Thursday, March 15, 2012

Yet Again, The Point Is Simple - It's Not About Us

To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep.
Guy Debord

Thanks to social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, the biggest hit on the internet is a video produced by a group called Invisible Children about the Lords Resistance Army of northern Uganda and its fugitive leader, Joseph Kony.

Professionally done to the point of slickness, the video is also patronizing, narcissistic, overflowing with that patented American sense of optimism that disregards the complexities and histories and conflicting narratives about those histories that, in the end, leave me both fascinated and worried. I'm fascinated that a film that purports to be about bringing to justice an international fugitive seems far more about the film-maker's self-righteousness and smug sense of superiority than about the LRA, Kony, the war between the Ugandan military and the LRA, and the victims caught in the middle. For a film that is supposed to be about Kony, his name isn't mentioned until nearly nine minutes in, almost a third of the way through this 30-minute video presentation.

Did I mention there isn't a face of color in the first four or five minutes of the film, in which the film maker "sets the stage" with home movies of himself, his family, and in particular his son (at one point, this same son is shown using a camera to "blow up" a woman in line at a grocery store, and isn't that ironic for multiple reasons, considering Kony's use of child soldiers). It is clear to me, at least, this film has little to do with the LRA and everything to do with "making a difference" for a bunch of wealthy, disconnected, white Americans. I laughed out loud at one point, as the clip showed a car moving through a camp where teenage refugees and escapees, caught between the Ugandan military and the LRA's "recruiters", were shown occupying abandoned buildings, open fields, anywhere they could grab a space to sleep; a voice in the background says that, if there were such a scene in the US for even one night, it would be on the cover of Newsweek. Because, obviously, there is no problem of homelessness among children and teenagers in the United States, now, is there, young people trapped between the police on the one hand and gangs that use violent intimidation to recruit new members?

The many layers of ignorance are astounding.

Three pieces on the website for the English language edition of Al Jazeera make clear the many ways #Kony2012, for all it may have raised awareness in some general sense, is actually counterproductive. Adam Branch, a professor of political science at San Diego State University, as well as a researcher at the Makarere Institute in Uganda, writes:
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. Likewise, in my view, the Kony 2012 campaign itself is basically irrelevant here in Uganda, and perhaps the best approach might be to just ignore it. This is for a couple reasons.

First, because Invisible Children's campaign is a symptom, not a cause. It is an excuse that the US government has gladly adopted in order to help justify the expansion of their military presence in central Africa. 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.

The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy - how often does the US government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources? The US government would be pursuing this militarisation with or without Invisible Children - Kony 2012 just makes it a little easier. Therefore, it is the militarisation we need to worry about, not Invisible Children.
Mahmood Mamdami, director of the Makarere Institute for Social Research, writes:
Young adults recall the time from the mid-1990s when most rural residents of the three Acholi districts were forcibly interned in camps. The Ugandan government claimed it was to "protect" them from the LRA. But there were allegations of murder, bombings, and the burnings of entire villages: first to force people into the camps, and then to force them to stay put. By 2005, the camp population grew from a few hundred thousand to over 1.8 million in the entire region - which included Teso and Lango - of which over a million were from the three Acholi districts. Comprising practically the entire rural population of the three Acholi districts, they were expected to live on handouts from relief agencies. According to the government's own Ministry of Health, the excess mortality rate in these camps was approximately 1,000 persons per week - inviting comparisons with the numbers killed by the LRA even in the worst year.
Critics asked why the ICC was indicting only the leadership of the LRA, and not government forces as well. Ocampo said only one step at a time could be taken. In his words: "The criteria for selection of the first case was gravity. We analysed the gravity of all crimes in northern Uganda committed by the LRA and the Ugandan forces. Crimes committed by the LRA were much more numerous and of much higher gravity than alleged crimes committed by the UPDF (Uganda Peoples Defense Force). We therefore started with an investigation of the LRA." That "first case" was in 2004. There have been no others involving Uganda in the eight years that have followed.
Finally, for all the sincerity expressed by the filmmakers that #Kony2012 is "for" the people of Uganda who have lived through the terrors of the Lord's Resistance Army, the video was only recently screened in northern Uganda, due to limited access to the internet. Al Jazeera reporter Malcolm Webb reports from the town of Lira, where a riot, sparked by anger at the film, erupted, cutting the viewing short as rocks started raining on the screen.

The point of this discussion should be clear enough. Reacting to the arresting and moving scenes and stories from northern Uganda, well-intentioned but ignorant outsiders arrive on the scene and announce both their authority and the means to solve the problems they suddenly declare to be of profound importance to the world's only superpower. Thus did Pres. Obama send one hundred military advisers, along with an unspecified number of UAV's to assist the government of Pres. Museveni of Uganda. Uganda had already invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was preparing to mount an invasion of the Central African Republic (CAR) in search of Kony. This was done because Museveni, for all he came to power in the late 1980's as a beacon of hope after years under dictators including Idi Amin and refused to surrender power, has refused to participate in any mediated political solution. Much of the current misery in the northern areas of Uganda is the result of the Ugandan Army's campaign against the LRA. The African Union, along with the Government of South Sudan, has been working for years on a political settlement that would bring home the members of the LRA; Museveni has refused to sign any legislation offering amnesty to LRA members because those bills have always included amnesty for Kony. Kony's indictment by the ICC, rather than a moral victory for the jurisdiction of the court, has only complicated and thwarted possible political solutions. With the entrance of the United States military, the possibility for a peaceful settlement retreated further; the US is not even a signatory to the convention creating the International Criminal Court. Should Kony fall in to the hands of the US military, who's to say if he will be bound over for trial in The Hague, turned over to the Ugandan military, or returned to Uganda and turned over to their legal authorities.

Standing off from a distance, it is easy enough, I suppose, to become overwhelmed by the situation in Uganda. Kony is an easy enough target for hatred and disgust. Hatred and disgust at an easy target is not a substitute for careful thought, for educating oneself on the facts of the matter, and for constructing possible responses out of a sense both of how much as well as how little one knows about a particular situation. The American response, I maintain, is rooted as much in guilt over our inaction - and, according to a report from the Organization for African Unity released in 2000, its complicity - during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990's as our concern for the specifics of the struggle between the LRA and the Ugandan military. That the Uganda of today has far different concerns and problems stemming from the heavy hand of the dictator we are currently supporting would, if we were a bit more aware, mock our good intentions.

It is all well and good, I think, to desire to do something to alleviate suffering. It is all well and good to believe and work on the principle that individuals can make a difference in the world. Done without regard to the realities on the ground, rooted in an unreflective, patronizing racism that is all the worse for going unrecognized, the #Kony2012 video is a travesty, a mockery of the very ideals from which it purports to come. As the epigram from Guy Debord makes clear, however, it is easier for us to rely on the spectacle of the video and the equally engrossing possible spectacle that shows us riding to the rescue of the Ugandans; these nightmares have the singular virtue of being those of other people. We can sleep at night knowing that, watching a video, we have done something. The consolations of our detachment keep us from the far more difficult work of actually learning things and doing things.

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