August 19, 2017

Clooneyization of the South Sudan story

The New York Times, which has two correspondents in Sudan right now, chose – on South Sudan’s independence – to run a story from there that starts and ends with George Clooney, who is not in Sudan right now.

JUBA, Sudan — On the desk in his office in Juba, the capital of what will soon be the world’s newest country, R. Barrie Walkley, the American consul general, has a telling picture. It is of him and George Clooney shaking hands in a crowd during the independence referendum here in southern Sudan in January.

The photograph offers a unique window into what is happening now. American celebrities and religious groups teamed up with policy makers and helped a forlorn underdog region finally achieve what very few separatist movements achieve: independence.

Having just splattered about this on twitter, I feel I should write a more thoughtful response – especially because Gettleman and Kron often do a good job at putting Sudanese voices in Sudanese stories, as evidenced by this piece that ran on Thursday, so I don’t want to come across as this being an attack on them generally.

I also want to start by fronting up that my reaction against this framing was perhaps so violent in part because of a dilemma I just went through deciding to write my own – ‘here’s what the U.S. contributed‘ – story for The Atlantic today.

Today marks the birth of the world’s newest nation. The Republic of South Sudan has gained its independence from Sudan after decades of bloody civil war, and southern Sudanese around the world are celebrating. So too are their allies. And there are few outside Sudan who are likely to be more pleased than a tight group of U.S. Congressional representatives who have sustained their efforts on Sudan for over two decades.

Moreover aspects of my story [e.g. "  . .  an unlikely activist coalition, formed years before the more high-profile Save Darfur movement. The southern Sudan cause brought evangelicals into alliance with African American, Jewish, and secular activist groups."] are in the NYT story as well.

I went back and forth on whether to do it and decided in favor. Factors influencing my decision were that I do think there is newsworthiness in pointing out the role that a relatively small group of Americans have played in supporting the cause of peace in Sudan for over two decades, especially for an American audience. I wouldn’t have written a book on this question of the impact American advocacy has had on Sudan policy if I didn’t think it was a  important question. In addition, we so often think of activism as something that demands “instant” success. Twenty years of advocacy can seem like too long of a timeline on which to yield an investment for many donors out there today – let alone activists who are of the digital native generation – so it’s a good reminder that real change takes generations and it is due to the combined efforts of very many people each playing a small part (which, on an only slightly tangential note, is why the documentary Granito should be compulsory viewing for all activists). The role of a handful of U.S. Congressmen and their allies is one such small but vital part of the South Sudan story.

Finally, as I explained here, I am reporting today from New York, not Sudan. Were I in Sudan today my choice would have been different.

So having got all that off my chest, here is my problem with the NYT story: To begin with, in a report out of Juba, they start and end with George Clooney. And George Clooney is not even there today! My general position, and hear me clearly so this is not misunderstood as a rant against celebrity activism, is that celebrity engagement can be extremely helpful. After all, I asked Mia Farrow to write the Foreword to my book (she writes more powerfully than anyone I know and I admire how she has tried to approach her Darfur advocacy over the past 7 years  by spending weeks at a time in the region, without any fanfare, speaking to local actors).

When students ask, I tell two Clooney stories about reporting from Sudan which show though how celebrity involvement can go two ways. The first is a positive story. I tried reporting from Abyei before anyone mainstream was doing it and my pitches kept being rejected by editors who thought, of everything going on in Sudan, Abyei was not “newsworthy” enough (At the time it was a prevention story – no one had died yet). Then George Clooney turned up late last year. And suddenly, Abyei was on the mainstream map. Now you can bitch all you like about the state of American culture that we need a movie star to direct our attention to worthwhile issues, but that’s the reality we are living in. So unless you are working on a project to change that, then you should probably just be grateful that rather than choosing to spend his time on a yacht in the Caribbean, he was investing his time in Sudan knowing full well the press would follow. Good George Clooney story. The counter-story comes from the January referendum for which the worldwide media descended on Juba. And then so did Clooney. Far from Abyei a year ago, there was no way the January vote was going to go unnoticed. All adding Clooney into the mix did was to ensure that half the press pool spent their time chasing Clooney, rather than focusing on Sudanese voices. In other words Clooney’s engagement was a distraction from the issues rather than an amplifier of the issues – as it had been in Abyei.

So against all this background you can see why I was happy to learn that Clooney decided not to attend the independence day celebrations. I don’t know if he didn’t go because he was worried he would be a distraction, or if he just had something else to do – it  doesn’t matter – but what I thought was, well at least we don’t run the risk of having a multi-generational liberation struggle be reduced into a Clooney story. And that is why I am so disappointed that the New York Times (not People magazine, the New York Times!) just proved me wrong.

Bad enough that I think that’s time invested poorly when reporting from Sudan (a critique that should be contextualized around the fact that this is not what they usually do in their Sudan reporting). And I wouldn’t be surprised if George Clooney, who seems to have been genuinely interested in Sudan for a while doesn’t think so too. But it also just doesn’t make sense as a story.

Clooney has been involved in Darfur since 2006, but has only focused his advocacy on South Sudan* over the past year. Now it seems the most high-profile newspaper in America is either: happy for readers to conflate one part of Sudan with a totally different part (indeed now with a totally different country. He was doing something on Sudan wasn’t he? What, you mean Darfur doesn’t get independence today? huh??). Or: happy to give readers the impression that short-term celebrity engagement is a crucial component of achieving success. Neither message is accurate or helpful.

They include several quotes from the man who is now the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Juba, Barrie Walkley, including the following:

“Would this have taken place without celebrities?” Mr. Walkley, the consul general, asked. “I think the celebrities had a lot to do with it.”

This is simply not true. Sudanese, first and foremost, in addition to a core group of Americans, and many others globally, worked on this for two decades and got right to the point where Sudan agreed to let southern Sudanese have a self-determination referendum before any American celebrity took up their cause. The same is not true of Darfur of course, but the question before Walkley is what it took to get to this point in South Sudan.

This is not about what good Clooney has or has not done in Sudan. It is about the choice to frame your story around him, when he is not even there, and thereby lay his short shadow over the long story of the liberation movement.  And it feels particularly egregious to do so on a day that marks the independence of a people who have fought for generations, and lost two million of their own, to the struggle.

*This reflects a correction from what I originally wrote. Originally I wrote “but only set foot in South Sudan for the first time last year.” @noahgo on twitter corrected me, noting that Clooney did visit Southern Sudan (to speak with Darfuris)  – as part of a trip to Darfur and Chad – in 2006. The point stands that his focus on South Sudan came more recently than that, but even if he had been doing nothing but South Sudan advocacy since the CPA was signed, it still remains a short shadow against the backdrop of the long liberation struggle.

Comments

  1. DS says:

    This should have been a Tweet, not a blog post.

  2. Pamela Yates says:

    Thanks for adding the clarity of this perspective to the complex role celebrities play and do not play in political struggles. And for highlighting the heroism of the Sudanese people who never gave up on the possibility for achieving national liberation.

  3. Paco says:

    Way to go Bec!! I couldn’t agree more. And thanks for the “Granito” mention.

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