the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2015 May 15


Disney is reportedly pressing forward with ‘The princess of North Sudan’, its film about a little girl on a “family adventure” to become a princess in a place called Bir Tawil. A story in the Hollywood Reporter has excited social media into a frenzy of ridicule as well as charges of racism and colonialism but, strangely, no discussion of state sovereignty or the Westphalian system.

What is Bir Tawil?  Bir Tawil is a small region in North Africa lying between the states of Egypt and Sudan. It is unpopulated, though it has historically been used for grazing by an Afro-Asiatic people living in present-day Egypt. Bir Tawil is currently unclaimed by either Egypt or Sudan.

Why is it unclaimed?  Bear with me for a minute. For complicated geopolitical reasons, a state is much more likely to have its claims recognized (and thus not contested) by other states if it can ground those in some version of international “law”. There are two historical “legal” borders between Egypt and Sudan. One of the borders is simply a straight line, running east-to-west along 22° north latitude; the other is the same straight line in the west, but jagged in the east. From Wikipedia: 

In the east, the jagged line runs both north and south of the straight line, leaving one region that lies north of the straight line and south of the jagged line (the Halājib Triangle), and one region that lies south of the straight line and north of the jagged line (Bir Tawil, just to the west of the Triangle). The Halājib Triangle is named after the port city of Halājib (generally given in English as “Hala’ib”), which lies within it. The Triangle is a valuable territory that both Egypt and Sudan would like to rule (and Egypt currently does rule). If the border is the straight line, as Egypt prefers, Halājib goes to Egypt and Bir Tawil to Sudan; if the border is the jagged line, as Sudan prefers, Halājib goes to Sudan and Bir Tawil goes to Egypt. For either side to claim Bir Tawil would be an implicit surrender of Halājib to the other side, and thus neither side claims Bir Tawil.

So Bir Tawil is just anyone’s for the taking?  Certainly not. In addition to its historical use as a grazing land for actual people, it will eventually be claimed as the consolation prize when, many years from now, the Egypt-Sudan border is agreed upon, probably in Egypt’s favor. It is essentially being held in trust by the international state system until the border dispute is resolved. No power in the world will ever recognize a border in which Bir Tawil goes to a third party, like some guy from Virginia.

What guy from Virginia?  A man from Abingdon in Virginia has claimed Bir Tawil so that, in his telling, he can fulfill his daughter’s wish of becoming a princess.

So this is the dying wish of a girl with leukemia or something?  No, this is not the dying wish of a girl with leukemia or anything else. It’s just the typical, pie-in-the-sky wish of a girl who has seen too many princess movies and whose father has not properly explained to her how loathsome monarchy is or how you cannot simply set up your own independent state and make yourself royalty — apparently because he doesn’t understand it himself.

Seriously, royalty?  No kidding. The guy from Virginia has called this the “Kingdom of North Sudan”, and has declared himself to be king. It’s very convenient and not at all self-aggrandizing that the only way your daughter can be a princess is if you are a king. It’s definitely all about the girl being a princess, and not in any way about the guy being a king.

Is this guy some kind of racist?  He’s a clueless, publicity-seeking jackass, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of racism. The territory is historically connected to dark-skinned people, but no one lives there, and its status as unclaimed is quite rare, and surely the reason it was chosen.

What’s the guy’s name?  In addition to being a clueless jackass, he’s a clueless publicity-seeking jackass, so I’m not going to tell you his name. I’m not even going to give him bad publicity.

But he’s some kind of colonialist?  That depends on the definition. In the earliest and most basic sense, a colony involved settlers. It’s very unlikely that this guy is going to “spoil” his little princess by forcing her to live in an inhospitable territory in North Africa, and it would likely be a ‘Mosquito Coast’-like disaster if he did. ‘Colonialism’ has recently become the favored word for a range of (invariably European or white) practices that could include what this guy is doing or intending to do. But fundamentally, no, he’s not a colonialist.

Okay, then, is he some kind of imperialist?  Most definitely, though it’s important to distinguish between empires over land and empires over peoples. The land involved has no resident population, so while the clueless jackass would potentially be depriving people of a resource, he doesn’t seem to intend the conquest of a subject population. On the other hand, he is a monarchist twit, and is proposing himself as king, with no elections and at least his family as intended subjects.

Is Disney’s movie going to glorify or romanticize what the guy is doing?  It’s hard to imagine a Disney movie doing otherwise. The screenwriter denies it; and the Disney conglomerate owns studios that might produce a critical or at least nuanced telling of this story (but one which would still unforgivably publicize this clueless jackass). But the Disney brand is not used for such movies. The Disney brand’s version of family is invariably heartwarming, and Disney is of course heavily invested in the most positive interpretation of princesses.

Is Disney’s glorification of the archaic system of one-man absolute rule and hereditary wealth and privilege a complete betrayal of the egalitarian society our republican ancestors fought and died to give us?  Yes. Yes, it is. Thank you for asking.


This article was originally published on Tumblr at this address: It was later deleted (it can be seen in the Internet Archive here), for reasons I do not know. I did not deliberately delete it and do not think it likely I could have deleted it by accident. But I also can’t really imagine that mild embarrassment to Disney would have merited a takedown request for such an obscure site, or that Tumblr or parent Yahoo would have gone along with it; it all seems too conspiracist.


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