Goodies and Baddies
March 30, 2011 1:38 AM   Subscribe

Humanitarian Intervention 101 by Adam Curtis at the BBC. The idea of "humanitarian intervention" which is behind the decision to attack in Libya is one of the central beliefs of our age. It divides people. Some see it as a noble, disinterested use of Western power. Others see it as a smokescreen for a latter-day liberal imperialism.
posted by lucia__is__dada (35 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great article. He really does not like Bernard Henri Levy's hair, does he?
posted by molecicco at 2:13 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


They believed that if they could destroy the evil - by liberating victims from oppression by despots - then what would result would be, automatically, good. But the problem with this simple view was that it meant they had no critical framework by which to judge the "victims" they were helping. And the Baghdad bombing made it clear that some of the victims were very bad indeed - and that the humanitarians' actions might actually have helped unleash another kind of evil.

Ah, you can't beat Curtis for an unintended consequence. Some excellent footage in this entry, and I believe the blog is slightly more international-spectator friendly than it once might have been.
posted by robself at 2:35 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


See also Nicholas Wheelers excellent Saving Strangers for those interested in this area.
posted by numberstation at 2:40 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


great article - need to finish reading that tonight
posted by mary8nne at 2:57 AM on March 30, 2011


The documentary makes it clear how repressive and brutal Gadaffi's regime is. How he has locked up and tortured thousands of his opponents.

But then it takes a fascinating turn. The interviewer asks Gadaffi to explain why he has sent Libyan troops to fight with the Palestinians against Israel, and why he has sent in Libyan agents to try and overthrow President Sadat of Egypt.

In response Gadaffi launches into an explanation that countries like Libya have a duty to intervene in other nations where the ordinary people are being oppressed by autocrats or oppressive governments - and help free them. That includes helping to liberate Egypt and Tunisia.

But it also means, he says, that politicians like him are justified in intervening in Northern Ireland to help the Provisional IRA. Because they are oppressed by the British government

They too are victims.


It would seem that is it not the idea of "humanitarian intervention" which "divides people" rather the division arises over who deserves the coveted label of "victim."

As the article mentions there are good and bad "victims" and the public perception of good and bad can be strongly influenced by PR. It seems a long and roundabout way to say that advertising works.
posted by three blind mice at 3:12 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Haven't had time to read this yet, but as the idea of humanitarian intervention is currently exposed to so much doubt and confusion, it's good to have Adam Curtis' perspective. Thanks.

Not sure there is need for a "previously" link, but I'll just mention that Adam Curtis has been featured here plenty of times before.
posted by howfar at 3:21 AM on March 30, 2011


As the article mentions there are good and bad "victims"

The article mentions that a founding principle of MSF was that there is no such thing as 'good' and 'bad' victims. Just victims. That was, according to the article, a major founding principle of MSF. And it goes on to show that are some inherent problems in such a philosophy.

But I would disagree that divisions about 'humanitarian intervention' boild down solely the definition of who counts as a victim. As the article is trying to point out, this whole idea that world is divided simply into "victims" and "oppressors" is inherently problematic, since it happens often enough that the victim you are trying to help in turn becomes an oppressor (or is simultaneously a victim and a perpertrator, as in Kosovo, as with the Mujahadeen in Afgahnistan, and so on).

Further, even if we agree that a certain group of people is solely a victim and in no way a perperator, there exists the possibility that helping the victim can either prolong their victimization (as in Biafra), or inadvertantly help an even-worse perpetrator to come into power.

The article is called "Goodies and Baddies" and the main thrust, so far as I got, was that good intentions is not enough, and your good intentions can backfire if you insist on maintaining and overly simplified view of all the actors.

I think we need to focus on results, rather than intentions. What is the result that we want to achieve? Is it actually possible? "Simple helping" is not simple and often not helping.
posted by molecicco at 3:31 AM on March 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


Watch Blair's face closely as he walks through the adoring crowd chanting "Tony, Tony, Tony" and you understand some of why he would take Britain to war in Iraq four years later.
Yes, but I have to say that the enthusiastic reception looked rather manufactured to me. If it was, I wonder if Tony was aware of that? My guess would be yes, he would have the seasoned campaigner's awareness of the level of 'naturalness' of a gathered crowd.
posted by Pranksome Quaine at 3:57 AM on March 30, 2011


looks like i could use a humanitarian spellcheck intervention. was quickly posted before rushing off for lunch.
posted by molecicco at 4:04 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


The west has most successfully changed societies in Japan, Germany and Korea. All three of these interventions required intensive, long-term political, logistical and economic support with both policing and advice that was both expensive and involved millions of troops. They also required the utter failure and invasion of their societies, and a broad acceptance that the strategy of militarism and authoritarianism had failed (less so in Korea, admittedly).

Given that requirement for long term support, it's hard to be surprised when nipping in for 6 months and removing the top guys doesn't automatically lead to sweetness and light. Even Kosovo was hard to digest, and that was a province. I have no idea how the West feels that it is capable of projecting the force to police entire societies (see Iraq/Afghanistan).

The dumbest thing about the recent military interventions is that the entire plan apparently revolves around creating a power vacuum because the current guys are bad, installing whoever seems closest and doesn't actively hate us, then attempting to save money by going cheap on policing support in particular as the society further fragments.
posted by jaduncan at 4:04 AM on March 30, 2011 [12 favorites]


Some see it as a noble, disinterested use of Western power. Others see it as a smokescreen for a latter-day liberal imperialism.

Yeah, both sides there seem a bit wrong, it's nothing quite so grand as either. I see it more as just another example of sending military aid in support of a rebellion your country is sympathetic to for whatever reason, a tradition that goes back at least as far as when Athens sent their troops to support the Ionians in (checks Wikipedia) 498 BC. Let's hope it turns out better than that one did.
posted by sfenders at 4:11 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


R2P (wiki) is similar to humanitarian intervention. I'm definitely a strong supporter of the movement, even if it's not perfect. Honestly, my main criticism is that it's not followed enough, yet.
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:31 AM on March 30, 2011


>The article mentions that a founding principle of MSF was that there is no such thing as 'good' and 'bad' victims. Just victims. That was, according to the article, a major founding principle of MSF. And it goes on to show that are some inherent problems in such a philosophy.

From the article:

Their first slogan was "There are no good and bad victims".

And in 1979 Kouchner dramatically demonstrated this belief. He hired a ship to go and rescue the Vietnamese boat people who were fleeing the communist regime who now ruled Vietnam.

The left - and many liberals - were shocked. Because these were "bad victims". Victims of the noble anti-imperialists who had defeated America.

But Joan Baez supported him.


The inherent problem is the narrative. To invoke "humanitarian" motives, there has to be a narrative of good and evil and that narrative is greatly assisted by PR.
posted by three blind mice at 5:32 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I like everything that Adam Curtis has produced.

But sometimes I think he is being patronising in a very sinister way.

I think this because of his short, definitive sentences.

They make him seem childlike.

Don't you agree?
posted by Jofus at 5:35 AM on March 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yeah, he's very easily parodied. He also does the conspiracy theory thing of drawing connections between things that are not really connected at all.
posted by empath at 5:44 AM on March 30, 2011


The article seems to be written in the style of a film voiceover, rather than an essay.
posted by kersplunk at 5:48 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


as usual for curtis, he finds interesting footage and interesting history but, intellectually, this is not much more than argument by hairstyle.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:09 AM on March 30, 2011


metafilter: not much more than argument by hairstyle.
posted by el io at 6:23 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


also does the conspiracy theory thing of drawing connections between things that are not really connected at all.

empath, not commenting on this piece, as I'm still working, but my sense of his work generally is that while he does make such links, he does it in the open acknowledgement that he is creating a "story". Unlike a conspiracy theorist, he acknowledges the mutability of narrative, and thereby attempts to encourage us to question the narratives we are expected to accept, without simply inserting his own narrative in its place. However, he's not always totally successful in this.
posted by howfar at 6:45 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I saw 'It Felt Like A Kiss' - the theatre piece he did with Punch Drubk a couple of years ago in Manchester. I was trying to question the mutability of narrative while I was there but I was a bit distracted being chased down dark corridors by a lunatic with a chainsaw.
posted by Jofus at 7:15 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Lots of interesting people and movements in this. Ones that usually sit just below the public's view.

Though, it seems a little disingenuous to emphasize the support that humanitarian interventionists gave to the latest Iraq war, when they were just a squib compared to the neo-con's load of dynamite. Maybe in Blair's case, in England, the argument works a bit better, but here in America it was massively a neo-con push.

And while I'd love to discuss my idea that neo-cons thought Iraq would be easy because "we won the cold war without firing a shot", I think it's a little too much of a side-track here.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:18 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


As the article mentions there are good and bad "victims" and the public perception of good and bad can be strongly influenced by PR. It seems a long and roundabout way to say that advertising works.

Adam Curtis has a lot more to say about advertising than simply just that it works. You really need to check out Century Of The Self sometime. It's available in many places online, including archive.org.
posted by hippybear at 8:10 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


The central premise of intentionalism and the play with the "unintentional consequences" trope is where this piece goes off the rails. It starts in a bad place and then proceeds to play around with the notion that humanitarianism is more central to military interventionism than good old fashioned power politics and the armaments trade. The Iraq War is now known to have featured in some way as a premise of Bush's foreign policy before 9/11.
Some see it as a noble, disinterested use of Western power. Others see it as a smokescreen for a latter-day liberal imperialism.
Fer Crissake, isn't it pretty damn obvious what he did here. This is totally bogus false dichotomy unless you buy the first premise.
Some see it as a principled reaction against the use of Western military power and the economy that it is centered in. Others see it used as a smokescreen for a latter-day liberal imperialism by cynical politicians to manipulate public opinion . Both of these stances are true and neither contradicts the other. Neither is even a partial explanation.
ftfy, Curtis.

This sort of play with constructed contradictions only works for confusing people who base their take on reality on moral relativism. Reactionaries and moral absolutists are impervious to these arguments. Paul Berman, the leftest of the young Neocons, is a master of this sort of "hey-look-at-me" wankery. Once you see the trick, it just becomes another tired form of recapitulating the spectacle.
posted by warbaby at 8:30 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's odd warbaby, what I got from the article was that the author assumes that many people believe that 'humanitarian intervention' is either principled or a smokescreen. The whole point of the article, as I read it, was to say exactly what you are saying: that neither stance contradicts the other, and that there is far more going on than either of these simplistic views can offer.
posted by molecicco at 8:43 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jofus, I never saw it, but I'd probably agree with you. I love the sensation and spectacle of immersive theatre, but I've not experienced anything of much depth from it as yet. I'd still go and see 'It Felt Like a Kiss' like a shot though.
posted by howfar at 8:54 AM on March 30, 2011


When I read passages like:
But they also helped the Mujaheddin. Under the theory of the humanitarian movement this was fine. The Mujaheddin were resisting the Soviet totalitarianism. They were victims fighting back so it was morally right to help them.
I see Curtis speaking directly about the motives of the humanitarian assistance being dependent on "resisting Soviet totalitarianism." That is imposed on the situation as a writerly trick, not inherent in the theory of the humanitarian movement.

Maybe it's just bad writing imposed by his clipped and somewhat snide style. For all I know, it could come across as archly insightful if read aloud in a high Oxonian blither. The "some say" and "others still believe" tropes are a way to displace opinions from the writer to some unspecified other. It's like fingers on a chalkboard to Americans disgusted with Fox News force-fed opinions. I'd like this essay better if he was a little more blunt about the smokescreen half of his lead.

This piece might as well have been written by Paul Berman, since the passages about the New Philosophers could have been lifted directly from A Tale of Two Utopias: cooing and sneering at the same time. The coy nibbling on the "unintended consequences" red herring is vintage Berman, as is the dualistic framing that's actually coming from a restatement of a single argument. It certainly could be quoted in support of smokescreen players; the style plays into it.

Seriously, the New Philosophers have more pull with Sarkozy than Dassault?
posted by warbaby at 10:03 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Practice first with the easy dominos. Blur the landscape. Walk off with target.
posted by infini at 10:11 AM on March 30, 2011


Or, to add to molecicco's observation, it comes across no different than humanitarian design as neocolonialism for neoresources? Are we sure this time that they will greet their liberators with gratitude? The rebels are already revolting. Does Cote D'Ivoire have oil and a dictator with too many embarressing stories to tell?
posted by infini at 10:15 AM on March 30, 2011


Comparing Baghdad & Afghanistan to Germany, Japan & Korea isn't entirely out of line, but there really are significant differences. The post-WW II and Korean situations weren't run by an administration of such blatant corruption and incompentence, and none of those had outside actors bent on horribly aggravating already-existing religious & ethnic tensions.

Hell, in Germany's case, the populace was immediately confronted with its own bad judgment; after all, the Nazis rose to power through elections (albeit including exceptionally dirty pool). There was a moment of "Wow, we really screwed up" for Japan and Germany that simply isn't there for Iraq, which was taken over by a dictator that most people legitimately hated, and for Afghanistan which as been fractured for decades.

I can't see a reason to believe that "humanitarian interventions" are inherently a bad idea, even when they involve lots of bombing. Situations have to be considered individually, though.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:42 AM on March 30, 2011


The article seems to be written in the style of a film voiceover, rather than an essay.

Yeah, all his blog posts read that way. I'm hoping it's a sign Curtis is limbering up to turn them all into another brilliant/revelatory/manipulative/infuriating movie.
posted by jack_mo at 10:50 AM on March 30, 2011


Maybe the rhetoric is different in Europe, but I have not seen anyone make the claim that the West ought to intervene in Libya for humanitarian reasons, meaning not taking sides, its a neutral, apolitical intervention that's just about protecting the innocents.

It's obvious that what's happening in Libya is not a humanitarian disaster, but a political revolution similar to other revolutions taking place in the Arab world, and there's no possible way to mistake the fact that the West is taking sides, even if Henri-Levy plays up the bloodshed. Right now, the headline on Google News is "Rebels can't advance without air support." Is Adam Curtis is living in an alternate universe where this counts as "disinterested"?
posted by AlsoMike at 12:31 PM on March 30, 2011


It's obvious that what's happening in Libya is not a humanitarian disaster, but a political revolution similar to other revolutions taking place in the Arab world,

Enh... it really does seem like the protestors in Egypt and those in Bahrain and the ones before them in Tunisia were really just regular people who were fed up and decided to say, consequences be damned. A true people's movement if you will (although it looks like, for Egypt at least, this 'movement' was enabled by the military... they likely had their own motivations and we're still waiting to see how that is going to turn out).

However in Libya, almost immediately, there were organized military outfits - trained, and heavily armed. And shortly after they appeared, an internationally connected organization representing them and presenting themselves as the future government of Libya popped up. Soooo.... that makes Libya entirely different, at least from my perspective.

What's interesting in the whole thing, and I think the article brought it out, is that you have these layers:

- what the acting governments claim publicly their intentions to be
- what the actual intentions of all the various factions making up all the governments are, and how they played each of the other factions off of each other, and how all the factions were able to agree on the action, so long as it was announced to the public in the way that it was
- how much of the public has bought into the publicly given motivations / goals
- what the doubters in the public believe the true motivations / goals to be
- how the different governments and faction use the perceived beliefs (or doubts) of the public in order to leverage for the action they want
- how the balance between doubters and believers, and the various influence-wielding factions of the various governments changes over time...

... ad infinitum. It's a great big feedback loop.
posted by molecicco at 3:15 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Curtis has some interesting points, but I'm really wincing at the snide tone. Actually, he just sounds like some British snob who is dissing Médecins Sans Frontières only because they're French.

Athens sent their troops to support the Ionians in (checks Wikipedia) 498 BC. Let's hope it turns out better than that one did.

That turned out really badly for the city of Miletus, but Athens then became a small empire because they fought back successfully in The Persians Wars. Which eventually led to their defeat in The Peloponnesian Wars. Then Rome emerged. History marches on.
posted by ovvl at 7:36 PM on March 30, 2011


... ad infinitum. It's a great big feedback loop.

ah, now I see the self licking ice cream cone connection...
posted by infini at 3:13 AM on March 31, 2011


We have boots on the ground now. Our short, victorious war continues apace. Excelsior!
posted by Justinian at 4:38 PM on March 31, 2011


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