Beyond Afro-Pessimism

In "The United States of Africa," the Djibouti-born novelist Abdourahman Waberi imagines a topsy-turvy world where a sorry stream of refugees flows from the squalor of Europe and America to escape poverty in the prosperous United States of Africa. Like an African Voltaire, Waberi uses the weapon of satire to raze a Western myth that has come to imprison Africans: that of the eternal African victim.

Ironically, this myth of African victimhood emerged in Western political thought at the same moment that Africa achieved political liberation. As the French writer Pascal Bruckner trenchantly described in "The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt," beginning in the 1960s, European and American journalists and intellectuals, motivated by deep feelings of post-colonial guilt, began to create narratives of the suffering and persecuted Third World victim. This "celluloid suffering" quickly became a form of voyeurism, a pageant of death for a worldwide audience.

The popular storyline of the basket-case African continent -- one mired in strange pathologies such as "resource curses," "poverty traps," and "blood diamonds" -- hasn't changed much since the 1960s. Today its chief purveyors are glamorous celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie and Bono, as well as human rights and aid groups, which traffic in the pornography of poverty and misery, partly to maintain plump budgets.

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