Monday, March 26, 2007


I've thought before about the use of the words genocide and Holocaust and what that means. One thing that has bothered me is using the Jewish Holocaust as THE genocide, the untouchable end-all be-all of genocides and bad things. Though it was huge, extremely intentional, and horrendous, the way it is discussed is a problem for a few reasons. One of these is as justification for Israeli violence toward Palestinians. Another that I have wondered about is whether it is "the ultimate" in genocides because it was a group of now-white (and in the U.S. often middle and upper-class) Jewish people being killed. There were also a lot of Roma killed in the Holocaust, as well as non-Jewish queers, socialists, and differently-abled people killed, but the mainstream discussion often leaves this out or only gives it a brief token mention.

I heard a snip of an interview on the radio this morning about the use of the term/category "genocide." This guy, Brendan O'Neill, discusses how the current use of the word/concept genocide helps us imagine this distinction between an enlightened, civilized first world and a barbaric, backwards third world. He also says that the way it is used helps ahistoricize conflicts, especially in Africa, by portraying them purely as senseless killing with no reason or context. Not that I think the killing can be justified, but I agree with O'Neill's point that it is a problem that it is taken out of context and the history is erased, so we just see this irrational, crazy killing with no reason, rather than with all the historical issues and conflicts, including the role of the West and imperial powers in helping create the climate for these conflicts in the first place.

The reporter brings up the idea of invoking the word genocide as a strategic weapon to draw attention to areas of the world that people here might normally ignore or not care about. I think this is an important question to consider; do people (especially powerful white people) in the U.S. care less about the suffering and deaths of brown people and could using this powerful word/symbol help them see people as people in a way their racist lens might normally not allow? In the past I have thought about this but been skeptical because I can't see how involving the U.S. army or other military forces could do anything except make things much worse. I am not against any outside intervention (and though problematic, I think sometimes the U.S. Jewish "It could be us/never again" thought is part of my consciousness that I do not want to silence), but I really think U.S. military forces, as some have called for, could only make things worse. I don't know about UN/international peacekeeping forces, I really don't know enough about them, but I am pretty skeptical.

However, O'Neill brings up a different problem with this "strategic weapon" to make people pay attention. He does a great job of flipping the reporter's question on its head - saying that is exactly why it concerns him as an anti-imperialist - that it is a "weapon" to demonize the third world. I remember an e-mail I got from a leftist U.S. group (possibly True Majority?) promoting awareness and action on the Sudanese genocide with an animation of animalistic, crazy-looking Janjaweed killers in Sudan. People probably do seem brutal and less human when they are killing other people. But this animation drew heavily from longstanding racist images/ideas of violent, irrational, animal-like brown men.

In the article "Pimp My Genocide", O'Neill discusses the implications of pandering to the idea of the worst most victimized to gain genocide status. He speculates that this has actually prevented some groups from signing peace deals to maintain their genocide victim status. The article further explores the question: "Why is genocide all the rage, whether it’s uncovering new ones in Africa and Eastern Europe, or rapping the knuckles of those who would dare to deny such genocides here at home?"

According to O'Neill, "Genocide-mongering is a new mode of politics, and it’s being used by some to draw a dividing line between the West and the Third World and to enforce a new and censorious moral consensus on the homefront... the labelling of today’s brutal civil wars as ‘genocides’ by Western observers, courts and commentators is a desperate search for a new moral crusade, and it has given rise to a new moral divide between the West and the rest, between the civilised and enlightened governments of America and Europe and those dark parts of the world where genocides occur...

In some circles, ‘genocide’ has become code for Third World savagery. What do the headline genocides (or ‘celebrity genocides’, perhaps) of the past two weeks have in common? All of them – the Serbs’ genocide in Bosnia, the Sudanese genocide in Darfur, the Turks’ genocide of Armenians – were committed by apparently strange and exotic nations ‘over there’. Strip away the legal-speak about which conflicts can be defined as genocides and which cannot, and it seems clear that genocide has become a PC codeword for wog violence – whether the genocidal wogs are the blacks of Sudan, the brown-skinned, not-quite-European people of Turkey, or the Serbs, white niggers of the post-Cold War world. "

O'Neill also critiques leftist anti-war activists' use of the word genocide to throw back at the Bush/Blair administrations and what they are doing in Iraq.

P.S. This may be the first (and possibly the last) time I've heard someone use "liberal" and "western pity" critically on NPR.

Hear the radio interview here

Read O'Neill's article here

More of the good stuff from O'Neill's article:
"The discussion of every war in Africa as a genocide or potential genocide shows that today’s genocide-mongering bears little relation to what is happening in conflict zones on the ground. There are great differences, not least in scale, between the wars in Rwanda, Darfur and Liberia; each of these conflicts has been driven by complex local grievances, very often exacerbated by Western intervention. That Western declarations of ‘genocide!’ are most often made in relation to Africa suggests that behind today’s genocide-mongering there lurks some nasty chauvinistic sentiments. At a time when it is unfashionable to talk about ‘the dark continent’ or ‘savage Africans’, the more acceptable ‘genocide’ tag gives the impression that Africa is peculiarly and sickly violent, and that it needs to be saved from itself by more enlightened forces from elsewhere. Importantly, if the UN judges that a genocide is occurring, then that can be used to justify military intervention into said genocide zone.

Hardly anyone talks openly about a global divide between the savage Third World and the enlightened West anymore. Yet today’s genocide-mongering has nurtured a new, apparently acceptable divide between the genocide-executers over there, and the genocide-saviours at home. This new global faultline over genocide is formalised in the international court system. In the Nineties, setting up tribunals to try war criminals or genocidaires became an important part of the West’s attempts to rehabilitate its moral authority around the globe."

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