Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

Questions For The Well-Intentioned

In Political Theory, Politics, Uncategorized on 2012/03/07 at 23:13

I am impressed. This morning I woke up to a Facebook news feed filled with acquaintances sharing the Kony 2012 campaign from Invisible Children; then I even overheard two separate conversations about Kony while walking down Bloor street. This is clearly a very effective viral campaign. What was a relatively obscure conflict that has been raging in central Africa for over twenty years is suddenly the thing to be talking about. 


So why am I so unhappy about it? This is the question I’ve been asking myself all day.


I was originally planning to write about the various criticisms that have been levelled against Invisible Children as an organization. However, I don’t think I really have anything substantial to add on that front. I don’t know anything about Invisible Children or the LRA that hasn’t already been presented in various locations. I’m not going to get into looking over what Invisible Children actually spends their money on. I’m not going to share my thoughts on this. I’m not even going to talk about who Kony and the LRA are. What I’m interested in is the wild enthusiasm for this campaign erupting all over social media and around me as I walk down the street and what that enthusiasm says about us as a society.

 Let’s make one thing clear, the Kony 2012 campaign wants you to support further western military intervention in an ongoing conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. Ignoring the fact that there have already been (spectacularly failed) attempts by foreign forces to capture or kill Joseph Kony, we should ask if that’s something we should really be getting excited about.

It’s easy for pacifists like myself to criticise the call to war when the target is someone like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gadafi. It’s easy to be cynical about imperious American elites who claim to be concerned with atrocities committed by dictators who happen to control vast amounts of valuable resources. But what about these friendly-looking young people, with their cute kids and swelling music, urging us to deploy military “advisors” to an area of the world already so ravaged by war as to make it of little conceivable value to American interests ? How can I NOT want American boots on the ground and American weapons, technology, and military expertise in the hands of the people committed to hunting down and killing such a terrible person as Joseph Kony?

 Before I answer that I feel it’s necessary to say that, obviously, Joseph Kony is a terrible person, guilty of some of the most despicable crimes imaginable. In a perfect world he would be brought to justice swiftly and with as little bloodshed as possible.

 We don’t live in a perfect world.

 Let’s put this all in perspective. There are currently somewhere between 2 and 3 million American personnel deployed around the world, operating out of hundreds of bases on every continent.  The US can deploy troops or rain down destruction remotely literally anywhere with very little notice. The western military-industrial complex is a vast, awesome machine the likes of which has never existed before in history. The US wields an almost unimaginable power and does so first and foremost in the name of protecting American interests. The Kony 2012 campaign accepts this, embraces it, and wants you to get excited about the power that it gives YOU as a citizen of a democracy to project your values and your desires onto the rest of the world.

 This is my problem with the reaction to the [very well executed] plea from Invisible Children to increase pressure on the American government to take out Joseph Kony. 

 Let’s not forget that the political chaos and resulting violence that has plagued countries like Uganda for so long, can largely be traced back to the mess left by retreating colonial powers. The image of idealistic young westerners saving African children is awkward enough as it is, but adding armed soldiers and high-tech weaponry should be enough to make anyone think twice about the bottom line of what Invisible Children wants us to do. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to occur to many of us. The idea of an increased, sustained military effort on the part of the west to capture or kill Joseph Kony makes us feel good about the leviathan of American military hegemony. When an issue seems as black and white as Invisible Children would have us believe, we allow ourselves to be whipped into a hawkish frenzy which feeds back into our hope that this leviathan created in our name can be put to good use; that the American empire can be a force for good; that our way of life is not selfish and destructive; that WE are good.

 There are troublesome questions to be asked, like:


Won’t hunting down a warlord who uses child soldiers by definition involve having to kill many of those child soldiers to get to him?


Doesn’t western intervention in religious and ethnically charged conflicts in developing countries always cause unintended consequences such as further radicalization of local populations, collateral damage, and civilian casualties?


Haven’t the LRA’s enemies been accused of similarly horrendous crimes, including the use of child soldiers?


When will the need for a constant American military presence in global trouble spots end?


When we take the time to ask these sorts of questions,  we risk not only blunting our enthusiasm for the continued use of the Gyge’s ring called the US military, we risk questioning our privileged place in the world.

 I’m not saying I necessarily oppose many of Invisible Children’s aims. I’m not saying I  don’t appreciate the skill with which they have brought such an important issue to the attention of such a wide audience.

I am saying, however, that the oversimplification of a situation fraught with so many moral dilemmas and the resulting unquestioning enthusiasm for the use of American military might on the part of so many people should be deeply disturbing to anyone who values critical thought or who questions the idea that human rights can be effectively defended by violence.

 I for one will not be supporting Invisible Children in their efforts to use American military power to chase Joseph Kony through the jungles of central Africa, no matter how well produced their documentaries. I deplore his crimes just as much as you do, but the assumptions the good people at Invisible Children have made about the ability of well-intentioned liberal westerners like us to solve the world’s problems with firepower are too much for me. 

 Before giving Invisible Children money to make more movies or telling Bono and Obama that you want Joseph Kony dead or captured at any cost, I encourage you to think about these questions that have been troubling me all day.