No Utopians Here, Man. Only Lawyers.

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…

Amanda Taub


  1. OMG, that’s totally one of my favorite parts of Love Actually, too! Of course, that dude is totally me. Which is depressing. But anyway.

    I wonder whether the response, “Well, what would you do?” actually shuts down debate or just takes the debate to an uncomfortable (for you) place. Doing nothing is an option. When someone asks, “Well, what would you do?” and your choice is to do nothing, it seems perfectly reasonable to respond, “Nothing.” And then the interlocutor gets exasperated, “We have to do something!” To which perfectly appropriate responses could include, “Why?” or “What if doing something is more harmful than doing nothing?” or “Banana sandwich.”

    In other words, I think it’s a little pouty to get irritated at people who, when their idea for a program of action is criticized as unworkable, implausible, potentially more harmful than goodful, want to know what you suggest doing. Just look at domestic politics. We (purport to) abhor the party that just rejects ideas and doesn’t come up with their own solutions. Again, maybe the solution is to do nothing. But if that’s your view, then you should have to defend it against criticism just like you get to criticize those who put forth their programs for doing something. Yes, it’s less comfortable defending doing nothing, because it’s possible that others could infer you think everything is A-OK as it is, nothing to see here, move along, and we (naturally, and reasonably) don’t want anyone thinking mean things about us.

    Summary: defend your claim for nothing-doing on its merits, rather than sticking your tongue out at those who ask for your input (after you’ve input criticism of theirs). Fair is fair.

    Quoth he.

    • Hilarious that a few of the opening shots (around :35) of the Kony2012 video are pulled directly from Love Actually!!!

  2. Way to name-drop your blog readers. 🙂

    I love this post. The “we have to do something” response is so irritating, especially if, as dmv notes, doing something might make things worse.

    That said, my new default answer for “What would you do instead?” is “Send more peacekeepers.” It shuts the critics up, even if it wouldn’t be great policy.

  3. First, to dmv: Why would it be depressing to be "that dude"? (are you kidding? If you're in DC & of any age, you'd be the toast of many ladies–or guys, depending)…

    As for the post & the response…I just realized I can't comment as "myself." So I'll email you. Bizarro world.

    I do agree with your general premise though. From close, direct work/friendship with Darfuri civil leader, he has taught me time & again (obviously I'm a bad student, as old as I am & well-travelled & blown up in the MEast–never a dull moment): don't agree to things that will not help. Don't grab at the first (or umpteenth) bad (or half-baked, or whatever) deal offered because you think nothing better can be done.

    He's right. Off I go to sulk feverishly. No "Love, Actually" here until Xmas time. A purist, here. And I don't know how I'm gonna feel now that poor Liam Neeson is going to be a for-real widower. Sorry to be a downer…

    ciao kids. back in email later or tomorrow…

  4. Hi DMV,

    You are definitely right that I get uncomfortable having to defend the “doing nothing” idea.

    But I don’t think that it’s just because I’m thin-skinned about defending inaction. It’s because a strong, recurring, trope of so many advocacy campaigns is that rich-country apathy is the main obstacle to be overcome in the fight against genocide and other atrocities, and that doing nothing = apathy. Which makes me, at the point that I’m advocating nothing/banana sandwich, part of the problem -part of the vast undifferentiated mass of yuppies who are more interested in educating themselves about the latest iPhone app than about death in hot countries.

    A key assumption of the awareness-based advocacy campaign is that there are only two relevant states of consciousness: (1) aware, and supportive of “action”, (2) unaware due to yuppie apathy, and therefore unsupportive of “action.” (There is occasionally a third variant: aware, but unsupportive of action because of nefarious self-interest, but that quickly veers into conspiracy-theory territory, and most well-run campaigns now avoid it.) The idea that someone could be aware of the horrible things happening, but unwilling to support whatever is proposed as a means of putting a stop to them, does not really compute within that construct.

    You’re right that it’s a conversation worth having -that it is worth my time to explain that I do understand what’s going on, but don’t necessarily support, say, the Bashir indictment. But it’s an unpleasant conversation to have.

    So maybe we can agree on “I have to do it, but I don’t have to like it?”

  5. Well, Texasinafrica, I’d name-drop you too if you weren’t anonymous amongst the internets.

  6. Giulia:

    I’m an introvert, so I suffer in silence by default. 😉


    No, I’m going to have to stand on principle on this oneand insist that you have to like it.

    But seriously, you said: “It’s because a strong, recurring, trope of so many advocacy campaigns is that rich-country apathy is the main obstacle to be overcome in the fight against genocide and other atrocities, and that doing nothing = apathy.”

    First, I think the first conjunct could be (to somedegree) true while the second is false if “doing nothing = apathy” means “doing nothing iff apathy,”though possibly true (to some degree) if we read
    it rather as a sociological description. In other words, from Their perspective, They probably
    encounter rich-country apathy or unawareness a lot. Unawareness naturally translates into doing
    nothing because you can’t act to correct a problem you don’t know exists (though you can act in such
    a way that the problem is corrected without knowing, of course, but let’s not get into known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and the Donald Rumsfeld school of epistemology).

    My point was just that I can understand how an advocacy group would fail to recognize that a fourth relevant state of consciousness exists (let’s call
    it “Amanda-consciousness”) wherein the subject is aware and chooses to do nothing as the best available
    policy alternative. I didn’t mean to suggest or to imply that I thought you were being thin-skinned about it. Rather, I merely meant to point out that there is an option available to you, namely, to point out that doing nothing is a legitimate, good-faith alternative.
    Of course, if, after having the existence of Amanda-consciousness pointed out, someone continues to equate doing nothing with apathy or
    nefariousness, by all means criticize their way of thinking (with charity, of course; I know, I know, it’s a blog, charity schmarity; nonetheless….) I just tend to think it important: (1) first, and always, to try to understand where the other is coming from; (2) to try to convey where you’re coming from so that the
    other may understand; (3) to try to work from a common understanding, however marginal it may be; and then
    (4) if (3) fails, to criticize. Granted, (1)-(3) may all happen
    very quickly, temporally, but it’s an important process nonetheless. So that explains why I commented the
    way I did. 🙂

    Finally, I think you didn’t consider the possibility that Texasinafrica remains anonymous among the internets because s/he got tired of blogistas name-dropping.

    (P.S. I forgot to add: to me, a perfectly plausible and acceptable answer to “Well, what would you do?” is: Try to understand the situation better so we don’t bumblefuck it up worse. I’m a big fan of teh Understand.)

    (P.P.S. My word verification word is “exicises.” A lawyerly way to exercise, perhaps?)

  7. Sorry about the formatting of my last comment. Not sure what happened. :/

  8. Amanda, thanks for the inspiration for a post on Aid Watch today that responds to this post. All the best, Bill Easterly

  9. As an engineer, I look at issues in rather the same way:

    1. Identify the problem
    2. Enumerate potential solutions
    3. Determine how sucky each solution is
    4. Pick the least-sucky solution

    It works every time.

    Another thought: the false association between “doing nothing” and “apathetic” is probably drilled into us Westerners throughout our childhoods (in punishment/reward situations such as “do nothing and get grounded” or “clean your room and get ice cream”) and we are rarely presented with the concept of an unsolvable problem (either in literature or in real life); and so I posit that we Westerners are left, as adults, irrationally biased against inaction. In an ideal world, inaction would be listed along with other solutions as a matter of course and judged based on its merits and faults; unfortunately, our culture seems to prevent that.

  10. “In fact, I think that the post was partly a reaction to the same annoying rhetorical technique that Easterly describes.”

    This is how I originally read your Mamdani post, and why I liked it so much, as I wrote at

    “Discussing intervention is fraught with complexity, in no small part because successful precedents barely exist. Amanda offers us a coherent framework with which to criticize – making the criticisms, and therefore the solutions, more credible.”

    Being able to identify policy or advocacy mistakes using your 5-part list IS a step in the right direction. Too often, debate becomes muddled, leaving a carte blanche for irrational and guilt-based arguments (“you are a self-interested jerk who only cares about oil and cell phones”).

    Harmful policies prevail in part because their critics are overly nuanced and academic. Being complicated is not in itself a strength (though some academics might disagree). Good policy can be straightforward. Again, your checklist gives order to convoluted criticisms – it mobilizes the opposition, if you will.

    If no solution comes of such methodical critique, then I agree: doing nothing is best. But when you wake up, bleary-eyed from a third (fourth?) Love Actually viewing, at least you’ll be able to clearly explain yourself. That makes all the difference.

    Thanks, yo.

  11. I’m afraid I must respectfully disagree with your assessment here. While many may turn the question of, “What would you do?” on a critic to uncover their own motivations on the topic, it is also the most rational follow-up for anyone who wants to take constructive action on a given problem.

    While I have a great deal of respect for the scholarly role of calling attention to flaws in the efforts of advocacy and activist movements, they also give me no options as an activist to make any kind of constructive contribution to ending the conflicts they are addressing. To put this question more simply, “if I am not going to make a difference doing x, what can I make a difference doing?”

    This is a question that is not just a rational follow-up, but an essential clarification if one has any intention of redirecting energies in a more productive direction.

  12. @Drex I think the point here is that the answer to the question, “if I am not going to make a difference doing x, what can I make a difference doing?”, often could be: “nothing at all, dude, nothing at all. Just sit tight, because everything you could do will only make things worse.”

    Thinking that there always will be something to do, and that, begad, we will do it, is a fallacy: sometimes it is just best to do nothing. “Yesterday we stood at the brink of the abyss. Luckily, today we are one step further.”

  13. This seems different to me than Philip Berrigan saying to a bunch of demonstrators early in the 70's: "Don't just do something– sit there".

    I interpret Berrigan's statement as a call to research, ponder, and THEN do something– which is intelligent and effective. Given that he helped spark the anti-nuclear movement into existence, I think his gameplan was a good one.

    But it WAS a gameplan, and it DID lead to results; and it DID improve the situation.

  14. AKA the Boardwalk Empire Test?:

    “What would you do?”
    “Do nothing… When you have no move, Mr. Thompson, you do nothing.”

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