Philip Gourevitch, the wonderful writer and editor of the Paris Review, writes in the New Yorker this week about how America’s severly deminished stature as a beacon of human rights has damaged our ability to do something in Darfur. He should know; his book on the genocide in Rwanda – one of my all-time favorites – is for many the definitive account of that horrible, horrible time.

He also laments the rest of the world’s inability to focus on Darfur, and finds that, with the U.S. in no shape to intervene and the rest of the world apparently uninterested, we have nowhere to go:

At such times in the past, we turned to the community of nations, and although that proved, for the most part, a disappointing instrument, it is even more unsettling to find ourselves led by an Administration whose incompetent unilateralism has weakened America’s influence around the world. As the catastrophe in Darfur confronts us with the limitations of our power, the idea of a common international humanity appears as remote as ever.

So bleak. The Enlightenment gave us the mistaken notion that we are rational beings, and that the force of reason could sway us toward the “good” in the face of evil. In addition to lacking an awareness of the power of the unconscious, this worldview also assumes that we learn from our mistakes. As is clear in Darfur, in Congo, and elsewhere, we don’t. As Gourevitch points out, we didn’t intervene in WWII or Bosnia for humanitarian reasons; we intervened to stop regimes that were antithetical to our world dominance. And after the Holocaust, we let Cambodia and other atrocities happen without blinking an eye. Yet those that aren’t in power continue to work undiminished. They work at the grassroots, using tools that are cheap and available. Groups like Never Again adopt things like wikis. Will it always be up to them to fight the good fight?

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