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Am I wrong about Sterling Cooper?

May 6, 2009

Any fan of Mad Men closely follows Peggy Olson’s struggle in forwarding her career.  She recently climbed her way from secretary to junior copywriter and still fights for the respect of her male coworkers.  Her situation is interesting because, now that she’s part of the advertising industrial complex, she has the chance to better represent the female perspective at the company and may even be able to change the way women are portrayed in advertising.  However, she needs to be careful because, if she rocks the boat too much, she may alienate herself from the men she works with and lose all her influence or even her job.  She’s forced to walk a fine line between asserting herself and fitting in.  Raise your hand if you can’t wait for Season #3!

I’m reminded of Peggy when I think of Darfuris and Arabs who may not like the way they’re portrayed by the save Darfur movement but still want to be a part of it.  Now I know I keep coming back to that godforsaken video that I referenced earlier, in which two SDC staffpersons engaged Mamdani in a dialogue that furthered the SDC vs. Mamdani debate.  It’s just that there are so many nuggets worthy of discussion in that video that I can’t leave it alone!  It’s like a scab that you keep picking at until it bleeds.

And oh, how it bleeds!  Take, for example, at about the 2:32:30 mark, where a woman who identifies herself as both a Darfuri and a SDC employee, opens up a big ol’ box of vitriol and says that the

Sudan government has absolute power, using oil money to pay academics to write about Darfur to confuse facts.

I mean Sweet Fancy Moses, people!  She implied that Mamdani is in the pocket of the Sudanese government while she was representing the Coalition in a public forum?  Now I know SDC has a history of mishandling Mamdani’s attacks, but this is ridiculous.  Where do SDC employees get their talking points from, anyway?  Darfuri rebels?  And I thought Mamdani was the crazy one making wild accusations!

Anyway, the two employees defended SDC, one (the non-Darfuri) telling Mamdani,

…you don’t note that we have Sudanese on staff from multiple parts of…uh…Sudan, – we – uh…including Khartoum.  That we have Sudanese on our board from multiple parts of Sudan, including the South. That we engage with Arab, African and Darfuri and civil society organizations on a daily basis…That we help – uh – we have helped build up the capacity of groups in Sudan, of groups around Africa and of groups in the Arab world to speak about these issues from their own perspective…

The Darfuri SDC employee then asserted,

We have three Darfuris on the board of the Save Darfur Coalition, and Sudanese on our staff.  Myself, I joined the Save Darfur Coalition.  I came to them.  They are not, like, going after us because of the interest there.

Now I ain’t much for figurin’, but I think they’re trying to say that SDC has a diverse bunch of people working for or affiliated with them.  That’s great, I guess, but are the people who make the Coalition so diverse really involved in decision making processes and how their people are portrayed or are they merely window dressing whose main purpose is to be conspicuously paraded around when folks like Mamdani rear their heads?  Some clues may lie in the messages that SDC disseminates to the public.

If the Darfuris on staff and on the board really have a say in how they’re portrayed, did they approve this video, which appears on the SDC website and was a link in an email sent by SDC to its distribution list on March 26, 2009 from a woman who discusses growing up in Darfur and escaping the genocide?

See how it starts off with dark, ominous music and Darfuris talking about their plight, then the music gets all light and inspirational when they get to the “but you can help” part as proud, American faces begin to dance across the screen?  The icing on the cake is at the end when Darfuri physician Halima Bashir* implores the viewer to “please help them.”  What do the Darfuris who work for/with/at the Coalition think of this video?  Do they see having to sit back while their countrymen are infantilized by a western PR machine as a means to an end?  Do they say “Sure it’s insulting, but if it appeals to liberal guilt and gets people to open their hearts and wallets, then I guess it’s okay because I know it’s for a good cause?”  Do they find it offensive at all?

In that same vein, what do Arabs at the organizations that engage with SDC “on a daily basis” (note the SDC employees in the video didn’t say that there are any Arabs on staff) think of charges that the Coalition reduces the situation to an Arab vs. African conflict?  Are they comfortable with a poster that says

…two different kinds of people, the Arab Muslims** [asterisks added] and the Black Africans, started fighting in Darfur, Sudan. The government is ruled by the Arab Muslims, and they want to eliminate the Black Africans…Black African people have been killed, and more than 2 million Black African people have been forced to leave their homes.

And let me nip something in the bud right away: I’m well aware that “Arab” doesn’t mean “ethnically middle eastern” in Darfur.  I realize that ethnic identity tends to be fluid there, and the distinction between African and Arab is largely based on whether someone is a peasant agriculturalist or a pastoral nomad.  But make no mistake, when many Americans see the word “Arab,” they don’t take the time to understand what that word means in different cultures and contexts.  They just think of Iraq, Iran and terrorism and say “Now they’re attacking Africans too?  What’s wrong with these people!?”  They don’t think of Sudanese Arabs, they think of the Arabs I’m talking about in this post – the ones that 9/11 made it okay to hate.  That’s the plain, ugly truth.

To the Coalition’s credit, if these Darfuris are content to let their people be infantilized and these Arabs to let their people be demonized, perhaps SDC is doing something right.  Perhaps these people agree so strongly with Save Darfur’s message/mission/methods that they’re willing to overlook the way they market the crisis just to be part of this glorious movement.   Why else would Darfuris be on board with a paternalistic Western portrayal of the conflict?  Why else would Arabs be okay with being vilified?

And I’m absolutely not being snide and coyly insinuating “What self-loathing, milquetoasty sellouts these Arabs and Darfuris are!  How do they sleep at night?”  No, no.  As The Animals said, “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood!”  I honestly suspect that SDC might be getting a lot of things right, I just can’t for the life of me figure out what those things might be.  What about the Coalition do these guys love most?  SDC doesn’t actually send humanitarian relief to Darfur, so are they just really impressed with SDC’s lobbying efforts?  Is it that they’re 100% on board with that fancy new Blueprint for Peace or whatever it’s called?  Do they really think that SDC is the best Darfur-related organization out there?   Maybe they just think that, for all its faults, it’s still a pretty good place to work.  Or is the truth a bit darker?   Are these undoubtedly well-meaning people actually being marginalized, like Peggy, and forced to choose between fitting in and standing up for what they believe in?

*If you want a good read that definitely boils the conflict down to an Arab vs. African dichotomy but does it through personal, brutal honesty, read her book Tears of the Desert.

**I focused on the role that ethnicity plays in how the conflict is marketed, but I didn’t address religion here.  That’s a whole new can of worms and beyond the scope of this post.  Still, please note that SDC’s poster specifies Arab Muslims.  Are we supposed to think the Black Africans it mentions are, like, Jewish or something?

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