Tuesday, June 09, 2009
The Liberal Left's
Conor Foley, The Guardian
Certain conflicts are simplified and championed as symbolic causes, leaving worse humanitarian cases under-reported.
In George Orwell's Looking Back on the Spanish War, he wrote:
Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even a relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retelling these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that never happened.
Over the past few months a number of articles have appeared comparing news coverage of the humanitarian situations in Gaza and northern Sri Lanka, and asking why the liberal left seem to care so much more about the former than the latter. Unfortunately, the articles usually then go on to ignore the situation in Sri Lanka completely while discussing a particular aspect of the Israel-Palestine conflict in great detail, which rather undermines their authors' claims to .
I was in Sri Lanka recently doing some work for a humanitarian agency. According to recent reports, up to 20,000 people were killed in the space of a few months as the army poured its firepower into an area the size of New York's Central Park where hundreds of thousands of civilians were sheltering. Those reports broadly fit with what I experienced, although the only piece I was able to write deliberately avoided any comment on the political situation.
This has been without doubt the world's worst humanitarian crisis in recent months and clearly has been under-reported, simply due to problems of gaining access. But I think there is more to it than that.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the Hay literary festival to discuss my book, The Thin Blue Line, which discusses some of the dilemmas facing contemporary humanitarianism. Also there was Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), in conversation with the noted human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands.
Moreno-Ocampo is seeking to bring charges of genocide against Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, who has responded by expelling a group of international aid agencies from the Darfur region. Large numbers of people in Darfur are completely dependent on humanitarian aid and so this could cause a catastrophe. Given that the arrest warrant cannot be enforced, there is an obvious debate to be had about whether it was worth issuing. There are also a number of questions about the timing, nature and possible political spin about this prosecution, which I have previously raised here and here
Around 650 people died violently in Darfur last year. The region is about the size of France and this death rate is lower than in many medium-sized cities in the world today. Yet the situation continues to be described as an ongoing act of genocide in which hundreds of thousands of people are being slaughtered. This impression was reinforced at Hay by both Sands and Moreno-Ocampo. We were even asked to make a donation to a humanitarian agency on our way out, despite the fact that this aid cannot now be delivered. Darfur seems to have taken on a symbolism for one part of the liberal left in much the same way that Gaza has for another.
The first conflict I experienced first-hand was in Kosovo. Prior to Nato's intervention, Serbian forces had mounted a brutal counter-insurgency response to a campaign of terrorism by the Kosova Liberation Army. This had cost several hundred lives, it is true, yet it was clearly not the genocide which supporters of intervention claimed. Indeed, the most immediate impact was to dramatically worsen the humanitarian situation. Nevertheless, Kosovo took on a similar symbolism for an invented narrative that bore little relation to what had actually happened.
So why do the liberal left lie so often to themselves about wars?
I have worked in a dozen or so war zones and I am constantly struck by the total divergence between how the situations get debated in British politics and what I see with my own eyes. I am not a huge fan of George Orwell, but one thing he got right is that the liberal-left intelligentsia simply does not understand what war, with all its attendant horrors and hypocrisies, entails. They are prepared to accept even the most outrageous propaganda and exaggerations if it helps them to build emotional superstructures around their own myths.
In Afghanistan, for example, Nick Cohen first warned , in October 2001, that military intervention would lead to a death toll somewhere between the 25,000 who died in Dresden and the 300,000 killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Six years later, in November 2007, he claimed that the Taliban was being "beaten on the battlefield" and lambasted aid workers for their "risk-averse culture".
Cohen had changed his mind about the conflict and re-fixed the facts accordingly. As Orwell observed, history gets written "not according to what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various party lines".
There is a serious debate going on about the future of humanitarian interventions, but the left have almost completely absented themselves from it, preferring to talk instead in simplistic slogans. Afghanistan is "today's Spanish civil war"; Iraq is Vietnam; Darfur is Rwanda. Where a conflict can be reduced to a spectator sport where you are "up" for one side or the other than this just about works. Where the reality is just so messy, complicated and difficult that the slogans don't fit, so the liberal left just have to ignore it.
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