By Jonathan Glover

Jonathan D. Glover, University of Florida

My point is not that everything is bad but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism.

Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics”1

“Africa, the Dark Continent”: this was the story Europe told to euphemize its colonial resource-ravaging mission as culturo-spiritual evangelism, the bearing of “a spark from a sacred fire”2 to “one of the dark places of the earth.”3 In this story, Africa figures as a dark, primeval landscape of violence, superstition, primitive underdevelopment, and original sin. On September 29, 2006, a small slice of “deepest, darkest Africa” materialized in DeLand, Florida. As a visual centerpiece to their 2006 Southeast Conference, the Students Taking Action Now in Darfur (STAND), a national antigenocide organization, had erected a refugee camp simulation on the quad of Stetson University. Amid the oaks, palms, and historic buildings comprising the heart of Stetson, half a dozen mock refugee tents dotted the lawn, framing the southern side of the university fountain with African horror. The tents were branded with bloody handprint facsimiles and a nearby banner read, “Camp Out to Stamp Out Genocide.” This spectacle testified to the ongoing potency of the “Africa, the Dark Continent” mythos, as a statement bereft of context or viability— “Camp Out to Stamp Out Genocide”—served as the sole narration for a grim B-movie-esque representation of a nameless African crisis (nameless indeed, since direct mention of Darfur was nowhere to be seen). Shock value replaced real awareness-raising, as the scene used semiotic clues of exoticism, violence, and war—blood, weathered tents, bleak colors, sparse structural arrangements—to stimulate viewer inference and the subsequent activation of the deeply embedded cultural narratives that explain Africa to the Western mind. This spectacle, meant to draw attention, raise awareness, and spark humanitarian interest, seemed to accomplish its goal, as it invited viewers to consider Darfur’s humanitarian crisis and what might be done to help ameliorate it. But, when confronted with this type of activism, how deeply do we consider humanitarian crises, and what sort of awareness do we acquire?

The spectacle’s intended shock was supplanted by irony, when a group of apparently unimpressed (or unobservant) coeds lounged in the grass, sunbathing and studying a few yards away. And, if the audience had unspoken misgivings, they were given voice by the remarks of passersby, one of whom exclaimed in exasperation, “Wouldn’t those tents do more good at a refugee camp?” Exemplifying what medical ethicist J. Brownscombe calls “compassion fatigue,” these spectators had been numbed rather than educated by this visual representation of Darfur. In a recent article on global humanitarianism, Brownscombe writes, “Reliance on stereotypes denies us deeper analysis of the . . . complexities of a situation, which are crucial in determining an appropriate response. Overemphasis of the ‘crisis phase’ neglects the longer term developmental needs of nations. Shocking scenes may be numbing, leading to ‘compassion fatigue.’”4 Devoid of context and relying solely on shock value, the DeLand refugee camp emphasized not only Darfur’s “crisis phase,” but Africa’s eternal crisis phase, the stereotypic view of Africa as a site of ancient, unending turmoil. Without any rigorous contextual explication, the meaning of the DeLand refugee camp could only be attained through audience inference—what viewers already knew about Africa; instead of promoting awareness (the acquisition of new information), such a scenario perpetuates the comfort of conventional stereotypes (old information). The stereotypes at play—a complex of narratives and misconceptions I refer to as the “metaphysics of Africa”—served as the only key for deciphering the meaning of the refugee camp spectacle and its “Camp Out to Stamp Out Genocide” slogan, making this scene a paradoxical exemplar of the problems and challenges central to humanitarian activism. In raising awareness about a human rights crisis, activist campaigns must frame their information in ways that are relatable and comprehensible on a mass scale, an activity that risks decontextualizing the situation, engendering compassion fatigue, and promoting Eurocentric narratives about the region of Darfur, the nation of Sudan, and the continent of Africa itself.

But this refugee camp spectacle wielded relatively little influence in comparison with its information technology-based counterparts. In response to the Darfur crisis, many activist groups like STAND have adopted information media such as websites and online games as tools. If awareness-raising is the cornerstone of activism, the unencumbered reach of information technology amplifies the need for self-critical analysis, as the broadcasting range for the stereotyping, saturation, and compassion fatigue accompanying many humanitarian campaigns shifts from the small-scale of the immediate community to the worldwide networks of cyberspace and mass communications. The use of extremely powerful information technology without the benefit of serious intellectual (self-)interrogation—a thinking activism—can have the unfortunate and unintentional negative impact of decontextualizing and dehistoricizing the Darfur crisis, casting it as just another violent, hopeless episode in the “Africa, the Dark Continent” mythos.

These snares litter the path of human rights activism, but, in the acknowledgement of such obstacles, global humanitarian campaigns should be reinvigorated by a new level of self-critical reflection. Proceeding from a foundation in Aristotelian virtue ethics, Judith Butler’s call for “radical interrogation,” and Richard Rorty’s conception of the “ironist,” I will construct an activist virtue, a “hyper- and pessimistic activism,” that thoughtfully considers these implications. I will apply this virtuous, ironic mode of “radical interrogation” to activist and mainstream online reporting of the Darfur crisis, as well as general pop cultural manifestations of Africa, and trace those representations to their roots in colonial conceptions of the “Dark Continent,” i.e., the nineteenth century narratives of tribalism and primitivism that still inform the Western imagination.

Activist Virtue

Unlike Kantian deontology, which compels us to judge the intent of actions rather than their outcome, virtue ethics enables us to probe the character of our actions, the ability of those actions to achieve a telos, the goal of a given project.5 To judge the intent of human rights activism proves unfruitful for two parallel reasons: (1) anyone’s intentions are ultimately unverifiable, and (2) given the complexities of international relations in the era of globalization, even the best of intentions can yield malignant consequences. If its intentions are to engender compassion, educate, and effect change, how can we judge the intent of the DeLand refugee camp? The intent may be sound, but, well-intentioned or not, is this activism virtuous, having the character to achieve its goals? To overcome the assumed solvency of good intentions and continue on in the spirit of intellectual critique, virtue ethics serves as a viable framework for interrogation.

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines phronesis as practical wisdom. Practical wisdom underpins virtuous action, since informed, knowledgeable, critical, reflective action has a better chance of achieving a telos than its uninformed, myopic, uncritical alternative.6 Judith Butler extends this discussion of phronesis to contemporary activism and finds a cleft between theory and practice:

The commitment to radical interrogation means that there is no moment in which politics requires the cessation of theory, for that would be the moment in which politics posits certain premises as off-limits to interrogation. . . . Clearly, the fear of political paralysis . . . prompts the anti-theoretical animus in certain activist circles. . . . [I]t seems to rest upon the belief that critical reflection precedes political action. . . . In other words, political action . . . presuppose[s] that thinking has already happened . . . that action is precisely not thinking, unthinking, that which happens when thinking has become the past. . . . [But Aristotle] insisted that phronesis includes both theoretical and practical forms of wisdom. . . . [P]ractical wisdom produces virtue. . . . [C]hoice or action that is unmoored from practical wisdom will, by definition, lack virtue. . . . [K]nowledge is embodied at the moment of action.7

This “anti-theoretical animus” stalls critical thinking, leaving the activist imperative at the mercy of common sense, the logic of what is already-understood. This pattern of uncritical activism favors swift political action at the expense of phronesis, the practical wisdom that should be “embodied” rather than discarded “at the moment of action.” The failure to interrogate common sense logic, the already-understood, has resulted in the formulation of misleading analyses of the Darfur crisis, hindering the development of well-informed strategies for improvement of the situation.

For Richard Rorty, this common sense logic is the tool of the “metaphysician,” an uncritical brand of wisdom that refers back to premises that have already been verified and thereby enjoy amnesty from further interrogation: “The metaphysician is still attached to common sense, in that he does not question the platitudes . . . and in particular the platitude which says there is a single permanent reality to be found behind the many temporary appearances. He . . . analyzes old descriptions with the help of other old descriptions.”8 The metaphysician, then, deploys arguments that are metaphysical, transcendent in the sense that they are neither provable nor unprovable on their own terms. Instead, they refer back to older arguments, premises accepted as true because their acceptance has become conventional. A metaphor for this cycle of referencing—one argument referring to another which refers to another—can be found in the news media, where, for example, an Associated Press news feed may become source material for an immeasurable assortment of other news outlets. The Associated Press report may in fact be incorrect, but media convention has mandated Associated Press wire feeds as credible sources, positioning their content as verified and accurate. Much like Rorty’s description of the metaphysician, the news media can now cite the older news presented by the Associated Press instead of reporting its own, limiting the need for more journalistic legwork and source-checking.9 More often than not, this cycle of referencing seems to cross corporate and independent channels rather than divide the former from the latter, since both activist and mainstream media sites report the same misleading and reductive premises concerning the Darfur crisis. Mainstream news sites for The New York Times, The New Republic, and the BBC, as well as global activist networks like Human Rights Watch, Save Darfur, STAND, Amnesty International, and the online game Darfur is Dying, all describe the Darfur crisis as a conflict between African and Arab tribal groups that began exclusively in February 2003.10 With the exception of occasional references to the Chad-Sudan conflict (2005-present), a neglect of Darfur’s part in the larger context of the Sahel or Central African War also characterizes this coverage of the Darfur crisis. In addition to these nearly universal features, two other trends appear frequently in coverage of Darfur: indignant demands for increased mainstream media coverage from activist groups like and, from entities as divergent as The New Republic and, call for immediate military intervention from Western powers, especially the United States.11

The cycle of referencing and underlying beliefs in colonial narratives about Africa verify these inaccurate perspectives on Darfur, protecting them from deeper investigation. As a remedy for this unending perpetuation of old language, old narratives, and old news, Rorty conceptualizes the “ironist,” a person who uses language ironically to unsettle the platitudes of common sense with new phrases, new descriptions, new words, and new meanings: “Ironists specialize in redescribing ranges of objects or events in partially neologistic jargon. . . . An ironist hopes that by the time she has finished using old words in a new sense, not to mention introducing brand-new words, people will no longer ask questions phrased in the old words.”12 Extending Rorty’s argument, I contend that the ironist should also introduce new information in addition to new interpretations of old information and old language. And while Rorty sees the ironist sequestered to the privacy of elitism (saying, the ironist should be Nietzsche—the ironic interrogator of cultural biases—at home, but J.S. Mill—the liberal utilitarian—in public13), ironic activists should make the public arena their staging ground for phronetic engagements with the mainstream media, whose narratives frame stories in ways that demand reader inference and a subsequent reiteration of common sense platitudes.

Once subjected to a phronetic investigation, the oft-reported false premises concerning the Darfur crisis—an emphasis on Arab versus African polarization, an insistence on the events of 2003 as the isolated starting point of the conflict, and descriptions of the violence as a paroxysm of ancient intertribal animosities—are shown to be reductive at best, fictitious at worst. The Arab versus African premise, perhaps the most misleading and popular misconception about the Darfur crisis, reiterates a false and disastrous dichotomy. Throughout its history, Sudan has experienced waves of Arab immigration, African migration, and an intermingling among those populations.14 Sudan’s postcolonial conflicts have been defined by politically motivated racial dichotomization, not primordial, ages-old hatreds between polarized, pregiven tribal groups. As the now-deceased rebel leader John Garang put it, “various regimes in Khartoum ha[d] found [racism] . . . a useful thing to insititutionalize.”15 This official racism creates an ideological divide between Arab and African in order to consolidate the governing regime’s political power and economic control. In this regard, Sudan’s twentieth-century crises have always been about the sociopolitics of the present, not the supposedly prepolitical past. In the common perception of the Darfur crisis, the violence is at once spontaneous and ancient, a sudden rupturing of ephemeral ethnic peace and an inevitable return to the strife of antiquity, Africa’s eternal crisis phase. This logic short circuits a deeper understanding of political turmoil in contemporary Africa, since truly ages-old hatreds would defy modern solutions.

While most reporting signals 2003 as the rupturing point of Darfur’s supposedly ancient hatreds, events from the last five decades have profoundly influenced the present situation. In the 1970s, the Addis Ababa Agreement reconciled the northern and southern forces to end the first Sudanese civil war (1955-1972); this agreement could not maintain peace for long, since many concerns on both sides—concerns originating from Britain’s uneven management of the northern and southern regions during colonization—had not received sufficient attention. The dissolution of the Addis Ababa Agreement led to the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005), contemporaneous with Darfur’s growing economic instability from years of drought, famine, and subsequent conflicts over scarce resources between nomadic and sedentary groups.16 The increasing destabilization of Darfur made the region ripe for the ideological importation of New Sudanism and the infiltration of military arms and violence from the neighboring regions of southern Sudan, Chad, and Libya.17 New Sudanism, the ideology of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) leader John Garang, promoted a pluralistic, multiethnic Sudanese nationalism that countered the official Arabism and Islamism of the government in Khartoum during the civil wars.18 Mirroring the ideological transfer of New Sudanism, many of the southern rebels—some originally from Darfur, many migrants from the south—also traveled to Darfur to continue their campaign against Khartoum. Considering this north-west movement of ideology and soldiers, the crisis in Darfur is more an extension of the Sudanese civil wars than an isolated flaring of ancient hatreds.

The Metaphysics of Africa

If the inaccurate premises surrounding the crisis in Darfur crumble so quickly under the burden of the historical record, why are they almost ubiquitously accepted? Contingent on Eurocentric racial theories that were perfected in the nineteenth century, these narratives express a metaphysical view of Africa as a continent characterized by essential darkness, primitiveness, and conflict. For Valentin Mudimbe, author of The Invention of Africa (1988) and The Idea of Africa (1994), the notion of the African primitive, which ties the continent’s humanitarian calamities to the theological concept of original sin, ranks foremost among these mythological views of Africa. As Mudimbe explains, “there is a coming back of the idea of the primitive . . . this coming back of the negative images of the 19th century; images which justified colonization as a way of assimilation . . . of conversion to civilisation and to Christianity, can be reduced to what I call ‘the original sin.’”19 Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, perhaps the most widely read piece of nineteenth-century colonial literature, exemplifies this concept of original sin. Published in 1899, Heart of Darkness crystallized the closing century’s imaginings of Africa in its depictions of the Congo—the essence, the center, the heart of the African continent—as an impenetrable,20 pagan,21 primitive,22 savage,23 and serpentine landscape. Gazing at maps of Africa as a young boy, Marlow, the novella’s narrator, sees the Congo River as “an immense snake uncoiled.”24 The religious significance of the snake image is immense; as the foremost symbol of evil in Christian iconography, the snake represents Satan himself in corporeal, animal form. Africa is textualized as a perversion of paradise, a signification inscribing the African landscape with the religious anxieties of the Western psyche. Conrad’s Congo is a post-Fall Eden marred by the intrinsic scourge of original sin, where humanity remains forever removed from the presence of God and the European order—a veritable hell on Earth. In his famous critique of Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe describes this representation of Africa as a product of “the desire—one might indeed say the need—in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.”25 This psychic movement situates Africa as a container for Europe’s fears and anxieties about its own impurities and improprieties, its insecurities about both the external world of foreign lands and the internal wilderness of the human mind. In short, civilization needs an opposite against which to define itself. For Europe—and, by extension, America—Africa is that opposite, that ultimate other.

Complementary to primitivism, the tribalism narrative distracts from the very recent and contemporary nature of political struggles in Africa, allowing conflicts to be explained away as the result of primordial hatred between rival tribes.26 The common sense of the tribalism narrative is largely fictitious, deriving from the rezoning and reethnicizing practices of the European powers during the colonial period; but, all too often, its platitudinous character spares it from serious reconsideration. In The Graves Are Not Yet Full, Bill Berkeley traces the tribalism narrative to its imperial roots. In the African context,

The very term “tribe” came into general use in the colonial era. The term was associated with stereotypes of Africans as primitive brutes . . . . “[T]ribal” society conjured up an early stage of human development with minimal state organization, class structure, [and] literacy … under British administration, in countries like Uganda, Kenya and South Africa, administrative subdivisions were built upon this image of “tribal” blocks. Tribalism solved the colonial dilemma of how to dominate and exploit vast numbers of indigenous inhabitants with a limited number of colonial agents, by mobilizing groups on the basis of linguistic and cultural similarities that formerly had been irrelevant.27

Berkeley’s point is not that ethnic affiliations never existed before the imposition of colonial order, but rather that an official British process resituated precolonial group identifications in the colonies to suit the needs of colonial administration. This process of official tribalization, with its exacerbation of linguistic, cultural, and ethnic differences along officially reconstituted lines, has had longstanding repercussions in postcolonial Africa. Sudan has suffered the consequences of official tribalization acutely, as the British promotion of Islamic sectarianism during the colonial era—a technique for creating religious partisanship28—set the stage for the official Islamism and Arabism that would serve as the dichotomizing ideology behind both Sudanese civil wars and become the catalyst for the ongoing crisis in Darfur.

One might protest that these African stereotypes died with decolonization, but a quick glance at high-profile humanitarian campaigns such as “I am African” and (PRODUCT) RedTM (both designed to draw attention to the spread of AIDS in Africa) proves the metaphysics of Africa to be alive and well in the now-colluding industries of entertainment, fashion, and human rights. Ads for the “I am African” campaign feature celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow with stern faces and faux tribal makeup marking their cheeks. Like the other female celebrities who appear on the “I am African” website—Iman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Liv Tyler, Heidi Klum, Lucy Liu, Elizabeth Hurley— Paltrow is nude, “tribal” makeup and jewelry serving as her only clothing.29 Similarly, Kate Moss recently appeared on the cover of The Independent, a widely circulated British magazine, nude and in full-body blackface,30 and Gisele Bundchen now dances with a female Masai warrior in an ad adorning the side of South London’s Clapham Common’s tube station.31 Both supermodels are striking poses to support (PRODUCT) REDTM (a coalition of conglomerates like American Express, Giorgio Armani, GAP, Converse, and Apple)—Moss by adorning the cover of The Independent’s (RED) issue, Bundchen by appearing in her ad for the new American Express (RED) Card. In their respective ads, Paltrow, Moss, and Bundchen simultaneously sexualize African crises and render the African body inconsequential. In Paltrow’s “I Am African” photograph, Africanicity is reduced to facial warpaint and necklaces; in Moss’s black face nude, the African essence materializes simply as skin color. Once these primitive, tribalistic African characteristics are transcribed onto Paltrow’s and Moss’s white bodies, they are sanitized of their otherness and made consumable. In Bundchen’s (RED) Card ad, her presence validates the body of the Masai, drawing it into the Western universe of fashion and consumerism. Through juxtaposition with Bundchen’s high-fashion body, the Masai becomes an unthreatening fetish of otherworldy Africa—a containable, salable, ethnic commodity. The “I am African” and (PRODUCT) REDTM initiatives constitute a convergence of humanitarianism and consumerism (note the (RED) Card ad’s question, “Has there ever been a better reason to shop?”)32 and fundamentally jam comprehension of human rights crises. In their fetishization of African clothes, makeup, and skin, these campaigns reinforce the tribalism and primitivism narratives that inform Western understanding of Africa and, by emphasizing consumption, turn shopping alone into an act of charity. With approximately 1% of the cardholder’s spendings going to The Global Fund, carrying an American Express (RED) Card becomes a stand-in for education and the search for transformative, meaningful solutions to humanitarian issues.33

This consumerist-activist model indicates an emerging trend of consumable, easy-to-digest activism that distracts from the fundamental political and economic causes of humanitarian crises by offering consumers an easy way to assuage their consciences. In Darfur activism, the influence of this trend can be seen most saliently in the online game Darfur is Dying. This online narrative simulation of the Darfur crisis is meant to—like the DeLand refugee camp—raise awareness and rouse humanitarian interest. However, this game still perpetuates reductive notions about the Darfur crisis and has the added disadvantage of making the crisis exciting and entertaining by virtue of its gameplay format (tellingly, Darfur is Dying can now be accessed through, an online compendium of web-based entertainment). In fact, this virtual refugee camp prompts the same questions that introduced this paper: When confronted with this type of activism, how deeply do we consider the Darfur crisis, and what sort of awareness do we acquire? In Darfur is Dying, gameplay revolves around foraging for water as a Darfuri character of the player’s choosing.34 Roving janjaweed militia trucks patrol the desert area between the Darfuri village and the well from which the water must be obtained.35 If captured by the janjaweed, a “Game Over” screen explains that the player has been apprehended by the militia, and if the character is a female, she might be raped. If the player succeeds in bringing water to the village, the character will enter a village where reconstruction activities such as crop-raising and animal farming can be performed. While trying to make the Darfur crisis seem more real and comprehensible to young students, this simplistic mode of gameplay conflates the situation into an arcade game framework where survival is awarded with access to higher levels and failure simply resets the game. As with (PRODUCT) REDTM, consumption becomes a form of activism in Darfur is Dying. In the former, consumption comes in the form of credit card use; in the latter, consumption comes from engaging in the gratification of gameplay. Both methods do little to engender awareness or a prolonged consideration of humanitarian crises. Due to its lack of phronetic virtue, Darfur is Dying reiterates (when it should confront) the consumerist-activist model of consumption-based humanitarianism.

Cold War Alliances and the Politics of Naming

Perhaps even more damaging to a meaningful understanding of Africa and its relations with the West than tribalism, primitivism, and the commodification of crisis, these campaigns also ignore the material differences that mark European and African history and experience. “I am African”: on the surface, this proclamation of intercontinental solidarity rings benevolent, or at worst, benign. But what is truly at stake in claiming universal sameness at the expense of cultural-historical difference? Hidden within this statement is the assumption that a shared humanity overrides the difference of cultural history, thereby making non-Africans both morally obligated and cleansed of responsibility for African crises—simultaneously responsible for the messianic rescue of Africa and free of guilt for the injustices and exploitation of the past.

Darfur serves as a case study in how such elision of colonial history negatively impacts the postcolonial nations of Africa. After decolonization, Sudan became an important operational site for American Cold War strategy. To illustrate the political climate of Cold War America in the 1980s, we need only look to the cinema of the times. Exemplifying the deep interplay between politics, film, news media, and public apprehension of international affairs, two popular Hollywood movies—Back to the Future (1985) and Rambo III (1988)—vividly reflect the Cold War mentality of the Reagan era. In Back to the Future, North African terrorists from Libya hunt Marty McFly and Doc Brown, apparently miffed at Brown for stealing their plutonium. Plutonium figures as a radioactive miracle substance that, when used by quirky American scientists like Doc Brown, fuels Western innovation—i.e., the Delorian that Doc Brown, using Benjamin Franklin-like ingenuity,36 transforms into a time machine. Conversely, if the plutonium falls back into the hands of the Libyan madmen, it will be used for malevolent ends such as the production of dirty bombs. Here, Libya serves as the international bogeyman of 1980s America.

Alternately, Rambo III utilizes the more traditional standby of Soviet Russia as a foil for John Rambo, the quintessential American individualist, the cinematic one-man army who takes matters into his own hands when the government is too slow to take action. On his quest to free an American POW from the brutality of a Soviet occupation camp in the deserts of Afghanistan, Rambo allies himself with the Afghani mujahideen, an alliance that made perfect sense to the Cold War-acclimated moviegoers of the 1980s, but resonates strangely in post-9/11 America. Osama bin Laden himself could have been a character in Rambo III, fighting alongside the CIA-trained mujahideen—as he had in real life—and Rambo against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (an unthinkable cinematic move in current times). These films bookend America’s mid-80s perception of Cold War politics: on the side of good, America and the Afghan freedom fighters battle the Soviets and the Libyans—constituents of the Evil Empire—at home and abroad.

The American, African, and Soviet Cold War intrigues that these cinematic incarnations reflect are tellingly relevant to the present situation in Sudan. During a relative lull in tension between northern and southern forces, the U.S. allied Sudanese president Gafaar Nimeiry, an Islamist dictator, because of his opposition to Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. As William F. Buckley succinctly put it, “We do not declare war against the Soviet Union because we cannot hope to win against the Soviet Union. Libya is different.”37 It was simple Cold War realpolitik. For his cooperation (gestures which included bombing his own cities and blaming the attacks on Gaddafi), Nimeiry received approximately 1.5 billion dollars in American aid, a contribution that enabled Nimeiry’s enforcement of Islamic Sharia law against the will of Sudan’s Christian and Animist populations. Nimeiry’s official Islamism rekindled civil war violence between Khartoum and southern Sudan, transforming American aid into funding for Nimeiry’s war against the south. With such enormous sums of American money being funneled into Nimeiry’s war chest, the Reagan administration secured Sudan as an ally against its Cold War enemies Libya and Egypt,38 and the U.S. military gained entry into Sudan for the creation of a “Persian Gulf rapid deployment force.”39 In 1985, President Reagan’s White House lavished Nimeiry with another sixty-seven million dollars in aid for his efforts to modernize Sudan’s economy. This would not prevent Nimeiry, wildly unpopular due to his collusion with the U.S., from being ousted “in a bloodless coup” while still in Washington D.C. with President Reagan.40 As the Reagan administration came to an end, mujahideen became synonymous with terrorist, rather than freedom fighter as it had been in Rambo III. Under President Clinton’s watch, the U.S. response to Sudanese affairs shifted to aiding the rebel insurgents of the south against the government in Khartoum, a complete reversal of the Reagan- Nimeiry alliance. In this new geopolitical milieu, the Clinton administration turned a blind eye to Israel’s arming of Garang’s SPLA and then “attacked a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum with cruise missiles.” This intervention was justified by “shaky evidence” of an alliance between Khartoum (now under the rule of Turabi) and Osama bin Laden, both of whom “shared roots with . . . the so-called ‘Arab Afghans’—the tens of thousands of volunteers from across the Arab world who fought alongside the CIA-backed Afghani mujahideen in their 1980s war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.”41 The days when alliances between John Rambo and the Afghani mujahideen were possible had passed.

If the current conflict extends from the civil war between Khartoum and southern rebel groups, the United States has spent time and money supporting both of the most prominent players at work today in the Darfur crisis. As felt by the Sudanese people, realized in their everyday lives, the impact of American Cold War intrigue is not as easily forgotten as the plots to Back to the Future and Rambo III are for the American public. If official tribalization and sectarianism laid the foundation for Sudanese instability in the colonial period, American Cold War strategy continued the tradition of externally implemented destabilization by propping up the Islamist dictator Nimeiry in the 1980s and then reversing policy to support the insurgencies of the south in the 1990s. Subsequently, activist insistence on the need for American intervention constitutes a double movement of blind faith and compulsory amnesia. As the colonial and neocolonial histories show, American and European intervention in Sudan has always been set in motion by national self- interests, not humanitarian compassion. In the public arena, these national interests have found rhetorical traction in the language of humanism (humanitarianism, universal human rights, messianic interventionism) and the narratives of primitivism and tribalism (Africa as the Dark Continent of original sin, ages old hatreds as the source of African political strife). The culmination of these sentiments produces what Berkeley describes as “a belief that Africans are incapable of governing themselves,” a belief that makes “it easier for the United States to intervene according to its own interests.”42 This point cannot be reiterated enough and should form the basis for an interrogation of interventionism justified by the language of human rights. Rather than indignantly demanding swift intervention from Western powers like the United States, humanitarian activist campaigns should view external intervention—especially swift intervention—with a great deal of historically informed skepticism.

This skepticism should also extend to the realm of semantic politicking surrounding the Darfur crisis, prompting the question, why have certain governmental and nongovernmental agencies been so eager to declare the Darfur crisis a genocide while others have been so reluctant? What is at stake in the naming of genocide? Ever since the December 1948 International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes of Genocide, the declaration of genocide has meant two very different things for the member nations of the UN and the administration of the UN itself. When Colin Powell and George Bush declare the Darfur crisis a genocide, they have obligated the United States to report its findings to the UN; when the Secretary General of the UN declares a situation a genocide, he or she obligates the UN to take immediate action.43 In naming the Darfur crisis a genocide, the Bush administration acquires an aura of moral superiority—the courage to call it like it is—with the added benefit of no responsibility for the situation it has so lucidly defined. In the past, genocide has been a hard label to apply, due largely to its slippery and multiple definitions. Now, sloppy, politically motivated application threatens to rob the term genocide of any rhetorical power whatsoever. The 1948 genocide convention’s definition—“deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part44— equivocates with a number of other human rights atrocities such as ethnic cleansing and state- sponsored killing. Attempting to correct this equivocation, genocide expert Gérard Prunier defines genocide more sharply as “a coordinated attempt to destroy a racially, religiously or politically predefined group in its entirety.”45 Prunier’s definition demands a higher burden of proof, but he is quick to add that human suffering is human suffering no matter how we define it:

It is in fact a measure of the jaded cynicism of our times that we seem to think that the killing of 250,000 people in a genocide is . . . a greater tragedy and more deserving of our attention than that of 250,000 people in non-genocidal massacres. The reason seems to be the overriding role of the media coupled with the mass-consumption need for brands and labels. . . . “Genocide” is big because it carries the Nazi label, which sells well. “Ethnic cleansing” is next-best (though far behind) because it goes with Bosnia, which was the last big-story European massacre. But simple killing is boring, especially in Africa.46

If political saliency and the market forces of infotainment determine the currency of genocide’s various definitions, then even the labeling of humanitarian crises demands phronetic, ironic interrogation. As we have seen in the Darfur is Dying videogame, the (Red)TM campaign, and “I am African,” the line between the commodification of crisis and meaningful, awareness-raising activism has grown amazingly thin.

In this climate, declarations of genocide become fodder for news media headlines and an easy way for UN member states to attain a responsibility-free moral high ground during times of political ambiguity and increasingly complicated international affairs. But beyond these politico- consumerist benefits, uncritical employment of the term genocide has enabled a wide-scale ignorance of the complexities surrounding the Darfur crisis and its relatedness to the nation of Sudan and the larger region of Central Africa. Genocide—the calculated eradication of a racial, religious, or political group—implicates government bodies, state apparatuses, and political factions as the primary agents of organized wholesale slaughter. Thus, in Darfur the Khartoum government’s war crimes assume center stage, taking attention away from the rebel insurgency’s numerous human rights abuses and making clarion calls for interventionism easier to make. But two civil wars, decades of drought and famine, fifty years of governmental neglect, and a mixture of self- interested American and European foreign policy and outside influence have produced the instability that plagues Darfur, an instability that factional rivalries between the JEM, SLM, and SPLA rebel groups has exacerbated. Battling for control of Darfur, killing hundreds of civilians, kidnapping and killing AU personnel, blocking humanitarian aid, and “engaging in banditry” are some of the charges that have been leveled at these Sudanese rebel groups.47 Declarations of genocide have minimized the role of the Sudanese rebel groups in destabilizing Darfur and fanning the flames of conflict with their interfactional fighting and their ideologically driven willingness to use civilians as leverage for political gain.

The application of the genocide label has directed attention toward Khartoum and away from the rebel insurgency; similarly, the acute focus of geopolitical attention on Darfur rather than its broader intranational context has afflicted the outlook of humanitarian campaigns with tunnel vision, blinding them to the region-wide implications of the Central African War.48 Briefly put, the Central African War includes the governments and rebel groups of Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Sudan. While many activist campaigns have made note of the overspill of the Darfur crisis into Chad, as of this writing, little mention has been made of the Central African Republic or the interconnectedness of these three nations. In December 2006, Chad declared a “state of belligerency” against Sudan, because, as described by Chadian Prime Minister Pascal Yoadimnadji, Sudan is “exporting the Darfur conflict” to exacerbate instability in the Central African region.49 Chad has accused Khartoum of bombing Bahai, Tine, Karyari, and Bamina, villages close to the Chad-Sudan border. Chadian officials fear that Khartoum is using the Darfur crisis as a smokescreen for a destabilization operation against their president Idriss Deby Itno,50 and the CAR has accused Khartoum of supplying the Central African rebels who have been capturing cities since early November 2006. In response, the CAR has appealed to the international community for a peacekeeping force, and both France and Chad have begun implementing support measures.51 As Chad and the CAR engage in cooperative efforts with each other and the international community to stabilize their shared region, these nations constitute a promising front for aid and peacekeeper deployment to Darfur. A broader view of the Darfur crisis allows for these regional implications to be considered. The Central African region itself should become the site of international aid efforts, since the continued unwillingness of Khartoum to cooperate with the international community has delayed the creation of a viable solution in Darfur.

Toward Phronesis

In addition to this humanitarian tunnelvision, failure to interrogate the historical, political, and cultural assumptions surrounding the Darfur crisis has yielded a responsive time lag, where consideration of recent regional developments has been slow or nonexistent. In a reversal of the antitheoretical precept identified by Butler (the belief that political reflection stalls political activism), it is the absence not the presence of phronesis that has resulted in sluggish reactions to the Darfur/Sahel crisis, as developments in the CAR, Chad, and Sudan continue to be ignored in favor of local emphasis on Darfur. In the popular view, the Darfur crisis continues to be an anciently constituted and locally isolated tribal conflict between Africans and Arabs that spontaneously reignited in 2003, a misinterpretation of Sudanese and Central African affairs doomed to produce myopic and misinformed strategies for amelioration. These dominant misconceptions, as well as the misrepresentations offered by (PRODUCT) RedTM and “I am African,” emanate from the colonial narratives of tribalism and primitivism, showing both activist and mainstream media reporting of the Darfur crisis to be imbricated in the larger fabric of the metaphysics of Africa. Information technologies such as websites and interactive games can function as strong tools for activist interrogation of these narratives, but games like Darfur is Dying and groups like STAND, Save Darfur, Be A Witness, and Human Rights Watch have proven reiteration rather than confrontation of popular assumptions and consumerist-activist humanitarianism to be the norm. To counteract these misconceptions—and the compassion fatigue, decontextualization, and crisis commodification they engender—a virtuous activism should challenge the Eurocentric, stereotypical narratives that circulate in the Western imagination. Once the old interpretive paradigm, the metaphysics of Africa, has been undermined by ironic, phronetic interrogation, new patterns of activist and governmental crisis appraisal can arise, allowing for agile assessments of and responses to new developments.






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“Again.” The New Republic. 15 May 2006. The New Republic Online. 8 Jan. 2007. <>.

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  1. The Continental Ethics Reader, eds. Callarco and Peter Atterton (New York: Routledge, 2003) 200.
  2. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, 3rd ed., ed. Robert Kimbrough (New York: Norton, 1988) 8.
  3. Conrad 9.
  4. J. Brownscombe, “Crisis in Humanitarianism?” Journal of Medical Ethics 31 (2005): 182.
  5. For an extended discussion on deontology and virtue ethics, see Jennifer Welchman, ed., “Introduction,” The Practice of Virtue: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Virtue Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006) ix-xxv.
  6. See Book VI of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999) 86-98.
  7. Judith Butler, “Dynamic Conclusions,” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso, 2000) 264-65.
  8. Richard Rorty, “Private Irony and Liberal Hope,” The Continental Ethics Reader, eds. Matthew Callarco and Peter Atterton (New York: Routledge, 2003) 220.
  9. With the rise of the blogosphere, much of the mainstream media’s common sense has been under interrogation from the web-managers of amateur and independent news websites across the globe. Unfortunately, most of these challenges from blogger-sites constitute a 1:1 fact-checking war against the mainstream media rather than a true interrogation of the fundamental language, narratives, and common sense that inform major new stories.
  10. For recent examples, see “Sudan,” “Background,” “Q & A: Sudan’s Darfur Conflict,” and “Darfur Demands Sanctions, Not Words.”
  11. The editors of The New Republic have been especially adamant, saying, “Even people who wish to know about the problem do not wish to know about the solution. They prefer the raising of consciousness to the raising of troops. Just as Rwanda made a bleak mockery of the lessons of Bosnia, Darfur is making a bleak mockery of the lessons of Rwanda.” See “Again,” The New Republic. 15 May 2006, The New Republic Online, 8 Jan. 2007. <>.
  12. Rorty 221.
  13. Rorty 223.
  14. Ruth Iyob and Gilbert M. Khadiagala, Sudan: The Elusive Quest for Peace (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2006) 22.
  15. Quoted in Iyob and Khadiagala 169.
  16. See Gérard Prunier, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (Ithaca : Cornell UP, 2005) 54-58.
  17. Iyob and Khadiagala 147.
  18. Iyob and Khadiagala 33.
  19. Valentin Y. Mudimbe, “Africa remains the absolute difference—an interview,” Encounter Images, ed. Mai Palmberg, 249.
  20. Conrad 17.
  21. Conrad 23.
  22. Conrad 35.
  23. Conrad 38.
  24. Conrad 12.
  25. Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” 1977, Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, 3rd ed., ed. Robert Kimbrough (New York: Norton. 1988) 251-52.
  26. Terence Ranger provides an apt example, citing The Guardian’s description of the “tension within Zimbabwean politics” as the result “of thousands of years of tension between the Ndebele and the Shona” (252; emphasis mine). Terence Ranger, “I did not set out to deconstruct—An interview,” Encounter Images, ed. Mai Palmberg.
  27. Bill Berkeley, The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa (New York: Basic, 2001) 12.
  28. Berkeley 200.
  29. See <>.
  30. See <>.
  31. See <>.
  32. See <>.
  33. See Daniel Ben-Ami, “Why the New Amex Card Makes Me See RED,” 28 Sept. 2006. Spiked Online. 17 Jan. 2007. <>.
  34. See <>.
  35. See <>.
  36. Note how Doc Brown, in an update of Franklin’s lightning-kite experiment, also harnesses lightning.
  37. Quoted in Diana Johnstone, “The Man We Love to Hate,” New Internationalist 161 (1986): para. 11. 8 Jan. 2007. <>.
  38. Berkeley 213.
  39. Berkeley 215.
  40. Berkeley 214.
  41. Berkeley 224-25.
  42. Berkeley 87.
  43. For more on this sharp contrast between the obligations of UN member states and UN itself, see Prunier 138-44.
  44. Quoted in Prunier 155.
  45. Prunier 155.
  46. Prunier 156.
  47. Iyob and Khadiagala 157.
  48. The STAND logo, an overhead map of Sudan with an emergency radar blip isolating Darfur, serves as an iconic embodiment of this tunnelvision.
  49. See Betel Miarom, “Chad Readies Troops to Help Central African Republic,” 17 Nov. 2006, Mail & Guardian Online, 17 Jan. 2007. < 290316>.
  50. See “Chad Says Sudan Bombed Villages,” News: Arab World, 31 Oct. 2006,, 17 Jan. 2007. <>.
  51. See “Sudan Neighbour Seeks Peacekeepers,” News: Global News, 3 Nov. 2006,, 17 Jan. 2007. <>.

Jonathan Glover

Jonathan Glover is a doctoral student at the University of Florida English department. He specializes in postcolonial studies with emphases on the Caribbean, Africa, and the confluences of science, technology, and imperialism. He has published reviews, essays, fiction, and poetry in Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, Status, Panel-House, Mangrove Review, and [email protected]