I’ve seen a lot of my friends sharing this meme about Joseph Kony and the LRA through various social media websites. Whilst this shouldn’t be taken as a direct criticism, the whole thing just rankles me a bit. I’ll try and explain why.
The danger with using the power of internet memetics and the changing society is that we end up focussing on a singular dynamic of violence and horror. True enough the LRA and Kony are a terrible example of, well, anything, but the risk of turning the power of the internet against him and proclaiming some kind of “new dawn” (which, given the power of social communication in aiding recent civil resistance in the Middle East is understandable), in what seems to be a (mis)guided attempt at a cosmopolitanism ethic is troubling.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of those behind the ‘Invisible Children’ project. Nor do I reject a “do what you can” mentality to popular engagement with geopolitics. It’s laudable, really, and I say that with no hint of sarcasm at all. I know he cares, I do too. I’ve been aware of Kony and the activities of the LRA for a long time. As he says in the film when confronted with the reality of child soldiering in Northern Uganda: “this has been going on for years? if this was happening in America it would be on the cover of Newsweek!”.
He’s right in a sense, but also completely wrong. The psychological gap between America, or the West in general and the necropolitical in sub-saharan Africa has become so great that even a Newsweek/Time/Life magazine front cover (of which there have been many covering the great African Wars which began in the early 1990’s and continue to this day ((of which Kony and the LRA exist as only a tiny fragment)) is not enough to turn the Western world’s attention for any longer that the time taken to fulfil a news cycle. We have seen it and yet have chosen to look away from this particular intrusion of the real.
Joseph Kony is a paranoid schizophrenic and his movement, the LRA, is riven with internal divisions. His surrender was being talked about up until mid 2009. Newsnight reporters managed to track him down in the jungle in 2006 and interview him regarding the potential end of hostilities and the demobilisation of his factions. The ICC’s warrant against him though, and the relentless ‘infantopolitics’ employed in the world of social media by Invisible Children’s campaign skews the debate massively.
The cosmopolitics employed by Invisible Children is, as I’ve said, laudable. However, by focussing on a singular conflict dynamic (i.e. in Northern Uganda) which is actually part of a much larger, messier history involving processes of geopolitical power, ethnic violence and resource control and neo-colonialism, there is a distinct risk of missing the point, of magnifying something vile and terrible, but small at the expense of noticing (and mobilising against) something which is vile, worse and much, much larger.
Central African conflict dynamics must be seen in the context of poverty, institutional corruption, resource conflict, Western backing of dictators during the Cold War and myriad other factors. The literature is out there, both in academia and in the media, it has been for years. Over 4 million people have died in wars in Central Africa since 1992 and in relation to this Kony is, awful, but small, fry. (when compared with, say the Interhamwe in Rwanda, the RPF in Sierra Leone or Charles Taylor’s militias in Liberia, not to mention all the nameless ‘small business’ warlords peppering the DRC to this day)
The “big idea(s)” that Invisible Children proposes, which seem from their video to be the creation of a US backed surveillance infrastructure in Northern Uganda along the employment of celebrities to “make a celebrity” of Kony himself in order to aid his capture seems to be a bizarre and counter-productive notion which will only succeed in driving Kony further into the jungle underground, making him more, rather than less, difficult to apprehend.
The whole thing seems misguided, as I say, focussing on one particularly horrific but not unique, example of the desperate violence which typifies uneven development, whilst ignoring the much larger socio-economic structures of global finance capital, debt, trade imbalances and neo-colonial meddling which ensure the continued power and status of individuals like Kony.
Yes he is terrible. Yes he is a war criminal. Yes he must be stopped, but the employment of an affect saturated social media politics of (largely white) Western mobilisation is not, to my mind, going to help the general wellbeing of the majority of Africans, even if it does, by happenstance, result in the death or capture of Kony.
Better, I feel, to look at the crippling yoke of debt repayments still throttling African development, along with the rigged system of global trade which allows US and EU farm subsidies which keep African export prices artificially low, not to mention the insatiable demand of the West for conflict minerals and other natural resources which often leads to the fuelling of many other local conflicts and funds warlords just as vicious and cruel as Kony, warlords who, incidentally, also kidnap and use child soldiers on a vast scale.
Finally the idea of using (again, largely White) ‘influential culture makers’ via the web to mobilise a support agenda around a single humanitarian issue is nothing new, and, I suppose, the main reason for my (what seems now quite lengthy) rant.
It’s history redux, we’ve seen it all before.
We care. For a while. Maybe we’ll ‘like’ a site, or wear a wristband, or go to a few meetings or photoshoots. Maybe we’ll even make our own mini-films about traumatised African children we’ve met whilst on our travels.
Maybe it’ll save a few lives, so who am I to argue?
I just wish that kind of energy that people obviously feel when confronted with a tiny, edited, highly mediated snippet of injustice could be directed towards the bigger picture.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe you think I’m being too cynical.
If so, don’t be shy of letting me know.