This change.org post is not a very good description of the debate. It sounds like what Prendergast would’ve written had he been allowed to write a press release rather than actually debate Mamdani.
I agonized over the Huffington Post piece — I didn’t want to paint an overly critical picture of Prendergast’s performance just because I admire Mamdani’s critical thinking. And I don’t think I did a bad job — unlike other bloggers out there, I made no mention of Prendergast’s clothing, hairstyle or any other comments irrelevant to the debate. On the other hand, I also did not dwell on the people in the question-and-answer session who attacked Mamdani for a couple of reasons: (1) they seemed to be speaking with an agenda — not necessarily a bad thing, but their comments did not respond to what Mamdani had actually said and (2) in at least a couple of cases the questions were ugly personal attacks against Mamdani that he did not deserve. Speakers accused him of being a liar, a bad Muslim and basically complicit in the killings in Darfur. Whatever else you may say about him, Mamdani certainly does not deserve that kind of slander. I do not think it would have been valuable to repeat those things in my Huffington Post piece.
I have no doubt that those speakers who attacked Mamdani were speaking from a place of real emotional pain. However, because their comments did not correspond to what Mamdani actually said — he did not, for example, deny the suffering in Darfur, he just questioned Prendergast’s account of the scale of killing — it seemed to me that what they were really reacting to was seeing Save Darfur coming under attack. And I can understand that, because I’m sure as a refugee from Darfur it would feel as if the Save Darfur Coalition is your link to justice and an org that has done a lot for your cause, and it would feel terrible to see it come under attack.
The thing is, there are certainly interesting arguments to be made against Mamdani’s position. It’s just that Prendergast didn’t make them. One is that, whether or not Save Darfur has oversimplified (and in some cases gotten wrong) their description of the Darfur conflict, they have played a hugely important role in even putting Darfur on the map at all. Were it not for the movement — whatever its movitivations — I seriously doubt people would be having these high-profile discussions right now.
Prendergast could have said this in the debate. He didn’t. When the YouTube version of the debate is posted, it will speak for itself.
What would be interesting would be to see activists, who especially at the grassroots level are full of a lot of positive good will and good intentions, listen to some of the academic criticisms of Save Darfur and maybe take them into account in their activities. There was a sign of that in the debate’s Q-and-A, when a woman, who I believe was affiliated with Save Darfur, thanked Mamdani for his perspective and asked what he thought the effect of the ICC case would be on the prospects for peace.
Grassroots organizers are not image-obsessed robo-activists, and I hope debates like this will provoke a lot of thought in the community.