“The people who thought it all up probably really meant to do well by us. Sometimes I think that the do-gooders do us more harm than the General Custer types”
–Mary Crow Dog,
On March 5th, 2012, Invisible Children launched what has in ten days become the fastest-growing social video campaign in the history of the world. Because the video has been viewed by more than 78 million people in the past ten days, I will assume for the purposes of this post that you have watched it. If not, before you continue reading, please watch it here:
Great. Now that you’ve watched it, I want to explain to you why I will participate in “cover the night,” but do not support the mission of “Kony 2012.” By working through three claims about this social media phenomenon, I hope we can come to a better understanding not only of the initiative itself, but also our responsibility as young citizens of a global community. This examination of our responsibility as global citizens requires serious, intense thought and discernment, because the stakes could not be higher. The line between advocacy and imperialism is terrifyingly thin.
For the English majors out there, here is my thesis: Kony 2012 succeeds in its mission of creating aware global citizens, but in the process creates armies of accidental imperialists.
This thesis is based on the following three claims:
1)The increased awareness of global injustice facilitated by Kony 2012 is a good thing.
2)The “Kony 2012” video is straight-up imperialist propaganda
3)You should “cover the night”, post the picture, etc., even if you are opposed to the mission of “Kony 2012”.
Before we discuss the claims, for those of you who are not very familiar, let’s do a very basic rundown of some key facts to understanding the situation:
·Joseph Kony is #1 on the International Criminal court’s list of worst international criminals.
·Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), whom over the past few decades have kidnapped children and displaced families in Uganda, The Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
·The LRA left Uganda in 2006 and has not returned in any substantial form.
Mahmood Mamdani’s article gives a really nice, concise summary of the situation if you would like more detail (which I would suggest you do). Check it out here: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/20123138139642455.html
Now. On to the claims.
Claim #1: The increased awareness of global injustice facilitated by Kony 2012 is a good thing.
Before Invisible Children visited my church in 2009, I was among the overwhelming majority of people who had never heard of Joseph Kony. Despite the problems I had with the high-emotion rhetoric of the presentation, I was still very aware of the impact Invisible Children had on me—they got me, for the first time, to feel connected to the suffering of someone on another continent. This reaction is echoed amongst millions of viewers who watch the Kony 2012 video. It is worth noting that the presentation I saw in 2009 and the presentation we now see in “Kony 2012” are quite different. The latter is much more specific and forceful in its call to action, though both clearly support an interventionist mindset. But we’ll get to that.
The single most effective aspect of the “Kony 2012” message is its ability to make a heart-wrenching tragedy in another continent seem like a problem I as a young, sheltered college student can solve. This type of empowerment, coupled with a highly-emotional call to action is a powerful tool. In claim #2 we will discuss the dark side of this process, but we should first call attention to the positive effect: people care. One of the single biggest reasons I have watched my high school and college peers ignore rampant social injustice is because the problem seems unsolvable, or at least big, far away, or obscure enough to prevent a single college student from making a tangible difference. “Kony 2012” has overcome that attitude, and the result is an army of millions who believe they can make a difference. If they believe they can make a difference they will, for the first time ever, take the time to learn about (at least on a very surface level) what they are fighting for. In the case of Kony 2012, while it is clear most supporters haven’t taken much time to actually think through this process (myself included for a shamefully long time), they have absolutely taken the time for two things: first, they know Joseph Kony exists. This newfound awareness is the key to becoming an aware global citizen—you must know, at least on a descriptive level, the situation in which your fellow human lives. Kony 2012 has taught millions of people for the first time that there are military leaders whose actions affect real people.
This is a good thing. What we do with this information, however, is where we encounter the first real danger.
Claim #2: The “Kony 2012” video is straight up imperialist propaganda.
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
-Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”
There is no doubt in my mind “Kony 2012” has wonderful intentions. If my NCAA bracket is any indicator, however, intentions do not always prevent disastrous consequences. It seems to me undeniable that the “Kony 2012” video reeks of imperialist propaganda for two reasons.
First, the video frames the Ugandan, Congolese, Sudanese, and Central African people as helpless children. If you are smart and a little sarcastic, your response may be “but Westin. They are helpless children. Literally.” “Kony 2012” uses clips from their earlier video, which extensively shows that many victims of LRA violence are, in fact, helpless children. Unfortunately, while it is undeniable that helpless children exist in LRA-affected areas, the video absolutely frames all African people as such children. Nowhere in the video does the filmmaker acknowledge the decades of effort asserted by the people and governments of LRA affected areas to stop Joseph Kony. This is because the film articulates one unique solution: Western intervention.
This brings me to my second point: The “Kony 2012” movie clearly frames America as the unique, heroic solution. It is also clear from the outset the filmmaker views himself as a unique solution; a savior. His first message to Jacob’s distress was “We are going to stop them.” He goes on to say: “I made that promise not knowing what it would mean. But now I do. Over the past 9 years I have fought to fulfill it.”
This is not the rhetoric of an equal. It is the rhetoric of a hero. The filmmaker also seeks to expand his hero-team, acknowledging that he cannot do it alone. “Because that promise is not just about Jacob or me. . . “ when I heard this sentence for the first time, I braced myself for “it’s about all of Uganda,” and anxiously awaited a cooperative, Ugandan-based solution. Instead, the phrase I heard was “It’s also about you.” Me? How am I going to catch Joseph Kony? According to the film, I am going to do it by pressuring celebrities and lawmakers. But pressure them to do what? Unfortunately, the answer is, in no uncertain terms, send in the military.
The film also very specifically highlights the U.S. military as the only possible savior of the African people. In the call to action piece of the film, the filmmaker says in order to find Kony, the Ugandan military needs technology and training to navigate the deep jungle. He ends with the phrase, “That’s where the American [military] advisors come in.” The framing of African people as children, Americans as heroes, and the American military as the only entity capable of solving the problem could not more blatantly fit the definition of an imperialist message.
“Humanitarian intervention” is not a new concept. Most recently seen in the United States’ involvement in Libya, it is the idea that military action is necessary not for economic gain or necessity of national security, but out of a human obligation to do so. Supporting the good guys, as it were. Unfortunately, as the case has been…every single other time, “supporting the good guys” means supporting an army, regime, resistance, etc. that is also guilty of gross human rights violations. The Ugandan government is the subject of a number of serious accusations of violations of human rights, including forced internment and rape and abuse by military. Speaking of military, there is one more area to discuss concerning the imperialistic nature of “Kony 2012”: The actual plan it advocates.
If you will recall (or rewatch), the end of “Kony 2012” contains a very specific call to action, and explains exactly how the overall plan is going to work. It is as follows:
“In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him.”
Reread this sentence. Now refer to earlier in this post where we discussed a few facts agreed upon by both sides of the controversy. The last one reads, “The LRA left Uganda in 2006 and has not returned in any substantial form.” Joseph Kony is not in Uganda. Why, then, is the Ugandan military the entity responsible for finding him? Invisible Children consistently argues it is because they are the most well-equipped and capable of finding him. This argument does not change the fact that Joseph Kony is widely suspected of hiding out in the Central African Republic, which has not given Uganda the ok to send military forces across its borders, yet “Kony 2012” is desperate to equip the Ugandan military to find Kony. This is, in no uncertain terms, an advocacy of expansionism, another dangerous symptom of imperialism. This is a problem for several reasons:
1)We are equipping a government accused of raping its citizens
2)We are equipping a military to look for a man in another country
3)We are supporting a United States military presence in Uganda.
When I first made these connections, by initial response was to defend the United States and believe that we would only maintain our military presence until Kony was caught. Then I remembered the Philippines, South Korea, Germany, Japan, Poland, Afghanistan, The Dominican Republic, and Honduras, just to name a few.
Advocates of a U.S. military intervention in the region need to understand what they are advocating. Unless Obama truly is a hero in revolutionizing American military policy, once we are established we will not leave.
The other two problematic reasons also warrant much discussion, but I would like to preserve any chance I have left of you reading this entire post, so I will abruptly move on to my final claim:
Claim #3: You should “cover the night,” post the facebook picture, etc., even if you don’t believe in the mission of “Kony 2012.”
This final claim is for those of you who agree with my argument that the mission of “Kony 2012” is imperialistic and dangerous. Yes, I am asking you to, by definition, support the “Kony 2012” campaign. Why in the world would I ask you to do that. Two reasons.
Reason #1: You help reap the benefits of awareness discussed in claim #1. The dangerous nature of the “Kony 2012” video does not change the fact that it is encouraging widespread awareness of international human rights violations. We should support such awareness.
Reason #2: The dangers discussed in Claim #2 need to be discussed as often as “Kony 2012” posters are posted. In order for us to be able to engage in these conversations, we need to be a part of the group. My Facebook cover photo is the “Kony 2012” photo for two reasons: 1) It begins conversations about “Kony 2012” and 2) It gives me rapport with the pro-“Kony 2012” audience. I have watched in dismay as so many people challenge some of the mindless support of the movement, but challenge it in an equally uninformed and ineffective way. Beginning a conversation with “this campaign is stupid,” or “you need to get more informed,” is a waste of time, and counterproductive for those of us trying to encourage meaningful dialogue about the actual dangers of the mission. Even now, when I link this blog to my Facebook, which has the cover photo, it will gather a significant audience eager for some critical discussion of their new favorite campaign, and I will be considered a valid (or at least friendly) source simply because of my photo. Without the photo, I am written off as a cranky critic. Just as one critic of the movement argues that the LRA is a “Ugandan problem that needs a Ugandan solution,” so is the accidentally imperialistic mindset of so many of our peers a “young supporter of the movement problem” that needs a “young supporter of the movement solution.”
Remember, the reason you (the critic of “Kony 2012”) are upset in the first place is because you don’t think many of your peers (the supporters of “Kony 2012”) are open to opposing perspectives on this issue. So why in the world would you frame yourself as an opposing perspective? Frame yourself as an ally of the movement. As important as it can seem to proudly proclaim our beliefs to the world, I challenge you to concern yourself with having healthy discussions, not proving your own consistency. My participation in “cover the night” and my criticism of the campaign make me seem, at first (and probably second) glance, very hypocritical. But I’m having a lot of great conversations because of it.
Cover the night. Post the photo. Associate yourself with the movement. Associate yourself so you can begin to encourage your peers to think critically about the dangerous mindset they are accidentally perpetrating.
Post the photo, but don’t support the mission.
One final Invisible Children thought. Much controversy has arisen over the financial transparency of the organization, and it has been used as grounds for not supporting the movement. 2 responses.
1)This is completely irrelevant to whether or not you support the “Kony 2012” movement. Support does not require financial support of Invisible Children
2)Invisible Children does disclose all of their financial records, and they are externally audited. The records can be found here: http://www2.invisiblechildren.com/financials
3)Invisible Children is pretty explicit about their mission statement, and regardless of how you feel about their mission, I think they are consistent in what they say they try to accomplish and how they spend their money.