Lessons of the ‘Stop Kony’ video — let the giver beware

A commonplace of our time is that social media, Facebook and Twitter and so on, connect and humanize us. Technology has put powerful tools into the hands of the humble, and the mighty are trembling: so goes the argument. Each time I hear this encouraging notion, into my thoughts comes a passage from the 1930 treatise, Civilization and Its Discontents. Surveying the early-twentieth century’s technological advances, the author — most known as the pioneer of psycho-analysis — interjects a “critical, pessimistic voice,” which notes that:

“If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing the mortality of children, when it is precisely this reduction which imposes the greatest moderation on us in begetting them, so that taken all round we do not rear more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for sexual life in marriage and probably counteracted the beneficial effects of natural selection? And what do we gain by a long life when it is full of hardship and starved of joys and so wretched that we can only welcome death as our deliverer?”

When Sigmund Freud wrote of “difficult conditions for sexual life in marriage,” he drew from personal experience. Indeed, he had near-to-hand many of the woes he describes. Yet I suspect most readers would think him unduly pessimistic about the potential of technology to make human lives better. What then would people say about the sparkly attitudes, and platitudes, of Jason Russell’s viral video “Kony 2012”, which constitutes an upbeat experiment in “changing the world”?

One advantage of the Internet is that questions of this sort have been rendered easily answerable. A quick Google search, and you know for instance that skeptics have already begun the work of evaluating the finances of the not-for-profit group Invisible Children, producers of the Kony video, yielding some questions in need of answers. The writer Musa Okwonga touches upon the major points in a Telegraph article — for example, Kony 2012’s gross oversimplification of Ugandan politics and the paternalism of Western celebrity do-gooderism. “On the other hand,” he notes, “I am very happy — relieved, more than anything – that Invisible Children have raised worldwide awareness of this issue.”

So am I, with my own reservations. I began this piece citing Freud because he establishes the tone of skepticism and the balancing of opposites necessary to the study of complex human issues. Of course I would prefer that peace in Uganda were achievable by means of a publicity campaign focusing on the “bad guy” Joseph Kony. But the central paradox of technological gain alluded to by Freud — the giving with one hand and taking with another — applies also to social media. I’ll phrase it as follows: There’s more information out there than ever before, only most of it is of doubtful use and value. Some may even be harmful. Here are things to consider if you plan on supporting the Kony campaign. These are not criticisms of Invisible Children or of the Kony 2012 video; they are practical observations. May they add some ounces of value to the global conversation.

Earlier I used the phrase “Ugandan politics.” This is itself a simplification and a not-very-helpful way of approaching Uganda. African politics, from the Maghreb to the Horn, are shaped by historical tribal systems of social organization. As we see in Afghanistan, another society built upon tribal systems, conflicts pay no heed to come-lately national borders. The internal affairs of Uganda are incomprehensible if you leave out, for example, Sudan. Kony, like any military chief, has a tribe-based network of support as well as of competition. If you are a Westerner this means you may have to dismiss the nation-state and nationalism as the chief units of political currency.

Another thing of which to be mindful is that aid is often exploited by dictators. Uganda has a large army, many times larger than the several hundreds thought allied to Kony. One has to ask (along with Okwonga) “Why hasn’t the much more powerful Ugandan army put an end to Kony’s atrocities?” A couple years ago, Jane Bussmann offered some insight to this and related questions in a piece published by the Telegraph. In her assessment, “Kony has been a smokescreen for profit. While the crackpot’s kidnapping was at its peak, thousands of children snatched, tortured and raped each year, the Ugandan army was using equipment bought with aid money to run illegal mines in Congo – duty free shopping.” Skeptics have long known that African misery is banked upon by corrupt leaders. They know that so long as things are bad for their people, aid money will flow into their hands. This is not an argument against aid — only against aid given uncritically, to the first person with a viral video or a catchy song or a celebrity sponsor. Let the giver beware.

My final point is that anywhere you look — Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Uganda — there will be longstanding and local groups of citizens resisting and fighting against powerful thugs and murderers. On this International Women’s Day, I note that women are commonly on the world’s democratic and anti-corruption fronts. This is because women and their children always suffer the most under oppressive arrangements. Any campaign anywhere that does not put the great bulk of your money — and whatever else it may muster — into the advancement of women’s health and education and political emancipation is not worth your patronage. One inevitable day the cameras and the Western troops and the cash dry up, and the local people are left to their own resources. This is when we find just how well- or ill-conceived our charity was. Better to get it right from the beginning.

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