David Rieff – USA

Linked with our presentation of Cruel to be kind?.

He said: “It’s a very scary time. I think there was a lot of reason to be afraid that the post – Cold War world, the world of globalized, multinational capitalism, was going to be a lot less democratic anyway than what preceded it. And with terrorism, it seems to me the risk has now been ratcheted-up”.

He said also: “What’s happened is both on the right and the left has been a revival of this millenarian fantasy of American omnipotence. The human rights and humanitarian left thinks the United States can right all the wrongs in the world. And the hard Wilsonians, the right neoconservatives, think the United States can remake the world in its own image. Both of these things seem to me to fly in the face of history and reason. The United States is a great power, but no great power is omnipotent. That’s, again, why the human rights left scares me as much, if not more, than the Bush administration”. (Both on March 11, 2003 during the berkeley interview).

David Rieff – USA

He says about his book “Humanitarianism, the Human Rights Movement, and U.S. Foreign Policy”: … Humanitarian fills, as it were, an idealistic vacuum. Although it comes to prominence in the late sixties with the Biafran war, it really becomes an important idea in the eighties … In Europe, the great modern humanitarian movements — Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, and the like — are largely left-wing movements … and they are disenchanted. They are people who read Hannah Arendt and Solzhenitsyn. They are people for whom the God failed.

Humanitarian action, emergency relief, is a salvage operation in ideological terms. You no longer believe that you have a new system that will change the world. What you believe in is an ideal of human solidarity, of helping your neighbor. Since a lot of the Left by the sixties and seventies was concerned with the Third World, it’s interesting that these humanitarians are also concerned with the Third World, although, obviously, in terms of relief. So that’s one element. The paradoxical element is that humanitarianism could never have assumed this importance. It had these independent relief groups, these nongovernmental agencies, NGOs as the term of art has it. They could never have had the importance they have secured for themselves, without, as it were, the Thatcher-Reagan revolution, without the privatization of the world, the withdrawal of government from all these functions … (Read the whole long article on berkeley interview on March 11, 2003).

A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.
(From ‘A Bed for the Night’ by Bertolt Brecht, which has given the title for his book).

Excerpt from an Interview with Robert Birnbaum, of identity theory: … I don’t think people confused your book with Kurt Vonnegut’s novel. DR: Probably it was a mistake. But what the hell. I did not know the Brecht poem, but I always find writers from that period bracing because they were so unsentimental. And the poem does in some way recapitulate the arguments in the book. It says there’s this wonderful thing, this fellow raising money to get homeless people a shelter for a night on a snowy evening and that’s fantastic and at the same time it’s not going to bring about some fundamental change in anything. The trouble is you have to read my book to see why the poem recapitulates the whole book …

Read also the article ‘dangerous pity‘.

David Rieff graduated from Princeton University in 1978, and was a Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux from 1978–1989, working with such authors as Joseph Brodsky, Elias Canetti, Carlos Fuentes, Alberto Moravia, Les Murray, Philip Roth, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Marguerite Yourcenar. Since leaving FSG, Rieff has pursued a career as a nonfiction writer and policy analyst. His books have focused on issues of immigration, international conflict, and humanitarianism. He has published numerous articles in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais, The New Republic, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, The Nation among other publications. (Read the rest of this article on wikipedia).

His father is University of Pennsylvania sociologist Philip Rieff, the author, most notably, of Freud: The Mind of A Moralist. His mother is essayist, novelist, filmmaker, and political activist Susan Sontag, as iconic an intellectual as our resolutely anti-intellectual culture is ever likely to recognize. David, the only child of their brief marriage, may well prove to be the most influential member of the family. He is certainly the most visible, holding forth in the pages of everything from the Wall Street Journal to the New Republic to Salmagundi. More than any other journalist, Rieff has tried to mold the lessons of Bosnia and Rwanda into a coherent worldview. For him, these wars exposed the political bankruptcy and strategic incompetence not only of Western governments but, even more starkly, of the international do-gooder establishment – the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the proliferating nongovernmental organizations that provide relief on the ground in times of emergency. (Read more about on Slate).

Read the entire bio of David Rieff here on Università degli Studi di Siena


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