There’s this great scene in Blazing Saddles, in which the townspeople point guns at Bart, the newly arrived sheriff, and Rev. Johnson holds up his Bible and says “Gentlemen, gentlemen, allow not hatred to rule the day. As your spiritual leader, I implore you to pay heed to this good book and what it has to say!” Then one of the townspeople shoots the Bible, blowing it apart while it’s still in his hand. He turns to Bart and says “Son, you’re on your own” and walks off the podium.
Jesus Tap-Dancin’ Christ that’s good comedy! Tell me; is there anything better than that movie? I submit that there is not. Okay maybe pie…or steak…or a pie made of steak. Yeah. Steak Pie. Awesome.
Well, in a recent NYRB article, Nick Kristof essentially pulls a Rev. Johnson. In the review, as one might expect, he harshly critiques Mamdani’s book Saviors and Survivors and the Obama administration’s response to the crisis so far. The unexpected part lies in how he discusses the save Darfur movement.
Historically, Kristof has been the movement’s staunchest, most rabid defender, but in his latest piece the only support he can muster involves insisting that the movement hasn’t failed as miserably as many might think. This is particularly interesting considering how, traditionally, Kristof has written exclusively maudlin commentary about the movement:
By the way, I didn’t emphasize it enough in the column, but the leadership of the group behind the diplomatic initiative — the Save Darfur Coalition — gets enormous credit. Dave Rubenstein, who founded it and runs it, has managed to hold together a group that runs from liberal New Yorkers to evangelical Christian Texans, from Jews to Christians to Muslims. In a polarized world, that is a real achievement.
The advocacy groups also do an amazing job gathering information and leaning on governments here and abroad. The dominant one is the Save Darfur Coalition, but there’s also the Genocide Intervention Network.
Jeez, Kristof and the Darfur advocacy movement should just get a room already!
A word of advice: Whenever you find yourself doing something naive, like having hope for humanity or thinking the world isn’t such a terrible place, just think about the fact that this guy has two Pulitzers. That should fix you up right quick, as we say back home.
Sadly, sometimes the steamiest love affairs are the shortest lived. Indeed, Kristof’s been changing his tone as of late, beginning a recent blog post with:
The Save Darfur movement seems to be losing steam. It is riven by internal debate, it is being ignored by the Obama administration, and it suffered a frontal attack from Mahmood Mamdani…
instead of his typical encomia. Most interesting of all, this subtle change appears to be lost on the save Darfur movement. Apparently, some poor misguided souls in the movement are just tickled pink with Kristof’s book review only because, in it, he critiques Mamdani and Obama. For example, John Norris, whose job description apparently includes defending unpaid grassroots activists from imaginary attacks, wrote:
A long and thoughtful piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Review of Books is most notable for two things. First, Kristof does an excellent job taking Mamdani apart piece by piece on many of the key arguments that Mamdani has floated to get his fifteen minutes of fame* [asterisk added] on the Darfur issue. Well worth a read for that reason alone.
Equally notable, Kristof takes a reasonably sharp tone with regard to President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s effort to resolve Sudan’s long suffering:
“Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were among the leaders in the Senate calling for action on Darfur, yet since they have assumed executive power they have done very little about it. The reason is the same one that has always led American presidents to veer away from taking firm action on genocide—there is no neat, easy solution, major national interests are not at stake, and in the absence of an ideal policy it is always easier on any given day to defer a decision. There are also some signs that the Obama administration—in the form of its Sudan envoy, General Scott Gration, who grew up in East Africa but has no Sudan experience— prefers a softer approach toward Khartoum. As a presidential candidate, Obama sounded as if he were determined to do something about Sudan; since taking office, he has had no visible effect on the situation in Darfur.”
Is President Obama losing Kristof?
From what Norris says, you’d never think that Kristof said anything negative about the save Darfur movement in the article, would you? I guess that’s based on the part where Kristof says “groups like Save Darfur, the Enough Project, and the Genocide Intervention Network have pointed to steps that will help,” then goes on to describe those six steps. But that’s not the whole story, and to draw a conclusion like Norris’s requires impressive mental gymnastics and kind of a twisted “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of logic. This is ridiculous reasoning because, in the boxing ring of NYBR commentary, Kristof may have just hit Mamdani with many well-placed uppercuts, but he simultaneously kicked the save Darfur movement in the crotch a few times.
Indeed, the movement’s biggest cheerleader appears to be jumping ship, or at least preparing a lifeboat for himself. In the book review that the movement has responded to so favorably, Kristof says:
the “Save Darfur” movement has stalled—even as the plight of many Darfuris may be worsening…
in the very first sentence. Later, he asks the question:
Did the Darfur movement lose its way? Does it know what it’s doing?
He has to ask if it knows what it’s doing?! I thought he said they were doing “an amazing job” and he “proudly wears one of their thongs class rings varsity jackets sweatshirts!” Where’s the love, baby? Kristof also says:
There are many reasonable criticisms one can make of some of the humanitarians and journalists involved. Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert and author with Julie Flint of the excellent book Darfur: A New History of a Long War, has infuriated many Darfur advocates with his opposition to an ICC arrest warrant for President Bashir. But de Waal knows Sudan exceptionally well, and his blog and essays are read with respect as well as disagreement. Anybody who wants to get a well-informed critique of the Save Darfur movement would be better off reading de Waal than reading Mamdani’s error-filled polemic.
Telling readers where to get the best critiques of the movement doesn’t seem too pro-movement to me. That’s like telling a coke addict “Don’t go to that dealer, he cuts his stuff with talc and Dexedrine. Go to this other dealer, who’ll sell you pure Colombian blow at a good rate.” Certainly good advice, if you want the person to continue with their addiction, but it won’t make the addict stop doing drugs.
Kristof also laments that the Obama administration has done little for Darfur so far, saying:
To some extent, that’s a reflection on the Save Darfur movement and on scribblers like myself who took up the Darfuri cause. We have failed to foster the political will to bring about change. For all our efforts, the situation on the ground may soon become worse. A “Darfur fatigue” has set in, and the movement has lost its steam. And of course the movement was always compromised by its own shortcomings, from infighting to naiveté to the ubiquitous penchant of advocacy groups for exaggeration.
If you knew it was “always compromised by its own shortcomings,” why the hell didn’t you tell readers that back when you were writing puff pieces on SDC and blowing kisses to David Rubenstein? Had you struck a deal with the movement? “Okay, I’ll exclusively publish love letters if you just keep sending sweatshirts. God, I loves me some sweatshirts!” Hack. In conclusion, Kristof says:
For all the failures, there is something inspiring about how hundreds of thousands of university students around America have marched, fasted, and donated money…Moreover, the movement is far from a complete failure…For all the failures, hundreds of thousands of people are alive today because of those students, those churches and synagogues, and that’s not a shabby legacy.
Not “a complete failure” isn’t exactly a sparkling endorsement. It’s kinda like how social conservatives defend Bristol Palin: “Sure she got pregnant out of wedlock, but at least she didn’t get an abortion or anything,” before trying to change the subject to something less touchy.
In fact, the only time Kristof defends the movement against its critics in a meaningful way is when he’s discussing Mamdani’s most ridiculous conspiracy theories. For example, he says:
It makes no sense for Mamdani to argue that the Save Darfur movement is some kind of conspiracy by the great powers to recolonize Africa.
I agree wholeheartedly with Kristof here: There’s no freakin’ way the save Darfur movement is a Zionist, imperialist or any kind of conspiracy. While the movement’s major players may each have their own individual agendas, they aren’t smart, well-organized or disciplined enough to be part of anything as cool-sounding as a conspiracy. While the movement certainly employs many bright, talented people, the guys who run the show – the Darfur advocacy leaders – couldn’t conspire their way out of a paper bag. (Don’t tell me that’s too harsh! After all, I let them be Bart in my awesomely apt Blazing Saddles metaphor. How generous was that? Everyone wants to be Bart.)
In conclusion, Norris and others in the save Darfur movement should look at this article a little more closely and try to understand the hidden implications: Kristof, the man who used to loyally throw his panties onstage whenever the movement so much as hiccuped, is trying to appear as though he isn’t as supportive as he once was and is even admitting some level of failure. Why would he try to distance himself from the movement now? Perhaps Kristof is smart enough to realize that times they are a-changin’ and, like a good little NYT “journalist,” he knows he better pander to his readers and change with them. If I were Norris, I’d see even this subtle change in Kristof’s writing as a symptom of an ominous, changing tide of public opinion and rethink the way the Darfur advocacy movement works. Then again, if I were Norris, I wouldn’t be good lookin.’
*You didn’t really think I’d let that slide, did you? This is rich: Norris, of the ENOUGH Project, says Mamdani is trying “to get his fifteen minutes of fame on the Darfur issue.” First off, Mamdani was studying African issues back when Norris was still a Clinton administration flunky in Yugoslavia, so if either of the two has switched to talking about Darfur because it’s popular and will bring them “fame,” it’s probably Norris. Furthermore, the accusation isn’t even well founded because, for a guy who just wrote a book, Mamdani’s pretty much staying out of the spotlight; save for addressing his detractors in public fora. Now, let’s think: Is there anyone at the ENOUGH Project who seems to regularly indulge in fame seeking behavior? You know where this is headed, gentle readers. In fact, if you’ve read any of my previous posts, you probably saw it from a mile away. No one in the movement shamelessly hobnobs with celebrities more than John Freakin’ Prendergast. If I were to try to comment on his exploits at length, the ensuing diatribe would go on for ten pages before devolving into a stream of random expletives and nonsensical jokes about his hair, so I’ll just let the photographic evidence speak for itself:
**The original caption read “Only in Swedish comics is the heroine ever a gray-haired lady in full S&M garb and boots “with the fur.” Oh Flo Rida, you’re a national treasure!” However, I’ve been informed by a very observant reader that the image is actually from a Swedish translation of an American comic book called Black Cat, so the caption has been changed to something that does not reflect the comic book’s country of origin. You’ve won this round, Sweden. But rest assured, I’m watching you!