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"Is Democracy Doomed?" revisited
Sudan, Gaza, and further reflections on the incompetence of the citizens
I’ve been unable to get this video out of my mind. I posted it the other day, but forgot to set it to begin at the right moment, so maybe you missed the key part. It should seek to the right time now. If it doesn’t, go to 16:05:
Now consider this news, which was published several days ago in The Washington Post and duly ignored by the world:
… Ahmed Sharif, 31, said Wednesday he had personally collected 102 bodies and laid tents over them after an attack over the weekend on Ardamata, a neighborhood in Geneina that has an army base and a large camp for displaced families. The road to the border was strewn with dozens more bodies, he said, and leaders from the camp who had fled to Chad had collected the names of hundreds more people reported dead by family members and witnesses.
… The military has repeatedly bombed civilian neighborhoods, and the RSF, which is allied with several ethnically Arab militias, has been blamed for multiple attacks on hospitals and mass killings, as well as ethnically motivated attacks in the western region of Darfur. So far 6 million people in Sudan have fled their homes and half of the population needs urgent aid.
In Geneina, the attack began Saturday morning from four directions, Sharif said, and after the paramilitary fighters took over the army base, they carried out killings and arrests in the city and camp. “On Sunday, many four-wheel-drive vehicles came and entered the camp, and the killing continued until the evening,” he said. “After midday, they attacked us with motorcycles because cars cannot drive in those narrow streets. I hid in one of the houses, and I was hearing abuse and killing from nearby people. They said to people, ‘O slaves,’ and described us as allies of the army.” The ethnically Arab militias often use the term as an insult against ethnically African groups.
There were no sirens on Drudge, no chyrons on Fox, no lachrymose interviews with survivors, no dueling editorials on the front page of the New York Times. The banshees and termagants at Harvard and Cornell issued no approving statements. (“It’s not our place to tell Arab freedom fighters how to liberate themselves from ethnic Africans!”) We heard no chorus of cries to free Sudan from the Marrah mountains to the Red Sea. No delirious horde marched through London baying for Africans to be thrown in the Nile. Not a squeak from Rashida Tlaib.1 Black Lives Matters was silent as a long, still night.
But it’s not fair to conclude from this that everyone who is horrified by images of suffering from Gaza is a ravening antisemite. It’s human to respond to those images with horror. We would not want to live among people who don’t. If you’re not anguished to learn, for example, that one Gazan lost 35 members of his extended family in an Israeli airstrike, it’s not because you’ve nobly cleansed yourself of every last trace of antisemitism.
I would guess that most of the people who have taken to the streets to protest Israeli are not wicked antisemites. They’re responding to endless images, real and manufactured, of unimaginable human suffering. They know nothing of the history of this conflict. They know nothing about Hamas. Some, apparently, don’t even know what happened on October 7.
Understanding any of this requires reading—a lot of reading. Most people don’t read. They see images. They don’t even know that many of the images they’re seeing are from other conflicts. They’ve never heard of those conflicts. (And even if they were only seeing real images of Gaza, they’d still be horrified: It’s not as if there are no genuine and genuinely horrifying images of Gaza to contemplate.)
Who can condemn someone for having a human response to these images of misery? It’s natural to be anguished by them. I am. The problem is not that they’re anguished by Gaza’s suffering. It’s that they’re not anguished by anyone else’s.
But even this doesn’t make these idiots wicked. For the most part, they genuinely do not know that they live in a world bursting with war and suffering.
They haven’t heard a word about what’s happening in Yemen, or Tigray, or Myanmar, or Syria, or South Sudan. They don’t know about the war in the Sahel, or the violence in Haiti, or the destruction of Nagorno-Karabakh, or the endless agony of the DRC. They don’t know what’s happening in Afghanistan. Or Iran. They don’t know that death from armed conflict last year reached a 28-year high, or that last year, 84 million souls were forcibly displaced. They’re just responding to images, endless images, on television and social media, of suffering that is said to be Gazan.2
I have no patience for students at Cornell who don’t know anything, or chapter heads of Black Lives Matters who are indifferent to actual black lives. I have more patience for ordinary men and women who are busy working and raising children and don’t have the time or the ability to keep up with the latest from Sudan. The news from Gaza has been injected into their timelines, all day long. They can’t escape it. And they’re moved by it. Good for them, I guess.
So who’s at fault? Is it the news editors?
Here’s the Global Opinions editor for The Washington Post (global opinions!):
(She’s from Texas, by the way.) Yes, certainly, news editors are at fault. But even Karen Attiah doesn’t strike me as evil. She’s just very, very dumb. Something is wrong with the system that educated her and put her in charge of interpreting global news for Americans at one of our last legacy newspapers.
Doesn’t an obsession with Israel, to the exclusion of any other country, amount to antisemitism? Yes. But it’s a weak form. Quite a few news editors are just responding to market demand. Any news organization that gives as much prominence to the tragedy in Sudan as it does to Gaza will go broke.
People are disproportionately interested in the Israel-Hamas conflict for many reasons that are not, strictly speaking, antisemitic. Some are interested because they’re philosemitic. Others are interested because Jerusalem is sacred to all the Abrahamic faiths, or because Israel has come to be a totem in the culture war. Some are interested simply because they’ve heard about it before: Something can be in the news for no other reason than because it’s always been in the news. Also, it’s much easier and safer to report from Israel than it is from Sudan, so if you’re an editor, you’ll get a lot of copy from Israel that you can publish. Not much from Sudan.
Of course, yes, there are a hell of a lot of antisemites out there. But by and large, most people just aren’t that smart.
In saying this, I’m speaking of Westerners. It’s perfectly obvious to me why Arabs and Islamists object furiously to Israel but don’t want to talk about Sudan. The sane but lonely Anglo-Egyptian writer Nervana Mermoud said it well:
Fact: Hundred of thousands of Arabs and Muslims have been killed in Syria, Sudan, Yemen.
But this didn’t trigger one-tenth of the reactions we are witnessing now with the war in Gaza. Why? Because, in Gaza, the enemy is non-Arab and non-Muslim. Let’s stop kidding ourself and have the courage to admit that. For Islamists, the crime of Israel is not just the “occupation of Palestine,” but the disruption of their grand dream of the resurrection of the Islamic Caliphate. For Arab nationalists, the crime of Israel is not the “occupation of Palestine,” but the disruption of their dream of one Arab grand nation from the Arabian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean.
Both Islamists and Arab nationalists do not give a toss about post-Israel Palestine (even if they say otherwise). What they care about is the removal of Israel. Precisely why, in many ways, they fail to defeat Israel.
Both Islamist project and Arab nationalism are failed projects that could not bring success to any of the countries adopted them. Precisely why Islamists and Arab nationalists are clinging to Palestine to hide their repeated epic failures.
For both Islamists and Arab nationalists, Palestine provides:
A needed distraction away from their failed project;
A dream that help them continue to recruit followers;
A tool to silence opponents;
A trigger for emotionalism that numbs public feeling and channels its anger towards Israel.
And no, no no: I am not in any way, shape, or form absolving Israel for a long list of disastrous decisions and polices that have led to misery and the loss of lives of Palestinians. However, without understanding the root of irrationality and hatred, we will never be able to help the Palestinians.
The only Arab leader who truly understood what I mentioned above was Sadat. That is why his quest for peace was genuine and successful, but it also explains why he was resented and murdered. The same hatred that led to Sadat’s murder is behind what happened on October 7. Hamas did not embark on its brutal attack on Israel just for Palestine, but to deter Arabs from repeating what Sadat did. Oct7 was a virtual stab of the Abraham Accords.
We are now standing at a critical junction in the history of the Middle East. Thus far, the war of Gaza has given both Islamist and Arab-Nationalist doctrines a new life. But the day after, may not be as glamorous as both camps want.
But how does this explain Westerners adopting these views? It doesn’t. The Westerners are just plain stupid.
An Israeli friend wrote to me recently in despair:
I feel as though we’re on the front line of the latest iteration of a horrible story that we are for some reason required to enact over and over and over and over again: that we are to be hunted down and slaughtered like animals and refused the right to object. We were born with targets on our backs, and fine young Americans will come out to applaud our murderers and assure each other that we deserved it. I’m out of words. I don’t know if this country will make it. If a person can die of a broken heart, my days are numbered.
Trying to console her, offered her my theory that most people are stupid, not evil. The situation is bad enough without adding that interpretation to it. “It’s appalling to realize that most people are so stupid as to be a danger to us all,” I wrote, “but at least it’s easier to imagine curing stupidity than curing evil, right?”
“No,” she wrote back. “It isn’t. I find it impossible to imagine so profound a level of carefully nurtured and long-cultivated stupidity ever being undone. And it’s the mobs of stupid who will run us off the cliff. The mobs of evil just need to stand back and watch.”
I watched the video above, studied Karen Attiah’s oeuvre, and thought: “She may be right.”
We can divide the problem of this stupidity into two parts. First, our education system doesn’t work. Second, our culture treasures and adulates stupidity.
In saying that our education system doesn’t work, I don’t mean that universities are offering too many classes that cater to esoteric and boutique tastes—although they are—and I don’t even mean that grade schoolers are instructed in various gender permutations rather than learning to read. I mean that the education system as we’ve conceived it is a complete failure, from beginning to end. It isn’t remotely equipping our citizens for self-governance. Watch the GOP debate foreign policy if you’re unsure of this. This is where I begin to wonder if democracy, as I’ve understood it, can survive.
Way back at the dawn of this newsletter, I wrote an essay asking, “Is democracy doomed?” Some of you may remember it:
I was responding an article that had made quite a splash among political scientists. It was titled, “Democracy devouring itself: The rise of the incompetent citizen and the appeal of populism.” The author, Shawn Rosenberg, argued that indeed, democracy was doomed:
I argue, unlike many, that the rise of populism is not simply a passing response to fluctuating circumstances such as economic recession or increased immigration and thus a momentary retreat in the progress toward ever greater democratization. Instead I suggest current developments reflect an underlying structural weakness inherent in democratic governance, one that makes democracies always susceptible to the siren call of right-wing populism. The weakness is the relative inability of the citizens of the modern, multicultural democracies to meet the demands the polity imposes upon them. Drawing on a wide range of research in political science and psychology, I argue that citizens typically do not have the cognitive or emotional capacities required. Thus they are typically left to navigate in political reality that is ill understood and frightening.
His essay is uniquely preoccupied by right-wing populism. But left-wing populism strikes me as quite the problem, too—if we can even call what someone like Attiah believes “left-wing.” I’m not sure that any ideology at all prompts an woman from Texas who doesn’t know a thing about the conflict between Israel and Hamas to announce that it “activates her trauma around Western violence.” That’s not an ideology at work. It’s just proud stupidity.
Most of our citizens aren’t sufficiently well-informed to vote. They don’t know enough about anything to choose good leaders who will make good decisions on their behalf. They don’t understand how their government works. They don’t understand how the economy works. They don’t understand how the world works. They have no idea how anything works. They can readily be convinced that lifesaving vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent, that Donald Trump would be a well-qualified president, that the Russia investigation was “a hoax,” that Ukraine and Russia are engaged in a “territorial dispute,” that photos from Syria are from Gaza, that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are real, that it is only their sexist socialization that prevents women from besting men in pro sports. They believe anything they see on TikTok. Watch the video above again and tell me I’m wrong.
How does a democratic system of governance survive this? Yes, it has survived so far. But I think Rosenberg is right: The world is now harder to understand, and our system is now far too democratic. The morons are now in charge, and it’s more than the system can bear.
I don’t have a better alternative to democracy in mind, of course. All the alternatives are worse. I’m just worried that we’re no longer able safely to operate one.
I don’t wish to mention Sudan’s agony merely as a rhetorical point about our culture. The terrible story is important in its own right. Some parts of it will be familiar to those of you in our ME101 class:
Darfur is about the size of Spain, and it is one of the most terrible places on earth. In 1916 the British, fearing that its sultan was falling under the sway of the Ottomans, launched an expedition from Egypt to capture and annex Darfur into Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Sudan achieved independence in 1956, but as usual, the new state did not entirely make sense. The north of the country was more urbanized and dominated by Muslims, who spoke Arabic. The south was agricultural, resource-rich, and populated predominantly by Christians and adherents to indigenous religions. They chiefly spoke English and saw themselves as Africans. Unsurprisingly, Sudan has been in a state of nearly uninterrupted strife since its independence.
This strife is generally divided into periods—the First Sudanese Civil War, from 1955-72, and the Second Sudanese Civil War, from 1983 to 2005. The second, which was really a continuation of the first, originated in the south but spread over the Nuba mountains and the Blue Nile; it was one of the longest civil wars in modern history, and in the end, six years after the end of the war, resulted in the creation of a new state, South Sudan.
Darfur, which comprises ethnic Arabs and Africans (mostly of the Masalit people), was meanwhile neglected and destabilized by proxy wars among Sudan, Libya, and Chad. In the 1980s, famine further eroded its social structures. During this time, Muammar Gaddafi began promulgating his theories of Arab supremacy. These appealed to ethnic Arabs in Darfur. Low-level conflict erupted, with the government supporting and arming Arab militias, known as the janjaweed, or “devils on horseback.”
Major armed conflict erupted in 2003, when resistance to the janjaweed and the government cohered into a cohesive rebellion. The rebels (correctly) accused the government of oppressing Darfur’s ethnic Africans. Led by president Omar al-Bashir, the government responded by using the janjaweed to carry out a genocidal campaign against Darfur’s Africans.
Human rights groups would soon declare Darfur the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. By 2010, 300,000 had been killed or perished of afflictions related to the conflict. Three million had been forced into refugee camps. Many were children. The so-called Lost Boys of Sudan—20,000 orphaned Nuer and Dinka boys—made the treacherous journeys to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya on their own, attracting international attention for their plight.
Twenty years ago, a genocide in Africa was still capable of making headlines. Once I even saw a protest against the Darfur genocide, although only once, and it was in Turkey. Erdoğan meanwhile feted al-Bashir and declared, “No Muslim could commit a genocide” even as he raved incoherently about Gaza on a regular basis.
In 2019, after months of protests, al-Bashir was overthrown and replaced by a civilian government. He and his entourage were responsible for immense crimes, for which he had been indicted by the International Criminal Court. But neither he nor the elites around him were eager to be tried, so immediately they set themselves to the task of undermining the new government. In 2021, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan—the head of the Sudanese army and now Sudan’s de facto leader—led a coup that ousted the civilian leaders.
Last April, a war erupted between two rival factions of the junta. Al-Burhan commands the Sudanese Armed Forces (hereinafter the SAF). Against him are the RSF, or Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary commanded by al-Burhan’s former deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti. The RSF are the direct descendants of the janjaweed. Hemeti commanded an infamous janjaweed brigade that terrorized Darfur during what I suppose should now be called the first Darfur genocide, since no one will prevent the second and it is clearly now underway. Since April, fighting concentrated around the capital and in Darfur has displaced nearly six million people, of whom a million have fled to neighboring countries in east Africa, leading to widespread fears that the region will be completely destabilized.3
The RSF now controls most of Darfur, but the SAF still holds critical bases and sites in its capital, El Geneina. The massacre last weekend occurred when the RSF captured the army’s main garrison in the neighborhood of Ardamata in El Geneina. Among other things the garrison housed a camp for the internally displaced. The RSF and allied Arab militiamen attacked the homes of the Masalit. Armed militia went house to house, killing men and boys. Reports suggest they killed more than 2,000.
The atrocities, said Borrell’s office, appeared to be part of a broader “ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by the RSF with the aim of eradicating the non-Arab Masalit community from West Darfur.” The international community, it continued, “cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening in Darfur and allow another genocide to happen in this region.”
(Oh yes, it can. Watch it.)
The Ardamata massacre was not the first. Since June, when the RSF captured Geneina, more than a thousand bodies have been found in dozens of mass graves. The victims are primarily Masalit and Burgo civilians. Humanitarian organizations have likened the pace of the murder to the Rwandan genocide.
“We keep saying that the situation is horrific and grim,” said Clementine Nkweta-Salami, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan:
But, frankly, we are running out of words to describe the horror of what is happening in Sudan. We continue to receive unrelenting and appalling reports of sexual and gender-based violence, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detentions and grave violations of human and children’s rights. What is happening is verging on pure evil.
She was speaking of reports that girls are being raped in front of their mothers.
Borrell has called for urgent international action to prevent “another genocide” in the region.
Yes, if you look for it assiduously, you can find news of this conflict. Here are the articles I found—all of them:
“Corpses on streets”: The mass killing might be the largest in the civil war that erupted in April, based on reports from monitors.
“They want to ethnically cleanse us,” said Nahid Hamid, a Masalit human rights lawyer who spoke to Al Jazeera from Cairo, Egypt where she now lives. Hamid shared a video with Al Jazeera that she found over social media weeks ago that shows an RSF fighter holding a machine gun and speaking to the camera. In the background, another fighter can be heard saying in Arabic, “Land of the Masalit? There is no more land for the Masalit.”
According to a local human rights organization, six tribal leaders and their families were killed during last week’s attack on the camp in Ardamata, a town in West Darfur. Mohamad Arbab, 85, was one of them. RSF fighters stormed his home and killed him, his son and eight grandchildren, the group said. The Darfur Bar Association also reported that the Masalit tribal leader Abdelbasit Dina was killed with his wife, son and 50 other residents from their community.“They want to kill [our leaders] so they can replace us with their own as well as Arabs from countries like Chad and Niger,” Hamid said, referring to the Arab mercenaries who have joined the RSF from across the region.
The militia at the center of the Darfur genocide kills hundreds in Sudan. “I couldn’t count the number of dead bodies.”
Sudan war escalates as paramilitary forces aim for complete control of Darfur. UN says situation in African country is “catastrophic” and “getting worse and worse,” with 25 million people in need of humanitarian assistance:
Urging an “immediate cessation” of attacks in El Fasher, US secretary of state Antony Blinken last week condemned “reported abuses by the RSF and allied forces in connection with their assault on Nyala, including civilian deaths, arbitrary arrests, detention of medical personnel and looting of health facilities.” …
The US embassy this week said it was “deeply disturbed” by reports of human rights abuses and ethnic targeting by “the RSF and affiliated militias” in Darfur, while Clementine Nkweta-Salami, the UN secretary-general’s representative in Sudan, said “displacement, disease and sexual violence were rampant” in the country’s seven-month conflict.
An RSF spokesman said, this week, “We renew our emphasis on respect for human rights.”
It would be worth some attention from the world, wouldn’t it? Before they kill everyone left?
I haven’t actually checked her Twitter feed to be sure she’s not said anything about Sudan. I didn’t bother because I’m sure she hasn’t, prima facie. Correct me if I’m wrong.
I just published an article about this on Politico: “The Arab Spring cemented Twitter’s indispensable role in fast-moving international stories. Elon Musk has destroyed that and given us something useless—and dangerous.”
The region is not precisely stable to begin with. Fighting and atrocities persist in northern Ethiopia despite the signing of a ceasefire one year ago. Ethiopia’s quest to regain access to the Red Sea—which it lost in 1991 when Eritrea became independent—is leading it to the brink of war with Eritrea, despite the two countries’ recent cooperation in killing Tigrayans.