Wednesday, April 30, 2008

PEN World Voices: Crisis Darfur

I got to the Florence Gould Auditorium at fi:af a bit before 8:00 to find a peculiarly French combination of confusion and bureaucracy. To those of us seeking entry, there was lots of barking: “Stay in line!” “Hang on!”; amongst those in charge, there was much confusion. I wasn’t on the list (imagine my little moment of panic), but the magic words “blogging…Bud Parr” brought a smile to her face and the doors opened for me.

Levi, who was on the list and with whom I munched on olives and pate (Oh the irony!) afterwards, has already written up his views here, but let me add mine, too.

This was a very moving and impressively organized event. I left feeling better informed about Darfur and both sadder and more hopeful for change.

Joel Whitney, a founding editor of the online literary magazine Guernica, started the evening off, forgetting to introduce himself (I’ve known him for a while now), but introducing the event and moderator Dinaw Mengestu with aplomb.

I was particularly curious and skeptical about Bernard-Henri Lévy’s presentation, remembering Garrison Keillor’s hilarious skewering of his book on America in the Times book review. Although his slides tended to feature pictures of him standing alone amidst the rubble, looking rugged and dashing and although he slightly mischaracterized Let us now praise famous men, I was impressed with him overall: sure, he has a big ego, but he also put it on the line to go to Darfur.

He was extremely clear and really showed his mettle as a popular philosopher, bringing us a range of conclusions:

  • The crisis in Darfur is a war AGAINST civilians, not a civil war.
  • We need to suspend the myth of the Janjaweed: We need to recognize that the attacks on villages are largely carried out by airstrikes from above, supported on the ground by Janjaweed.
  • Debates on whether on not this is genocide have all the relevance of the medieval debates about the sex of angels. This reference provided a welcome chance to laugh and provided Lévy with the opportunity to make one of his most important points of the night, one that Farrow’s presentation took as its theme: that these lives, these tiny, anonymous lives, have been lost and remain uncountable to us.
  • Why are we so passive? Our passivity, he thinks, is the perverse effect of the combination of three good modern ideas: 1) anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism. That is, being anti-racist, it’s hard for us to fathom non-white perpetrators of genocide; being anti-colonial, we hesitate to intervene in former colonies, recognizing our culpability in their current political dilemmas; and being anti-imperial, we struggle to grasp the relevance of the plight of oppressed people who are not part of the vast story of power in the globe.

I think that this fourth point was the most philosophically impressive and interesting. I suspect that it is part of his forthcoming book, the very cleverly titled Left in Dark Times.

Still, for me, the most impressive moment was his very careful and respectful discussion of the problem of knowing how many have died in Darfur.

He spoke about the huge range of estimates—from 200,000 to over half a million killed—and he made sure we knew that, with entire villages wiped off the map, we will never know how many people have been killed. Village after village is cone with, as he eloquently said, “no memory, no inscription, no grave, no face, no name, no number,” and talked about these tiny lives, lives wiped off the earth.

He spoke about tiny lives, but I thought of our tiny lives: the 300 or so of us sitting in a packed underground auditorium, comfie seats, dressed in black, wearing rakish scarves and dutifully silencing our smartphones. I felt important to be there, to have a press pass, to know the editor of the magazine that sponsored the event. And tiny, too. And so far from Darfur or being able to help.

But he made sure that we thought about that: about the importance of bearing testimony, of asking for real sanctions against Sudan, and, most importantly, of pressuring China to cease buying the oil that provides the cash for the Sudanese government.


So, after this talk, I felt saddened and informed.

Then Mia Farrow came out: tiny and thin, as I expected. Looking small and a bit afraid and way more like Joyce Carol Oates than I ever, ever, ever would have guessed.

If Lévy offered us the philosophy and history, she offered the politics and the emotions. She presented the slideshow that you can find on her website: devastating, heartbreaking pictures not of her standing looking good but of burnt villages, women seeking firewood, scars of raped women (often raped on their ten-mile walk to find firewood), dying children, and grief, grief, grief, grief.

Farrow has made eight trips to Darfur and she spoke with passion about the plight of the internally displaced Darfurians whom she’s come to know. She showed a picture of a 27-year-old mother (looking 40) who’d walked for 20 days to find safety, burying 2 of her 4 children on the way, because, “Someone said there was a country called Chad.”

This was but one of dozens of such tales, each typical, each heartbreaking.

I was impressed, deeply impressed, with her commitment and with the way in which she’s put her power as an actress to manipulate our emotions to such good service: over and over again, she brought us nearly to tears of despair and then pulled back so that, as with the first talk, she could remind us that the point is not catharsis but action.

Again, China was singled out as the best leverage against the Sudanese government.

This has gone on much too long, for sure, but I must say that I thought this was a smashing, moving, and informative event: a real model of how to get people to learn and to care about a distant crisis.

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