Friday, March 9, 2012

Buy a bracelet, soothe some guilt

Um, does anybody remember Haiti? Whatever happened to that outpouring of concern following the devastating earthquake in January 2010? Today, all I hear are crickets.

It is the 21st century version of "The White Man's Burden," the concept of well-meaning but clueless Westerners perched comfortably in front of laptops bemoaning the latest overseas disaster or outrage. After tossing a few nickels to a favorite NGO at the horrific scene, the TV channel is soon switched back to American Idol with nary a thought about the fate of the brown victims we cried a river over. With consciences assuaged, so endeth the crisis -- for us. Meanwhile, the Haitians continue to languish in misery.

Alas, this cycle is beginning anew with "Kony 2012," a video that has gone viral worldwide. It is the story of Joseph Kony, a bona fide monster who wrecked havoc in Northern Uganda for over two decades with his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). He is the African Mephistopheles who enslaved, brutalized and brainwashed an army of children to do his violent bidding. For Africa watchers, this is hardly breaking news. But it is for Americans who didn't know -- or care -- where Uganda was until, well, yesterday. Where was the outrage when the LRA was at its height a decade ago?

Today, Kony is on the run and no longer in Uganda. His LRA is (thankfully) a ghost of its former self and numbers only about 200. But those facts barely register in the celebrity-endorsed video created by the NGO Invisible Children. It is also unclear what exactly the well-meaning NGO wants to do "other than raise a lot of money and attention," noted Michael Wilkerson in Foreign Policy magazine. He also noted, "Along with sharing the movie online, Invisible Children's call to action is to do three things: 1) sign its pledge, 2) get the Kony 2012 bracelet and action kit (only $30!), and 3) sign up to donate." But bewailing Kony's death-spree in Uganda is now de rigueur. Expect CNN's Anderson Cooper to show up there soon, fashionably attired in his requisite black T-shirt.

Wilkerson, a longtime Uganda observer, writes:
"There are many reasons uninformed and oversimplified advocacy can cause trouble, and Siena Antsis catalogues some of them here, noting that Invisible Children expertly 'commodifies white man's burden on the African continent.' Buy a bracelet, soothe some guilt."
Calling attention to the LRA's crimes is a good thing. Dispatching Kony would be doubly so. But losing sight of the long-term issues affecting the victims, as Kipling's "burdened" Westerners have done so reliably in the past, won't help. Just ask the poor forgotten people of Haiti.

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