Tom Malinowski’s April fool’s fletter of resignation from Human Rights Watch is making its rounds and appearing too often on my Facebook page, so I decided to read it. It’s very clever.
Disclosure: I was a consultant to Human Rights Watch from the mid-1990s until 2003, and love everything about the organization: its unique energy and messianic charge, its scrupulous adherence to the facts, its eclectic composition.
What I remember most about Malinowski, who assumed the mantle of director of Human Rights Watch’s fledgling Washington office upon leaving the Clinton administration, was his smile. It is one of those patent Washington looks, one that is intended to be like all other Washington smiles, that is, one that hides – even substitutes for – real felicitation or emotion. Tom’s smile isn’t unique, he hardly invented it, but when I saw it arrive, I thought two things: how strange for HRW, how … clean cut, and then I thought, it’s finally happened: Washington has triumphed over New York, what it relevant in Congress or the administration or in establishing “relationships” with Washington decision-makers and opinion-shapers now reigns supreme. This is not to say that the Manhattan culture and its sense of superiority in all matters of intellect or style or being the true elite is superior, only that the tides were shifting.
Human Rights Watch is a non-profit organization, a powerful one no doubt, but it is neither a republic nor an elected representative. It is a pressure group, pure and simple, and like it or not, it survives and thrives on two realities: one, that it’s definition of, indeed appropriation of, human rights, provides an infinite mandate; and two, that it’s global reach supplies unlimited fodder. There is always more to be done, and in a world of humans, a never-ending abundance to be corrected.
Malinowski’s April fool’s conceit is that without “genocide, torture, and repression,” and [the lack of] “respect for the dignity of all men and women,” human rights challenges might disappear. In other words, without war, repression, or injustice, “everything that gives meaning and richness to our lives” might be destroyed: We might be all content and happy, corporate and resigned. Ha, ha. Nice joke.
I guess one can joke about the mission, even needs to joke given the life-and-death pressures, in that same way that those various Correspondent’s Dinners and roasts bring together political enemies who back slap and drink and yuck it up, putting aside whatever for an evening, put it aside to show that they are not extremists, an act necessary to participate in the ruling class, which in the political world is mostly invisible but is one that also confers membership based upon the maintenance of that smile and the adherence to the rules of decorum no matter which side of the aisle one sits or how fervently one takes ones cause.
The system works perfectly, and attendance at some dinner usually ensures an exchange of mental if not physical business cards and appointment later on just as long as one sticks to the script. There are the exceptions like when Dick Cheney called Patrick Leahy a fucker. And there are occasional true violations, such as when comedian Gilbert Gottfried got his ass kicked just days after 9/11 when he appeared at a Friars Club roast and made a terrorism joke: “I have to leave early tonight, I have to fly out to L.A. I couldn’t get a direct flight, I have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.”
But seriously folks, I’ll be here all week: Human rights, the business of human rights, seems awfully similar to, in fact symbiotic with, the forever war on terrorism and the permanent national security establishment; they are the gifts that keeps on giving. Progress is measured with hinky metrics, one down, one up, this year better than last, lawyers and apparatchiks who understand exactly how to operate, all protected by a never-surrender perseverance and a sense of mission conferred by higher beings. April Fools indeed.