Washington Babylon — October 9, 2007, 9:44 am

Facts and Darfur

When I lived in Brazil in the early 1990s and worked for Associated Press, I filed a short item on a study by a pro-choice group that revealed the staggering number of abortions that took place in the nation. The study showed, the group argued, that abortion needed to be legalized because so many women ran serious risks in order to get “back alley” abortions. That claim may have had merit, but the numbers, I realized too late, were surely bogus. After re-examining the study, I discovered that for it to be true every Brazilian woman of childbearing age would have had (on average) multiple abortions, which was obviously impossible.

All groups, left, right and center, sometimes make sensational claims and cite dubious statistics. Political organizations do it for obvious reasons and advocacy groups do it because it calls attention to their cause and helps bring in money. For years, the Southern Poverty Law Center hyped the threat of the Klan in the course of raising a $100 million-plus endowment. This same sort of game is apparently being played by Save Darfur, whose “mission is to raise public awareness about the ongoing genocide in Darfur.” The group has claimed in ads that as many as 400,000 civilians have been killed in Darfur, saying on its website that this results from a “scorched-earth campaign by the Sudanese government against Darfuri civilians.”

The problem is that the 400,000 figure is inflated and the whole Save Darfur campaign oversimplifies the conflict there into black and white. Or to be more precise, into black and brown–the Save Darfur story is that good Africans are being killed by bad Arabs, even though many of those Arab victimizers are just as dark-skinned as the African victims. Even advocacy groups on the ground have criticized Save Darfur, saying it has distorted realities and that its policy prescriptions are dangerous.

I’m not offering an apology for the Sudanese government, which is guilty of egregious war crimes in Sudan. When I was at the Los Angeles Times in 2004 I wrote a story about intelligence collaboration between the CIA and Sudan’s Mukhabarat that was widely circulated by Save Darfur and I’ve accepted invitations to speak at events organized by advocacy groups. But the situation in Darfur, and Sudan more broadly, is far more complex than what is typically reported here.

As to the number of deaths in Darfur: last year, a member of the Save Darfur coalition ran full-page ads in British newspapers that claimed that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had unleashed “vicious armed militias to slaughter entire villages of his own citizens. After three years, 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed.”

The ads, virtually identical to ones run by the group here, were challenged by the European Sudanese Public Affairs Council (ESPAC), which is close to the government in Khartoum and funded by companies that do business in Sudan. Earlier this year, the British Advertising Standards Authority ruled in ESPAC’s favor, saying studies did not support the 400,000 figure, which it deemed to be a disputed “opinion,” not a fact.

Aid groups, too, have been angered by Save Darfur, especially its calls for UN intervention in Darfur and the imposition of a “no-fly” zone there. In an email to Save Darfur sent earlier this year, Samuel Worthington, head of an aid group called InterAction, wrote, “I want to privately convey to you our strongest objection to the wording used in your current Save Darfur media and e-mail campaign. As someone who like you is a strong advocate for human rights and the protection of populations who do not have a voice I am deeply concerned by the inability of Save Darfur to be informed by realities on the ground and to understand the consequences of your proposed actions.” The email accused Save Darfur of “misstating the facts” and said that the policy recommendations offered up in its ads “would set into motion a series of events that could easily result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of individuals.”

The decision by the Advertising Standards Authority received little attention in the British media, nor has it been covered much in the American media. Indeed, Save Darfur continues to cite the figure of 400,000 in its advocacy work.

Alex de Waal, program director at the Social Science Research Council and author with Julie Flint of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, has dissected the issue. The “figures for mortality in Darfur had become politicized,” he writes, “with many advocates speaking about extremely high death rates that were not, in fact, supported by systematic evidence.” De Waal reviewed a number of studies and concluded that the “best guess” is approximately 200,000 deaths, of which roughly one-quarter resulted from direct military attacks. He criticizes the

implication that the deaths [in Darfur] are wholly ‘slaughter’ by the Sudan government and its militias, rather than predominantly due to hunger and disease. While such famine deaths may have their ultimate cause in the war, and especially the government’s conduct of the war during the extreme phase of 2003-04, there is an important difference between violent killing and death by these other causes.

De Waal says that “the death of an estimated 200,000 people in Darfur, from massacre and man-made humanitarian disaster, is a crime of the first order,” but that “inflating the estimates can cheapen the currency of suffering” and discredits advocates.

Also worth reading is an essay by Brendan O’Neill called “Darfur: pornography for the chattering classes.” He writes:

‘Save Darfur’ activism–from Hollywood celebs calling for Western military action to the growth of campaigning commentary on the conflict–has not really been about Darfur. Rather, it has been about creating a new moralistic and simplistic generational mission for campaigners and journalists in America and Europe . . . If this only meant that they have distorted public understanding and debate about Darfur, that would be bad enough. But it’s far worse than that. The narcissistic campaigning of the Save Darfur Coalition and others has helped to prolong and even intensify violent clashes in the region. The good-and-evil presentation of the conflict has warped its dynamics. State Department officials claim that, during the height of the conflict, some Darfuri rebels ‘let the village burnings go on, let the killing go on, because the more international pressure that’s brought to bear on Khartoum, the stronger their position grows’.

O’Neill may be overly caustic, but he’s correct in regard to the general Good v. Evil portrayal of Darfur, which extends to coverage of Sudan in general. Some years ago there was a media uproar over the “slave trade” in Sudan, during which Arab slavers were reportedly selling Christians as chattel. The story was largely a hoax, as ultimately revealed by 60 Minutes. Meanwhile, until a deal a few years ago settled the conflict (at least temporarily), the Western press dutifully covered the Good v. Evil conflict between Sudan’s Islamic government and Christian rebels in southern Sudan, even though most of the rebels were actually animists and most of their leadership were corrupt, violent gangsters. Similarly, there’s been little scrutiny of Darfur rebels, who recently killed 10 African Union peacekeepers.

The Sudanese government’s awful human rights record makes it a rich, deserving target, but it’s also an easy one. There’s little American investment in the country so there’s no business lobby working on the government’s behalf. The Bush administration accuses it of genocide and deems it a pariah. Everyone from the Congressional Black Caucus to Christian conservatives hates Sudan. But it’s hardly the only worthy target on the global stage, especially as there’s no pro-Sudan lobby in this country to fight against and the U.S. government has relatively little leverage over the regime.

“[E]ven with the best intentions in the world, campaigners find themselves hoist on the petard of their own hyperbole,” David Rieff wrote in an op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, one of the few critical looks at the advocacy movement for Darfur. “None of this is to say that the crisis in Darfur is manufactured. It is all too real. But a crisis that involves innocent victims and evil victimizers is different from one in which there is evil enough to go around.”

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

Commentary November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm

Shaky Foundations

The Clintons’ so-called charitable enterprise has served as a vehicle to launder money and to enrich family friends.

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Article
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
Article
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Article
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

H

e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Chance that a homeless-shelter resident in a major U.S. city holds a full- or part-time job:

1 in 5

Turkey hunting was deemed most dangerous for hunters, though deer hunting is more deadly.

The unresolved midterms; Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III replaced; the debut of the world’s first AI television anchor

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today