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Speaking Fees, Selfies, Sucking Up to Power: How BLM Lost its Mojo

Mint Press

April 17, 2018

By Jon Jetter

 

The Black Panther Party remains beloved in the African-American community 52 years after its founding — revered for its nutrition and health programs, fearless defense of the people, and self-sacrifice. The BLM leadership, on the other hand, poses for fashion magazine photo spreads.

Wearing Christian Siriano, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement Patrisse Cullors attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood.

 

CINCINNATI, OHIO — In a stinging rebuke of Black Lives Matter (BLM), the organization’s local affiliate here last month announced that it was severing all ties to a movement it characterized as opportunistic, too invested in liberal, electoral politics and the Democratic party, and ultimately ineffective in fighting state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans.

Black Lives Matter Cincinnati (BLMC) explained its decision to change its name to Mass Action for Black Liberation in a tersely-worded letter, published March 30 on its website. With an organizational structure similar to the anarchist-influenced Occupy Movement, BLM and the Movement for Black Lives Matter network is a loose-knit — often unwieldy – confederation of chapters, affiliates, and spinoffs with broad autonomy and varying degrees of collaboration with the national leadership. Despite their initial reservations, activists in Cincinnati decided to adopt the BLM moniker early in 2015 out of a sense of urgency following a series of highly publicized police murders in 2014 — including those of Eric Garner on a Staten Island street, 12-year-old Tamir Rice at a Cleveland playground, and 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. on a suburban St. Louis street.

The Cincinnati group wrote:

BLM did not create or build this new grassroots movement against police brutality and racism; they capitalized off a nameless groundswell of resistance sweeping the nation, branded it as their own, and profited from the deaths of Black men and women around the country without seriously engaging, as a national formation, in getting justice for fighting families. All the while raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from high-end speaking engagements and donations from foundations that support the Black struggle (or want to co-opt it).

 

They have gained access to high profile associations, including invitations to the White House and celebrity events; have been on magazine covers; are on the way to profiting as authors and subjects of books; and have accepted numerous awards and accolades as so-called founders of the movement — while families struggle, unassisted, to keep their fights going. So many people on the ground have shared a similar experience: when the reporters leave and the bright lights are gone, so are they [BLM].”

Outgoing Planned Parenthood (premiere partner of the 2017 Women’s March campaign) president Cecile Richards attended the Oscars Sunday evening with Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Richards arrived at the Oscars with Cullors-Brignac and Bryan Stevenson, initiative director for Equal Justice, and the three posed on the red carpet for photos, reports CNN. [Source]

Cecile Richards with Hillary Clinton. June 10, 2016

A member of the Mass Action for Black Liberation steering committee, Brian Taylor, was even more blunt, characterizing BLM as a “liberal” organization offering solutions that are wholly insufficient to fulfill the ambitions of a radical and restive black working class that is most affected by state terror:

We feel that BLM has not been a champion in any real way in the fight against police brutality. And, by presenting themselves as the creator of something they did not initiate, they have benefitted from the [survivors’] suffering in ways that we feel are inappropriate. Their approach is very reformist, very liberal, and at the end of the day they believe in the institutional structures that are at the heart of our oppression. We see ourselves here as a revolutionary organization.”

Of a campaign to register African American voters at movie theaters showing the popular Black Panther movie based in the mythical African nation of Wakanda, Taylor, 43, told MintPress:

History is not made by the ballot box; it’s made in the streets. With all that’s going on in this country and you want to Wakanda the vote? What?”

Black Lives Matter Cincinnati joins Black Lives Matter New York, which announced in January that it was severing its ties to the Global BLM Network. And, while the letter announcing their departure was not as sharply-worded as the Ohio declaration, New York activists left no doubt that their motivation for withdrawing from BLM was virtually identical to that of their peers in Cincinnati.

The best way for us to move our Black liberation work forward is to be autonomous from the global network. We will take time to build a collective that can realize our power, be accountable to our community, and transformative in our politics. We see this as a continuation of the radical Black liberation and Black power struggle that has spanned centuries around the world.

 

We believe in the right to self-govern and our need to become ungovernable to institutions that do not serve our interest of freedom, autonomy and liberation. We view the struggle for Black liberation as a human rights struggle. Black liberation is necessary and imperative for global liberation and the liberation of all people.”

Representatives for the Global BLM Network did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Founded by three African-American women — Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Khan-Cullors — BLM is widely-praised for challenging state-sanctioned violence against people of color, and expanding the national discussion about the country’s longstanding racial divide, much like the Occupy movement’s success in raising public consciousness about issues of wealth inequality.

Alicia Garza, from left, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, arrive at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards at NeueHouse Hollywood on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Alicia Garza, from left, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, arrive at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards at NeueHouse Hollywood, Nov. 14, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

 

But the Cincinnati activists’ critique of the organization is remarkably consistent with those leveled by progressives, generally, and the African-American left specifically. Almost since its inception four years ago, the BLM leadership has come under fire for its lack of a class analysis. This lack has been underscored by BLM’s close ties to multinational corporations such as Google, nonprofit donors like the Ford Foundation, and pro-market strategies that are inconsistent with a radical black polity that has been integral, historically, to the maturation of the modern state, from public education to the New Deal to open admissions at the City University of New York.

African-American writers, such as Black Agenda Report’s Managing Editor Bruce A. Dixon, have been critical of BLM’s collaboration with a black-owned California bank to roll out the official BLM debit card, charging low-income depositors exorbitant fees. One of BLM’s most visible activists, DeRay McKesson, is a vocal advocate for school privatization and charter schools, which often produce worse outcomes than standard public schools. And in a 2016 interview, the one-time chairperson of the Black Panthers, Elaine Brown, said that the BLM organization suffers from a “plantation mentality.”

Perhaps unfairly, BLM invites comparisons to the Black Panther Party, which remains beloved in the African-American community 52 years after its founding, revered for its nutrition and health programs, fearless defense of the people, and self-sacrifice. The BLM leadership, on the other hand, poses for fashion magazine photo spreads.

Said one African-American woman who has worked closely with BLM but asked to remain anonymous because she did not want to foreclose on the possibility of organizational change:

They don’t take on hazard. They showed up in St. Louis and took selfies. They credential themselves with the suffering of others. They don’t come out of that revolutionary nationalist tradition and [they] really represent queer cultural nationalism as much as anything. There’s something about BLM that has always felt a bit precious to me.”

The absence of grit, or a deep connection to poor and working-class communities, Taylor and others say, is exacerbated by a top-down organizational structure that is intended to give BLM satellites autonomy in their decision-making, but actually achieves the reverse. Without an automatic or democratic means to distribute money to its network partners, donations — and therefore decision-making — tend to remain in the hands of a select few.

As an example, the Cincinnati group noted that activists in the St. Louis area had already begun organizing to indict the white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown Jr. as he surrendered. But BLM parachuted in, stole the thunder from the grassroots local movement, redirected local fundraising efforts and ultimately derailed the movement. Since prosecutors declined to indict in the Brown case, several local activists in Ferguson have been fatally shot and their bodies burned with high-grade accelerant, and yet BLM has neither called for an investigation nor has it devoted any resources to identifying their killers, Taylor said.

Similarly, Taylor’s cohort accused BLM of hijacking the local effort to get justice for Tamir Rice, which was expertly led by the boy’s mother, Samaria Rice.

First, the open phone conferences organized to plan the #YearWithoutTamir action were shut down. BLM national, through a local leader they assigned, set up a new conference call where no one could speak but the moderator. They alienated churches who planned on sending support from the South. They refused to declare a firm day for a mass action, despite repeated requests from BLMC and numerous other groups. This made it impossible for unions and other organizations to zero in on a key day to bus people in. That single action destroyed union, regional and national support.”

Donna Murch, a history professor at Rutgers University and the author of a book on the Black Panthers, told MintPress that it was unsurprising to see BLM affiliates begin to squabble over resources. Ironically, Huey Newton’s allocation of resources to the legal defense of the New York cadre that included Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni, was central to the Panthers dissolution.

But Taylor in Cincinnati balked at any such comparison. He said:

It’s foolish to even mention the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter in the same breath.”

Top Photo | A man wears a hoodie which reads, “Black Lives Matter” as stands on the lawn of the Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington during a rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

 

[Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”]

Truth UNFILTERED: The Global South Assessment of Western Imperial Actions Against Syria

Truth UNFILTERED: The Global South Assessment of Western Imperial Actions Against Syria

Sacha Sergio Llorenti Soliz – Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador of Bolivia. United Nations Security Council, April 14. 2018.

Translations of quotes below have been kindly provided by Francisco Nunes [@fcn_84]. The full transcript in English (added April 16, 2018) is below the video within this post.]

Follow Sacha Llorenti on twitter: @SachaLlorenti  

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

THANK YOU VERY MUCH, MR. PRESIDENT.

MY DELEGATION WOULD LIKE TO THANK THE SECRETARY GENERAL FOR HIS PRESENCE AND HIS PARTICIPATION IN THIS MEETING.

BOLIVIA WOULD ALSO LIKE TO THANK THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION FOR HAVING TAKEN THE INITIATIVE OF CONVENING THIS URGENT MEETING OF THE SECURITY COUNCIL

TODAY IS A DARK DAY IN THE HISTORY OF THIS COUNCIL.

THREE PERMANENT MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL HAVE TAKEN THE DECISION TO BREACH THE CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS AND TAKE MILITARY ACTION AGAINST THE SOVEREIGNTY AND TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY OF ANOTHER MEMBER STATE OF OUR ORGANIZATION.

BOLIVIA WISHES TO CLEARLY AND CATEGORICALLY EXPRESS ITS CONDEMNATION OF THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS OR CHEMICAL SUBSTANCES AS WEAPONS, AS THIS IS UNJUSTIFIABLE AND CRIMINAL WHEREVER IT HAPPENS AND BY WHOMEVER. THEIR USE IS A SERIOUS CRIME AGAINST INTERNATIONAL LAW AND INTERNATIONAL PEACE AND SECURITY.  THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR COMMITTING SUCH TERRIBLE AND CRIMINAL ACTS MUST BE IDENTIFIED, INVESTIGATED, PROSECUTED AND PUNISHED IN THE MOST RIGOROUS WAY POSSIBLE.

BOLIVIA CONTINUES TO DEMAND A TRANSPARENT AND IMPARTIAL INVESTIGATION TO DETERMINE WHO ARE THE CULPRITS.

BUT, IN ADDITION TO THAT, THE TOPIC OF THIS MEETING IS THE FACT THAT THE THREE PERMANENT MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL AS I SAID HAVE USED FORCE IN BREACH OF THE UNITED NATIONS CHARTER. YOU CANNOT COMBAT THE ALLEGED VIOLATIONS OF INTERNATIONAL LAW BY VIOLATING INTERNATIONAL LAW. BOLIVIA IS SURPRISED BY THE FACT THAT THE PERMANENT MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL, GIVEN THAT THEY HAVE A GREATER RESPONSIBILITY FOR MAINTAINING INTERNATIONAL PEACE AND SECURITY HAVE DECIDED TO BYPASS THE UNITED NATIONS WHEN IT SUITS THEM. THEY DEFEND MULTILATERALISM AS LONG AS IT SERVES THEM AND THEY SIMPLY DISCARD IT. WHEN IT IS NO LONGER IN THEIR INTERESTS, THEY ARE NO LONGER ATTACHED TO MULTILATERALISM .

THIS IS NOT THE ONLY CASE WHERE UNFORTUNATELY UNILATERAL ACTION HAS BEEN USED.  LET’S RECALL, AND WE WILL NEVER TIRE OF RECALLING THE EVENTS IN IRAQ IN 2003 AND IN LIBYA IN 2011. SUCH ACTIONS SHOULD BE AUTHORIZED BY THE SECURITY COUNCIL IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE  UNITED NATIONS CHARTER — ANY UNILATERAL ACTION  COUNTER TO INTERNATIONAL LAW AND COUNTER TO THE VALUES AND PRINCIPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS CHARTER IS UNACCEPTABLE.  BOLIVIA REJECTS THE USE OF FORCE.  UNILATERAL ACTION NOT ONLY RESPONDS TO THE SPECIFIC INTERESTS OF THOSE WHO CARRY THEM OUT, BUT IN FACT, THERE ARE MEASURES THAT ALLOW ME THE EXPRESSION, ARE IMPERIALIST MEASURES — IT SO HAPPENS THAT EMPIRES AS WE STATED EARLIER CONSIDER THEMSELVES SUPERIOR TO THE REST OF THE WORLD. THEY THINK THEY ARE EXCEPTIONAL.  THEY THINK THEY ARE INDISPENSABLE AND HENCE THEY ARE ABOVE THE LAW, ABOVE INTERNATIONAL LAW.

BUT IN FACT, THE INTEREST OF THOSE WHO UNILATERALLY USE FORCE AND VIOLATE THE UNITED NATIONS CHARTER IS NOT REALLY TO ADVANCE DEMOCRACY OR ADVANCE FREEDOM OR TO COMBAT THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS.  THEIR GOAL IS TO EXPAND THEIR POWER AND EXPAND THEIR DOMINATION.

WHAT WE HAVE WITNESSED OVER THE PAST FEW HOURS IS AN ATTACK AGAINST THE FACT FINDING MISSION  OF THE OPCW WHICH HASN’T EVEN STARTED THE WORK THAT WAS SCHEDULED TO BEGIN TODAY.

THE UNILATERAL ATTACK IS AN ATTACK AGAINST MULTILATERAL ORGANIZATIONS SUCH AS THE OPCW.  IT’S AN ATTACK AGAINST THIS COUNCIL AND ITS MAIN DUTY FOR MAINTAINING INTERNATIONAL PEACE AND SECURITY. IT IS AN ATTACK AGAINST THE UNITED NATIONS CHARTER AND IT IS AN ATTACK AGAINST THE ENTIRE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY.

I AM WONDERING WHETHER THE PERMANENT MEMBERS WHO USED FORCE JUST A FEW HOURS AGO, HOW MUCH MONEY THEY INVESTED IN ARMING AND TRAINING THE ARMED GROUPS IN SYRIA?

THEY ARE BEHIND (UNINTELLIGIBLE) NATIONAL RESOURCES AND WITH WHAT KIND OF AUTHORITY CAN THEY INVOKE THE UNITED NATIONS CHARTER IN OTHER SITUATIONS? THE HISTORY, UNFORTUNATELY,  OF VIOLATIONS OF THE PRINCIPLES AND PURPOSES OF THE CHARTER IS LONG. WE MENTIONED LIBYA, WE MENTIONED IRAQ, BUT THERE ARE MORE RECENT CHAPTERS. IT HAPPENED WITH THE UNILATERAL DECISION REGARDING JERUSALEM. IT IS ANOTHER CLEAR SIGNAL OF A LACK OF RESPECT FOR INTERNATIONAL LAW. WHO ARE THOSE  WHO SELL WEAPONS TO THOSE WHO BOMB CIVILIANS IN YEMEN? WHO ARE THOSE WHO REJECTED THE PARIS AGREEMENT, OF THE CLIMATE AGREEMENT?  WHO ARE THOSE  WHO STEPPED AWAY FROM OTHER INTERNATIONAL AGREEMENTS?  WHO ARE THOSE WHO BUILD WALLS?

BUT, WE ALSO BELIEVE THAT IT IS IMPORTANT TO LOOK AT HISTORY IN THE LONG RUN, OVER THE LONGER PERIODS OF TIME.  WE ARE EXPERIENCING THE CONSEQUENCES IN THE MIDDLE EAST OF THE ACTIONS  THAT ARE PROVOKED BY CERTAIN COLONIALIST POWERS DATING BACK TO A CENTURY OR MORE.

AND THE SAME THING WE ARE EXPERIENCING IN SYRIA, A COMPLETE DISDAIN FOR INTERNATIONAL LAW, IS ALSO SOMETHING THAT WE ARE SEEING WHEN, FOR EXAMPLE, THE UNITED KINGDOM REFUSES TO RETURN THE MALDIVES ISLANDS SOVEREIGNTY TO ARGENTINA OR WHEN THE CHAGOS ARCHIPELAGO ISSUE IS NOT RESOLVED. AND WHEN THE ADVISORY OPINION OF THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE ON THIS TOPIC  IS NOT HEEDED.  IN OTHER WORDS, WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A WHOLE RANGE OF POLICIES THAT UNDERMINE INTERNATIONAL PEACE AND SECURITY.

THE DISTINGUISHED PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE OF THE UNITED STATES SAYS THAT THE UNITED STATES, HER COUNTRY, IS READY, ‘LOCKED AND LOADED’ SHE SAYS. OF COURSE, WE CLEARLY HEARD HER WORDS WITH A GREAT DEAL OF CONCERN AND A GREAT DEAL OF SADNESS.  WE KNOW THAT THE UNITED STATES HAS AIRCRAFT CARRIERS, THAT THEY HAVE SATELLITES, THAT THEY HAVE “INTELLIGENT MISSILES”, SMART BOMBS AND THEY HAVE A HUGE ARSENAL OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS.  AND, WE ALSO KNOW THAT THEY HAVE NOTHING BUT SCORN FOR INTERNATIONAL LAW.

BUT WE HAVE THIS. WE HAVE THE PRINCIPLES AND PURPOSES OF THE UNITED NATIONS CHARTER.  AND, ULTIMATELY AS HISTORY HAS DEMONSTRATED MANY TIMES, ULTIMATELY THESE PRINCIPLES WILL PREVAIL. THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

 

The New Humanitarianism: The Imperative to ‘Act’ and to ‘Act Now’

April 14, 2018

 

An Excerpt from the book Celebrity Humanitarianism – The Ideology of Global Charity by Ilan KapoorFirst [2013]

 

‘Ilan Kapoor’s stunning new book exposes the most appealing – and thus most dangerous – sacred cows of contemporary ideology: the humanitarian actor, the billionaire philanthropist, and the NGO. Kapoor shows that it is precisely where we feel most emotionally satisfied that we must be most suspicious. Celebrity Humanitarianism represents a landmark in the critique of ideology and a decisive blow in the struggle against apolitical ethics.’ — Todd McGowan, University of Vermont, USA

 

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been an explosion of international NGOs, particularly development and humanitarian ones, leading to the rise of what is termed ‘global civil society’. In large measure, this is due to the ascendancy of neoliberalism, which has seen NGOs fill the many gaps created by government cutbacks and privatization. But in part, it is also the result of the intensification of globalization and the information economy, which has opened up possibilities for greater  borderlessness’. Not content with doing only aid and development work, NGOs have carved out an increasingly more activist and interventionist role for themselves in the global arena. This trend is what has been called ‘the new humanitarianism’.

Central to the new humanitarianism is a security discourse, which divides the world, not so much along the lines of wealth vs. poverty as it used to, but more in terms of stability vs. threat. Mark Duffield argues that the security discourse is constructed on the basis of the metaphor of the ‘borderlands’ (i.e. the Third World), an imagined geographic space of instability, excess, and social breakdown, which poses a threat to the metropolitan areas (2001: 309).

The borderlands are depicted as violent and unpredictable, or at least always a  potential danger; they are the source of many of the problems seen to plague global security, including drug trafficking, terrorism, refugee flows, and corrupt/weak/rogue states.

Accordingly, the point of international intervention is to tame and manage instability. In this scenario, poverty, corruption, and refugee flows are to be feared much more than alleviated. Development and humanitarianism are seen not as problems of reducing inequality or protecting the most vulnerable, but as technologies of security, which function ‘to contain and manage underdevelopment’s destabilizing effects’ (Duffield 2007: ix, 24).

The practical outcome of this new humanitarianism is a significant shift away from respecting national sovereignty and towards external intervention in the Third World: it means neglecting international law, or obeying the ‘higher’ moral law of humanitarianism, under the guise of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (cf. Mamdani 2009: 274; Watson 2011: 5). In other words, new humanitarianism has increasingly become neoimperialism, allowing the West to ‘transform conflicts, decrease violence and set the stage for liberal development’ (Duffield et al. 2001: 269). Not just a Third World country’s foreign policy, but now also its domestic economic or human rights situation is seen as a credible threat (Duffield 2001: 311), recalling colonialism’s ‘civilizing mission’ to eradicate ‘barbaric’ Third World cultural practices such as widow-burning or infanticide. More often than not, the form of external intervention is military, that is, armed intervention parading as humanitarian rescue mission. The post- 9/11 War on Terror has only escalated this trend, enabling the possibility of ‘unending war’ to secure the borderlands (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan) (Duffield 2007: 131). Illustrative of unending war is the following list, compiled by Watson (2011: 4), enumerating the countries for which humanitarianism has been used to justify military intervention in recent years: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Angola, Mozambique, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Zaire, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

NGOs are firmly enmeshed in this security–humanitarian network. For the past two decades particularly, the private–public linkages between Western states, UN agencies, private firms, militaries, and NGOs has grown. In fact, as Duffield puts it, the securitization of development/humanitarianism ‘has been of central importance for legitimising the growing involvement of non-state actors’ (2001: 312; cf. Watson 2011: 3–4). And NGOs have become not just accomplices in this network, but key players. Mamdani goes so far as to argue that the new humanitarianism is the ‘twin of the War on Terror’ (2009: 274), with groups such as Save Darfur as pivotal facilitators. NGOs have pushed for and capitalized on the vast resources directed at emergency and security operations around the globe. Many such operations (e.g. in Afghanistan, Haiti, Bosnia) have been ambitious and well coordinated, with relief agencies working alongside military or peacekeeping campaigns.

 

Above: Res Publica (Avaaz) calling for a Darfur intervention and criminal indictment. August 3, 2004 screenshot: “Only one thing will stop the killing in Sudan: an immediate international intervention” … “Click here to sign a petition calling for humanitarian intervention Darfur” [WKOG screenshot]

 

The imperative to ‘act’ and to ‘act now’ is central to these NGO campaigns.

To be sure, beginning mainly in the post-World War II era, organizations such as Oxfam, ActionAid, and MSF were created to respond to global crises, ranging from armed conflicts and epidemics to ‘natural’ or man-made disasters. Whether we are talking about the 1949 Palestinian refugee situation, the 1967 Nigerian civil war, the 1984–85 Ethiopian famine, or the more recent 2005 Pakistan earthquake, emergencies have become an opportunity for humanitarian NGOs to function and even expand. Indeed, they have been able to justify and aggrandize themselves based on what Duffield refers to as a ‘permanent emergency regime’ (2007: 25, 47–49, 219). All of them rely on a ‘threaturgency narrative’ to ‘legitimize their functions’ (Watson 2011: 9); it is this narrative that allows them to identify and categorize the disaster (e.g. as an impending famine or a pressing refugee crisis), as well as publicly highlight the humanitarian duty to save lives or assist ‘populations in distress’, as MSF puts it (http://www.msf.org).

One of the most poignant recent examples of the construction of emergency discourse is that of the Save Darfur Coalition, especially during the 2004–7 period. The Coalition relied on highly charged rhetoric to issue its emergency call for international intervention. The first move, as Mamdani underlines (2009: 64–65), was to categorize the conflict in the Darfur region as racially motivated: the government-armed ‘Arab Janjaweed militia’ were reportedly perpetrating violence against ‘black-skinned non-Arabs’. Such stereotyping became pervasive in Western public discourse and was often repeated by the mainstream press, including The Washington Post (Mamdani 2009: 64; cf. Hassan 2010: 98). Mamdani notes (2009: 6) that this ethnicized/racialized framing has its origins in the colonial tradition of racializing the peoples of Sudan for political purposes (i.e. as a divide and rule strategy); it is a framing that, in the contemporary global conjuncture, only served to reinforce the discourse of the War on Terror, demonizing Islam and Arabs, and pressing for immediate counter-terrorist action.

Above: Res Publica (Avaaz) March 8, 2005 screenshot: “Sign a petition below … over 18,000 signatories in the last week!” [WKOG screenshot]

 

The Coalition’s second discursive move was to characterize the Darfur situation as ‘genocide’ (despite evidence to the contrary, as we shall see below). It is the deployment of this culturally and politically charged term that, almost single-handedly, brought together such a large and diverse range of US-based organizations that made up the Coalition (see above), while catching the attention of the media and politicians alike (cf. Save Darfur Coalition 2011). After Save Darfur’s ‘genocide alert’ in 2004, events quickly gathered pace: a student-led divestment campaign was organized, a large Save Darfur Rally To Stop Genocide was held in Washington, DC, and an impassioned plea (by George Clooney) was made to the UN Security Council for international intervention. In 2007, the rhetoric was ratcheted up. The Coalition criticized China for its strong support of the Sudanese government, with a campaign that included taking out full-page advertisements in The New York Times and Mia Farrow denouncing the upcoming Beijing Olympics as the ‘Genocide Olympics’.

The overall effect of this emergency discourse was to exercise tremendous pressure on political leaders in the US and around the world. Secretary of State Colin Powell testified in front of the Senate Relations Committee that genocide was being committed in Darfur. The US Congress agreed, pushing for political and economic sanctions for Sudan. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council referred the Darfur case to the International Criminal Court, sent UN peacekeeping troops to Sudan, and following China’s change of position on the Council in the face of public pressure, established a larger joint UN–African Union peacekeeping mission, with financial support from the US Congress (cf. Flint and de Waal 2008: 181, 280; Haeri 2008: 35–37).

One of the most troubling features of this NGO emergency discourse is its tendency towards militarization and war. The imperative to act ‘now’ tends to provide added impetus and rationale for militarized intervention. We are familiar with NGOs providing relief work in war zones, in which they must sometimes coordinate with warring factions to deliver aid programs. We are also familiar with the use of army troops in non-military crises such as the Asian Tsunami in 2004 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (to keep law and order, or help NGOs distribute food aid). Increasingly, as Watson argues, ‘states and the international community have institutionalized a militarized response through the establishment of specialized military entities such as the United States Foreign Disaster Assistance or the Canadian Disaster Assistance Response Team’ (2011: 9).

But what is relatively new and noteworthy is the call by humanitarian NGOs for military intervention – a phenomenon described by the paradoxical concept, ‘humanitarian war’. It is a concept that, as Vanessa Pupavec notes, NGOs themselves helped legitimate, especially through their demands for military intervention in the Balkans during the 1990s (2006: 263). Thus, MSF appealed for military action in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, while Save the Children lobbied Western governments for armed intervention in Kosovo in the late 1990s (Pupavec 2006: 255). Since that time, several other similar calls have been made. Of particular note are Oxfam’s demand, in relation to the Darfur situation, for a broader interpretation of the UN Charter on the principle of non-interference to include intervention, and Save Darfur’s outright plea for a no-fly zone and Western military action. In fact, ‘Out of Iraq and Into Darfur’ became a common Save Darfur slogan. Pupavec points out, in this regard, that NGOs were quick to criticize the failure to obtain UN Security Council authorization for military intervention in Iraq, but were only too willing to ignore such authorization when they demanded military  ntervention in Kosovo and Darfur (2006: 266).

Above: Res Publica (Avaaz): “SUCCESS!! – Humanitarian Intervention in Darfur” … “SUCCESS!! – International Criminal Court to Prosecute Architects of Genocide in Darfur” [February 10, 2006 screenshot]

 

If rhetorical demands for action raise the stakes, resulting in the militarization of the new humanitarianism, so do media demands for spectacle. The mediatization of NGO emergency work – that is, the drive not just to act now, but also to be seen to be acting now – adds greater urgency. NGOs may well be responding to save lives, but they are also playing to the global media and public. MSF’s témoignage (witnessing) after all, is about witnessing not just on behalf of disaster victims, but also for the media/public. This recalls our earlier arguments about the entertainmentization of humanitarianism – the pressures to create ‘megaspectacles’, to satisfy seemingly insatiable appetites for suffering, death, and disaster. The militarization of emergency work only supplies further fuel to this fire, aiding and abetting the spectacularization of violence and war. In this regard, Henry Giroux contends that we are witnessing a new phase in the society of the spectacle, that of the ‘spectacle of terrorism’ (2006: 26).

According to him, a ‘visual culture of shock and awe has emerged’, which celebrates violence in the form of night bombing raids, hostage takings, and beheadings, or the destruction of public buildings (2006: 21, 24).

The pressure to create spectacle, then, means that spectacular NGOs are not simply observers or objective relays in delivering humanitarian aid; they are full-fledged actors, identifying emergencies and constructing them for public consumption (cf. Keenan 2002: 5). Add militarization to this mix, and you move from the imperative to act now and be seen to be acting now, to an imperative to be seen to be acting now, militarily if needs be (or preferably?).

The systemic and symbolic violence of spectacular NGOs

Three friends are having a drink at the bar. The first one says, ‘A horrible thing  happened to me. At my travel agency, I wanted to say “A ticket to Pittsburgh!” and I said “A ticket to Pissburgh!”’ The second one replies, ‘That’s nothing. At breakfast, I wanted to say to my partner “Could you pass the sugar, honey?” and what I said was “You dirty fool, you ruined my life!”’ The third one concludes, ‘Wait till you hear what happened to me. After gathering the courage all night, I decided to say to my spouse at breakfast exactly what you said to yours, and I ended up saying “Could you pass me the sugar, honey?”’

(adapted from Žižek 2004b: 61)

Often, the most traumatic situations are not necessarily the outwardly perceptible ones (i.e. the gaffes of the first and second interlocutors in the joke), but the less obvious ones (i.e. the repressed content in the outward politeness of the third). As Paul Taylor suggests, telling are the moments ‘in which nothing of substance is said… in that non-utterance resides all manner of psychologically destructive forces’ (2010: 93).

And so it is with spectacular (humanitarian) NGOs: it is most often in these organizations’ non-utterances that ideological violence is to be found. The spectacle of NGO humanitarianism is revealing not simply for what it shows, but more importantly for the violence it often ignores, takes for granted, or disavows. Žižek distinguishes two types of violence: (i) ‘subjective violence’, which is directly visible and identifiable (e.g. emaciated babies, physical destruction in the wake of a hurricane); and (ii) ‘objective violence’, which is less immediately perceptible (2008a: 1–2). Objective violence is itself made up of ‘systemic violence’, which refers to our often slow yet steady social oppressions  (e.g. gender exclusion, wage discrimination, the daily grind of alienating work), and ‘symbolic violence’, the violence inherent in our systems of representation (e.g. the way in which an image of a starving child can hide as much as it reveals). The crucial point for Žižek is that objective violence is what is required for the ‘normal’ functioning of our social and economic systems. In other words, systemic and symbolic violence is the background against which subjective violence happens: objective violence ‘may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be “irrational” explosions of subjective violence’ (Žižek 2008a: 2). Accordingly, I’d like to highlight the systemic and symbolic violence of humanitarian NGOs, violence which serves as backdrop to their spectacle.

The systemic violence of humanitarian NGOs stems, at least in part, from the very nature of their work – short-term emergency operations that attempt to rescue people from immediate danger, but make no attempt to address the broader or underlying causes of such danger. As MSF’s James Orbinsky readily admits, MSF action ‘takes place in the short term’ with limited objectives in the wake of a crisis, ‘but does not itself attempt to solve the crisis’ (2000: 10). The problem is that such an approach is premised on what was earlier denoted as a ‘permanent emergency regime’: rather than working themselves out of a job, NGOs depend (and count) on more and more crises.

They have every interest in global neoliberal capitalism’s continued production of emergencies, which enables and legitimizes their spectacular humanitarianism. In this sense, the NGO-ization of humanitarianism (and development) may have less to do with finding effective solutions to problems than a way of keeping the humanitarian business in business.

True, some humanitarian NGOs do carry out broader ‘development’ programming, alongside their short-term relief and advocacy work. For example, MSF organizes a campaign to make cheaper generic drugs more readily available to Third World countries (cf. http://www.msfaccess.org), and Oxfam runs a host of projects in gender equality, health, and education around the world (cf. Oxfam UK 2011). But as pointed out in Chapters 1 and 2, most of these initiatives are depoliticized; they steer clear of, say, anti-capitalist/anti-racist critique, or unionization of workers (or women), in favour of tamer and nonthreatening areas such as mainstream human/gender rights and education. As Issa Shivji contends, in Sub-Saharan Africa issues of equality and equity are banished to the ‘realm of rights, not development’; that is, rights are a question of NGO ‘advocacy’, ‘not a terrain of people’s struggle’ (2006: 35). Moreover, many NGO development projects (e.g. job training, micro-credit) are ultimately an attempt at integrating subaltern groups into global capital; as James Petras puts it (1999: 432), they help corner ‘a new segment of the poor’ (e.g. young people, marginalized women, landless farmers, the urban poor), binding them to market entrepreneurialism. The result once again is a reaffirmation of the status quo, whose systemic violence is the basis for humanitarianism. And so the cycle continues … (I am not, of course, suggesting that humanitarian advocacy/relief and development should not happen, or that people must not be assisted in disasters; the problem is the significant institutional interests in people’s ongoing suffering or dispossession, and the enormous investments made in addressing the symptoms rather than the cure.)

This myopic and status quo approach is integral to the symbolic politics of humanitarian NGOs, too. The spectacularization of their relief and advocacy work is notable for what it includes as much as what it excludes. There is, first, the tendency (underlined earlier) to ‘sell’ stories and images that are visually and sound-byte friendly. Spectacles involving celebrities, poverty-stricken people, crying   mothers/children, gun-toting soldiers, or war-ravaged landscapes tend to be given priority. Most often, the resulting sensationalized images/stories are serialized and repeated to achieve maximum public and media spread and exposure. As one NGO media person puts it, ‘the misery of the victims of famine, flood, war, and plague must be underlined, perhaps even exaggerated, if [the organization] is to attract sufficient public attention’ (quoted in DeChaine 2002: 361). In this regard, MSF has been criticized for its sensationalized stories, causing some to pejoratively characterize the organization’s press officers as ‘catastrophe babes’, ‘whose motives are said to be driven more by the market than by the crises’ (DeChaine 2002: 360). Such tendencies  illustrate well the symbolic violence noted above, fetishizing and commodifying the outwardly visible (i.e. ‘subjective violence’) in the service of the society of the spectacle.

More often than not, the stories and commodity-images produced by NGOs resort to classic hero narratives, in which the NGO-as-hero/celebrity overcomes adversity (obstacles, enemies, crises) to save hapless victims. All the characters are clearly identifiable: the saviour-heroes are the aid workers, human rights advocates, and volunteer doctors/nurses; the enemies/adversaries are ‘natural’ disasters, or corrupt and authoritarian governments/leaders (e.g. the Janjaweed militia and President Al-Bashir, in the case of the Save Darfur narrative); and the victims are women, children, and dispossessed communities. Robert DeChaine states, for instance, that MSF’s credibility as a humanitarian agency hinges at least in part on ‘its ability to establish a perception of its volunteers as courageous, ideologically pure, morally committed agents of change. They are saviors, champions of the voiceless, who knowingly and willfully face the morally unrighteous enemies of humanity’ (2002: 362).

The creation of victims is key, and the humanitarian spectacle manages to never run out of them. Debrix argues that what transnational humanitarian NGOs such as MSF create when they intervene across state boundaries are ‘spaces of victimhood’, both spatial and symbolic: ‘Under the guise of reaching “victims” the world over, MSF constructs new spaces – humanitarian zones – inside which individuals in distress are identified as “victims”, are sorted out, and become recognisable as generalised examples of human drama’ (1998: 827).  The establishment of refugee camps, famine sanctuaries, and the like, are meant to clearly demarcate these spaces, so that the victims can be triaged, categorized, treated, managed.

The people shepherded into these zones tend to be constructed as passive beneficiaries. Rarely do they have a voice; most often, it is the NGOs that speak and ‘witness’ for them. In the Darfur debacle, for example, there was a notable absence of any articulate Sudanese or indeed Darfurian voices; as Salah Hassan points out, the discourse was dominated by ‘Western celebrity activists, aid workers, and other self-appointed experts and spokespersons, thus reconfiguring the “white man’s burden” in a significant way’ (2010: 97). Faced with such persistent victimization, it should hardly be surprising that NGO saviourheroes have sometimes been received by disaster ‘victims’ with hostility rather than thanks, as in the case, for example, of Somalia in 1992 or Iraq after the 2003 invasion (Watson 2011: 14).

Kate Manzo (2008) underlines how often humanitarian NGOs resort to the use of child iconography (usually close-ups of single children’s faces). Think of the 1960s ‘Biafra child’, the 1980s ‘Ethiopia child’, or the current-day Plan/World Vision/Save the Children poster child. Child imagery has become the face and brand of NGO humanitarianism (cf. Chapter 1). Here too, the child tends to be depicted as victim, with children’s commodity-images deployed to evoke innocence, dependence, suffering (Manzo 2008: 636). Frequently, the child is meant to stand for the Third World, crying out to be helped and saved.  Such paternalism only reproduces colonial tropes of infantalization of the colonies to rationalize Europe’s ‘civilizing mission’.

The production of these black-and-white stories and images, with plainly identifiable heroes, adversaries, and victims, makes for the ideal humanitarian morality tale. Drama and sensationalism permit clear and simplified messaging, enabling the audience to take sides, claim moral indignation at the situation, and feel good about its support for NGO humanitarianism. Mamdani likens this to a kind of pornography, which in the case of Save Darfur yielded a highly moral movement that appealed to people’s self-righteousness rather than political analysis (2009: 56–57; cf. Flint and de Waal 2008; DeChaine 2002: 358–59). Moral campaigns tend towards depoliticization, opting (as we have seen) for short-term, managerial, and emergency/militarized solutions. Pupavec contends that moral advocacy avoids ‘the stresses and  responsibilities of implementing assistance programmes on the ground … In other words, advocacy can in some cases represent a disingenuous flight from responsibility for social problems, rather than deeper engagement with them’ (2006: 266).

The problem with the moral spectacle is precisely that it is less concerned with analysis and understanding than with taking sides and issuing calls to action. Manichean tales simplify, mystify, and ignore the often highly complex politics of emergencies. The focus on the outwardly visible and the spectacular, on special effects and sound-bytes, avoids layered, substantive, and mediaunfriendly investigation. Sensationalized media reports tend to decontextualize and homogenize, telling the story for its universal message, not its specific content: thus, for instance, earthquake ‘victims’ stand as ‘global victims’, so that the disaster ‘is made into the general condition of humankind’ (Debrix 1998: 841, 843). Media/NGO stories tend to linger on the photogenic, privileging physical destruction. In the case of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, Watson finds that the disaster was presented in the media as ‘natural’, ‘unpreventable’, ‘indiscriminate’, or ‘random’, when in fact the physical destruction and human suffering had as much to do with human activity and social systems (e.g. use of poor building materials, especially in poorer neighbourhoods): ‘the physical evidence is used to tell a particular story – one that, in essence, speaks for itself in a way that is de-historical and de-political’ (2011: 14–15).

 

Above image from the Avaaz website: “Libya No-Fly Zone: As Libyan government jets drop bombs on the civilian population, the UN Security Council will decide in 48 hours whether to impose a no-fly zone to keep Qaddafi’s warplanes on the ground.” [Emphasis in original]

 

What is left out of the NGO/media stories are the un-photogenic details, the ‘boring’ particulars of the daily grind of people’s lives, the recurring patterns of alienation or marginalization. Historical knowledge is a no-no: ‘spectacular time’ militates against ‘historical time’, because the former must organize information ‘through the media as dramatic events that are quickly displaced and forgotten’ (Stevenson 2010: 162). When there is interest in details, the media usually home in on the personal (i.e. issues of identity, individual tragedy, etc.) or the gory (i.e. violence), rather than broader politics. In the 2004 Asian Tsunami, Watson finds that the media tended to fetishize human-interest stories (e.g. personal and family tragedies), devoid of any social or political context, and to sometimes suggest that ‘victims’ were responsible for their own plight (2011: 14). Moreover, all tsunami ‘victims’ were treated the same, ignoring the fact that local residents and Western tourists were differently impacted, and that local women and children, in particular, were the worst affected: the ‘human-tragedy component served to tie all the human victims together: Westerners and locally affected populations … [thus obliterating] the different sources of vulnerability for the two groups’ (Watson 2011: 14–15). Similarly, in the Hurricane Katrina crisis, Tierney et al. (2006) find that the media focused almost exclusively on issues of looting, poverty, and racial tensions, and had almost nothing to say about recurring state cuts for infrastructure and social services in the worst affected, low-lying, and mainly poor black neighbourhoods. Concentrating on ‘secondary malfunctions’ and ‘subjective violence’ – poverty, crime, corruption, individual trauma – as opposed to the ‘objective violence’ of, say, inequality and broader political economy, is a recurring ideological strategy that we have observed before. ‘Under the guise of exposing global trauma and injustice in spectacular detail, genuine consideration of the key political and economic causes is displaced’ (Taylor 2010: 131).

 

Such tendencies to ignore key details or broader contexts are integral to the types of photos or films produced by NGOs. Invariably, these are either largescale images (i.e. aerial or wide-angle shots) of landscapes and neighbourhoods, or close-ups of individuals and faces. This toggling between the bird’s eye view and the shrunk/miniaturized view, as Jim Igoe argues,

allows for the simultaneous presentation of problems that are so large they demand the attention of the whole of humanity, while identifying specific groups of people who are their perpetrators … Missing from these presentations are the complex and messy connections and relationships that are invisible in both the open-ended vastness of spectacular [landscapes] and the compelling specificity of prosperous villagers. (2010: 382)

It is not just the broader contexts of emergencies that spectacular humanitarianism ignores; it is also that some emergencies tend to be neglected altogether. During the Asian Tsunami, for example, the Western press focused almost exclusively on known tourist locations across the region, overlooking the devastation in ‘lesser-known countries and localities’ (Cottle and Nolan 2007: 879). The other, more telling recent example here is the Congo, where over four million people have died over the last decade, but which has received little attention from the press. Žižek writes in this regard that:

The Congo today has effectively re-emerged as a Conradian ‘heart of darkness’. No one dares to confront it head on. The death of a West Bank Palestinian child, not to mention an Israeli or American, is mediatically worth thousands of times more than the death of a nameless Congolese. (2008a: 3; cf. Mamdani 2009: 63)

The various manifestations of symbolic and systemic violence outlined above are revealing of the ideology of spectacular NGOs. For what is ideology, in the Žižekian sense that we mean it, other than the production of spectacular images and smooth spaces (i.e. humanitarian zones) to cover up the Real (broader political economy, long-term political alternatives, Western complicity)? The glossy photos and sensational headlines help create pure, untarnished, and moral humanitarian fantasies to be commodified and sold. The smooth spaces (refugee camps, etc.) help manufacture artificial humanitarian sanctuaries where ‘victims’ are categorized, controlled, and ultimately served up as advertisements for the likes of MSF, Save Darfur, or Save the Children (cf. Debrix 1998). The NGO/media spectacle helps to unify and stabilize reality, disavowing anything that disturbs the humanitarian dream-fantasy, is discomforting to the public, or threatens the neoliberal global order. Outwardly visible, subjective violence may well be shown, or even fetishized, but that it is symptomatic of a dirty underside, a broader underlying objective violence, is glossed over.

Of course, spectacular NGOs hide behind their faux objectivity and nonpartisan humanitarianism to repudiate any accusations of political ideology. Yet, as we have seen, their very presentation of reality through their stories and images is already an ideological construction of it (cf. Taylor 2010: 83). They create (the public view of ) emergencies and disasters in advance, so that ‘reality’ and the audience’s perception of it are one and the same (cf. Žižek 1994b: 15). Thus, Debord writes, ‘For what is communicated are orders: and with perfect harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them’ (1990: 6).

 

[Ilan Kapoor is a Professor of Critical Development Studies at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University. He teaches in the area of global development and environmental politics, and his research focuses on postcolonial theory and politics, participatory development and democracy, and more recently, ideology critique. He is the author of The Postcolonial Politics of Development (Routledge 2008), and more recently, Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity (Routledge 2013). He is currently writing a book on psychoanalysis and development.”]

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WATCH: The Ideology of Celebrity Humanitarianism

 

Kapuscinski Development Lecture

May 12, 2015

UNHCR Special Envoy actor Angelina Jolie takes part in a news conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

 

“Celebrity charity work is deeply tainted and ideological. Its altruistic pretensions are belied by several accompaniments: its tendency to promote both the celebrity’s brand and the image of the ‘caring’ (Western) nation; its entrenchment in a marketing and promotion machine that helps advance corporate capitalism and rationalizes the very global inequality it seeks to redress; its support to a ‘postdemocratic’ liberal political system that is outwardly democratic and populist, yet, for all intents and purposes, conducted by unaccountable elites; and its use and abuse of the ‘Third World’, making Africa, in particular, a background for First World hero-worship and a dumping ground for humanitarian ideals and fantasies. But what about our own complicity in this ideological work? As audience members and fans, or indeed even as detractors or critics, we too easily carry on our lives, consoled that someone is doing the charity work for us, just as long as we don’t have to.” [Source: Kapuscinski]

Excerpt from “The production and Construction of Celebrity Advocacy in International Development
by Dan Brockington:

“Within British development ngos there has been a questioning of the values promoted by relying on celebrity. Within the academe there is a flourishing body of criticism of the role of celebrity in recreating and reproducing hegemonic capitalist inequality. Kapoor adopts the most radical position, arguing that celebrity is part of the forces which create and produce inequality, and that celebrities might in fact be ‘sadists’ delighting in their position at the top of the pyramid. He further suggests that the only way out of this dilemma is through a Marxist revolution and that following conventional means of tackling poverty (such as supporting ngos) is no solution – it is better to do nothing.”

 

 

[Ilan Kapoor is a Professor of Critical Development Studies at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University. He teaches in the area of global development and environmental politics, and his research focuses on postcolonial theory and politics, participatory development and democracy, and more recently, ideology critique. He is the author of The Postcolonial Politics of Development (Routledge 2008), and more recently, Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity (Routledge 2013). He is currently writing a book on psychoanalysis and development.”]

 

The Work of Celebrity in the Age of Neoliberal Environmental Governance

Blinded by the Stars? Celebrity, Fantasy, and Desire in Neoliberal Environmental Governance

Paper Prepared for Symposium “Capitalism, Democracy, and Celebrity Advocacy,”
University of Manchester, UK, 19-20 June 2012

By Robert Fletcher

 

“Queen Rania of Jordan, Naomi Campbell, Malala Yousafzai, Jennifer Lopez, Bill Gates and more get behind the United Nations’ Global Goals.” [Source]

 

Abstract

The growing prominence of celebrities within the global environmental movement—and their power to shape and advance this movement’s aims—has been a burgeoning focus of recent research. Thus far, such analysis has viewed the phenomenon primarily through a political economy lens, contending that celebrity is harnessed to further the agenda of a mainstream environmental movement that has become increasingly conjoined with neoliberal capitalism, as
expressed in the mounting enthusiasm to address ecological decline through corporate partnership and incentive-based market mechanisms. This presentation draws on psychoanalytic research to offer the complementary suggestion that celebrity also functions as a form of transference helping to sustain the fantasy implicit in this neoliberal vision “that capitalist markets are the answer to their own ecological contradictions” (Büscher 2012:12). Through transference, the charismatic authority conferred to larger-than-life celebrities helps to conceal the gaps between Real and Symbolic in this vision and thus obfuscates contradictions inherent in the execution of neoliberal environmental strategies. From this perspective, cynical suspicion concerning celebrities’ authenticity may paradoxically enhance their authority, and thus this analysis helps to explain counterintuitive findings that widespread ambivalence towards celebrities does little to diminish their power to shape public sentiment.

Excerpt:

The Work of Celebrity in the Age of Neoliberal Environmental Governance Researchers have observed that the growing prominence of celebrity resonates with and supports a general process of neoliberalization in various ways. First, in its close association with the rise of philanthrocapitalism (Bishop and Green 2008), celebrity helps to legitimate a paradigmatically neoliberal approach to governance emphasizing businesses’ capacity to self-regulate in the absence of substantial state oversight via so-called “corporate social responsibility” strategies (Holmes 2012; Kapoor 2012). Celebrities also help to sell (often literally through their corporate endorsement contracts) the idea intrinsic to this neoliberal approach that individuals can contribute to social causes primarily through “ethical” consumption of ostensibly socially and environmentally sustainable commodities rather than direct political engagement (Carrier 2010). Further, celebrities contribute to legitimating the spectacular rise of private philanthropy efforts on the part of wealthy individuals (see Kapoor 2012), a movement that both promotes neoliberalism in championing its “private visions of the public good” (Raddon, 2008: 38) and which has itself been increasingly neoliberalized over the past decade in seeking to restructure itself on the model of the market in the interest of enhanced “efficiency” (Holmes 2012).

Meanwhile, a rapidly growing body of literature has documented the myriad ways is which environmental policy and practices around the world have become increasingly neoliberalized over the past several decades. To date, most of this literature has addressed its subject matter from a predominantly Marxist perspective, viewing neoliberalism as a capitalist process and hence analyzing the ways in which environmental initiatives have become implicated in processes of commodification and financialization associated with the strategy of ‘accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2005) by means of which neoliberal policies serve to amass wealth in the hands of what Sklair (2001) calls the “transnational capitalist class” (see e.g., Heynen et al. 2007; Brockington et al. 2008; Castree 2008; Brockington and Duffy 2010; Büscher et al. 2012; cf. Oels 2005; Fletcher 2010b).

March 3, 2015: “People, Planet, Profit: The Rise of Triple-Bottom-Line Businesses – Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014 explores the role of ethical capitalism in the quest for sustainable economies.”

From this perspective, neoliberal theory functions predominantly as an ideological smokescreen, concealing the myriad ways in which unsavory aspects of this process (e.g., large-scale displacement of resource-dependent peoples in favor of corporate interests, the widespread failure of market-based environmental mechanisms to achieve intended aims) via an obfuscating rhetoric quick to proclaim “win-win” outcomes simultaneously sustaining the “triple bottom line” of “people, planet, and profits.”

In this analysis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes serves to support this obfuscation, distracting audiences from such underlying problems and helping to legitimate by association the big environmental nongovernmental organizations (BINGOs) that increasingly function like corporations both in their courtship of private sector resources and in their implementation of neoliberal market-based projects and programs (see Brockington 2008, 2009; Sullivan 2011). In this sense, celebrity endorsement is understood as part of the process through which nonhuman nature is transformed into Spectacle via aestheticized, hyperreal imagery (Brockington 2009; Igoe 2010; Igoe et al. 2010) within a neoliberal era in which capitalism seeks to internalize natural resources as an integral component of production—what O’Connor (1994) calls capitalism’s “ecological phase”—rather than externalizing them in order to maximize short term profit, the dominant strategy prior.

The psychoanalytic-inspired analysis presented above offers an alternative, yet complementary reading of this trend. Rather than viewing it as the ideological obfuscation of an underlying economic process of capital accumulation, in this lens neoliberal theory could be understood as a fantasy helping to conceal the gap between the actual function and effects of neoliberal policies and their Symbolic representation vis-à-vis the pervasive win-win rhetoric previously described (see Fletcher under review). Hence, Dean describes neoliberalism as championing a “fantasy of free trade” that covers over persistent market failure, structural inequalities, the violence of privatization, and the redistribution of wealth to the “have mores.” Free trade sustains at the level of fantasy what it seeks to avoid at the level of reality—namely actually free trade among equal players, that is equal participants with equal opportunities to establish the rules of the game, access information, distribution, and financial networks, etc. (2008:55).

With respect to environmental governance, the effect of this is to sustain “the paradoxical idea that capitalist markets are the answer to their own ecological contradictions” (Büscher 2012:12). In service to this fantasy, celebrity promotion helps to mobilize affect and desire in support of environmental causes, focusing attention on splashy, sensation-filled spectacle supporting the win-win narrative (Brockington 2009) and thereby conjuring an aura of environmentalism “as exciting, exotic, erotic, and glamorous—as ‘sexy’” (Sullivan 2011:335)

As Dean (2008) points out, it is of course desire that sustains neoliberalism’s free trade fantasy: desire on the part of neoliberal advocates to see the theory fuction as envisioned; and desire on the part of those excluded from neoliberalism’s benefits to finally receive the material rewards perennially dangled in front of them. De vries (2007) identifies this latter fuction of desire in international development policy, wherein the masses excluded from the fruits of development nevertheless sustain faith in development’s potential due to their desire to receive the benefits (i.e., projects, public works, etc.) they have long been promised by planners. In this dynamic, the gap between promise and fulfillment of neoliberal fantasies is itself concealed through further fantasies assuring satisfaction at some future juncture, once the proper adjustments have been made to finally “get the market right.” With respect to celebrity, observing the glamorous, larger-than-life personas, lifestyles, and seemingly heroic acts of altruistic charity performed by environmental celebrities offers a similar jouissance, providing just enough pleasure to keep viewers hooked yet constantly deferring an implied fulfillment, in part through ostentatious revelation of the artificiality of these aestheticized representations themselves.

 

Download the paper:

Fletcher Blinded by the Stars Celebrity Fantasy and Desire in Neoliberal Environmental Governance

 

 

[Robert Fletcher is an environmental anthropologist with research interests in conservation, development, ecotourism, globalization, climate change, social and resistance movements, and non-state forms of governance. He uses a political ecology approach to explore how culturally-specific understandings of human-nonhuman relations and political economic structures intersect to inform patterns of natural resource use and conflict. Most of his research has been conducted in Latin America (particularly Costa Rica and Chile) but he has begun to work in East Africa as well.”]

Building Movement Politics Means Fighting Democrats

Black Agenda Report

March 29, 2018

By Glen Ford

Building Movement Politics Means Fighting Democrats
 

In the absence of a renewed, grassroots street offensive against the armed occupation of Black communities, there will be no relief from the daily slaughter.”

 

Cops “have the right to shoot us, they get away with it every day,” said a despairing Dawnya Walker, one of 300 community residents that descended on Sacramento, California’s city hall to protest the police killing of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard . The numbers show that Walker is correct: U.S. police enjoy near-absolute impunity to gun down young Black males without any reasonable fear of punishment. Eight years of a Black, Democratic president in the Oval Office made not the slightest dent in that American reality, despite the re-emergence in 2014 of an incipient social justice movement under the heading of Black Lives Matter.

The youthful insurgency lost momentum — waylaid by the inexorable pull of Democratic Party politics and corporate philanthropy — long before Donald Trump entered the White House and installed a pure Dixiecrat as attorney general. Trumpian malevolence cast an orange chill across Black America. “It has been a long time since any victim was given as much attention as Stephon Clark,” writes Margaret Kimberley, in the current of issue of BAR.

“We are enveloped in a toxic miasma of Russia-hate that, by sheer weight and repetition, has infested every aspect of American political thought.”

There is “movement” afoot in the U.S., but it does not “arc towards justice.” Ever since Trump’s electoral victory, the collective national consciousness has been smothered in a maddening fog of manic, industrial-scale propaganda, spewed non-stop by corporate communications conglomerates working hand-in-glove with the most aggressive elements of the surveillance-intelligence “community” and the bi-partisan War Party. We are enveloped in a toxic miasma of Russia-hate that, by sheer weight and repetition, has infested every aspect of American political thought, distorting and subverting even the most progressive-minded “movements” struggling to find a way towards human dignity under late stage capitalism in a profoundly racist country. Voices for peace and social justice are asphyxiated in the pestilential plume — unless they find their own air.

Damn right, there is a conspiracy — possibly the loudest one in history! — megaphoned by a billionaire-owned media screaming “War, War, War” day and night, fouling the public mind with pure reactionary malice. The duopoly contest has devolved into a dance of death between Donald Trump’s raw white supremacist nationalism and Democratic Party corporate imperial warmongering. Only fools claim there is space for progressive maneuver in the interstices between such forces.

“The Democratic Party remains under the firm control of the Clinton/Obama forces that reinforced mass Black incarceration in the Nineties and militarized the police in this century.”

What is needed is clarity among genuine leftists and serious Black liberationists in the face of rampaging reaction. There is no lesser evil in this house of fear and apocalyptic brinksmanship. The Democrats have colluded in a budget whose gargantuan military outlays will inevitably doom what’s left of the U.S. social safety net — that is, if the human race is not annihilated, beforehand. They have replaced and outshouted the John McCain’s and Lindsay Graham’s of the Republican Party in demonizing, not just Vladimir Putin, but every government and movement in the world that resists U.S. lawlessness and aggression.

The Democratic Party remains under the firm control of the Clinton/Obama forces that reinforced mass Black incarceration in the Nineties and militarized the police at unprecedented levels in this century through the Pentagon’s 1033 program. In the absence of a renewed, grassroots street offensive against the armed occupation of Black communities, there will be no relief from the daily slaughter and the accompanying political evisceration of Black America.

Yes, it is certain that Trump’s very presence encourages the most swinish elements of the police. But it is also true that the Democrats — including Black Democrats — have controlled the city governments that maintain the police state in Black neighborhoods and relentlessly disperse our people through gentrification.

“What is needed is clarity among genuine leftists and serious Black liberationists in the face of rampaging reaction.”

And now it is the Democrats that take the lead in purging the Internet of dissenting political views, under the guise of defending fragile American minds against foreign manipulation. Silicon Valley — the big business sector most supportive of Clinton/Obama Democrats — is thus given license to shape reality in ways that make corporate dictatorship appear both logical and inevitable. Trump’s troglodytes could never finesse such a hijacking of fundamental democratic rights, but the Democrats are pulling it off with alarming speed. There’s nothing “lesser” about this evil.

When the Democrats got their wish, that Trump win the Republican presidential nomination, they became the predominant party of the U.S. ruling class and the most aggressive defenders of empire. Into Hillary Clinton’s campaign “Big Tent” slivered the dregs of the national security state, for whom peaceful coexistence among nations is anathema. Bernie Sanders cannot purge them from their central position in the party. The World Socialist Web Site reports that “an extraordinary number of former intelligence and military operatives from the CIA, Pentagon, National Security Council and State Department are seeking nomination as Democratic candidates for Congress in the 2018 midterm elections.” By WSWS’s count, if the Democrats capture a majority of seats in the House this November, “candidates drawn from the military-intelligence apparatus will comprise as many as half of the new Democratic members of Congress.”

Such a party is incompatible with any domestic social justice agenda — and a threat to the survival of the species. The Left’s job is to disentangle our people from the political clutches of the ruling class and to build independent people’s organizations. The Republicans are a white people’s problem, but Black activists cannot confront the police, the oligarchs or the warmongers without fighting the Democrats.

 

[BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com]

March for Eight Billion Lives: An Interview with Riva Enteen

 

An Interview with Riva Enteen

March 28, 2018

by Ann Garrison 

March for Eight Billion Lives: An Interview with Riva Enteen
 
“Of course we support the cause of protecting lives, but there is an exceptionalism to believing it only applies to American lives and especially white lives.”

Organizers of the upcoming Women’s March on the Pentagon are calling on the Democratic Party-sponsored Women’s March and March for Our Lives to expand their message to include the eight billion lives on the planet, all of which are imperiled by US weapons and wars. I spoke to Riva Enteen, a former National Lawyers Guild Program Director and a member of the steering committee for the October Women’s March on the Pentagon.

Ann Garrison: Riva, how would you like to see the March for Our Lives message expanded?

Riva Enteen: We must expand the message in two ways. First, we must acknowledge that US wars and domestic gun violence are intertwined. Our military budget is obscene, and the majority of Democrats voted with Republicans to give both Trump and the Pentagon more money than they asked for this year. Three Republican Senators joined the five Democratic Senators who voted against the $700 billion 2018 military budget. This has normalized carrying and using guns, which now include military-grade weapons on our streets. ?

“Gun control should begin at the Pentagon.”

Secondly, we have to be concerned with all lives, from Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School to Yemen. The US military is by far the largest arms dealer in the world, and it’s common knowledge that much of its weaponry ends up with those that our government calls “terrorists” and claims to be fighting. The US calls the terrorists it arms “rebels,” as in Syria, or “friends and allies,” as in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Gun control should begin at the Pentagon.

The endless “War on Terror” emerged after 9-11, which became the excuse for war as a constant, not an aberration. Until we rein in the US’s determination to exert hegemony over the whole world, we will continue to see blood spilled here while, at the same time, our missiles rain down on innocents in the name of specious “humanitarian intervention” and stopping terrorism. There is an irony to the US invoking the term “humanitarian intervention,” as it publicly abandons and scorns international law, bombing civilians and even hospitals.

AG: I counted ninety geographically distinct manifestations of the Democratic Party promoting their participation in the March for Our Lives, and all the march and voter registration logos and banners were blue. Your thoughts on that?

RE: The Democratic Party contained the message and excluded the call for peace, just as they did with the two Women’s Marches. It is counter-intuitive that a women’s march and a students’ march wouldn’t talk about peace, with the US at war in at least seven countries and no end in sight. But the Democrats, who promoted the Women’s Marches and the March for Our Lives, are a pro-war party. Peace is not on their agenda. War is a bi-partisan policy because, according to Wall Street, war is good for business, and that’s who controls our government.

At the beginning of his second term, after the December 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Obama said that he would address gun control and sounded convincing. A year earlier, in 2011 he had bragged, “In fact, my administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners—it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.”

“It is counter-intuitive that a women’s march and a students’ march wouldn’t talk about peace, with the US at war in at least seven countries and no end in sight.”

Attempts to limit the size of gun magazines, expand background checks of gun buyers, and ban gun sales to buyers on terrorism watch lists all failed to pass under Obama, when he had a Democratic House and Senate, from January 2009 to January 2013, and when he had a Democratic Senate, from January 2013 to January 2017.

Stand-your-ground laws, which George Zimmerman successfully used in his defense for killing unarmed Trayvon Martin, have expanded to more states, even though Obama lamented that if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.

AG: The March for Our Lives and the Women’s Marches have enormous corporate and celebrity support as well as the Democratic Party’s. They’re able to hire all kinds of staff to work full time on networking and turning out their huge crowds. Can you imagine getting any of that kind of support for the October Women’s March on the Pentagon?

RE: Of course we imagine getting support from all peace-loving people. Unfortunately, most corporations benefit from war so they would not support the cause of peace. We do believe there are celebrities who will step up to the plate and do the right thing, because the stakes are so high. This march commemorates the 1967 March on the Pentagon, which included celebrities such as Norman Mailer getting arrested.

AG: The Pentagon now admittedly has more money than it can figure out how to spend, so its surplus weapons go to militarize the police who are most aggressive in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Anything you’d like to say about that?

RE: Military grade weapons have no place in domestic neighborhoods, not in the hands of police officers, veterans with PTSD, or civilians. People from other countries are shocked at what we allow on our streets. The normalization of killing includes domestic massacres perpetrated with these military-grade weapons.

As to police killings in Black and Brown neighborhoods, it remains open season, just as it did under Obama, even when Black Lives Matter was at its strongest. I guess we can hope a precedent was set by South Carolina cop Michael Slager’s second degree murder conviction for shooting Walter Scott— an unarmed Black man—in the back.

AG: Some March for Our Lives supporters are likely to get defensive and ask whether you’re refusing to support their cause. What would you say to them?

RE: Of course we support the cause of protecting lives, but there is an exceptionalism to believing it only applies to American lives and especially white lives. In a promotional video that Democracy Now played repeatedly during their broadcast of the Washington, DC March for Our Lives, former US soldiers said that they’d learned how to put assault rifles to good purpose in US wars, but didn’t want them aimed at US citizens.

Isn’t it time to stop aiming those guns—and our missiles, fighter jets, and drones—at the rest of the world? My mother was a member of Women Strike for Peace, founded in 1961 with the slogan “Stop the Arms Race, Not the Human Race,” and that has never been more true.

Women, the givers of life, are confronting the Pentagon in Washington, DC, October 20-21. We hope that all peace-loving people will consider this a chance to make a stand for peace. There will be local antiwar actions springing up, as they did during Occupy, so keep your ear to the ground, and watch for updates on our website and our Facebook page .

 

[Riva Enteen is a former Program Director of the National Lawyer’s Guild, and a current member of the steering committee for the Women’s March on the Pentagon, who lives in South Lake Tahoe. She was also chair of the first KPFA Local Station Board. She can be reached at rivaenteen@gmail.com .]

[Ann Garrison is an independent journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. She can be reached at @AnnGarrison or ann@kpfa.org .]

WATCH: What is Nature ®Inc?

WATCH: What is Nature ®Inc?

Video Published August 22, 2012 by Transnational Institute

 

“Bram Büscher is Professor and Chair of the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University, The Netherlands and holds visiting positions at the Department of Geography, Environmental Management and Energy Studies of the University of Johannesburg and the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology of Stellenbosch University, in South Africa. [Full bio]

 

Is It Time to Critically Interrogate Nonviolence & Nonviolent Direct Action?

Black Agenda Report

March 15, 2018

By Doug Henwood

time to question nonviolence

Time to question nonviolent direct action as the path to change.

Activism. Democracy. Change through nonviolent direct action. These, Doug Henwood points out, have been fetishes for much of the US left for quite some time, especially that portion of the US left that takes its marching orders from corporate funders. Gene Sharp, the founder of the Albert Einstein Institute who passed away at the end of January was regarded as the father of American nonviolent direct action.

I usually write a weekly piece for Black Agenda Report, but this time I’m going to use that space to republish somebody else’s work, easily the most important thing I’ve heard so far this month. It’s an hour long Doug Henwood interview for the weekly radio show Behind The News on KPFA radio. Doug talks with Marcie Smith, who is writing a book on Sharp’s long and problematic career in the service of the US national security apparatus. Smith is an adjunct econ professor at John Jay College. She reveals how Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institute which he founded weaponized and deployed nonviolent direct action in the service of successful and unsuccessful US attempts to overthrow the governments of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, China, Myannmar, Iran, Egypt during the Arab Spring, Venezuela, the former Yugoslavia and the Baltic States.

Besides deploying nonviolent direct action to topple governments standing in the way of Uncle Sam’s global empire, Gene Sharp and his funders have mentored a good deal of what some regard as the US left – at least those parts of it under the influence of one-percenter philanthropy – in the tactics and what passes for the philosophy of nonviolent direct action. According to Sharp’s and the Albert Einstein Institute’s peculiar philosophy, property destruction is violence, while the ravages of poverty and deprivation, of economic blockades and lack of medical care just to name a few phenomena, are not. Sharp’s views on the methods and importance of nonviolent direct action are highly influential in such quarters as Moral Monday and the so-called New Poor Peoples Campaign, parts of the environmental movement, and other places. Whether or not we embrace or espouse nonviolent direct action as an occasional tactic or a bedrock and fundamental strategy we owe it to ourselves to understand the origin of this idea, why the national security state promotes it, how and for whom it works and does not work, and why.

It’s time to critically interrogate the fetishes of nonviolence and nonviolent direct action as a path to the world we need to build. This great interview is a good start to that conversation. Here is the link. Click to listen or download it.

 

[You can find Doug Henwood’s Behind the News shows archived for the last several years at http://leftbusinessobserver.com .]

Excerpt from The Big Conservation Lie

Book: The Big Conservation Lie

Author: John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada

Publisher: Lens & Pens Publishing LLC Auburn WA USA 2017

 

 

The Epiphany

John Mbaria’s Encounter With Unseen Injustice

 

 

She was an unmistakable image of deprivation. The emaciated Samburu woman had thrown across her left shoulder a torn shuka, which left parts of her body exposed. She had braved the sweltering Samburu sun that baked the entire place bringing into being mirages of promise that failed to deliver more than that. As she advanced to the river, the woman attempted an upright position. But her stooped frame refused to yield. Nevertheless, this enabled me to peer into her cracked, multilined face. Her look was distant. Her thin hands held onto a cord with which she had strapped the empty twenty-litre water jerrican. Her entire frame talked of many struggles and probably as many defeats. The woman had emerged from a thick bush across the river, itself part of a natural spread dotted here and there by short, sturdy trees and broken, now and then, by awkward-looking hills. Some of the outcrops had been whitened by excrement from birds of prey. The vast, monotonous terrain extended into the distant horizon, giving packs, herds and flocks, and other residents a veritable abode. Some did not just live and let live; they visited local people’s homesteads with danger and intent.  Across the river was a scene removed from the reality of this unforgiving landscape. Under the watchful eyes of armed rangers, a group of us were happily and noisily climbing a rocky landform that formed part of the river’s embankment.

This was in 2001, and most of us were young, joyful journalists. We had been sponsored to the Shaba Game Reserve, 314 kilometres northeast of Nairobi, by the Sarova Group of Hotels, one of Kenya’s most prominent hotel chains with eight hotels—many of which are carefully stashed in some of Kenya’s most spectacular, most pristine pieces of wilderness. Located in Eastern Kenya, Shaba is where the popular reality TV adventure series Survivor III was shot in August 2001. Before that, the game reserve hosted Joy and George Adamson, the romantic conservationists who gave the world a reality show of life in the bush before they were tragically murdered. Together with its sister reserve, Buffalo Springs, Shaba boasts of seventeen springs that sojourn along subterranean courses from Mount Kenya—one hundred or so kilometres away—and which gush out there to convert part of this dry wasteland into a veritable oasis. Along its northern boundary flows the Ewaso Nyiro River that, together with the springs, has made the entire place a magnet for gerenuks, Grevy’s zebras, reticulated giraffes, lions, leopards, and hundreds of bird species that live side by side with the Samburu people. We were taken there to savour the unmitigated joy of spending time in a purely wild area. We were expected to reciprocate by meeting our brief—flowery feature stories embellished into captivating narratives that could attract and keep guests visiting the hotel and the reserve. Many of us were poorly paid cub reporters who could hardly afford the European cuisine on offer or the joys of partaking of a game drive atop four-wheel-drive fuel guzzlers. With a monthly pay that either equaled or was slightly more than the cost of spending a night in the extremely comfortable and luxurious hotel, we could not but agree to be spoiled for three days and be blinded by freebies. We roamed the area in vans packed with bites, booze, and soda. For lunch and dinner, three-course meals of continental dishes awaited—a veritable feeding frenzy ensued.

While on game drives, we hoped to spot elephants, dung beetles, and everything in between. Part of our exclusive experience included climbing a rocky landform close to the crocodile-infested Ewaso Nyiro River. It was while doing so that I spotted the elderly Samburu woman. Silently—almost in mime—and removed from my world, she was to take me through a host of lessons that dramatically altered my entire outlook on the grand wildlife conservation program Kenya and other countries in Africa have adopted since the dawn of colonialism.

“A conversation with the Samburu elders during a study on pastoralism, 2017” [Source]

For some reason, I found myself thoughtfully watching her every move. She dipped her jerrican into the river, rapidly filling it with the muddy, unpalatable water. The water notwithstanding, this had me thinking. With a load of European food still fresh in my belly, I could afford to summon some imagination. I conjured images of the immense peril the woman had exposed herself to. But what repeatedly danced in my mind was one image in which a four-metre, several-hundred-kilo crocodile emerged from the water, splashed dirty water into her eyes, and in a lightning move, grabbed the woman’s leg with its massive jaws, its saw-like teeth tearing into her flesh, as it then dragged her limp body into the deeper waters. In my mind’s eye, the croc went on to convert her entire existence into some unsightly bloody mess.

Thank God this did not happen. But in the case it had happened, I figured that it would have resulted in several eventualities: A photojournalist would have captured the bloody scene in a single, award-winning shot. The woman would have paid the ultimate price, ending up as yet another sad statistic. Many of us would have filed copious media reports detailing how “another victim met her death” or “I witnessed the worst case of human-wildlife conflict at the banks of Ewaso.” KWS rangers would have been summoned. And with cocked guns, fingers on triggers, eyes strained to the river, and adrenaline pumping into muscles, they would have first shot in the air to rattle any crocs. The rangers would have found it impossible to identify the culprit. Unable to isolate the life-snatching beast from the rest of the gang, they would have shot one of them—an act of appeasement to sorrowful relatives, tit-for-tat killing, justice delivered to a woman so shunned in life. The conservation juggernaut would have rolled on, as ever deceitful and callously removed from the plight of those who suffer the brunt of what it purports to preserve.

Yes, the woman lived that day, not just to take the dirty water home, but probably to go back to the river and risk her life many more times. Maybe she lived only to fall sick or die from the muddy, parasite-infested Ewaso waters. This is not just a possibility. Neither is it a mere probability or likelihood. It is a circumstance that is replicated countless times across most areas bordering Kenya’s twenty-two national parks and twenty-eight national reserves. Many of the people who live with wildlife in Africa meet their deaths, leaving hordes of orphans with no one to wipe their tears. There are hundreds of women—young and old—who have been denied the comfort of travelling through life with their spouses. There are men who must gnash their teeth in pain and immense anger each time they think of their late beloved spouses and children. There are countless more who live without limbs, just as there are many others who endure torn flesh, broken bones, blindness, destitution, and loss of entire livelihoods occasioned by encounters with wild animals.

In this Samburu woman, I saw the embodiment of a community praised for its traditional conservation ethics that spared for the world vast populations of diverse wildlife, a community, however, shunned by the world, even as acres of paper and decades of airtime are expended by many a conservationist and organization to discuss their welfare.

Upon this revelation, I refused to play along, and I made it my career to expose the rot.

~ John Mbaria, 2014

 

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