I was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My stomping group consisted of a seven-block walk to Zabar’s, that Jewish cultural mecca of smoked whitefish spread, cherry strudel, and Eastern Gaspe lox (a consistent winner at my family’s casual, multi-year lox-tasting get-together). I attended Hunter College High School, a public high school on the Upper East Side, which, as NYT was gracious enough to observe on its front page, suffers from a systemic diversity disorder. Students of color were woefully underrepresented in my high school, consistent with broader trends amongst New York’s specialized high schools–as a recent NYT feature observed, black students comprise one percent of Stuyvesant High School’s population, compared to a citywide proportion of twenty-five percent. In spite of–or, more likely, because of–my high school’s demographic disparity, race was rarely a topic of conversation, debate, or introspection. Brief, extracurricular exposures to “cultural diversity” served to reinforce reductive, stereotypical conversations about race, religion, and ethnicity; between the Jewish Cultural Awareness Club, the African-American Students Association, and the Asian Students Association, displays of cultural awareness more accurately resembled a Mel Brooks film, rather than a diverse, engaged “melting pot.”
My engagement in human rights activism began through my synagogue youth group, as is the case with a broad community of young, progressive, and secular Jewish New Yorkers. Consistent with general trends in postwar representations of the Holocaust, Reform Judaism has universalized the moral lessons of Nazi Germany’s atrocities, using the consequent framework of moral responsibility to mobilize Jewish communities around civil rights activism, the anti-apartheid movement, and, where my involvement was concerned, the movement for human rights in Darfur. Human rights activism was an essential component of the progressive, Jewish humanitarian ethos, which my Hebrew school teachers, youth group leadership, and clergy framed as the present-day manifestation of tikkun olam, the clichéd, Kabbalistic notion of “repairing the world.” Progressive Judaism’s wishful humanitarianism provided a meaningful framework for this young person’s mobilization, giving equal purpose to $120 of lemonade sale revenues, direct action opportunities, and, more rarely, Congressional advocacy.
In Kabbalistic fashion, tikkun olam is a transhistorical concept–that is, the collective, moral responsibility of community mobilization operates without concern for the contextual uniqueness of historical events. As I’ve discussed before, moral discussions of history underlined the intellectual paucity of historical analysis, allowing young humanitarians to draw indistinct, universalized conclusions from past human failures in 1940s Germany, 1970s Cambodia, and 1990s Rwanda. Discussions of the Darfur conflict approximated a Mamdani nightmare, with little concern for the varied typologies of political violence, identity, and ethnic conflict in Sudan’s western region. (Alright, we were thirteen, but the rosy-eyed, decontextualized idealism of my adult mentors didn’t do nuance any favors.) More importantly, reflection on the immense irony of our humanitarian engagement was infrequent, if it occurred. In spite of traditional Jewish emphases on healthy introspection and self-criticism, I encountered few conversations on the personal and communal limits of humanitarianism. Because tikkun olam is transhistorical, the historical baggage of particular circumstances–U.S. policy in sub-Saharan Africa, legacies of neo-colonialism, and the like–offered marginal insights into the moral project of humanitarian work. We perceived our human rights advocacy from the standpoint of black-and-white moralism, with little willingness to engage the ethical burdens of race. Fundraising for Darfuri cookstoves was commonplace; conversations about the funds’ origins, what they represented, and why it matters were not.
At first glance, maybe they shouldn’t have been. A false selflessness pervaded our small-scale, community-based humanitarian work; we applauded fellow students for apparent altruism, and decried those who were “just in it for college.” For young high school students, advocacy was an educational project, intended to initiate students into an inclusive, global thought-community, one which prioritized cosmopolitanism over provincialism. Students perceived the performative act of “doing something” as a sufficient vessel for moral passion, while educators understood students’ humanitarian convictions as an extension of critical classroom discussions on global affairs. Ultimately, the results of uninformed, non-introspective advocacy appear net-positive: for engaged students, the fundraisers, moral debates, and “Darfur Danceathons” are entry points for further, deeper, and broader engagement; students who, at the end of it all, disengage, come away able to identify Sudan on a map, even if the map’s origins, political constructs, and international consequences are not discussed.
Of course, “net-positive” is an abysmal standard of achievement, particularly for a crowd which places a high premium on normative value. As I discussed in the context of #KONY2012, the process of human rights organizing acknowledges the primacy of the advocate, their story, and the power of the voice they provide. In the context of addressing global issues, with the unavoidable burdens of transnational, transcultural history, the advocate’s primacy becomes more complicated, more morally challenging, and less relevant than, say, an AFSCME rally for collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. Where advocacy is, in part, the practice of political problem-solving, the advocate necessarily plays a larger role in addressing their own politics, rather than the local, regional, national, and international politics of geographically detached communities. However, if we perceive advocates as political problem-solvers, we possess an ethical responsibility to move past the net-positive standard, placing a higher priority on the “informed” character of “informed constituencies.” Part of this challenge is recognizing that, as Teju Cole observed in a recent piece on the “White Savior Industrial Complex,” political problem-solving necessarily plays a smaller role than our moral passions suggest:
[T]here is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can. But beyond the immediate attention that he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems. There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans. Such problems are both intricate and intensely local.
I just finished reading Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus’ excellent Can Intervention Work?, which adopts a pragmatic, case-based perspective on the interaction between local political solutions and international humanitarian policy interventions. Stewart and Knaus begin their essay with a reflection on the linguistic origins of “intervention,” as distinct from interference, interlocution, and interdiction. Intervention has its origins in the Latin intervenire, translating to the infinitive, “to come between.” As Stewart and Knaus observe, intervention is an inherently decontextualized, euphemistic term, which “does not reveal where you are, who or what is around or beside you, or the nature of your relationship with these people and things.” Instead, our humanitarian ethos demands that “we…cloak our action in a Latin word, which, even if translated, admits to nothing more than coming into a new relationship.” I find this compelling: the notion of policy intervention as a new relationship between principal actors and their agents, encapsulating new narratives, new contexts, and new normative exchanges.
A “new relationship” framework for policy intervention restores a challenging burden to the process and character of human rights advocacy. Relational interventions rely on dynamic interaction, rather than static policy prescriptions. Political problem-solving emerges as a multi-actor process, forged from the voices of domestic advocates, indigenous problem solvers (that is, local civil society in conflict-affected areas), and their interlocutors, the diaspora communities. At a narrative level, where advocacy encapsulates the act of telling individual stories, we place a larger emphasis on empathetic morality, which provides conflict survivors with the space, platform, and credibility to convey their “stories of self.” At a communal and policy level, we identify humility, rather than action, as the framing basis of problem-solving discourse: rather than asking immediately, “how can we help?,” we need to establish policy frameworks that acknowledge the boundaries of our power, and the extent of others’.
More comprehensively, a “new relationship” framework for intervention implies a deep-seated, foundational reliance on self-criticism and introspection. If we recognize a role for Western human rights advocacy, we need to clarify why that role exists, how it pertains to the persistent, structural burdens of racial difference and socioeconomic privilege, and how to allow those differences to become more equal and constructive. In other words, our “story of us” needs to change, incorporating the resilience narratives of survivor communities and diaspora actors. This doesn’t mean that we acknowledge a greater plurality of alternative voices as persistently “right,” but rather that mainstream discourses can be equally wrong. If we start from that basis, we can start creating organizational, policy-oriented, and political cultures of problem-solving that encourage, facilitate, and adapt to criticism, broadening often-closed, ideological biases.
I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a blog shout-out to Jenn Polish and Sean Langberg, whose constant badgering, internal advocacy, and insight have been extraordinarily helpful in crafting a more responsible concept of human rights advocacy. If you’re not following them, you’re losing out.