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Kony 2012, My Children, and Post-Colonial Sentimentality

Okay, I’ll admit it. I am happily participating in post-colonial sentimentality and white man as savior fantasies in order to support what I believe is the political awakening of my children. I get that it’s wrong, but I am also fairly certain it is far more complicated than that. I am talking, of course, of the Kony 2012 Campaign.

If you haven’t seen it, click on it. But you probably have seen it. The video got 56 Million views after just four days on Youtube.  It is, of course, a very complicated text. In it, human rights activist Jason Russell tells a highly simplified version of Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda and its villainous leader Joseph Kony.

Now there are certain facts that nearly everyone can agree upon. Kony is a horrible, horrible man whose LRA has kidnapped tens of thousands of children and forced them into both military service and sexual slavery. Most major powers, not having strategic interests in the area, could care less. The Kony 2012 Campaign, with its slickly produced 30 minute video and its use of stars like Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Bono to promote it, has a huge number of young Americans suddenly aware of the problem and is offering a solution (citizen pressure on the U.S. government to “do something”). As Maria Burnett, a Human Rights Watch senior researcher on Uganda, told the AP:

We hope it will be helpful. What it leads to remains to be seen, but the goal to bring pressure on key leaders, to protect civilians and to apprehend LRA leadership is important, absolutely.

The campaign, which asks kids around the world, but primarily kids in the U.S., to make the “invisible children” visible, will take place on the night of April 20th when teens around the country will put up Kony 2012 notices from a pre-packaged kids activism kit available on the Web site (actually, the action kits are sold out so I guess the many, many teens involved in the campaign will have to do something really radical and produce their own anti-Kony propaganda).

Unfortunately, the campaign is far from perfect. For one, it simplifies a very complex issue to get the most people on board. For another, it advocates U.S. military intervention and does not even address how military campaigns against the LRA have resulted in huge loss of civilian life. And finally, it’s white and seemingly completely unaware of this fact.

Handsome and blond Russell, the narrator and leader of the campaign,  imagines himself a white savior for poor Ugandan children. He juxtaposes images of his towheaded and adorable son with the faces of children abducted into the LRA (about 66,000 of them). Worse, it’s connected to evangelical Christianity. As B.E. Wilson wrote at Alternet, Russell spoke at Evangelical Liberty University last November and said:

We feel like God calls us to be joyful in the work that we’re doing, no matter what we’re doing… A lot of people fear Christians, they fear Liberty University, they fear Invisible Children – because they feel like we have an agenda. They see us and they go,’ You want me to sign up for something, you want my money. You want, you want me to believe in your God.’ And it freaks them out.

Needless to say, many of the problems in Africa today can be traced directly to this sort of “white man’s burden” and the “need” of white people to save poor, benighted Africans from themselves. As Max Fisher wrote over at the Atlantic,

This is not to say that the video’s many sharers are racist or anything less than well-intentioned; a very non-scientific survey of my social media and my friends’ suggests that it’s the good-hearted, the socially aware, and the thoughtful who are most likely to want to share this video. But there’s a reason that the ideas behind imperialism and colonialism found such fertile soil in enlightened Europe, and that it was often Europe’s most charitable who led the charge.

And as Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole tweeted,

The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

But like I said, this is a complicated text and a complicated movement and I am not convinced it is as simple as a “White Savior Industrial Complex.” After all, there are other messages in the video. Some of the more radical include the idea that generational alliances can mean more than national or racial identities and that the power of a hyper-connected globalalized world is not just profit, but the possibility of organizing against greed and business as usual.

As Rebecca Rosen wrote at The Atlantic,

It would be a terrible outcome, if those who initially pushed the video along were discouraged by this experience from further engagement, overlearning the lesson and believing there is no positive way for Americans to engage in the world abroad… In the end, the people (teenagers) who spread this video were motivated by a desire to help, no matter how misguided and problematic the organization behind it.

That’s right. Teens around the country, including my own, are fired up to “do something.” And adults, rightly so, are saying “it’s more complicated than that.” But really, if my kid is talking about Kony 2012 and then saying things like “my friends and I are actually forming an action group to address all sorts of issues, ones here too,” and then adults are attacking her on Facebook and elsewhere for being accidentally racist and for participating in post-colonial sentimentality, I can’t help but think that the real winner in this is the status quo and an entire generation of potential activists who’ve been immobilized and will never engage again.

And that would be a crime worthy of Joseph Kony.

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