Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The End of Genocide

Genocide at the origin of its term was a term to name a racist crime, but since then it has become largely a racist term (in much of political discourse and people's consciousness) to name only crimes committed by peoples or governments outside the rich countries where relative prosperity allows relative peace, never crimes committed by peoples or governments of rich countries. "We" (of the United States, the European Union, and Japan), the civilized, try to save lives, no matter how much direct and indirect deaths and injuries our actions cause in the process; "they" (in Sudan, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Russia, etc.), the uncivilized, just kill, kill, kill because they are hateful brutes. That's the prevailing understanding of the world that the power elite create through their usage of the term genocide.

The term genocide is useful to the power elite because it, like their anti-Semite-baiting, helps silence dissenters: "There are certain things in the world that the only appropriate response is to shut up and remain silent" in the words of Wojtek Sokolowski, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist. What are "certain things" about which one is asked to shut up and remain silent? Politics, economy, history . . . or anything else that may help us understand what's going on. So, labeling other peoples' crimes "genocides" helps the power elite of the rich countries: when one hears the term, one is supposed to condemn designated enemies without understanding what's going on, without thinking at all, in fact.

To be sure, there are leftists who apply the term genocide to past and present crimes committed by the power elite of the rich countries (e.g., the Holocaust of American Indians), but since leftists don't have power or own major media, leftist usage doesn't stick and fails to change the dominant understanding of what genocide is: "other peoples' crimes," compared to which "we" look good!

Michael Steinberg concludes his essay "The End of Genocide" (MRZine, 8 May 2006) thus:
We do not need a concept that simplifies political struggles beyond recognition or gives preferential attention to those calamities where leaders of one side happen to claim that their enemy is a specific ethnic, racial or religious group. . . . The notion of genocide emerged from an understandable sense that Nazi crimes were somehow unlike the crimes of the past and must never be repeated. But it remains too closely tied to those crimes, and to a particular explanation of them, to be of any use in today's world. There is no such thing as genocide. There are cruelty, oppression, murder, and torture. Those are real, and they need to be stopped. Genocide is imaginary. It is time we did away with it.
I once thought otherwise, but I cannot agree more.

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