Unless you live under a rock, you’ve seen Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 YouTube video which has now gone viral:
We posted it ourselves on LoonWatch. We wondered what if Joseph Kony, a self-avowed Christian leading a group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, had been a Muslim with the name Yusuf Qani? What if he was leading a group called Allah’s Resistance Army?
The article generated a healthy discussion, and we benefited from the input of Ruth DeSouza, who posted a link to a very thought-provoking article she wrote:
The documentary repeats the colonial imperative for Africa to be saved by white people. This video smacks of yet another colonial “civilising” project, where the old binaries of colonialism are revived. These frame Africa as backward, while the west is modern; “we” are positioned as free while “they” are oppressed and so on. In this binary of good and bad, Africans are represented on the not so good side of the binary. Therefore, the solution must be a good one, a white one, and in this hierarchy Africans lose out. Local efforts and voices go unacknowledged in favour of the white saviour complex, which as Teju Cole suggests “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening”…
I abhor the white saviour narrative, where vulnerable children or women of colour must be rescued from men of colour by “culturally superior” white men or women.
Her complaint with the documentary is most certainly valid. The documentary could have benefited from featuring some local African protagonists, of which there exist no shortage of. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the people most involved in the effort to protect the local population would be from within the community itself.
Dispatches’ documentary on Africa’s child witches managed to give a more balanced picture of the situation by including African heroes alongside Gary Foxcroft, such as Sam Itauma. By so doing, they decreased the chances of sending the wrong message. One must be cautious in this regard, especially in the backdrop of a long history of colonial humanitarianism. The West has–and continues to–use humanitarian “concerns” to imply their superiority over darker peoples, as well as to justify military occupation.
Having said that, I do not think one can be too critical of Invisible Children’s documentary. They were in a bit of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. If they depicted the suffering of Africans, they could be accused of portraying Africa as backward. If they ignore African plight, then they could be accused of racism (do you only care about white people dying?).
Even so, it is very true that Westerners, especially Americans, have a much easier time seeing a black African like Joseph Kony as the ultimate villian. Certainly, Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have killed thousands of individuals, abducted tens of thousands, and displaced countless more innocent people. No reasonable person could deny the wickedness of Kony or his cohorts.
Yet, all of this pales in front of the crimes committed by the leaders of the United States, most of whom are “good, white Judeo-Christian folk.” I know even the thought of this seems offensive to all Serious, Decent People, who would be quick to cast this off as some sort of conspiracy theorist talk.
But, the evidence speaks for itself. The Christian Science Monitor estimates that the LRA has “killed an estimated 2,500 people” over an 18-month period. I couldn’t find a cumulative tally for the last two decades, but it seems safe to say that we’re talking about thousands or at most tens of thousands. Meanwhile, “a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities [caused by the United States]…is well over one million.” That’s just Muslim victims.
Who then is the greater villain? Pure numbers would indicate the United States. Admittedly, there are other considerations, but the huge disparity in numbers of corpses speaks volumes.
It’s unlikely that a YouTube video calling to stop the United States from its history of virtually non-stop war and killing would ever go viral like the Kona 2012 documentary did. Granted, it’s harder to criticize one’s own nation, but it seems more reasonable to channel one’s energy towards one’s elected government. As our generation’s most important intellectual Noam Chomsky said in an interview:
My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences.
Furthermore, pointing to the atrocities committed by people of other nations while remaining silent about one’s own country’s crimes reeks of hypocrisy of the worst order. Chomsky continued:
It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.
The point is that the useful and significant political actions are those that have consequences for human beings. And those are overwhelmingly the actions which you have some way of influencing and controlling, which mean for me, American actions.
For most citizens, however, the situation is exactly reversed. Indeed, American interest in human rights abuses falls into one of three categories:
1. They are most vocal about the inequities of their enemies, especially when there is a national interest involved and the villain is a Muslim (i.e. Iran).
2. They are generally silent about (or merely pay lip service to) the human rights abuses committed against people belonging to nations where no national benefit can be expected (i.e. many parts of Africa).
3. They are wholly ignorant about, adamantly deny, or justify the crimes committed by their own government (i.e. the United States) or stalwart allies (i.e. Israel).
George Orwell famously said:
All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
We always wonder how it was that the Germans claimed not to know what Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were doing. Yet, how similar is our general state of apathy today toward what our own government commits on a daily basis. The reality is that the American can never come to grips with the wickedness of the crimes his nation commits.
American indifference and willful ignorance of the hundreds of thousands of lives our government brings to an end is also due to the fact that we don’t witness the effects of what we’re doing. Whereas Europe and Russia experienced the horrors of war firsthand, the United States has remained relatively safe and secure on the North American continent, not having seen war on its shores for a very long time. War to Americans means little more than increased gas prices–not bombs dropping from the skies while filling gas.
The victims of American foreign policy reside some hundreds and thousands of miles away in countries and continents we’ve never seen. The dead remain nameless and faceless. Even our soldiers oftentimes don’t see who they kill. Imagine if a pilot of a bomber plane had to actually attend the funerals of the peoples’ lives he extinguishes with the press of a button? This situation has become even worse with the advent of remote-controlled drones. Americans are becoming increasingly protected and distant from the violence that they spread throughout various parts of the globe. Our way of killing is just cleaner (and more efficient).
But, it hardly matters to a victim if his relative died from being hacked to pieces by a machete or having a bomb dropped on his head from the skies. The result is the same: death.
There is of course another issue: those “bad guys” we criticize, like Joseph Kony, look like villains. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of American crimes wear suits and ties, look and talk in a courteous, cool, and calm manner. As Glenn Greenwald put it:
There are all kinds of people who advocate extremely heinous ideas, but do so in a very soft-spoken and civil manner. Bill Kristol comes to mind, John Yoo, as well. These are people who can go on and be extremely polite in conversation.
Their mannerisms do not change their deeds, which are heinous. The U.S. presidents have killed more Muslims than Kony has killed Africans. Noam Chomsky opined:
If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.
How much easier it is to express indignation over Joseph Kony or, better yet, some Muslim villain?
Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks spoke about the criticism Kona 2012 has been receiving. To be clear, I largely agree with Uygur’s analysis. I have an overall positive impression of Invisible Children’s documentary and their efforts. My article should not be seen as criticism of them, but rather, of us Americans in general.
Additionally, I’d like to respond to a question raised by a reader, who asked:
you guys are living in the U.S.A. yet you criticize it. Why?
It is precisely because I was born, raised, and live in the United States that I speak out against what the government does in my name. Please refer to Noam Chomsky’s quote above.
It has come to light that Invisible Children may be advocating direct U.S. military intervention in the region (see here and here). Because of this, I withdraw my words of approval for the group (at least for now).