Sometimes you can tell a lot about the merits of an argument by how its proponents respond to criticism. Take the way Preston Brooks responded to Charles Sumner in a senate chamber back in 1856. Senator Sumner had made a speech criticizing Southerners who sympathized with pro-slavery violence and described slavery as a “harlot.” Pro-slavery Congressman Brooks, probably realizing how annoyingly right Sumner was and being unable to offer an eloquent, well-reasoned comeback, gathered together a couple cronies for backup, trapped Sumner under his desk and beat him with a wooden cane while one of Brooks’ friends used a pistol to hold off everybody who tried to help the bleeding Sumner. I think it’s safe to assume that Sweet Home Alabama was playing in the background and, afterward, Brooks and his buddies drove off in the General Lee to go rustle up some possum stew.
Things ain’t changed much since then. When some people see everything they stand for compellingly and convincingly criticized, they still often take the coward’s way out. Case in point: this evening’s event at the Center for American Progress, co-sponsored by the ENOUGH Project, titled “Are Activists to Blame for Darfur?,” during which John Norris and Rebecca Hamilton wasted an hour of my time answering a question no one asked.
The entire event was really a response to Mahmood Mamdani’s accusation that professional advocates (i.e. people who get paid to work in Darfur advocacy organizations) are doing more harm than good in Darfur. At a recent debate between he and John Prendergast, “Mamdani scored a TKO–the depth of his knowledge of African history was on full display, and his conceptual criticism of the Save Darfur movement was withering.” In light of Prendergast’s public spanking at the hands of the movement’s arch nemesis, I guess ENOUGH and other advocacy organizations found the need to do a little damage control. All Prendergast’s proxies the speakers did during this event was twist Mamdani’s words so that it sounds like he’s attacking the unpaid Darfur activist community. Then they pretended to be really offended by his outrageous accusations. Norris even said that he’s “always shocked when people go to blame the nice people” (!) and both he and Hamilton lamented that criticisms like Mamdani’s might alienate unpaid activists and make them less involved in Darfur.
Wrong. Like I said earlier, Mamdani criticizes paid, professional advocates (he singles out SDC, but all those who make money off of African misery can be lumped together), but accuses unpaid, citizen activists only of being credulous at worst. Attacking paid advocates won’t necessarily make unpaid activists less likely to support Darfur/Africa issues/the anti-genocide movement in general, it’ll just make them less likely to support organizations like the Save Darfur Coalition.
And therein lies the true point of this obscene charade of a discussion: The professional advocates aren’t really afraid that the citizen activists will stop advocating for Darfur, they’re afraid they will stop donating money to their organizations. So, they’re attempting to trick unpaid activists into dismissing Mamdani by misconstruing his argument. Kinda like how the neo-cons trick poor people into hating Democrats.
Much like Brooks’ response to Sumner said a lot about the merits of Brooks’ argument, the advocacy community’s reaction to Mamdani says a lot about the merits of theirs. Think about it: they deflected Mamdani’s criticism of paid Darfur advocates (i.e. themselves) onto the very activists who support their cause. Instead of just defending themselves and saying “He’s wrong, and here’s evidence that Darfur is better off because of our actions,” they decided it was a better strategy to try and convince activists that this mean ol’ professor is blaming them for the conditions in Darfur. The only reason anyone would do that is if there was, in fact, no evidence to suggest that Darfur is better off because of anything they did.
Clearly, this event was merely the advocacy community’s way of fighting Mamdani without having to do it face to face. You see, these people tend to lose the argument when forced to fight like men. Realizing they’re no match for their critics in a fair argument, they’ve redefined the battle in their own terms to tip the scales in their favor. Can’t say I’m surprised.