Manufacturing blood diamonds and other mocking stones

3 January 2008 at 22:10 | 1432 views

A philosophical review/essay on de Caprio’s Blood Diamond.

By Elvis Gbanabom Hallowell.

“Sometimes I wonder whether God will forgive us for what we have done to each other...God left this place a long time ago.”
Danny Archer as acted by Leonardo de Caprio

Finda was born in Kono, Sierra Leone’s diamond zone, but until she was 18 years old, she did not set eyes on a diamond. Although most of her relatives live, breathe and thirst for diamonds, and fantasize all the time to her about how they would shake the pillars of the earth with wealth on the day they happen upon a giant stone, Finda’s first contact with a diamond was when an unassuming American lover, whose mission to Sierra Leone she didn’t know, placed a sand-like object in her palm (meanwhile her relatives continue to bask in chronic persistent poverty).

When he told her that it was a diamond, Finda only retorted, asking if it was the tiny object that had all the fuss about it. That night they made love, and while Finda gave all her body and soul to the affair so that she can carve a charm in the heart of the American, to hurriedly file the papers for her to travel to the United States, that country that, in her dream, could be the only place where “diamonds” really grow, the American went for the ultimate erotica associated with the pleasures of finality, wealth and accomplishment. When the two detached and separated after the affair, the possibility of their paths crossing again was flung to a probability of one in a million chances. Blood Diamond was made, with its attendant herculean tasks undertaken by a white foreign merchant, with a utilitarian perspective: that, in the perception of the West, and as a furtherance of their policing of world matters, the readiness to make sacrifices, the highest virtue can be found in the culture of the West.

There are a million unassuming Westerners roving through the streets of Angola and Sierra Leone, in time of war or peace, looking deeply into the bottom of these vulnerable countries, waiting to find diamonds. A million more middle easterners, mostly Syrians and Lebanese are sitting in front shops, coordinating the dirty affair of illicit mining under the noses of African leaders, who had in the first place signed papers of legitimacy for these Martians of predators.

By the same mathematical token, thousands of unschooled, unfed, uncared-for underage boys are shaking the wash-pans in large awkward pits by day and by night to search out diamonds for their impatient abusers. Whatever the reason for making the movie, Blood Diamond, an ambitious atomizing creation, the producers failed to delay the cameras, to capture the first port of human rights abuse, when they only glossed over the wash-pan shaking boys and instead, dwelled on war captive and diamond slave, Solomon vandi and his discovery of a large diamond he skillfully hid between his toes and later buried in a place only he knew. In search of this treasure, the picture zoomed to the white foreign merchant, Danny Archer visiting war torn Sierra Leone and who had gotten wind of Solomon’s diamond and would dare every bloody scene to reach the stone.

The trouble with Blood Diamond is that its metaphorical substance as promised in its title sagged under a mundane storyline. A movie carrying such a title should have several anecdotes of antithetical episodes to its storyline because real conflicts are as a result of human paradoxes. But instead what we see are two storylines: one of civil conflict not properly developed, and another of dirty business deals and both stories fail to intertwine. This calls into question as to whether the West is insinuating that the Sierra Leone civil conflict was fought over diamonds, or was fueled by diamonds. But of course the movie did not provide an answer.

Meanwhile, in the daily wait for diamonds, merchants and warlords, to kill the time, and coax their impatience, continue to pull the virgin skirts of the many unsuspecting Findas, pouring into their flesh only to draw out the first blood of defilement. Every so often cases of this nature occur in the heartland of Angola, Sierra Leone, and the DRC. While the diamondiferous relationships that forge between the white foreign merchants and the indigenes glitter with radiance, it lacks every cascamite of commercial goodwill. Let us immediately bring in the circumstances of the ethic of justice to our narration. All the while we have in mind the metaphor of blood as we follow Danny Archer, the white merchant and Solomon Vandi, the local farmer turned digger of diamonds into the pit where the dialogue of exploitation has made bedfellows of people with nothing in common, only that one of the two, Archer (the Westerner) is reaching for a manger, Vandi the other, as a dog (the Southerner) knows not how to lie in.

John Rawls refers to the relationship I have described above as “the subjective circumstance,” and in this case, the diamonds in the south, a possession of the Africans, and an envy of the Westerners have humbled the two to associate, albeit in a strange bedfellow manner. What metaphor of blood can we discern in relationships of subjective circumstances? The connotation to blood here is similar to the one I made above about merchants and innocent Findas. In discussing subjective circumstance further, Rawls writes that the “plans and conceptions of good, lead them (parties) to have different ends and purposes, and to make conflicting claims to the natural and social resources available.” In this regard the good Samaritan-ism of Archer is at once problematic. He presents himself as a man concerned about helping Vandi trace back and reunite with his family, but his intention is to locate Vandi’s diamond buried somewhere that only Vandi knows where. At once it is clear that an absence of conceptions of good is itself a recipe for disaster. Thus in this case we can push Rawls’ quotation further, to talk about bad blood and good blood. Further down the page, Mill makes a point that undermines the goodwill effort of Archer and the moralizing of the West, appropriate to the international circumstances surrounding African conflict diamonds. Mill writes that

The utilitarian morality does recognize in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted.

A number of false paradigms run through the movie that collectively negate the first half of Mill’s statement. Archer opting to help Vandi reunite with his family cannot be reasoned as a man given to utilitarian morality. For it is ironical that, Archer who has by now become the quintessential American gun-slinging hero could kill other Africans at will, and without the slightest camera-image of remorse. But also and perhaps more importantly, is that while the metaphor of blood is glaring in the African fields, in the West, the movie falsifies reality and instead “manufactures”, and creates a haven of sane men (only capable of existing outside Africa, so to speak) of sound judgment away from the troubled continent, who care about the atrocities related to diamonds on the African continent. There are greedy faces in the West, of conglomerate interest on whom the camera should have turned, to capture their miserly relationships to African diamonds if the metaphor of blood and the genesis of the conflict were really intended to be exposed. Therefore, in utilitarian terms, the sacrifice is problematic, being that it is both not good and also wasted.

When the ultimate result of morality becomes only a deontological concern then the goodness in the will Kant is concerned about can only be enjoyed, and even there not in any utilitarian manner, by the inanimate concepts of duty and the laws, (of what good is it then) thus conflicting with the theory that the laws are made for men and not men for the laws. And if nations and institutions are going to be adamantly deontological, if their laws are not made dynamic on behalf of the utilitarian needs of humanity what then is the future of ethical morality? So that, as Kant argues, even where good will meets with a stormy threat and the fatal process of destruction, humanity must rejoice because good will, characteristic of its fullness of virtue “would spark like a jewel all by itself, as something that had its full worth in itself.” Kant reminds us of the biblical story of the Christ, who would perform acts of miracles on the Sabbath, purely out of a Kantian good will, but would still be condemned by Kantian Pharisees. Indeed deontological ethics in its strictest sense can be an enemy of utilitarianism, the only ethic that is a virtue in itself.

In talking about utilitarianism as a superior virtue to other human values, a consideration regarding its misuse can be a counter-argument. Kant argues that “the more a cultivated reason deliberately devotes itself to the enjoyment of life and happiness, the more the man falls short of true contentment.” The problem with this assumption can be understood from a couple angles. First, Kant in using “cultivated reason” and “deliberately devotes” means to deconstruct every element of sanity attached to utilitarianism and in its stead reconstruct a concept of drunkenness and lust. To my mind, Kant is confusing uncontrolled desire with happiness; but even if it is rational to imagine that pleasure/happiness can be abused, it is equally imaginable that goodwill can be falsified. In Blood Diamond several acts of goodwill are falsified. Of paramount example is the ulterior motive of reaching a hidden diamond that is attached in Archer’s conditionality to help Vandi locate his family. After all, Vandi was only one of many farmers who had lost his family in the usual rebel raid in the Sierra Leone civil conflict. In that case, goodwill, as Kant believes it cannot be said to be perfectly good in itself. And as Mill rightly states, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals Utility or the Greatest Happiness Principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” In the case of Blood Diamond, these acts of “goodwill” motivated by greed can only create and deepen the curse of conflict that the movie purports to correct.

Mill is accepting the usually productive and counter-productive theory of the philosopher’s circle that sees a progression of an act of sanity, often gravitating from its earliest form and moving toward an improved and complex situation, but when such progression continues until it reaches its original point, where the matter is already problematic, it is usually as a result of a counter-productive development. This situation is what Mill refers to as a tendency to “produce the reverse of happiness,” something long observed by Bentham, leading him to re-evaluate the earliest concept of utilitarianism, thus considering any abuse of happiness, a pain to be avoided.

The following advice by Rawls cannot be more appropriate for anyone than the Hollywood filmmakers of Blood Diamond.

We want to define the original position so that we get the desired solution. If a knowledge of particulars is allowed, then the outcome is biased by arbitrary contingencies. As already observed, to each according to his threat advantage is not a principle of justice. If the original position is to yield agreements that are just, the parties must be fairly situated and treated equally as moral persons. The arbitrariness of the world must be corrected for by adjusting the circumstances of the initial contractual situation.

Blood Diamond as I have mentioned above is problematic in the respect Rawls is quoted. A movie project undertaken to examine the conflict over diamonds ought to be as universal as the problem itself. Where, for instance is the picture of the scheming carried out by the buyers of diamonds in the West, a situation itself that, in reality has exacerbated the conflict over diamonds? Are rogue diamond businesses not in reality part of the diamond conflict? Is the blood on the African field not being spilled as a result of the big dollars of the West ready to negotiate on illicit terms? A naïve but simple truth to the matter is that the Africans butchering each other on the diamond fields have no technology to transform a raw diamond into anything beyond its crude form in the way that Western technology can. Aristotle seeks to examine justice in light of human interpersonal relationships. Like he does with all other human values, Aristotle speaks of the equitable nature of justice. He shifts the argument to a global viewpoint; he is interested in atomizing justice on a global platform: “Now the laws in their enactments on all subjects aim at the common advantage either of all or the best of those who hold power, or something of the sort; so that in one sense we call those acts just that tend to produce and preserve happiness and its components for the political good.”

Kant reminds us that “morals themselves remain subject to all kinds of corruption so long as the guide and supreme norm for their correct estimation is lacking.” The closure of Blood Diamond is problematic in the Kantian sense of the word. In the movie, the philanthropic West is in a conference to decide on the moral problems related to the conflict over diamonds. It is the conviction of the men who meet in the round table that regulating the sale of diamonds in the West will minimize the conflict in Africa; again, the moral problematic shows because the international (or cross boundary) fault lines are not all identified. It does not occur to the round table men, or they do not acknowledge that while the western diamondiferous jewelry buyer could be a passive party to the conflict, (even that assumption is faulty since the buyer by law could be criminalized) the Western diamond companies are themselves active participants to it. As an addendum, on the wake of the movie, there was the urgent move by Western diamond companies, taking large and expensive advertizing spaces in print and electronic media to disassociate themselves from conflict diamonds. Such adverting comes about on two fraudulent platforms: first, the adverts are not intended for an African audience, or made to sympathize with African victims, but to appease the Western buyers of diamondiferous jewelries; second, the campaign advertizing adds to the Hollywood capitalistic ploy of falsifying the fact that the blood attached to diamonds is a universal pandemic perpetrated by peoples of all continent, particularly so the imperialist market economy of the west.

In the movie, no African value is sought in identifying and resolving the conflict over diamonds. Perhaps an inclusion of African diplomats in the West in the round table toward the end, might have posed the true challenge to matters of universal ethics regarding conflict diamonds. Toward the end of the movie, the pedestrialization of Vandi in the West is meant to compliment the moral ideology of the West and not to consult with its African counterpart, for that matter, any southern ideology of morality, as to how to combat the global conflict over diamonds.

As mankind goes into the 21st century, cross cultural exchanges occupy center stage in the international arena. The global village with its imperialist elements depends on the good conduct of human communication to succeed. But every so often, the communication tools meet with disconnects, thus making us mankind go crazy with each other for reading “our” symbols wrongly. We are quick to forget that we come to the table with our individual national, local and personal symbols and, no, we had not completely mortgaged them to those of a universal culture. So that each time we are in conflictual situations, we go back to our reservoir of personal and national cultures to help us find responses. Blood Diamond could have been a better movie had Hollywood taken multi-cultural issues into consideration. And for the most part, the conflicts we have with others coming from different orientations submerge, leaving us disputants with (mis)perceptions in the relationships.

Today as societies all over the world are haunted by acts of sadism, an element itself undercutting world peace, but enriching Hollywood, among giant movie industries, and at the same time, draining the mental and material capacities of governments and societies wherever, utilitarianism is gradually becoming an exit option if the world must be stopped from collapsing into the proverbial black hole. I posit that all human values, be it goodwill or justice are not only secondary in importance, and are a means to utilitarianism, but are conceptually limited in time and place (being that, for instance an American goodwill in Iraq is not shared by the Iraqi resistant movement; and the moral/ethical justification for a suicidal bomber in Iraq is not appreciated in the West). Utilitarianism can be a means to itself, and an end in itself, that is, in addition to being a universal value.

In conclusion, it is important to comment on the surprising twist and closure of the movie. Blood Diamond is hardly about the curse of diamonds in Sierra Leone as events in the movie only comfortably pave a path for the West to seek self-gratification in its policing of world matters. Nel Noddings argues that “ ethic of caring locates morality primarily in the pre-act consciousness of the one caring.” For it is shocking to see that Archer who from the beginning of the movie has exhibited every schemish ploy, impersonating journalists and relief workers, with the sole aim of reaching the hidden diamond of Vandi, could all at once emerge as a human rights crusader, to articulate the cause of a country and people, whose vulnerability he is shown to deeply understand and has plundered over and over. This literary quick-fix of falsity speaks volumes about the moral integrity of the storyline and the “original intention” Rawls talked about. Blood Diamond would have succeeded had it not attempted such a trite and mono-focal solution to the complex problems associated with the trafficking of diamonds and other precious stones. For instance, what are the Sierra Leone government policies regarding the international sale of diamonds to international buyers? How well did Hollywood care to research issues of legitimacy as per Sierra Leone’s legal system on the ownership of diamonds the size Vandi discovered? Is it reality when Vandi trotted the streets of London negotiating for his diamond? Why did Hollywood abandon the above concerns?

Perhaps the turning point in the movie comes about after the Archer handed over the rediscovered diamond to Vandi, knowing that his own life is threatened by a deepening gun-shot in a skirmish with a corrupt UN backed foreign military team operating in Sierra Leone. The short conversation that ensued between Solomon and Archer after Archer had handed the diamond, draws attention to the global presence in the Sierra Leone conflict over diamonds:

Solomon Vandi (on receiving the diamond): I thought you would steal it from me.
Danny Archer (with paining laughter): It occurred to!”

It is my opinion that while the demise of Archer attracts sympathy, and for the first time in the movie, gives voice to the Sierra Leonean side, it complicates the storyline, leaving the conflict only on a pseudo-solution axis. In London, a now wealthy and secured Vandi is called upon by the high table philanthropists to articulate on conflict diamonds, and it becomes clear that the movie rather than ending only then attempts to confront the reality of the universal problems posed by conflict diamonds. As the camera zooms on Vandi, dressed in European suits (I wish he had worn a Sierra Leonean national dress; but is not Hollywood wishing to make a point about how the West can refine an African personality as perfectly as a crystal diamond ring?) and walking to the podium, I re-echo with satisfaction the last words of caution given by a philanthropist in the movie: “Let us learn from that (Vandi’s) voice; and let us ignore it no more!” But is the world listening?