Aid Watch’s Bill Easterly* posted a comment on my Magical Thinking post last week that I think deserves further discussion:
“The only thing that left me a little uncomfortable was the statement ‘I express my frustration at authors who fail to answer such questions, but spend an awful lot of time criticizing the way other people did.’ If you are thinking of authors like Mamdani, I think his criticisms of the way others answer 1-5 IS his own answer to 1-5 on Darfur. I know from experience that a classic way to attack critics of infeasible, utopian schemes is to demand that the critic come up with their own utopian scheme to solve all the problems. I doubt very much you were doing this, but I just wanted to flag the issue. All the best, Bill Easterly”
He makes a very good point. I actually didn’t mean to imply that I was looking for some sort of utopian regime, or a universal answer to the five questions I posed. I was trying to do the opposite: to show how difficult it is to come up with any kind of one-size-fits-all framework for humanitarian intervention, and to point out that we skip over a lot of important questions when we try.
In fact, I think that the post was partly a reaction to the same annoying rhetorical technique that Easterly describes. In the debate earlier this year over the ICC warrant for President Bashir’s arrest, for instance, I was frustrated at how often people in favor of the warrant responded to those who criticized it by demanding to know what those critics proposed to do instead. That assumption -that we not only should be doing something, but that there must be something we can do– is exactly the kind of magical thinking that I was talking about.
I really, really hate how that kind of response shuts down debate. By personalizing the conversation -“what would you do differently”- it shifts it away from policy analysis and towards questions of motivation. The demand to know what the person on the other side would do differently is also a demand that they justify having an opinion at all. Which can seem -at least to me- like a move away from “is this a good idea?”, towards “if you don’t think this is a good idea but you can’t come up with something better, perhaps it’s because you are a self-interested jerk who only cares about oil and cell phones, and doesn’t really want to help people who are DYING.”
So, anyway: here at Amanda HQ you’ll find a wholehearted embrace of doing nothing, when all of the proposed somethings to do are crummy. If a proposed policy doesn’t pass my “is enacting this policy more likely to reduce suffering and end conflict than staying in to watch Love Actually again?” test,** then I for one would vote for movie night.
*Good lord, Bill Easterly reads our blog?!?! Stay cool, Amanda, stay cool. This kind of thing totally happens to you all the time. You hardly even notice any more. Totes normal, really. I said stay cool!
** What? That always reduces MY suffering. Especially the scene where the guy who is in love with Keira Knightley plays a tape of “Silent Night” and holds up signs to silently tell her how he will love her until she looks like a 3000-year-old mummy and she kisses him and…