policing. It wouldn’t be a stretch to tie what happened in Ferguson to laws and government programs pushed through by Democrats in the 1990’s.

The current episode in Oregon is largely a result of anti-terrorism politics in the mid-90’s, though relations between ranchers and the government in Western states has also played a role. The federal government owns vast tracts of land in rural areas of the West, but allows ranchers to graze their herds on much of this land for a small fee. The Hammonds, the father and son duo at the center of Ammon Bundy’s protest movement, are one such pair of ranchers, who fell foul of the law after setting fires on their property, which then spread to federal land, for what they claim were legitimate reasons. Now federal prosecutors disagree, but regardless, the fires did not injure anyone. However, a law passed in 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, mandates five-year minimum prison terms for those that cause fires on federal land. There are two major problems here. First, lighting fires on one’s own land, for potentially legitimate reasons such as fighting invasive species, is being dealt with by an anti-terrorist law. That’s absurd. It’s quite a testament to the growth of the national security state, and also legitimates a reactionary narrative that decries federal tyranny. Second, the mandatory minimums in this case are too harsh. Mandatory minimums as a concept, of course, was championed by liberals in the 70’s and 80’s as a way to prevent racial bias in sentencing, but have instead produced mass incarceration. Armed protest may be the wrong way to demonstrate displeasure, but when Ammon Bundy says that federal government is treating the Hammonds unjustly, he’s right.

As this situation progresses, I think those on the Left need to be especially careful with how they frame recommended responses. There is no option worse than an armed crackdown (though fortunately this outcome seems unlikely). It would likely create more support for Bundy’s reactionary fringe and lead to the loss of significant life. I think few Leftists truly hope for a crackdown (though they do exist), but some comparisons between how the government is currently acting and how it would act if the occupiers were not white make me uncomfortable (for reasons Jamelle Bouie powerfully explains). There is no disputing this truth, and there is also real value in identifying the double standard. However, it is a moral and political imperative to support a better status quo rather than calling for a lowest-common-denominator approach. There is certainly a leftist argument to be made against state violence here, but more importantly, laws that allow for more state violence will ultimately unleash it primarily on those who have the least privilege and influence. Measures aimed at violently suppressing white extremism will be used more forcefully on Muslims and the extra equipment given to police forces will be unleashed against racial minorities in the Drug War. The real power to inflict harm lies not in the hands of Bundy’s few dozen men, but in government agents tasked with responding to terrorism long after the current occupation ends. Therefore, those on the Left must be more consistent in their convictions on responding to violent extremism.

A final note on how we can understand the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, as they’re calling themselves: There’s been some dissonance between how those on the Left are characterizing these men and the best methods I know for evaluating violent groups. To generalize, many on the Left see Bundy’s men as violent terrorists driven by a sense of white privilege, or even a perfect example of American white supremacy. I think that’s the wrong approach. First of all, they can hardly be classified as terrorists, a word that has the remarkable ability to stifle critical thought. They have not committed any violence against civilians, or even threatened it. They have, however, indicated a willingness to violently confront the government, and therefore they can be classified as rebels or insurgents. But more than that, the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom should be taken seriously as political actors with complicated ideologies, even if we find those ideologies abhorrent. For example, seeing them merely as a manifestation of white privilege misses how the historical relationship between Mormons and the government plays a role or the origins of the struggle in federal land management. Digging deeper into this conflict not only presents a more accurate picture of who the insurgents are, but also highlights some problematic political dynamics. Now accepting that right-wing insurgents occupying federal land have legitimate grievances might be uncomfortable, but it can only lead to better politics.

Yale and Mizzou: Notes on Swarthmore’s Experience with Change

14 Nov

In the last few weeks, reacting to long histories of inequality and recent incidents of egregious racism, students at Yale and Mizzou rose up. The protests at both schools called for increased administrative interference in student language and culture, with the aim of using the power of the administrations to hamper prejudiced speech and action. This recent trend, where marginalized students actively seek increased intrusion from college authorities is notable and I think merits a bit of reflection. By contrast, there’s perhaps a tendency in left-wing circles to see student activism, whenever it occurs, as the natural consequence of oppression, but that view strips agency from the activists themselves, who have to make decisions about the tactics they will use. Especially on today’s left, which lacks a unifying ideology, these choices are frequently contested. In a different time or place, the contexts at Yale and Mizzou may have led to activism that sought to largely ignore the administration.

The activists at Yale and Mizzou are dealing with a stressful and rapidly-changing situation. My goal is not to offer specific solutions or critique specific tactics. I want to echo Daniel Drezner’s recent piece about what’s happening at Yale: outside observers are likely to lack the local knowledge necessary to comprehend what’s happened. There are few places as insular as residential college campuses, and the “bubble” effect creates politics that have a highly specific and personal character. Coming to definitive conclusions with only a cursory understanding of those politics is analytically dubious. Therefore, my goal is to offer some reflections on what happened at Swarthmore since the Spring of 2013 (otherwise known as the Spring of Our Discontent), about which I published an essay this past April. Swarthmore’s experience provides the advantage of a longer view of how student demands were translated into policy, and how those policies shaped out.

At Swarthmore, unlike Yale and Mizzou, allegations the college was mishandling sexual assault cases was the precipitator. Activists called on the college to reform its internal justice mechanisms to more fairly and sensitively deal with sexual assault allegations. While the way forward for addressing sexual assault clearly necessitated administrative involvement, other campaigns adopted a similar theory of change. After repeated urinations on the door of the Intercultural Center, students pushed the administration to install a camera facing the door and increase Public Safety patrols of the area. A campus-wide referendum on the existence of the fraternities sought to gauge student opinion and appeal to the administration to act on that opinion. Finally, Mountain Justice sought to force the Board of Managers to divest the schools’ endowment from fossil fuels. In each case, there were avenues available that did not involve increased administrative oversight. However, the activist left at Swarthmore largely chose to pursue social change through the policies of the college administration.

More than two years after the Spring of Our Discontent, Swarthmore looks very different. When I was an underclassman, social life was mostly governed by social norms, and students were left to regulate themselves in the belief that this would improve the student experience and aid personal growth. Alcohol, generally a central point of administrative intrusion on college campuses, was easy to obtain for free no matter your age. Administrators were really only there to manage the college and step in when students absolutely couldn’t mitigate conflicts on their own. Over time, the college has moved away from this hands off approach. During the Spring of Our Discontent, conflicts on campus were gracing the pages of the New York Times, and while the causality is perhaps unclear, there was a noticeable drop off in the number of applications in subsequent years. Additionally, increased attention from the Department of Education meant the college perceived an increased risk of lawsuits, and to avoid making itself an easy target, Swarthmore’s administrators sought to move its practices in line with other schools.

Sometimes, this move to limit liability had positive effects. Swarthmore was forced to take sexual assault proceedings seriously, and after a major turnover in staff, has implemented much more effective, sensitive, and consistent policies. But many of these changes have been less than positive. Generally, the school was become more inclined to cut students out of decision-making processes and punish students formally for transgressions, rather than addressing them through dialogue. Perhaps the most poignant example is alcohol policy. Prior to the Spring of Our Discontent, college alcohol policy allowed students to indirectly use college money to buy alcohol, which was then served for free at all-campus parties. Consequently, students largely consumed alcohol in large groups, and those who were too inebriated were aided by designated sober students at each party. That’s all changed as concerns about liability have taken precedence over student well-being. The college now prevents any college money from going to alcohol purchases, which runs the risk of pushing drinking into unsupervised dorm rooms, where binge drinking is more likely. The most harmful effect, however, was that the only institutions capable of holding regular parties were the fraternities, and now most large parties happen there. One of the principal complaints of sexual assault activists was the prevalence of sexual assault at the fraternities. That the movement to address sexual assault led to a relative increase in the social importance of fraternities is particularly unfortunate.

What can we learn from what happened at Swarthmore? For me, the central lesson is that the combination of media attention and calls for administrative intervention will have long-term consequences, many of which seem entirely unrelated to the initial incident. Like at Swarthmore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the calls to address racism end up affecting housing policy, decision-making processes, and disciplinary proceedings at Yale and Mizzou.

From Swarthmore’s experience, it seems clear to me that the more students ask for the administration to intervene, the more they invite over-reach and weaken students’ ability to force change in the future. In short, the intrusion stays, but the power students have to direct this intrusion doesn’t. I worry that attempts by marginalized communities to increase oversight by a hierarchical authority will prove counterproductive in the long-term, because non-marginalized communities have more access to power, and will eventually be able to influence the oversight for their own ends. Especially when the target of regulation is language and culture, the cost of losing power over that regulation is facing conservative attempts to limit marginalized populations’ political expression. Now, there’s no right answer. Administrative intrusion is often needed to achieve certain social goals, but it’s worth recognizing the dangers of relying solely on administrative action.

The Sachs-Prendergast School of Activism

2 Sep

*The following is a guest post by my brother Timmy Hirschel-Burns.

Development and mass atrocities both interest me, and the articles I read are mostly about these two issues.  A few months ago, I realized that I could go from an article on corn production in Kenya to political conflict in South Sudan, but a major figure would be present in both articles.  Really, this was not one person, but two; Jeffrey Sachs and John Prendergast had melded together in my mind.  While this could be written off as subconscious sloppiness with little relevance to the real world, I think there are important parallels between Sachs and Prendergast.  Development and mass atrocities have much in common, and Sachs and Prendergast are among the leading figures in their respective fields.  Although Sachs’s ‘bookworm on a mission’ persona contrasts with Prendergast’s ‘cool guy out to save the world’ image, their methods are extremely similar.  That these two similar figures both became perhaps the most publicly recognizable person in their field is not a coincidence, but rather can shed light on how we approach developing countries-African ones in particular-, what types of activism gather attention, and how the shortcomings of these two figures can be avoided.  First, I will present some of the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast, and then I will discuss their broader significance.

Moral outrage– A constant theme for Sachs and Prendergast is their moral outrage about the suffering of individuals around the world.  In The Idealist, Nina Munk describes how after seeing how AIDS victims did not receive medicine in Zambia, Sachs was so appalled he decided to dedicate himself to ending poverty.  His shock is again apparent when he visits the Millennium Village in Ruhiira, Uganda, where he spends much of the visit muttering to himself about how outrageous poverty is.  Munk describes how after speaking with a doctor, “Sachs shook his head in disbelief; he was personally offended by the situation.  ‘They can’t go on like this,’ he said.”  Prendergast also puts his moral outrage at the center of his actions.  In Not on Our Watch, co-authored by Prendergast and Don Cheadle, they describe a visit to a visit to a refugee camp for those displaced by violence in Darfur.  They write, “As we listened to the stories of the refugees who fled the genocide, we sensed what it might be like to be hunted as a human being…Enough is ENOUGH.”

Westerners hold the solution– Sachs and Prendergast both frame poverty and mass atrocities, respectively, as something the West allows to happen.  Prendergast focuses on Samantha Power’s idea that we must be ‘upstanders’ to genocide rather than bystanders in The Enough Moment.  Munk also describes how in Ruhiira, Sachs reacts to what he sees by saying, “This is how we allow fellow human beings to die, by doing nothing.”  Of course, when Prendergast and Sachs say “we,” citizens of Darfur or Uganda do not really factor in.  Rather, the “we” they see as key to stopping genocide and poverty are Western citizens and policymakers.  Their policy prescriptions almost always follow this idea.  For Prendergast, the solution tends to come through Western-led diplomacy, peacekeeping forces, or in the case of the DRC, ending the purchase of conflict minerals.  For Sachs, Western-led aid interventions are at the center of his strategy.  Their seminal projects highlight their position at the center of solving mass atrocities and poverty.  Prendergast’s Enough Project and Sachs’s The End of Poverty both hold titles that emphasize finality.  Prendergast has had enough of mass atrocities and his organization will stop them, while Sachs knows how to end poverty and will describe how in his book.

Celebrity affiliations– A major feature of both Sachs and Prendergast’s work is their collaboration with non-expert celebrities in an effort to draw popular appeal.  Bono writes the foreword to The End of Poverty, Sachs starred in the MTV documentary “The Diary of Angelina Jolie & Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa,” and he has worked with Tommy Hilfiger.  Prendergast co-wrote two books with Don Cheadle, co-founded The Darfur Dream Team with basketball star Tracy McGrady, and has worked closely with George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and Ben Affleck.

Negative reaction to criticism– Both Prendergast and Sachs have a reputation of taking criticism very personally and having relentless faith in their ideas.  Prendergast has had high profile arguments with Mahmood Mamdani and Alex de Waal, while Sachs has long-running feuds with Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo.  While all prominent figures will have critics and public debate can be valuable and constructive, in these debates Prendergast and Sachs’s tone is often noticeably defensive and aggressive.  A memorable scene in The Idealist describes Sachs screaming at parisitologist Christian Lengeler on an airplane over their differing views on malaria control.  While they have reacted poorly to criticism, Sachs and Prendergast have also shown unwillingness to examine their ideas.  Sachs failed to have the Millennium Village Project properly evaluated (although to his credit he did give Nina Munk fantastic and seemingly uncensored access).  Prendergast has consistently pushed the idea that Dodd-Frank 1502, the legislation aimed at preventing the purchase of conflict minerals that he lobbied extensively for, led to the demise of M23.  However, Christoph Vogel argues that the only evidence to support this theory is a report commissioned by Prendergast and his colleague Sasha Lezhnev.

While some of these similarities are particular to Sachs and Prendergast, many can be applied to other prominent activists, campaigns and organizations.  Sachs and Prendergast are leading figures in a particular school of activism, and I think this is where the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast have the largest implications.  At the heart of the similarities between Sachs, Prendergast, and similar activists is their theory of change: they need to draw Western attention to problems in developing countries, Westerners will care more about these issues, their moral outrage will lead to more resources and money focused on the problems, and these resources and money will solve the problems.  This theory of change which is so prominent in Sachs and Prendergast also pervades Power, Kristof, Invisible Children, and a major portion of prominent activism, and I think this is where the problem lies.

There is nothing inherently wrong about many components of this theory of change.  The inequality and brutality that is present throughout the world should bring moral outrage, and Westerners can play a meaningful and effective role in producing change in the developing world.  What this theory of change lacks, however, is humility.  It fails to consider that Western popular attention may be able to do little to help, that these activists may not be the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, or that their moral outrage may not be enough to solve incredibly complex problems.  Perhaps they don’t know the answer, or the answer they thought they had was wrong.  They often can’t stop to consider power, institutions, history, and local knowledge because they have had enough of genocide, poverty needs to be ended, and they need to do it right now.  We do need to stop mass atrocities and end poverty, but it will be hard, it will take a long time, and it will take more than this type of activism.

The Girls That Brought Themselves Back

9 Jul

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign began with a crescendo of indignation, only to fade as those paying attention quietly accepted that the girls were probably never coming back.  Since then, good news in northeastern Nigeria has been hard to come by.  Fortunately, that changed two days ago.  U.S. media outlets began reporting that approximately sixty-seven women kidnapped by Boko Haram in mid-June escaped their captors and fled to safety over the weekend.  It seems that these are not the individuals originally kidnapped in mid-April, but the news nonetheless is a bright spot in an exceedingly bleak saga.

The recent history of online humanitarianism seems defined by a number of sponsored campaigns that find traction very briefly, punctuated by the occasional cause célèbre–sometimes sponsored, sometimes not–that lingers in the public imagination.  #BringBackOurGirls was the first landmark campaign since Kony 2012 able to permeate into political, humanitarian, celebrity, and public circles.  The campaign, though less centralized than Kony 2012, was likewise able to achieve concrete policy changes.  The US sent a team of consultants to aid the Nigerian government, while the public pressure forced the Jonathan administration to acknowledge the kidnapping had taken place and launch a search effort.  Even though, unlike most humanitarian campaigns, #BringBackOurGirls successfully altered policy, the policies themselves have had no discernible effect on status of the kidnapped women.  Additionally, the campaign risked increasing the domestic and international support for a brutal counterinsurgency strategy that has killed thousands of civilians.  #BringBackOurGirls has succeeded in providing some degree of democratic accountability where it is sorely lacking in Nigeria, but it has failed to achieve its primary objective.

Despite the international cooperation, the extensive search effort, and a willing public, the kidnapped women themselves proved the most able to ensure their own survival.  Those cast as the least powerful did the most good.  The concept is simple, really.  Those at risk of violence have both the most motivation to protect themselves and the information to make it happen.  Outside forces face political, logistical, and financial barriers to civilian protection, which even solid intelligence often cannot surmount.  This incident should give us pause about the wisdom and effectiveness of top-down humanitarian interventions, especially in politically and geographically remote areas.  It is not that outside solutions have no place in global humanitarianism; such an attitude would amount to throwing out hands up in the air.  However, we must remember that the most effective actors at pursuing civilian protection are also the likely victims of violence.  Aiding them to do what they are able to do most effectively, rather than working to save their lives from the outside and without their assistance, is usually the best we can do.

Finding a Niche in Atrocity Prevention

25 Jun

*This post originally appeared on The Center for the Prevention of Genocide’s blog.

I got involved with STAND during my freshman year at Swarthmore. The experiences I had and the people I met through that organization have motivated me to work professionally on atrocity prevention. I graduated from Swarthmore last Sunday, and it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect, not only on my time in STAND, but also on what my experiences mean for others who could follow a similar path.

I came into college vaguely knowing I wanted to do something with social justice and international issues. Growing up with stories of my family’s experience during the Holocaust had sensitized me to notions of human rights. Still, I ended up joining STAND, in part, because Swarthmore didn’t have an Amnesty International chapter, and at first I didn’t see my participation in the organization as potentially transformative.

A few months later, I went to my first of many national conferences in Washington, D.C.  That conference, and subsequent ones I attended, were important for a few reasons. National conferences, for me, were always times to meet new people and reconnect with old friends who shared my interests. There’s never much sleep involved, and while conferences are nominally about atrocity prevention, they were also the most intense social periods of my college experience. Although the social aspect is the most apparent in the moment, with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see that it was not just the people but the opportunity to engage intellectually with new ideas that made conferences such landmark experiences. Before that first conference, I had never encountered so much in-depth information or such a myriad of opinions about atrocity prevention. That exposure prompted me to learn more about these issues so that I was better able to participate in debates on policy options and advocacy strategies.

The creation of a social network and the exposure to new ideas through conferences were the first steps in my involvement with STAND, but a few other developments led eventually to my membership in STAND’s national managing committee. First, I happened to develop social relationships with many of the students in STAND leadership roles and found that I often had a lot in common with them. So, in a way, becoming a part of STAND’s leadership was a social endeavor. Within this social network, I was also fortunate enough to find a few mentors, particularly former national director Daniel Solomon. These mentors not only steered my engagement with STAND; they also helped expose me to the broader intellectual and organizational landscapes of the atrocity prevention community. Finally, my Swarthmore education increasingly provided me with the ability and the interest to evaluate policy and advocacy-based arguments and come up with ones of my own.

During my junior year, I applied to be STAND’s student policy analyst and was, fortunately, accepted. In this role, I created my personal blog, The Widening Lens, for which I’m still writing today, and was compelled to create a Twitter account. These two platforms allowed me to formulate in-depth opinions and to communicate with a much wider audience than I had previously within STAND.

The summer before my senior year, I interned with the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, which gave me my first real exposure to academic research on mass atrocities. I also served that year as STAND’s national policy coordinator. I learned quite a bit about the professional atrocity prevention world, how to manage a task force, and the challenges of creating long-term strategies for an advocacy organization.  Because of the interest I had cultivated (with the help of others) in atrocities prevention, I decided to write my thesis on civilian self-protection during mass atrocities. While the thesis itself is finished, I hope to continue working on this aspect of the issue in the future.

It would be easy to look back on my journey from a college freshman who enjoyed learning about international politics and human rights to someone intending to work professionally in atrocity prevention and see a path that was practically predetermined, but college could easily have had a different effect on me. Certainly, certain factors predisposed me to atrocity prevention work. I am from a highly educated family with a social science focus and went to an elite school. My family history gave me a personal connection to the issue of mass killing. And I had enough time between work and school to participate deeply in STAND.

Still, other things could have easily derailed this progression. Without conferences—and Swarthmore funding to get to them—I would not have had ready access to such a range of people and ideas. I also quickly ran up against a lack of realistic engagement opportunities in STAND. Organizing events on Swarthmore’s campus didn’t create change, and I could lobby members of Congress, usually unsuccessfully, only so often. Had mentors not provided an intellectual outlet for thinking about long-term atrocity prevention, I probably would have lost interest. Finally, if my involvement with STAND hadn’t put me in contact with individuals and organizations working professionally on atrocity prevention, I still would have enjoyed my time in STAND, but, like so many other things, I probably would have seen it as an activity that ended at graduation.

Lots of students are drawn to organizations focused on human rights or international affairs, but that interest doesn’t always lead them to pursue related careers. Many slip through the cracks. I sincerely believe this doesn’t have to be the case. I was fortunate enough to have people like Daniel Solomon in STAND and Shervin Malekzadeh at Swarthmore identify me as a dedicated individual and help foster my intellectual maturation. STAND is already shifting toward increased intentionality in moving students up the ladder of engagement. If professional organizations working in this field want a larger population of well-qualified potential employees, they should look to do the same.

The Problem with Following Mass Atrocities: Motivations and their implications

21 Jan

I’m probably biased, but when I think about the worst suffering humans can endure, it’s hard to think any farther than mass atrocities.  Not only does it connote terrible hardship on the part of the victims, it also demonstrates a capacity for human brutality we really wish did not exist.  This extreme quality of mass atrocities makes the act of learning about the topic a potentially emotionally traumatic experience.  However many people, myself included, do choose to think about mass atrocities regularly.  The vast majority of individuals in the atrocity prevention community are neither devoid of emotion or driven solely by moral revulsion.  What motivations remain are too rarely discussed.  It is true that some carry uncomfortable connotations, but because I firmly believe the study of mass atrocities and other terrible phenomena are worthwhile endeavors, laying the driving motivations out for participating in the atrocity prevention community can help us better critically evaluate the way in which we conduct our advocacy and analysis.

I, like many others, initially became involved in mass atrocity issues because of outrage that blossomed as part of my adolescent maturation.  I had heard stories of my family’s suffering at the hands of the Nazis since I was about five, but when I became aware that seemingly similar instances of oppression and violence occurred around the world, I felt like I should be doing something about it.  Outrage can be a powerful tool, but as @Robtheidealist notes, the discourse of outrage can also fall short:

“In this context of shareability and hair-trigger publishing, outrage is one of the most reliable ways to draw attention to a story. In social justice circles, like many other places on the web, the outrage machine often operates at a fever pitch…Though cultural representation certainly matters, I can’t escape the feeling that we’re simply posturing, moving from outrage to outrage without ever building any committed practices to intervene and dismantle the systems that we claim to oppose…Outrage isn’t bad. Outrage is a weapon. When I went to Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, I was plenty outraged. For years, social justice organizers mobilized our outrage and channeled it into political movements. Yet, it seems that many social justice circles have traded mass movements for massive traffic.  Media outlets are manipulating our good intentions in order to boost their web traffic, and the aimless outrage has many social justice circles spinning their wheels and going nowhere. We can’t build transformative change that way.”

While there’s certainly an argument to be made that outrage is more powerful than he suggests, in my mind, the author is unequivocally right that outrage is not enough alone to create long-term, large-scale structural change for near-intractable problems.

Outrage is the default discourse of human rights advocacy, and accordingly, when we realize outrage’s limitations and move beyond moral impulses, we get into murky territory.  Not too long ago, I was at a conference with a friend who was similarly interested in mass atrocities.  We were in between sessions, so he flipped through his phone reading the news before commenting, “Man, it’s a slow news day.  I just want a coup, [or] something!”  Of course he wasn’t really wishing for a coup because he understood its destructive impact, but ‘wanting a coup’ is a good example of how interest in a subject is synonymous with obtaining some pleasure.  For mass atrocities, instances of political instability and/or violence are the data points that those interested in mass atrocities derive enjoyment from.  There is a certain perversity here, but it is neither possible to eliminate or uncommon in other circumstances.

First off, pure outrage does not produce measured analysis.  Value judgments do not have to be completely suspended, but stressing the moral failings of mass atrocities and ignoring their dynamics does not tell us much.  Second, when attempting to understand mass atrocities, it is not possible to comprehend each individual tragedy that comprises the whole.  Humans have inherent limited to capacity to understand what a hundred deaths each mean, let alone hundreds of thousands.  Attempting to do so impedes analysis.  Third, thinking of mass atrocities as a “horrific” topic that deserves our moral attention rather than our intellectual interest more than others places mass atrocities out of context when it comes to human suffering.  Doctors, for example, are not criticized for the their cold analysis of what causes disease.  We accept that even if their works leave out the structural facilitators of disease, many of which are worthy of condemnation, there is value in understanding the way in which diseases function.  

Enjoyment, or even humor, is not unique to mass atrocities. Like intellectual interest, humor provides an opportunity for engagement with the topic while dealing with the emotional consequences.  To illustrate, I’ll use the experience of another friend who worked briefly in a coroner’s office.  As a college student, he was disturbed by the callousness of some of the medical examiners towards the individuals they autopsied.  However, they explained to him that it can be difficult to see so many corpses with tragic stories, and humor becomes a coping mechanism.  While the personal trauma I endure from studying mass atrocities at a distance is significantly less than coroners, the theme remains the same.  Difficult topics require an amount of distancing, which humor can provide.  Though troublesome and often over-the-top, “gallows humor” does serve a purpose.

When I came up with the idea for this blog post, I mentioned it to my mom.  She is a public interest lawyer and deals with elderly clients, nursing homes, and elder abuse cases.  While she understood my own method of engagement with mass atrocities, what keeps her going is her personal relationships with her clients.  She said that while she enjoys the policy side of the issue, it’s not enough.  My mom is totally right that personal relationships are the second way to make interest in a traumatic topic sustainable.  Relationships allow for that initial outrage to be focused and personalized.  And for my mom’s type of work, personal relationships make a lot more sense.  The issue is physically close to home and real, immediate change can be made on individual cases.  For mass atrocities, the events tend to be physically distant, access to individual victims is limited, and immediate change is frustratingly rare.  Though my engagement in atrocity prevention via personal relationships is limited, my interest in the field, like many others, did initially blossom because of a personal influence.  Stories of my grandfather’s experience as a Holocaust survivor prompted me to become interested in human rights, even if this history alone was not enough to keep me involved.

Neither approach, enjoyment derived through interest or personal relationships, is perfect.  A purely analytic approach can veer away from thinking about the experiences of real people and become overly callous, while only engaging through personal relationships or personal accounts can obscure the deep, structural causes of mass atrocities and other horrors.  In essence, the best approach probably tries to see both the trees and the forest.  The balance can differ depending on the issue, but both are important and can contribute something.  Finally, understanding that the struggles of outside observers on tough issues are real, even if they don’t come close to the trauma of victims, is important to facilitate future work on the issues.

Why “Genocide” Had To Come First, And Why “Mass Atrocities” Should Come Next

19 Nov

In 1943, Polish resistance member Jan Karski secured a meeting with American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.  Karski was desperate to find a sympathetic audience for the intelligence he had obtained by sneaking into Nazi concentration camps.  At the time, there was little understanding in United States or Western Europe of the scale and intensity of Nazi atrocities.  In Samantha Power’s telling of the encounter, Frankfurter waited for Karski to finish before saying, “I don’t believe you.”  Karski protested, before Frankurter responded, “I do not mean that you are lying.  I simply said that I cannot believe you.”  Frankfurter was unable to comprehend the scale of atrocities Karski was accurately describing.  Frankfurter wasn’t alone.  At the time, the concept of massive violence directed at civilians didn’t exist.  Civilian casualties were certainly accepted as a part of war, but no specific word or phrase existed to fully encapsulate the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who had narrowly escaped the Holocaust, fought hard for years to make the world fully appreciate the realities of mass killing.  Beyond his personal experience during World War II, he was also fascinated by the horrors of the Armenian genocide and other episodes of mass killing.  Lemkin had a keen understanding of the capabilities of governments to murder civilians on a large scale.  To help others gain the same understanding, Lemkin placed in faith in language, feeling that if there were just a distinct word to describe the extent of the crimes of the Holocaust, societal rejection of future potential mass killing episodes was more likely.  In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power describes Lemkin’s quest:

“Ever since Lemkin had heard Churchill’s 1941 radio address, he had been determined to find a new word to replace “barbarity” and “vandalism,” which had failed him at the 1933 Madrid conference. Lemkin had hunted for a term that would describe assaults on all aspects of nationhood-physical, biological, political, social, cultural, economic, and religious. He wanted to connote not only full-scale extermination but also Hitler’s other means of destruction: mass deportation, the lowering of the birthrate by separating men from women, economic exploitation, progressive starvation, and the suppression of the intelligentsia who served as national leaders…Lemkin saw he needed a word that could not be used in other contexts (as “barbarity” and “vandalism” could). He self-consciously sought one that would bring with it “a color of freshness and novelty” while describing something “as shortly and as poignantly as possible.” But Lemkin’s coinage had to achieve something Eastman’s did not. Somehow it had to chill listeners and invite immediate condemnation.”

The word Lemkin chose was “genocide” which combined the Greek root “geno” (meaning “race” or tribe”) and the Latin root “cide” (meaning “killing”).  Lemkin’s persistence assured the word was in fact ingrained in international law, and almost single-handedly, Lemkin planted the notion that governments can and do kill huge numbers of civilians in the world’s collective conscience.

At the time, Lemkin’s success was revolutionary.  However, it’s time to move on from using the word “genocide”.  “Genocide” simply doesn’t cover all episodes of mass killing because its legal definition excludes political groups from potential victims and genocide and stipulates that there must be an intent to destroy “in whole or in part” the victim group.  The definition is too focused on the specific experience of Jews during the Holocaust, which problematizes the generalization of “genocide” to other episodes of mass killing with different characteristics.  The Khmer Rouge’s action in Cambodia and counterinsurgent mass atrocities (the Syrian conflict) don’t count as genocides, but one would be right to question why certain types of mass killing are any worse than others.  Does it really matter if something constitutes genocide if large number of people are dying as a result of an intentional policy?  The use of “genocide” privileges certain types of killing over others, and as activists seek to draw attention to mass violence by using the word “genocide” whether or not it’s accurate, the meaning of the word is simultaneously diluted.

Ironically, Lemkin’s success in promoting the word “genocide” allows us now to abandon it.  The idea that “genocide” exists and is something we as a global community should fight is a well-diffused norm.  From my anecdotal experience telling people what I’m interested in, regular Americans with no connection to politics or academia understand the basic tenets of a genocide.  Now that the concept of “genocide” has been successfully propagated, there is a perfect opportunity for civilian protection advocates to diffuse a new norm that leads to a more complete understanding of the nature of mass killing.  “Mass atrocities” is the most widely used term in the academic and activist discourse on episodes of mass killing, and adopting it  in place of “genocide” to describe various types of intentional mass killing makes sense in the future.

For various reasons, “mass atrocities” makes the most sense in the present historical moment to serve as a catch-all term for different variations on mass killing.  Unfortunately, it is not without its flaws.  From my own personal experience, different people have different interpretations of what “mass atrocities” implies.  In my personal view, it’s limited to lethal attacks, but a very reasonable argument could be made that rape and mutilation should also be included.  Even if we decide that rape and mutilation are a potential component of mass atrocities, can a death-less mass atrocity exist?  Do a certain number of rapes and mutilations equate to a death?  Therefore, perhaps “mass killing” is more appropriate, but it suffers from a lack of use outside of certain academic circles.  Another problem is that both “mass atrocities” and “mass killing” suffer from not fully conveying that the killings must be a part of a fairly coherent and intentional plan, rather than an aggregation of totally unrelated violence.  Perhaps in the future, another time will present the need to diffuse another norm.