Sunday, September 17, 2006

Solidarity with Africa

I watched Hotel Rwanda again today and thought about the repeated times that I have heard people express the sentiment that really there is nothing we can do for Africa, that they are animals, and that it is evolution and nature red in tooth and claw. This is very different than calling the behavior sinful that for instance was witnessed in the Rwandan massacres. Such expressions are in effect expressions of exasperation and rationalization for disenfranchisement of Africa and they conflate the problem by obscuring human decision making. Such a view ignores both the West’s culpability in Rwanda and the fundamental human nature we both share.

First the West’s culpability is ably indicated in the following account from Human Rights Watch's Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda:

The Transformation of “Hutu” and “Tutsi”
By assuring a Tutsi monopoly of power, the Belgians set the stage for future conflict in Rwanda. Such was not their intent. They were not implementing a“divide and rule” strategy so much as they were just putting into effect the racist convictions common to most early twentieth century Europeans. They believed Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa were three distinct, long-existent and internally coherent blocks of people, the local representatives of three major population groups, the Ethiopid, Bantu and Pygmoid. Unclear whether these were races, tribes, or language groups, the Europeans were nonetheless certain that the Tutsi were superior to the Hutu and the Hutu superior to the Twa—just as they knew themselves to be superior to all three. Because Europeans thought that the Tutsi looked more like themselves than did other Rwandans, they found it reasonable to suppose them closer to Europeans in the evolutionary hierarchy and hence closer to them in ability…. This mythical history drew on and made concrete the “Hamitic hypothesis,” the then-fashionable theory that a superior, “Caucasoid” race from northeastern Africa was responsible for all signs of true civilization in “Black” Africa. This distorted version of the past told more about the intellectual atmosphere of Europe in the 1920s than about the early history of Rwanda. Packaged in Europe, it was returned to Rwanda where it was disseminated through the schools and seminaries…. Even in the 1990s, many Rwandans and foreigners continued to accept the erroneous history formulated in the 1920s and 1930s… The very recording of the ethnic groups in written form enhanced their importance and changed their character. No longer flexible and amorphous, the categories became so rigid and permanent that some contemporary Europeans began referring to them as “castes.” The ruling elite, most influenced by European ideas and the immediate beneficiaries of sharper demarcation from other Rwandans, increasingly stressed their separateness and their presumed superiority. Meanwhile Hutu, officially excluded from power, began to experience the solidarity of the oppressed.”

Secondly, our supposition of our own moral superiority is undermined when we consider the following points made by Elizabeth Powers on the First Things blog, September 14, 2006:
“For her ( Heather Mac Donald) it is the achievement of the secular Enlightenment that we are “more compassionate, humane, and respectful of human rights.” Just compare, she writes, the fourteenth century’s treatment of prisoners to today’s, “an advance due to Enlightenment reformers.”
As a scholar of the eighteenth century, I am familiar with this attribution of our supposed moral advance to the sages of the Enlightenment. The philosophes, however, independent scholars of their day, were simply capitalizing on the changed material environment in which they lived. Beginning in the early modern period, in the late fifteenth century, with European exploration of the globe and the opening of vast international trade, men (and mostly they were men) began to have economic opportunities beyond those dictated by tradition. The history of the West since then has been one of continuous improvement in the material life of more and more people, not simply the traditionally rich and privileged. With this democratization of wealth, ordinary men began to chafe at the traditional political and civic arrangements that kept them from wearing the clothes they liked, marrying the person of their choice, or choosing their own profession. The market began to offer “choice” not only in lifestyle but also in products. In response to this more liberal economic environment, philosophers began to enunciate ideas concerning liberty and individual freedom. But where would they have come up with the idea that each of us has a right to determine our destiny, if not for the moral legacy of Christianity, namely, the uniqueness of every person before God and the duty of that person to work out his individual salvation? All of liberalism’s important achievements—free political institutions, religious practice, intellectual and artistic expression—grew, in tandem with the wealth of the West, from that simple idea.
Don’t imagine that because criminals now have clean cells, even telephone privileges and access to law libraries, that we are more enlightened than our fourteenth-century predecessors. With our current material resources—a huge establishment of lawyers (many of them women), college degrees in prison management, cheap electricity, food providers, and so on—it would be irrational to keep criminals chained to walls in unheated cells for years, dependent for food on meals brought by their next of kin, and all the other horrors of incarceration brought to us by Alexandre Dumas. Liberals, and Heather Mac Donald, think that such “progress” is self-evident, as if ethics were something that accumulated in our arteries like cholesterol. But make no mistake: If we returned to the material conditions of the fourteenth century, prisoners would have their law books taken away.
While it is self-evident to Heather Mac Donald that “the rule of law” is transparent to “all rational minds,” try that idea on the Chinese, who are certainly rational (and infinitely skeptical, it would seem). One of the reasons that the concept of human rights has so much difficulty inserting itself in China is because of the absence of a Christian legacy. The Chinese are becoming more prosperous, but they have only the vaguest sense of what is second nature to us in the West—namely, the sacredness of the human person. The greatest reform movement in the world, the abolition of slavery, was led by Christians, not the philosophes. So, yes, Miss Mac Donald, we do live parasitically off the moral legacy of Christianity.”

I take it therefore as a sign of a failure of conscience when we failed to stand in solidarity and brotherhood with Rwanda. We do not have the evidence that we are better. Has not our wealth as a society as a whole come to us from forefathers who set up unjust systems based on stupid, wicked and inhuman pseudoscientific notions of racial superiority, and profited off it? In truth those who soothe themselves with the idea that we are more evolved or advanced than the African peoples are checking out of Hotel Rwanda and checking back into Hotel California.

Little girl: “Please don’t let them kill me. I promise not to be Tutsi anymore.”

Proverbs: “Those who close their ears to the cry of the poor will themselves cry out and not be answered.”

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