Armchair activism with an ego massager

The average American doesn’t know much about Africa. That’s why this video has gotten 71 million views since it went herpes-viral last week, and why students are asking me to show it in class. I plan to — as a lesson in critical thinking and media literacy.

Invisible Children’s campaign is brilliant. I watched it Wednesday morning and got Pavlovian teacher-slobber all over my sensible shoes: Look! Young people care about events on the other side of the world that don’t affect them! The Facebook/Twitter babies are harnessing technology for activism; not just for texting throughout my carefully-planned lessons! As someone who’d give her left nad to see kids develop historical/cultural perspective and become citizens of the world, I was thrilled.

But as a citizen of the world, I smell something funny. I’m suspicious of spectacle; of swelling music and sweeping, simplistic statements like, “We ARE going to stop him.” My bullshit meter tingles when one person is named as the embodiment of evil in Uganda, where the government is neck-deep in corruption and complicity (when a monster like Kony is allowed to run riot, murdering and raping for years on end, shouldn’t you ask which other monsters are letting him get away with it? But the video leaves that out, along with other information:

  • Northern Uganda has been peaceful for years — Kony and the LRA were driven out of the Ugandan military. Since then, Kony has been most active in the Congo, and even that was 10 years ago.
  • Invisible Children spends 2/3 of its budget on advocacy and publicity in the United States, not in Africa — and most of that gets sunk into film production and road tours.
  • The video’s narrator, Jason Russell, asks us to lobby American politicians and celebrities to stop Kony — but doesn’t mention any African politicians, not even Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power about the same time Kony did. PATERNALISTIC NEO-COLONIALIST MILITARY INTERVENTIONIST ALERT. More on that here, and it’s worth reading all the way through. Please note that all the Africans in the video are backgrounded by straw and mud huts. I call bullshit.
  • Speaking of which, can you hear the messianic lilt in Russell’s voice? I thought he was just gay, but it turns out he’s got fundamentalist ties. It must have worked well at Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, where he spoke in 2011 and said “We can have fun while ending genocide,” “We’re gonna have a blast doing it, hoo-hoo!”
  • Joseph Kony and the LRA are also known for supporting theocracy. THE IRONY, IT BURNS! MY EYES!

Also: Between 100-140 million girls and women around the world have undergone female genital mutilation, 92 million of them in Africa. Where’s their viral social-media campaign? Where’s the outrage? The slogans? Nowhere much outside of feminist media, because FGM is where white Westerners become moral relativists; where they say, “Well…it’s their culture. Who are we to try and change their culture?”

Why do liberal Westerners accept FGM as part of African culture, but get het up about LRA warlords? Why can they be moved to care about stopping one, but not the other Because, in terms of FGM, “their culture” really means “their women.” Who are we to tell another nation how to treat their women, even if they make a tradition out of slicing into female genitalia with a knife, razor, or scissors, without anaesthesia?

I spent two weeks in Africa in 2004, writing a news story about Somalian refugees. The low point of that trip was an argument with my photographer about FGM. He pulled the “Who are we to…” argument out of his ass, so I said, “Dude, what if it were baby boys? What if the Africans had a long cultural tradition of slicing open baby boys’ genitalia in such a way that they could never feel sexual pleasure? In such a way that they died of infection; lost bladder and bowel control; had to be cut open and resewn on a regular basis? Would you still say it isn’t anybody else’s business?”

“Well…yeah,” he said.

“Liar,” I said. He was.

5 thoughts on “Armchair activism with an ego massager

  1. “Well…it’s their culture. Who are we to try and change their culture?”

    This really grinds me! I wonder where are the “it’s their culture” folks when christian (deliberately not capitalized) missionaries ensconce themselves in non-christian or aboriginal societies to save these poor souls.

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