The best evidence, ironically, of Philip Gourevitch’s outsized influence on the issue of Central Africa (or at least of his belief in it) comes in his unmeasured response to this very measured and at all times respectful criticism of his work. At this late date, it seems to come as a surprise to Gourevitch that informed people could disagree with him, except perhaps as the result of an unholy cabal.
On that subject, let me just say that I had never heard of Tristan McConnell when he called me to request an interview for this article, whose preparation I had known nothing whatsoever about. Moreover, I initially resisted granting an interview because I have never thought it useful to personalize the discussion of the fates of millions of people, and to encourage a me versus him debate might do just that.
On substantive matters, Gourevitch definitively lost me on Central Africa
way back in October 1997, with a piece he wrote in The New Yorker titled
Stonewall Kabila. In it, he seems to argue against holding the new, Rwanda-backed government of Laurent Kabila in Congo to account for recent large-scale massacres of Hutu in that country. “It’s hard to imagine that anybody in the Congo stands to benefit from this test of wills,” he wrote, speaking of the UN’s efforts to pursue a doomed investigation into mass
graves. Tellingly, Gourevitch’s bile in this piece is reserved for the UN and by inference for sticklers for human rights. One detects very little energy and no outrage whatsoever on the subject of the atrocities themselves.
Congo’s history, however, provides an eloquent and deeply tragic
answer to Gourevitch’s question of whether anyone stands to benefit from a
test of wills over what might best be called impunity. With Gourevitch often providing rationales like those he marshaled in Stonewall Kabila, the international community sided with continued impunity the region, helping usher in a reign of bloodshed and mayhem in the Congo that by some estimates has cost that country over five million lives. As we know from recent reports from the United Nations, and might well have known, or even prevented at the time, these included several tens of thousands of Hutu, including Congolese (not Rwandan) Hutu, women, children and the elderly, who were systematically exterminated by Rwandan forces or their surrogates simply because they were Hutu.
We agree that when an article is to focus on somebody’s work, as this one was from the start, that person should be told that fact up front. We are sorry that our writer didn’t make his focus clear in this case. Beyond that, we understand that Gourevitch may not like the judgments and conclusions in “One Man’s Rwanda,” but it was thoroughly reported and meticulously fact-checked. As for Gourevitch’s notion that Howard French’s “work reads like a template for CJR’s piece about me,” and his suggestion that French, a member of our Board of Overseers, steered the piece: not true. The board did not exist when this piece was assigned and reported, nor did the editors know who would be on the board until the bulk of the editing was complete, nor did French have any bearing whatsoever on the direction of the piece beyond McConnell’s interview with him, one of many interviews. Finally, Gourevitch’s assertion that we invited him to respond because CJR is “on the defensive” is false. Any subject of any story in CJR is invited to respond anytime.