Saturday, March 17, 2012

There's A Right Way To Do Things

A couple days ago, I got around to posting some thoughts on the whole Kony2012 video and campaign. I have to admit, I was reluctant to do so. There are many, many people who support Invisible Children, and find in the video something laudable. I couldn't refrain from saying something out of fear either of being misunderstood or being told I was missing the point (which is a claim I never quite understand) or . . . I don't know, maybe supporting or even enabling Kony and the LRA because I was making clear my feelings about the many inadequacies of the Kony2012 video and campaign.

The last, of course, is so much fun. Being told that I support a psychopath makes my day.

On Facebook, one person in particular defended the video and campaign with that marvelous stand-by that it at least served the purpose of educating an until-then ignorant public about the activities of the LRA, so it had achieved something laudable, right?

That's the kind of counter-question I find difficult to counter. Yet, it seems a kind of special pleading, as if all the other criticisms have merit, but, hey, people know a name now, right?

Than I came across this, thanks to Rachel Rosenfelt on Facebook.
It is the campaign’s insistence on the exceptional nature of Kony’s crimes that produce both Kony and his victims as Outside, exceptional to our everyday. Indeed, as political philosopher Sayres Rudy pointed out to me, anti-Kony and knee-jerk anti-anti-Kony may “contribute to a broader pattern of accepting the systemic instrumentalization and massacre of innocents, by rendering Kony/Invisible Children as exceptional instead of typical, allowing their offenses to constitute similar systemic actions as normal, legitimate, or acceptable.” His further insight is that American soldiers who are often neither old enough to drink or vote are sent to kill, but we don’t think of these as child soldiers slaughtering innocents.

If the discussion around #Kony2012 stops without exploring these connections, we are left not with politics but with elite-liberal mutual masturbation over the way to address the exceptional rather than the systemic
This New Inquiry article was a treasure trove of links, leading the way down an alternative path toward answering the questions posed by those who find in the Invisible Children video any little scrap of virtue worth saving. One of those is TMS Ruge who addresses the whole matter of "awareness-raising" head on:
“Raising awareness” (as vapid an exercise as it is) on the level that IC does, costs money. Loads and loads of money. Someone has to pay for the executive staff, fancy offices, and well, that 30-minute grand-savior, self-crowning exercise in ego stroking—in HD—wasn’t free. In all this kerfuffle, I am afraid everyone is missing the true aim of IC’s brilliant marketing strategy. They are not selling justice, democracy, or restoration of anyone’s dignity. This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant. They are, in actuality, selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. All I have to do is show up in my broken English, look pathetic and wanting. You, my dear social media savvy click-activist, will shed a tear, exhaust Facebook’s like button, mobilize your cadre of equally ill-uninformed netizens to throw money at the problem.

Cause, you know, that works so well in the first world.
Further down, Ruge writes the following about The Women of Kireka:
The Women of Kireka are the most resilient group of individuals that I know. Spend a day with them and you will wonder how they manage to so calmly describe to you watching their entire families burned alive, their husbands and children hacked to death, in front of them. They do it so calmly, methodically, with such articulate prose that it leaves your soul victimized for it’s privilege. Yet they don’t pause from rolling a perfectly crafted paper bead for a beautiful necklace. They don’t waste their time lamenting the lack of justice for the fallen or the abducted. Why? Because it doesn’t bring back the dead, it doesn’t dissolve the horrific images of their huts burning, or ease the scars borne of running scared into the night.

Instead, they want work and respect and business to be able to make decisions that move their lives along. They want desperately to forget and rebuild anew; thankful for their lives. They want radios and cell phones and grasp at any semblance of normalcy. They cuddle and nurse their newborns like delicate, cherished gifts. What they don’t talk about is justice. They talk about how to forgive and move on.

But I can’t tell you their story. Why? Someone else has taken over their part in this complex saga, simplified it, branded it, packaged it and is reselling it as an Action Kit.
Another great commentary comes from political scientist Adam Branch, who writes in Dissent:
My frustration with the group has largely reflected the concerns expressed so eloquently by those individuals who have been willing to bring the fury of Invisible Children’s true believers down upon themselves in order to point out what is wrong with this group’s approach: the warmongering, the self-indulgence, the commercialization, the reductive and one-sided story it tells, its portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans, and the fact that civilians in Uganda and Central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money. This, of course, is sickening, and I think that Kony 2012 is a case of Invisible Children having finally gone too far.
First, because Invisible Children is a symptom, not a cause. It is an excuse that the U.S. government has gladly adopted in order to help justify the expansion of its military presence in Central Africa. Invisible Children are “useful idiots,” being used by those in the U.S. government who seek to militarize Africa, to send more and more weapons and military aid, and to build the power of military rulers who are U.S. allies. The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy—how often does the U.S. government find millions of young Americans pleading for it to intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources? The U.S. government would be pursuing this militarization with or without Invisible Children—Kony 2012 just makes it a bit easier. Therefore, it is the militarization we need to worry about, not Invisible Children.

Second, because in northern Uganda, people’s lives will be left untouched by this campaign, even if it were to achieve its stated objectives. This is not because things have entirely improved in the years since open fighting ended, but because the very serious problems people face today have little to do with Kony. The most significant one they face is over land. Land speculators and so-called investors, many foreign, in collaboration with the Ugandan government and military, are trying to grab the land of the Acholi people, land that they were forced off of a decade ago when they were herded into camps. Another prominent problem is nodding disease—a deadly illness that has broken out among thousands of children who grew up in the government’s internment camps, subsisting on relief aid. Indeed, the problems people face today are the legacy of these camps, where over a million Acholi were forced to live, and die, for years by their own government. This is the legacy of the government’s counterinsurgency, which received full support from the U.S. government and international aid agencies.
One of the threads running through the pieces from Prasse-Freeman, Ruge, and Branch can be summed up in one word: learn. None of the people mentioned here (and so many more) are arguing that the Lord's Resistance Army was something to be ignored. None of them support Kony, or are enabling Kony, or do not want the American people to be aware of the situation in Uganda.

What they want is for people to learn what's really going on. Kony2012 fails so utterly and completely at this that, at the end of the day, even the tattered virtue of "awareness-raising" crumbles under the relentless reality that the picture it paints of Uganda, the Ugandan people, and their current situation bares no relationship to the realities on the ground.

What are these realities? Writing in Review of International Political Economy in August, 2002, William Reno details the interlocking structures, from an international legal regime that demands respects for sovereign borders, legal frameworks from semi-supranational organizations such as The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that demand structural adjustments from states to meet debt obligations, and the predatory habits they encourage that create conditions for on-going war, in particular in central Africa which is rich in multiple mineral resources. Far from creating conditions for development, the many actors including the governments of states across the continent - not only Uganda is mentioned, but also Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe - exist in conditions where the multiple cross-pressures create conditions for the perpetuation of war as a structural tactic for maintaining stability and order without necessarily creating conditions for the development of internal infrastructure for local sustainability. When people talk about "neo-colonialism" and the structural impediments for development and political and civil cohesion, Reno's piece goes a long way toward defining it and limning its many threads.

In the years since Reno's piece has appeared, new factors have arisen that have exacerbated the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The explosion in demand for the variety of electronic devices has created a demand in particular for rare earth metals, in which both DRC and CAR are quite rich. Keeping both countries weak and unstable, various outside actors, including Uganda, keep a military presence in these countries, in particular in the northeastern parts of the DRC, where senior military officials have created networks of resource extraction and trading for personal gain. Allowing Uganda to skim some off the top to help their balance of payments and fiscal situations, these entrepreneurial military officers create long-running issues that, with the introduction of American military forces, have only been made worse. The Chinese, in particular, have a large presence across the continent, so it should surprise no one that the United States is developing a policy of military presence to protect its own interests, not the least of them keeping various trade relations (including with various military entrepreneurs, not only from Uganda) on a sure footing. Combined with the already-existing interlocking structural deterrents to stability, our current policy, using Kony as an excuse, is perpetuating the misery, in particular in DRC, which suffered international neo-colonial attention when it was known as Zaire.

As I was contemplating how to continue what I believe is a real discussion about these matters, I learned on the news that Jason Russell, who is the singular auteur behind Kony2012, was detained yesterday for public intoxication and masturbation.
Danica Russell, in a family statement obtained by NBC News, suggested sudden attention and criticism of the film about African warlord Joseph Kony, may have led to her husband's behavior.

"We thought a few thousand people would see the film, but in less than a week, millions of people around the world saw it," Danica Russell said. "While that attention was great for raising awareness about Joseph Kony, it also brought a lot of attention to Jason -- and, because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.


In an earlier statement Friday, Ben Keesey, CEO of Invisible Children, said:
"Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason's passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time."
So the narcissism of Kony2012 continues.

There is a right way to do things. It includes getting your facts straight, listening to people who actually know what they're talking about, hearing more than a single voice weep and moan about lost loved ones, and first and foremost not making oneself both subject and object of concern. One could make a professional video about current conditions in Uganda (not "Africa") that was informative. Kony2012 is not.

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