Note: This post is available as an audio file in this week’s Deviant SynCast. (See sidebar to listen or download.)
Lorraine Hansberry’s play Les Blancs features an exchange between a white missionary and a black member of a rebel fighting force. When the former accuses the latter of hating all white people, he replies: “No, I don’t hate all white people. But I desperately wish I did. It would make everything so much easier.”
It’s tempting to look at the world through binary lenses, split into clearly delineated camps of good and evil. We use categories — as Cornel West once said — as a way to compromise with chaos; to save ourselves from going insane, we develop schemata to make sense of the world.
The problem comes when we get lazy with our mental structures and try to squeeze the world’s complexity into comfortable shapes. It doesn’t take much to oversimplify a person, a group, a dynamic, a situation, an organization, or a system.
Unfortunately, most of the people commenting on the Kony 2012 phenomenon — on all sides — are guilty of woeful oversimplification. I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time, and it seems odd for me to take it on now, after the excitement has died down. But in a way this is fitting, given the point I’ll be making in the final section.
In every situation we must take care to synthesize information: Examine a thesis, consider its antithesis, and then decide for ourselves how to reconcile the truths in each. (Dr. King used this approach for addressing the question of capitalism vs. communism.) By reflecting on each of these steps, I hope to add something worthwhile into the miasma of babble about Uganda that has swirled around the internet during the past month.
This will be a long post, so those of you with no patience, probably searching for the TLDR, should click away now. Let me also say that I write here (as always) with the desire to engage in dialectic, not debate. I’m not trying to win an argument or make people feel stupid for disagreeing with me. I am trying to present meaningful viewpoints and information that may help people get closer to authentic understanding and truths. I hope that you will do the same for me. (Comments and emails are most welcome.)
Thesis: The Campaign
You’ve probably seen the video; if not, please watch it. If nothing else, it is a superb work of propaganda produced by the NGO Invisible Children. The director, Jason Russell, lays out the case against Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lords Resistance Army, which has carried out massive crimes against humanity in Uganda and elsewhere for the past fifteen years.
Along the way, Russell discusses the difficulty of getting people in the US — especially politicians in Washington — to care about what’s happening in Uganda and other African nations. The triangular icon attached to the campaign represents an attempt to subvert the standard propaganda model, where a small population of gatekeepers and media executives (financed by multinational corporations) dictate to us what the news should be.
Kony 2012 is focused mostly on its intended audience: tech-savvy young people in the US who want to make the world a better place. The film puts the work of Invisible Children into a narrative of human fulfillment through activism — the attempt to find meaning in our lives by resisting violence and suffering. The energetic music and rapid-fire scenes of organized protest appeal powerfully to our desire to belong, and our dreams of a better world.
The video was a viral sensation, and for the first time in my 12 years of teaching, I was approached by students who wanted to learn more about what was going on in central Africa. I spent a day showing my classes an excerpt of Kony 2012 and discussing some of its points (and some things it leaves out). I discussed it at length with friends and family. I responded to Facebook comments and Reddit threads.
This whole affair has resonated strongly with me, for reasons I’ll make clear in the final section. For now I will simply say that I care deeply about human rights and political awareness; they have been core elements of my pedagogical ontology both inside and outside the classroom for my entire adult life. I was (and continue to be) impressed by the popularity of the Kony 2012 campaign, and I believe it is ultimately a good thing.
Antithesis: The Backlash, Part One
The sudden ubiquity of the video brought with it a speedy critical response, ranging from the sensible to the cynical. One of the most popular reactions was an acerbic dismissal from The Daily What, in which the anonymous author refers to Kony 2012 as “the latest fauxtivist fad” and “well-engineered emotional blackmail” whose main purpose is “to line the pockets of the three people in charge of the organization”.
Another widely-shared response (published by al-Jazeera and others) was called Dangerous Ignorance: The Hysteria of Kony 2012, by professor Adam Branch, senior research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda. Writing from the capital city of Kampala, he starts by admitting that he hasn’t seen the video, then runs through a list of complaints about Invisible Children:
the warmongering, the narcissism, the commercialisation, the reductive and one-sided story they tell, their portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans.
Many of these responses contain important truths with which I agree. TDW, for example, ends by saying:
There is no black and white in the world. And going about solving important problems like there is just serves to make all those equally troubling shades of gray invisible.
This is one of the key points I emphasized to my students, and it’s one of the biggest flaws in Kony 2012. The story is presented, after all, to a five-year-old child, who definitively points to a single individual as “the bad guy”. Of course, Kony is number one on the Most Wanted list of the International Criminal Court, so few people would argue that he is a bad guy.
Professor Branch’s piece has even more important insight. He takes issue with IC’s call for US military action, something about which I’m always nervous. (Kony 2012 celebrates Obama’s deployment of 100 military advisors to Uganda in 2011, to provide technical and logistic assistance to the Uganda People’s Defense Force.) As I told my students, we should remember that US involvement in Vietnam began with a few “advisors” and quickly became a nightmare. And the UPDF has itself been accused of human rights violations in the past.
While I echo many of the sentiments in these responses, however, I am distressed by the vitriol with which the authors attack Russell and Invisible Children. George W. Bush and Joseph Stalin are guilty of warmongering. Refusing to buy gasoline for a day is faxutivism. Kony 2012 is a far cry from these accusations, and while I share some of the criticisms, it’s not fair to fling such venom at IC.
Just as Invisible Children is guilty of oversimplifying the LRA insurgency, many of those criticizing Kony 2012 are guilty of oversimplifying the video and its creators. It is an absurdity of the first order to demonize people you condemn for engaging in demonization and oversimplification. We must resist the urge — natural and comforting though it may be — to classify people into simple camps of good and bad, worthy and unworthy, smart and stupid.
This demonization went to absurd places elsewhere on the web. Amidst the jaded clouds of cynicism on Reddit, for example, a popular image post suggests that IC is simply a pawn of US military planners. This sentiment is echoed by Professor Branch, who writes:
Invisible Children are “useful idiots”, being used by those in the US government who seek to militarise Africa, to send more and more weapons and military aid, and to bolster the power of states who are US allies.
A friend of mine forwarded me an essay which takes this notion much further, although I would point out that it was found on an internet discussion forum, and the author is identified only as “jay2k”. Refuting the model of activism in Kony 2012, this post suggests that IC is actually a perfect example of the propaganda model, making young activists do the bidding of The Man™:
By creating this “movement” and making young people actually DEMAND the U.S. government intervene in Africa, the masterminds behind this campaign would manage the impossible: Reversing the propaganda model in order to make it emanate from the people. By doing so, the elite’s agenda is not only accepted by the masses, it is perceived as a victory by them. (Emphasis added.)
This is more demonization, flipped around to call the integrity of the filmmakers — and anyone who wants to help stop the crimes of Kony and the LRA — into question. I hate to say it, but it is possible to disagree with IC’s policy recommendations without accusing them of genocidal imperialism.
A quick aside: This split between criticizing what people say and condemning who they are is brilliantly dissected by Jay Smooth, a vlogger at Ill Doctrine. His video is so excellent that I will embed it here, for those of you who haven’t ever seen it. Please take three minutes and watch it. (Hat-tip to Colleen B, who first showed me this.)
Okay, back to our feature presentation.
My biggest problem with all of the cynical backlash is that it leads to a bitter paralysis, drained of hope. If young people become interested in a worthy cause (and ending the suffering of child soldiers — not to mention killing, rape, mutilation, and war — we would all agree, is certainly a worth cause), only to be viciously ridiculed and scorned in ways that are more personal than policy-based, they will naturally recede into a cocoon of passivity. (And that, without question, is where The Man™ wants them.)
Let me expand on this point for a moment, since it dovetails with my life’s work as an educator. Every teacher will tell you that the biggest problem most kids have is not asking for help when they need it. This stems from a natural human desire to not look stupid. Alas, the only way we can ever become smarter is if we accept our ignorance and seek ways to eradicate it.
Unfortunately, the nastiness enabled by the internet’s anonymity (and nurtured by our society’s growing celebration of self-destruction as seen on countless “reality” shows, “bum-fight” videos, degrading “adult” media, torture-porn movies, etc) leads many people to put a high priority on not looking stupid. When we’re judged quickly and harshly for making mistakes or having incomplete information, we begin training ourselves to avoid situations where we might be judged. (This is especially true of teenagers, who are most sensitive to social condemnation because of their age, swirling hormones, and rapidly-expanding world.) Considering how personal and unpleasant these criticisms have been, it’s not too surprising that Jason Russell suffered a psychotic episode recently.
This is not to say that we should walk on eggshells or refrain from humorous hyperbole for fear of offending delicate teenagers. Quite the contrary — I wish to see the next generation of young activists become strong, tested in the icy fires of the struggle. But every soul needs to be nurtured, and we all have a responsibility to encourage the best in other people while we combat the worst.
Antithesis: The Backlash, Part Two
I want to address two other criticisms of Kony 2012 and Invisible Children before moving on to the synthesis portion of the evening.
The first involves money and the group’s purpose. The Daily What echoed criticisms of IC by Yale professor Chris Blattman and a comprehensive piece in Foreign Affairs by Mareike Schomerus, Tim Allen, and Koen Vlassenroot. TDW put it this way:
The organization behind Kony 2012 — Invisible Children Inc. — is an extremely shady nonprofit that has been called ”misleading,” “naive,” and “dangerous” by a Yale political science professor, and has been accused by Foreign Affairs of “manipulat[ing] facts for strategic purposes.”
Again, however, TDW is guilty of oversimplification. Less than a week after the post to which TDW links, Mr. Blattman wrote this:
Could, in spite of it all, the KONY 2012 campaign still lead to the right solution? I think the answer might be yes.
Suppose you believe (as I do) that capturing or killing Kony is the best of a bunch of bad options. And suppose you also believe (as I do) that, to capture or kill the man, Central African governments will need advanced military, intelligence, and special forces support.
This viral video, whatever its weaknesses, may get you closer to that objective than any other action I can think of.
As for the article in Foreign Affairs — and I really must insist that you read it, because it’s very well written — TDW again clouds the issue. First of all, so far as I know, Foreign Affairs hasn’t accused IC of anything. A publication can only be said to take a position when its editorial board publishes an opinion piece, and articles from researchers don’t qualify.
But the original article is much less damning of IC than TDW suggests. Here’s the original:
During the past decade, U.S.-based activists concerned about the LRA have successfully, if quietly, pressured the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to take a side in the fight between the LRA and the Ugandan government. Among the most influential of advocacy groups focusing specifically on the LRA are the Enough project, the Resolve campaign, the Canadian-based group GuluWalk, and the media-oriented group Invisible Children. Older agencies, from Human Rights Watch to World Vision, have also been involved. In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan government atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict. (Emphasis added.)
Note that this charge is being leveled against a wide variety of organizations. IC may be guilty of such manipulation, but TDW is guilty of its own manipulation here.
TDW also calls IC’s finances into question:
Additionally, IC has a low two-star rating in accountability from Charity Navigator because they won’t let their financials be independently audited. That’s not a good thing. In fact, it’s a very bad thing, and should make you immediately pause and reflect on where the money you’re sending them is going.
This is as good a place as any to mention the page Invisible Children created to respond to all of these criticisms; it’s worth a look. But the most interesting response so far has come from Charity Navigator itself.
While it is fair to debate the appropriateness of this charity’s approach to solving a serious problem, some bloggers, donors and even reporters have mischaracterized the financial health of Invisible Children and even our evaluation of the charity. Rather than back away from the criticism, Invisible Children’s CEO, Ben Keesey, addressed many of the concerns [...] We commend the charity for this approach and what appears to be its commitment to transparency. And we’d also like to take a moment and set the record straight on a few items related to our rating of Invisible Children. (Emphasis added.)
I won’t spend time delving into the details here, nor will I take a position on whether you should give money to Invisible Children. But I will point out that taking the word of TDW alone is as absurd as taking IC’s word. You have to do your own research.
A more justified question relates to IC’s approach to activism. Would the money they raise be better spent on direct aid to the people of Uganda? Or are they right to spend millions making flashy movies in order to raise awareness in the US and other wealthy nations? Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have explored this question (and others related to Kony 2012). HRW said:
While some of the criticisms may be valid, the film’s central message is also valid: Kony and his LRA continue to commit horrific abuses at a terrible human cost in central Africa. He and other LRA leaders should be arrested and brought to justice.
The video has significantly increased public awareness about Kony and the LRA’s crimes and led many people to ask questions about how to end the abuses. Watching a video about the LRA will not, on its own, result in Kony’s apprehension or end LRA abuses. But the massive interest generated by the video could, and should, be harnessed to transform good intentions into concrete and effective action. (Emphasis added.)
Obviously this is a question without a definite answer, but I will return to the tricky question of awareness in the synthesis section. (It’s coming, I promise.)
First, however, I want to wrestle with one last accusation leveled at Invisible Children, and specifically Kony 2012: The White Man’s Burden. Some people accuse IC of perpetuating a narrative of white do-gooders trying to save Africans from themselves. Russell and others, they claim, are carrying out zealous campaigns which make themselves feel good, but which exclude (or sideline) African people from the process and — worst of all — don’t make the world a better place. (They might make things worse.)
Professor Branch suggests that Kony 2012 presents Ugandans “as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans”. He goes on to say:
I wouldn’t have known about Kony 2012 if it hadn’t been for the emails I’ve been receiving from the US. And that, I think, is telling. Kony 2012 and the debate around it are not about Uganda, but about America. Uganda is largely just the stage for a debate over the meaning of political activism in the US today. (Emphasis added.)
Blattman also makes this point.
There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming. The saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.
Laina Dawes wrote a very comprehensive (and fair) piece on BlogHer about this issue.
Advocating for those is commendable. But white folks getting involved in a non-white part of the world can be problematic — and I’m seeing a lot of criticism of KONY 2012 itself. It’s the latest in a troubling, paternalistic pattern of privileged white people discussing causes in Africa and other continents commonly perceived as “disenfranchised” because of race, gender or socio-economic status. The Ugandans of KONY 2012 do not have the access or opportunity to tell their own story; their voices are only legitimized and heard after being filtered through a white point of view.
This sentiment is echoed by a number of people in Africa itself. BoingBoing published a collection of responses from African writers and artists about the video and IC’s work. To give just one example, from Ugandan journalist Angelo Opi-aiya Izama:
The simplicity of the “good versus evil”, where good is inevitably white/western and bad is black or African, is also reminiscent of some of the worst excesses of the colonial era interventions.
As a well-to-do white man who has spent almost twenty years of his life deeply involved with human rights activism in “non-white parts of the world”, I am very very anxious about these charges. I try to be an enlightened person who takes action in the name of solidarity, not sympathy or “saving” other people.
In the 1970s, a group of women from Indigenous Australia created a statement to people of conscience who wanted to support their struggle for justice. It contains a quote often ascribed to Lilla Watson, although she prefers not to receive individual credit. The quote is:
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
This is a beautiful crystallization of how I feel. As a teacher I am driven by a longing for my own freedom, and an awareness that I cannot be free unless everyone else is free too. (As Boots from The Coup puts it: “F— the name, f— the game, f— the riches, fool / I ain’t got s— unless all my folks gon’ have it too.”)
This is not an academic distinction; many white people (and people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds) are stirred by their emotions and take action out of pity, not solidarity. Many white folks consider themselves uniquely qualified to solve problems, regardless of what the people personally affected by those problems would suggest. There is plenty of paternalism and condescension in the world of political activism.
We see glimpses of this tendency in Kony 2012. After Jason Russell hears his Ugandan friend Jacob claim that he would prefer to die (since “no one is taking care of us [and] we are not going to school”), he makes a grandiose promise: “We are also going to do everything that we can to stop them. Do you hear my words? You know what I mean? We are, we’re going to stop them.” This is a silly moment, since Russell is making a promise that he almost certainly cannot keep.
Or can he? We should give Russell credit for trying — really trying, in many senses of that term. Who does the “we” refer to? Does he see himself as Jacob’s saviour, or does he want Jacob to be free because Russell’s freedom is bound up with his?
Jason Russell went to Africa for the first time in 2000 as part of a Christian missionary delegation to Kenya. But he quickly changed his focus.
“I didn’t feel like it was affecting people,” Russell said. “They didn’t need faith, they needed malarial and HIV medicine and protection for their women and children.”
We might take issue with Russell’s possible view of himself (and other white folks) as the source of that protection, and there are justified questions to be asked about how IC goes about responding to the horrors of LRA atrocities and civilians dying in Africa.
Given the contempt with which many Ugandans view IC, moreover, I’m not able to take a definitive stance on whether I would praise or bury that organization. (Although I would point out that the “Our Team” page on IC’s website features many Ugandans in the mix.) But I am impressed by the dedication, commitment, and ideals of Russell and his comrades. I’m sure they have wrestled with the potential in themselves for white-saviour-ism.
It’s important for us white people to check ourselves for this potential on a regular basis. And of course, if we find ourselves veering in that direction, we need to pause and re-evaluate. But there’s also the danger that we will (I think many white folks do) assume that it’s impossible for us to advocate for peace and justice in “a non-white part of the world” without perpetuating neo-colonial stereotypes and paradigms.
We have to find the third way. And this, at long last, brings me to the final section.
Synthesis: The Long-Distance Run
For over fifteen years, I have been a member of two human-rights organizations: The East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) and Amnesty International (AI). If you don’t know the story of East Timor’s occupation at the hands of the Indonesian military (with support from the US, Britain, and other western powers), please read this synopsis and/or the long version. (I wrote all of the former and most of the latter.)
This work has, at times, been discouraging in the extreme. During the occupation, I regularly heard scornful reactions from advocates of Realpolitik that such violence was simply part of the real world. I watched distracted young people in the US turn their back on global awareness. I listened to annoyed yawns from older people who viewed my activism as some sort of adorable naïvité.
Worse, I encountered US politicians who refused to stand up for human rights and international law. I watched as our government ignored atrocities committed by our ally Indonesia. I saw arms shipments and training programs continue despite bloody massacres and enforced starvation. And I bubbled with rage when my fellow Americans refused to care.
It is from this perspective that I appreciate the tremendous victory of Kony 2012. I can only wish that we ETANers had achieved something even close to the widespread publicity that Invisible Children has accomplished. (Credit, of course, should be given to the documentary films Manufacturing Consent and Death of a Nation.)
The cocoon of ennui and mindless entertainment in which most Americans (and people in other wealthy nations) live is formidable and horrifying. I am painfully chagrined by the lack of interest most of my fellow citizens show toward the rest of the world (and even different communities within our own borders). Most of my students are too preoccupied with brain-numbing television, professional sports, materialistic consumption, and/or violent video games to pay attention to things going on in other countries. Those who do pay attention often accept the simple US-centric view of our noble intentions offered by CNN and the New York Times.
It is therefore remarkable that the phenomenon of Kony 2012 has broken through this chrysalis of distraction. Raising awareness by itself is not enough — but it is important, and it’s very hard to do. I have spent hours and hours holding protest signs (usually with only a few others, like my late friend Nate Osborn, pictured), gathering petition signatures, organizing speaking events, and writing about various political issues. I’m used to being ignored, but I keep at it, because people need to know the truth about what’s going on.
I don’t know where “jay2k” gets the notion that human-rights groups like IC are receiving marching orders from the powerful elites of the world — if anyone has any actual evidence for this, let me know. From what I can tell, IC is doing exactly what we did during East Timor’s occupation — subverting the propaganda model and demanding that our government act in defense of human rights, not just some narrow vision of hegemonic power or “national interest”. Such a demand requires popular awareness.
And we should continue to raise awareness, about child soldiers in Africa and other outrages against human dignity. Yes, excitement about the LRA has died down with predictable speed, even though a second video is apparently due to appear any day now.
But this is where we come in — everyone who is interested in taking meaningful action to end LRA atrocities and working together for mutual liberation in the style of Lilla Watson and her associates. To paraphrase Thomas Paine, these are the times that try the souls of activists. The advocate of summer solidarity and sunshine struggle will, at this moment, shrink from the service of a better world.
Whether you work with Invisible Children or some other organization, you must get involved in some meaningful way. The suffering that goes on around the world is needless, and we have the power to stop it. As democratic citizens, we have the ability — and the responsibility — to make a difference, and I have the most bitter contempt for those who ridicule those of us in the struggle without ever doing a single meaningful thing for positive change.
To wit: In my work with ETAN, I had the good fortune to meet the journalists Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn, who were present at the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. (Ms. Goodman has devoted her life to telling the stories of the East Timorese and other ignored people via her news program DemocracyNow!)
Mr. Nairn told me something once, which I shall never forget: He was told, by an official in the Indonesian military, that while holding a political prisoner, they will refrain from killing the young man or woman if they receive one letter from someone in another country.
The incredible power of writing letters, of course, is a core principle behind the work of Amnesty International, which provides simple but meaningful ways to take action for human rights. This year at Sun Prairie High School a group of students got together to form an Amnesty chapter of their own, writing letters and spreading the word about political prisoners and the UDHR.
I have been inspired by these young people, just as I have been inspired by my mother’s lifetime of teaching, my brother’s decades of labor activism, my wife’s passionate commitment to feminist radio and peace work (we met through ETAN), the people of East Timor, and countless other men and women who devote themselves to a better, more peaceful, more just world.
Kony 2012 exists at the confluence of consciousness and material activism, where I have lived most of my life. Neither one can stand alone as meaningful political citizenship, nor can they sustain an individual’s sense of self without enlightenment, positive self-image, spiritual armor, and a good sense of humor. But in a world as broken as ours, we each have the responsibility to reject oversimplified binaries (of all flavors), find an effective form of action (however we might define it), and get to work.
In a 2004 piece entitled My Last Talk with Gary Webb, Richard Thieme wrote:
The passion for truth and justice is not a sprint. It’s a long-distance run that requires a different kind of training, a different degree of commitment. Our eye must be on a goal that we know we will never reach in our lifetimes. Faith is the name of believing in the transcendent, often despite all evidence to the contrary.
And so I say to whosoever reads this with a willingness to join that long-distance run: I’ll be right there with you.
The struggle goes on.