An Exquisite Footnote to the Kony2012 Sentimentalism Spasm
Ah, my poor beloved, earnest, do-gooding, farina-brained Americans. By now everyone in Portland has probably heard that contrary to their initial impression, it is not cool to wear a wristband and raise awareness about Kony, and in fact doing so is a sign that you may be racist, colonialist, and quite possibly terminally afflicted with the dread White Man's Burden, or perhaps just a fatuous, fashionable twit. This must be very confusing to people in Portland. Max Fisher explains it all to Portland in the Atlantic. Quite right he is, too.
It's the exchange on Twitter that followed that brightened me so:
From Teju Cole, who affords me shy hope for future of the English language:
The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.
This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah
I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.
Cole is not wrong, even if his language is soaked in resentment, that sentimentality has driven some of the Western world's worst abuses, and that behind this sentimentality is an assumption of the rightness of privilege. Paternalism, after all, is a way of casting oneself in a loving and familial role that also happens to exercise power over someone else, who is cast as subjugate whether they want to be or not.
But Cole makes the same mistake as Invisible Children, reducing an entire culture to his interactions with it and a few easy stereotypes, a monolithic mass to be judged and maybe even solved.
And then Cole:
Huh? I’m as American as you.
Game, set and match.
I refer you now to my friend Christy Quirk, a woman whose wiseness I have come to cherish more and more with every passing year in Turkey. She explains why Facebook campaigns hurt democratic movements--and would twice as certainly have no effect on the fate of Kony, in as much as the LRA is no longer in Uganda. In any event, the LRA is much smaller than previously thought. It does not have have 30,000 or 60,000 child soldiers. The figure of 30,000 refers to the total number of children abducted by the LRA over the past 30 years. In October last year, Obama authorized the deployment of 100 US army advisers to help the Ugandan military track down Kony. There is in fact no threat to remove them.
As Christy tartly observes,
There are lots of things about Facebook that annoy me (mostly how it went from being a useful way to find out what your coolest friends were doing, listening to or reading to becoming an echo chamber of your most annoying friends’ scores on idiotic quizzes, but that’s a different blog post on a different blog) but the thing that bothers me most these days is all the groups and petitions devoted to “supporting” various democratic movements.
Moldova introduced itself to hundreds of thousand clicktivists earlier this year. Then there was Iran. (The online response to China’s cracking some Uighur skull has been, at best, muted, at least in my network. I suspect it’s because there aren’t as many hot girls involved). The most recent example comes from Baku, where two Azeri youth activists were beaten up by sportsmenki and tossed in jail for doing little more than having dinner at a downtown Baku restaurant.
Since this happened, I have been invited to no fewer than six groups that express support for them, but have not joined one. I feel bad about this, but the only things less effective than Azeri youth activists are the Facebook groups set up to “draw international attention” to their situation. (Harsh? I know from Azeri youth activists). Furthermore, they fail to achieve even that amorphous goal: the tepid support most of the groups receive does little but illustrate what is already screamingly obvious — very few outside Azerbaijan care what goes on there. And after generating all the international attention, then what?
Like Twitter, Facebook democracy support groups bug me for several reasons.
First, Facebook groups prolong the illusion held by many in opposition movements in the Former Soviet Union that democratic change can come from anywhere but inside the country. One of the Azeri opposition’s favorite strategies for achieving power was writing lots of letters to foreign leaders, taking expensive junkets to Brussels and beseeching visiting OSCE diplomats plaintively. Really, who can blame them for wanting to spend more time in Vienna than Yevlax? However, challenging despots requires hard, risky groundwork, convincing skeptical voters in your own country that you’re responsible enough to be trusted with the reins of power and that it’s worth the risk to join you.
Second, it prolongs the illusion that organizing is as easy as clicking a button. It’s a lot more fun to organize several thousand Europeans and Americans to support your “cause” than it is to mobilize IDPs still living in train cars 14 years after the oil-rich country lost a war. It’s a lot easier to broadcast a Twitter to the universe than it is to go out and talk to people in Lenkoran who don’t have electricity, much less internet, face to face.
Third, it diminishes the stakes. If people in Azerbaijan truly want to boot the kleptocrats (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest most don’t), they have to join civil society organizations or political parties or labor unions that oppose the government. They have to volunteer to monitor elections. As a result, jobs will be lost, university places sacrificed, nights spent in jail and heads cracked. The idea that it can be done any other way is an insult to the people who have tried and succeeded (or, tried and failed).
The situation in Azerbaijan right now is terrible. It was terrible before Facebook and will continue to be terrible long after Facebook joins Friendster and MySpace in the dust-bin of social networking history. If you’re going to click, click on something like Daily Puppy or your favorite porn site. It will have about as much impact on Azerbaijan.
Save the wristband, though, my loves: I'm sure it will come in handy when next you adopt an adorable pet cause. Care2Care greeting cards suggests many fine causes to me every day. Perhaps you'd care to join this cause for legalizing chickens? A modest goal, entirely within your reach.