Nicholas Kristof writes, of the Kony 2012 campaign…

I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.

Oh, really? Well, I doubt he’d welcome it if, as some experts fear, an interventionist policy had terrible effects for people of the region. (Frankly, a rich American columnist presuming that he can act as a mouthpiece for Congolese villagers is representative of what’s unpalatable about this campaign.) Now, I’m not promoting inaction in Uganda. I have no idea of what should or, indeed, could be done there. But I would like to defend “doing nothing” in principle.

Inaction needn’t be equivalent to indifference. One might conclude that as regrettable as a state of affairs may be there’s no course of action that’s liable to better. There may, in fact, be no contribution one could make that’s likely to do anything but worsen the tragedy. Doing nothing, in such cases, is better than doing harm.

People can experience a failure of imagination when confronted with tragedies abroad. They witness suffering and assume it’s as bad as it gets (Phillip Collins, for example, writes, of Syria, that “intervention… will mean chaos. But there is chaos already”). This is evidence of privilege: they’ve never faced such pain, or felt enough privation, to comprehend the distinctions between different levels of them. The Soviet client state in Afghanistan, for example, was a brutal one: detaining and massacring thousands of Afghans. Yet, casting one’s eyes over the decades that have followed it, you’d have to blind to say things didn’t get a leeeeettle bit worse. This, in fact, is a prime example of how dangerous even the discreetest intrusions can turn out to be. What if the Americans had never gotten involved? As uncertain as all such speculations are, the Mujahideen may never have been such a force; the Taliban might never have prevailed; Al Qaeda may not have become a power worth fretting over. The last twenty years, in other words, might have been nicer for millions of people.

Others seem to feel they have a moral obligation to involve themselves, regardless of the consequences. This belief evinces more concern for their emotional wellbeing than the physical wellbeing of luckless victims of these tragedies so I wouldn’t say it’s as humanitarian. I’d also add that while our culture tends to focus on specific incidences of suffering at any given time, the world is riddled with them. From Afghanistan to North Korea to Iraq to Eritrea to Sudan to Syria to Zimbabwe, people are slaughtered or neglected on a gargantuan scale. Inaction is inevitable. That’s not a excuse for pursuing opportunities to improve a situation but I’d say the likelihood that one’s acts will be of use is a minimum requirement.

Besides, our public life would be improved if our statesmen avoided intractable conflicts. How much time would be saved if Britain stayed out of the Israel/Palestine dispute? Enough to plot and engineer a Moon landing, I’d guess.

About these ads