Millennial Humanitarians:

Public Intellectuals, Celebrity Culture, and the Case of Darfur


Kerry Bystrom

December 2010


**Draft Copy—Not for circulation or citation without permission**



About halfway through Dave Eggers’ encyclopedic novel What is the What (2006), written collaboratively with the Sudanese “Lost Boy” Valentino Achak Deng to chronicle his experience in Sudan and in the United States, the protagonist Valentino finds himself face to face with a police officer in Atlanta, Georgia—the city where he has been resettled. He called the police after his apartment was broken into and he was beaten and robbed by three African-American crooks in his apartment; his roommate Achor Achor found him bound and bleeding on the floor. The officer dispatched to deal with the situation, described as “a small Asian woman, dressed in half of a police uniform” (2006: 236), pays little attention to the case and notes Deng’s story perfunctorily in her notebook until she discovers that he is from Sudan. It is then that “her eyes come alive” (2006: 237). “Wait,” she says, “Darfur, right?...So were you part of the genocide? Victims of that?” (2006: 238). When she learns that Valentino and Achor Achor were not from Darfur, she quickly loses interest, and wraps up her investigation by handing them a “complaint card” (2006: 238) that clearly signals her desire to hear no more of their complaints.

This vignette dramatizes one all too typical reaction to the misfortunes of others. What kind of imaginative and visual paradigms allow us to feel invested in the abstract idea of a “humanitarian crisis”—particularly one that can be described through the highly affective term “genocide”—at the exact same time that we refuse to help an actual person in need of psychological, medical or legal assistance? What does it mean that one group of people suffering from a disaster in a certain part of the world—Sudanese people from Darfur—is more worthy of attention than other people threatened by the same crisis, or other people suffering in similar ways from different causes? Today, I will address these questions by examining two texts: Ted Braun’s documentary film Darfur Now (2007) and Don Cheadle and John Prendergast’s book Not On Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond (2007). As we will see, these texts shed light on the outlines and the closures of popular activism around Darfur in the period of 2004-8, when the Save Darfur movement reached its height. They also allow us to explore the role of celebrities in this campaign, as it became enmeshed with the work of artists, political activists and public intellectuals. I will suggest, if somewhat implicitly, that these older social roles have substantially blurred as diverse public figures have transformed themselves into what I call “millennial humanitarians”—media personalities who use their access to publicity to draw attention to “worthy” causes in ways they allege will promote human dignity around the world.[i] While there are important critiques to be made of this phenomenon, some of which I will detail below, I will also ask us to move beyond critique to consider the possibilities that open as the lines between celebrity and philanthropy, public and private, and high and low culture, are redrawn.


Darfur Now, directed by Ted Braun and produced by Don Cheadle, is a documentary film that charts the work done by six individuals to stop what they adamantly term “genocide.” The six individuals are: Hejewa Adam, a woman fighting for the SLA, one of the two major rebel forces in Darfur; Ahmed Mohammed Abaka, a Sudanese man who has been selected as the head sheik of his refugee camp; Luis Moreno Ocampo, the flamboyant prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; Pablo Recalde, the head of the regional office of the World Food Program; Adam Sterling, an American student activist from a family of Holocaust survivors who spearheaded the Sudanese divestment campaign in the State of California; and Cheadle, star of many films including Hotel Rwanda.[ii] By narrating the personal, often intimate stories of these six “upstanders” (rather than “bystanders”—this is Samatha Powers’ term, echoed by Cheadle) the film works not only to raise awareness about the facts of President Omar al-Bashir’s brutal counterinsurgency program in the Darfur region, but also to model active response to this situation, whether this means facilitating dialogue between people in the camps, lobbying American politicians or prosecuting Sudanese officials for war crimes.

            The dual goals of awareness raising and shaping avenues for active response are even more evident in Not On Our Watch, a book that serves as a companion piece to the film. It is mentioned in the film (as the film is mentioned in the book) and has a partially overlapping set of reference points and cameos, including George Clooney, Nicholas Kristof and Samantha Powers. Instead of spotlighting the work of six activists, the book draws readers in by sharing the stories of its two authors: Don Cheadle and John Prendergast. After various introductory materials, it takes shape as a set of personal reflections or diary entries that detail how each author became involved in Darfur and describe the emotional and other challenges of activism. Prendergast, who served as a foreign policy advisor to President Bill Clinton between working for NGOs like the International Crisis Group and before founding the Enough Project, a movement to stop genocide and crimes against humanity, first traveled to Africa as a college student in response to pictures from the Ethiopian famines of 1983 and 1985. Unable to get a visa to enter Ethiopia, he found volunteer work in Mali. He has been engaged in development and human rights issues on the African continent ever since. If Prendergast decided to make Africa his cause after seeing a series of images in the newspaper and on television, Cheadle became involved in activism by making such images—specifically, by playing the role of real-life hero Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda. (The way in which playing a human rights defender enables Cheadle to re-fashion himself as an activist is quite spectacular.) After moving through these personal stories, defined in the book as “two paths out of apathy,” the reader is provided with historical context about the situation in Darfur, introduced to many other NGOs, and given pointers on activist strategy.

            As these brief descriptions may imply, both texts are embedded in an on-going struggle over the content and the form of contemporary human rights and humanitarian campaigns. On the one hand, their authors and directors seem to be aware of some major pitfalls that have hampered advocacy in the past. One (and here I draw on the work of scholars such as Tom Keenan and Alicia Solomon) is the fallacy that knowledge of violence leads to action that might stop said violence. Knowledge, we have seen again and again, often leads merely to indifference. A variant of this fallacy is that exposure to images of atrocity will generate empathy, which will then generate an active response. Even if images or stories of suffering do generate empathetic connections rather than “compassion fatigue,” it may be that this very empathy promotes a cathartic release that makes action less rather than more likely (Dawes 2007: 192-99, 208). Both the film and the book do not stop at representing a horrific situation and assume that the spectator or reader will react, but also model responses to the situation that that the spectator or reader can emulate. They do this often through channeling identification not with “victims” but with humanitarian agents, along lines proposed by Joey Slaughter (2009) in his reading of Red Cross founder Henri Dunant’s Memory of Solferino. Of course not every college student can follow the example of Prendergast of picking up and flying to Mali or Sterling in creating a local divestment campaign, but the book in particular is careful to lay out a series of small steps that pretty much anybody could do. These practical tips—write a letter, join an organization, etc—are one of the key selling points of the book, as indicated by the blurb on the front cover: “includes six things you can do to stop the genocide today.” (It sounds like a joke but I think we have to take these attempts to make major global crises comprehensible and actionable seriously).

            If they navigate around one pitfall by attempting to promote “interactivity” in the American public, however, they may run into another as they reproduce a problematic narrative pattern common to human rights and humanitarian advocacy: the “fairy tale” rescue narrative (De Waal 1997).[iii] David Rieff asserts that popular portrayals of aid work tend to conjure up a context-less “humanitarian tragedy-land—a world of wicked warlords, suffering and innocent victims, and noble aid workers” (2001: 33, italics in original). Makua Mutua (2001) famously drew attention to the racial implications of this story of knights, warlords and victims when he described the motivating narrative of human rights as that of (white) saviors rescuing (brown) victims from (brown) savages. His “Savages-Victims-Saviors” or S-V-S paradigm has become ubiquitous in critical human rights studies, especially in work seeking to highlight the neo-colonial thrust of human rights discourse. Mahmood Mamdani, speaking specifically about Darfur, draws together many elements of these arguments in his biting criticism of the Save Darfur movement. He decries the movement’s substitution of a compelling moral narrative for that of concrete historicization, suggests that this narrative leads it to pursue erroneous strategic objectives, and characterizes one such objective—intervention in Darfur—as a pathway to recreating a global system of trusteeship that endangers the independence of Africa (2009: 300). His assessment meshes nicely with that of prominent policy analyst Alex de Waal, who similarly argues that Save Darfur has created support for policies that are unlikely to empower Darfurians or to generate permanent solutions, although he allocates blame not to a hidden neo-colonial agenda but to the ethos of “celebrity humanitarianism” surrounding the campaign (2008: 44).

            These critiques cannot be applied in a cookie-cutter fashion to all events and representations associated with the Save Darfur movement, of which the film and the book represent two discrete but interconnected instances. Darfur Now and Not On Our Watch, for instance, can be seen to challenge the racial coding of the S-V-S paradigm. Darfur Now presents Darfurians not only as victims, but also as individuals who take an active role in improving their situations alongside international aid workers. Further, in both the film and the book, Cheadle, as an African-American, can only uneasily be positioned as the white “savior”; if he is a millionaire and protected by his stardom and his American citizenship, he is also a member of an oppressed minority. At the very least, his work creates the opportunity to publicly debate the question of why he would choose to focus on Darfur rather than using his time and money to address issues within the African-American community or otherwise closer to home—a critique which I think is misguided but needs to be addressed if we are to clear the space necessary to confront the realities of global interconnection.

In other ways, though, Darfur Now and Not On Our Watch replicate rather than challenge the core assumptions of the S-V-S paradigm, depicting Darfur as a place of ahistorical crisis better thought of in terms of myth or fantasy than as a concrete geopolitical territory connected to the Sudan, the rest of the Africa and even the United States through a series of concrete historical and institutional entanglements—and as such, as a place waiting to be “saved” by heroic Western activists. The film contains sequences where people from Darfur beg for the international community to intervene as if it will be the magical solution to all their problems. For his part, Prendergast refers to superheroes like Batman and Captain America to describe his motivation for dong aid work, while Cheadle presents the Schindler-like Rusesabagina as his almost superhuman inspiration. The reference to Schindler was not accidental, since replacing the general fairy-tale rescue narrative in this case is the narrative of stopping the Holocaust or Rwanda from happening again. The ur-story underlying Darfur Now and Not On Our Watch is that Darfur is a repetition of these earlier genocides. The book begins with a foreword by Elie Wiesel, comparing the violence in Darfur to that of the Nazi Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, and then lays out the following moral platform: “We believe it is our responsibility to re-sanctify the sacred post-Holocaust phrase ‘Never again’—to make it something meaningful and vital” (2007: 6).  Charts map the likeness between the cases (2007: 84-5) and the book is full of statements like: “To us, Darfur has been Rwanda in slow motion” (2007: 5). Faced with a reiteration of events that have been portrayed in Western culture as the site of “absolute human evil,” a person’s only ethical response can be that of immediate intervention. It is in this sense, by stepping in to stop the Holocaust from recurring, that activists can “save” Darfur. And doing so would indeed be a heroic enterprise.

            The actual parallels between Darfur, Rwanda and the Holocaust are the subject of some debate, and (as I mentioned above) critics including but not limited to De Waal and Mamdani argue that portraying the crisis in these terms led activists and politicians to embrace interventionism when this may not have been productive. It also elevates the significance of Darfur above all other human misery. Turning this critique around, or phrasing it in a positive manner, we might say that it would be possible to craft a more productive activist narrative. Such a narrative would focus less on “saving” Darfurians and be more conscious of the limitations of US diplomacy and UN intervention as a permanent solution to humanitarian crises. It would pay more attention to the historical roots of the violence in the region, from the policies of colonial bureaucrats that created the ethic identities that have since become polarized to the Cold War proxy battles that flooded the region with advanced weaponry. It would also focus more clearly on the key issue at stake in the violence—access to land—and emphasize internally negotiated political solutions.[iv] Further, such a narrative might speak to the vignette with which I began this paper, showing that Darfur cannot be isolated from the rest of Sudan, and that attending to the needs of Sudanese victims of the civil war should be no less crucial than caring for the victims of genocide, or indeed respecting the dignity of fellow human beings everywhere. The imaginative geographical line between here (this society, in which suffering is always justified by some action of the sufferer) and there (where our job is to rescue the innocent victims suffering from violence, when this violence gets bad enough) needs not to be blurred but to be erased, toward the end of creating new mental and material geographies of interconnection, equality and solidarity.

            I would suggest, though, that we not be too hasty in dismissing the utility of celebrities in this process. De Waal argues that that the endless desire for publicity of celebrities—especially Hollywood celebrities like Cheadle and Clooney who play the role of heros, but also what he terms “celebrity humanitarians” or what I call other “millennial humanitarians” such as Prendergast or Bernard Kouchner—leads them to favor actions that look and sound good but are not effective on the ground (2008: 44, 50). I’m not sure that this necessarily has to be the case. Prendergast’s more recent work with Clooney and Google to set up a satellite system to monitor violence on the Southern Sudan border, suggest that celebrities can spearhead projects capable of creating new and potentially powerful identifications and material ties between domestic American constituencies and communities around the world.[v] We might also turn again to Eggers. Shortly before the passage with which I began today, Valentino wonders about the existence of Jane Fonda, the woman whose money supported the Lost Boys Foundation and hence helped to finance his life in the US, but who is known to him only through the mysterious pictures of her in the Lost Boys Foundation office. Here “Jane Fonda was in very small outfits, exercise clothing, pink and purple,” and Valentino comments: “She seemed to be a very active woman” (2006: 163).  If her identity and motives are a mystery, and made comedic through Eggers’ portrayal of Valentino’s very bewilderment, Fonda’s actions are nevertheless seen as beneficial. And Eggers’ own skillful manipulation of celebrity and publicity, first generated through the success of his confessional A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and extended to create complex yet accessible depictions of crises from Sudan to New Orleans, not to mention funding literacy projects for children in San Francisco and administering micro-loans in Africa, suggests that capitalizing on fame can create useful “meshworks” of advocacy (Schaffer and Smith 2004: 8) and help forge innovative modes of linking thought and action (Small 2002: 4).[vi]

To conclude in a provocative manner, then, and to bring these comments to bear even more directly on theme of this panel: it seems to me that, over the past decade and a half, public intellectuals have become increasingly invested in humanitarian issues, humanitarian aid workers and activists have become celebrities, and celebrities have taken the place of public intellectuals, and that this fluidity is something we in the academy might want to work with rather than to fight against.[vii] Otherwise, we may end up more marginalized from vital public debates than we already are. Thank you.







Works Cited.


Cheadle, Don and John Prendergast. Not On Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond. New York: Hyperion: 2007.


Comaroff, Jean and John Comaroff. “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming” Public Culture 12.2 (2000): 291-343.


Darfur Now. Directed by Ted Braun. USA: 2007.


Dawes, James. That The World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.


De Waal, Alex. Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa. Oxford: James Currey, 1997.


De Waal, Alex. “The Humanitarian Carnival.” World Affairs, 2008.


Eggers, Dave. What Is The What: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 2006.


Keenan, Thomas. “Publicity and Indifference (Sarajevo on Television),” PMLA 117.1 (2002): 104-116.


Oliver, Sophie. “Simulating the Ethical Community: Interactive Game Media and Engaging Human Rights Claims,” Culture, Theory and Critique 51.1 (2010): 93-108.


Mamdani, Mahmood.  Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror. New York: Doubleday, 2009.


Mutua, Makua. “Savages, Victims and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights,” Harvard International Law Journal 42, 2001.


Rieff, David. A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2001.


Schaffer, Kay and Sidonie Smith. Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.


Slaughter, Joseph R. “Humanitarian Reading.” In Humanitarianism and Suffering. Ed. Richard A. Wilson and Richard D. Brown. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.


Small, Helen. “Introduction.” The Public Intellectual. Ed. Helen Small. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.


Solomon, Alicia. “Who gets to be human on the evening news?” PMLA 121.5 (October 2006).




[i] The term “millennial” is meant in multiple senses, and is something that I am still fleshing out. It functions as a temporal description but also as a reference to Jean and John Comaroff’s (2000) theory of “millennial capitalism.” I see millennialism capitalism as one of the key factors shaping the spectacular culture of humanitarian crisis to which the actors I describe here respond.

[ii] These individuals, along with many others ranging from Matt Damon to Elie Wiesel, some listed below, each form nodes in what Schaffer and Smith (2004: 8) call the “meshwork” of advocacy that gets formulated around specific causes; they work together and separately in a variety of overlapping events and representations.

[iii] For an analysis of the importance of interactivity, structured around a reading of human rights video games like Darfur is Dying, see Oliver (2010).

[iv] These are arguments made throughout De Waal (2008) and Mamdani (2009).

[v] See the Satellite Sentinel project at <> 

[vi] For information on Eggers, see Rachel Cooke, “Dave Eggers: From ‘staggering genius’ to America’s conscience,” The Observer March 7, 2010, available online at: <>

[vii] Helen Small suggests a need to resist defining the public intellectual as “those who influence public policy more directly by acting as advisers to government and members of think tanks, government commissions and policy committees” (2002: 4), and distinguishes public intellectuals who “espouse a notion of action justified by thought” from “mere politician[s] or pundit[s]” (2002: 6-7). I wouldn’t want to argue that political activism requires a surrender of thought, or that public intellectuals should not become engaged in policy analysis, which is one of our most pressing public concerns.