03 December 2008

all self-serving generalizations are wrong

I had meant to write a post reviewing the excellent Re-Imagining Rwanda by Johan Pottier, which I found a shocking corrective to my prejudices about who were the good guys and the bad guys in the DRC. But since I've meant to write this post for about two years, perhaps I should at least post a letter I wrote to the NPR show On The Media.

First, an aside. While on the subject of how country X discusses atrocities committed by group Y against victims Z, I'll mention some interesting differences in how the US and UK teach about the Belgian colonialism in the Congo. If you don't know this story, I highly recommend the book King Leopold's Ghosts by Adam Hochschild, which I'd also like to review here, but realistically won't: the brief summary is that in the early 20th century, Belgium killed about half the people in the Congo.

American schools don't teach about this, just like pretty much every other topic about Africa. Embarrassingly, I've read dozens of books about the Holocaust, but learned about the Belgian Congo only a few years ago. In the UK, though, everyone knows the story of the Belgian Congo. My theory is that the British view themselves as better colonialists (more humane, efficient, etc.) than the French and other Europeans, and so enjoy learning about the failings of the other colonial powers. As partial evidence for this I'll quote from yet another great book that I should review here but probably won't: David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.

...British Cairo particularly misunderstood ... [that] the Moslem Middle East ... was not willing to be ruled by non-Moslems. Behind enemy lines there were Moslems who were dissatisfied with the Young Turk government, but they proposed to replace it with a different Turkish government, or at any rate a different Islamic government. They regarded rule by a Christian European power, such as Britain, as intolerable.

... Accurate reports... indicated that... most Syrians ... objected to the prospect of being ruled in the postwar world by France, and since [Ronald] Storrs [(Kitchener's Oriental Secretary)] and his colleagues took it for granted that the Arabic-speaking peoples could not govern themselves, the only possibility left was the one advocated by Storrs. [incorporation into British-ruled Egypt.]

Seen in that light, reports that the Syrians considered the Germans and Turks to be Zionists and the French to be detestable meant that the Syrians must be pro-British. Summarizing a memorandum submitted by a Syrian leader who called for Arab independence, [Gilbert] Clayton [head of British intelligence in Cairo] stated that "it is to England, and to England alone, that both Syrian Christians and pan-Arabs are turning."

To be fair to the British, this is the same sort of arrogant mistake that Americans make all the time, e.g. assuming anti-Soviet mujahideen are our allies.

Anyway, here is my letter to On the Media.

Dear OTM,

I'm writing about a story broadcast on April 4, 2008 about a disarmament campaign run by the Rwandan government for FDLR fighters in Congo. (Apologies for writing so long after the program, but I am a podcast listener.) I have both a complaint and a program suggestion.

While I think your story was excellent, I think your editorial framing of it was unbalanced and misleading. In particular, you seem to uncritically follow a narrative in which the RPF and Tutsis are heroes while the Hutus are villains. I am referring here to this part of the introduction to the story:

Bob Garfield: Tutsi rebels ended the slaughter and pushed the genocide's perpetrators, an extremist group of Hutus, into neighboring Congo... Today the remnants of the genocidal forces are known as the FDLR... The FDLR live like parasites among the Congolese. They are a source of strife that has cost five million lives.

Brooke Gladstone: For years, Rwanda's Tutsi government has used proxy rebel groups in Congo to hunt them down. ...

While this framing is in some ways reasonable-after all, extremist Hutus did perpetuate a genocide and the RPF did stop it-it is also misleading (and even somewhat inflammatory with the word "parasites"). For example, it was not only the genocide's perpetrators who fled to Zaire, but many noncombatant Hutus also became refugees. And while the FDLR have definitely been a source of strife in the DRC, they are far from the only cause of all the fighting or human rights abuses there. Brooke Gladstone alludes to this in her mention of 'proxy rebel groups,' but again this implies that Rwanda's involvement in the DRC has been limited to stopping extremists and genocidaires, when in fact it has been far greater and morally murkier; for example, the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma have brutalized civilians as much as any other armed group there.

I'm writing about this not to ask for an on-air correction (it is a little late for that, for one), but because your framing in the April 4 story mirrors common mistakes of reporting on Rwanda by Western journalists and aid agencies. An excellent discussion of these systematic errors can be found in the 2002 book Re-Imagining Rwanda by Johan Pottier, a professor of Social Anthropology at SOAS (part of the University of London). His thesis is that a combination of factors (lack of time, ignorance of historical context, guilt over failing to stop or properly report the 1994 genocide) has led many Westerners to uncritically accept the RPF's framing of the subsequent conflict in the DRC.

Since your program is dedicated to critically examining US media, I think you would be in a good position to do a story on the way the conflicts in Rwanda and the DRC have been represented in the US and Europe. Prof. Pottier's book would, in my opinion, make a good hook for the story, but no doubt there are others you could find as well.