The Kony 2012 debacle has been well covered over the last couple of days, but I think there’s something related to be said here about the phenomenon of mass Public Emoting Sessions (which I’ll call Pessions, for short).
In many ways a close cousin to the primarily liberal-led Pessions are more traditional Daily Mail-style Moral Panics from the right, which have ironically inspired significantly more palpable activity (though woe betide any paediatricians who get in the way).
They’re characterised by extreme simplicity (situation X needs whitey to sort it out by throwing a few quid to a charity or petitioning the relevant Western government) and a rapid spike/falloff off interest.
Haiti is a perfect example of this phenomenon with a big internet-based call to Western governments to “do something” being followed up by, well, not very much1 and it is such “campaign, be told something will be done by someone else, pat back, done” elements which intensely irritate long-term campaigners, politically-minded people and indeed anyone with experience of how imperial states tend to “solve” other nations’ problems.
The reality is that the situation is never as simple as Good guys vs Bad guys with the difference being made by keyboard-hoppers shouting for justice, both because these problems are only permanently solveable by the people actually living there and because such outside activity as can actually being marshalled is always conducted through the means of existing power structures.
Kony’s crimes have been well-known for a long time. So have those of Ramzan Kadyrov, Colonel Siagian and a host of other bastards.
And just for one to focus on how about Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, another East African dictator indicted for not one, not two but three seperate rounds of genocide. He gets over $2 billion a year in US humanitarian aid and actually had sanctions eased in 2009. He’s busily slaughtering the non-Arab residents of the Nuba mountain range as I write, by the way and not just with a couple of hundred guerillas.
The activities of these tyrants are characterised by their relationships to the needs of capitalist power players, particularly states but also major corporate interests. Kadyrov is sponsored by Vladimir Putin, Siagan got backing from Indonesia and was paid for by Freeport McMoran, Bashir has some fairly spectacular oil resources and protection from China. And of course Uganda’s own despot Museveni has been courting the West since the ’90s with a promised dowry of huge mineral wealth.
Such complexities don’t fit into the kind of framework which Pessions need, ie. a “bad guy” who can be taken down by heroic western intervention — which may explain the reaction to people who criticise such shallow interventions.
People who question the impact of Liking and Retweeting about the Kony case have been accused of being apathetic, of only interested in showing off their cycnicism and even of being stooges for Kony (a lucrative career I’m sure). But it’s only apathy if you don’t care and for most of those writing critiques, the reality is they (we) do care, certainly enough to find out things which throw such simple appeals to authority into a different light.
What has been on display in the responses such as on the Libcom thread is not a lack of empathy, but a realism born from years of seeing this shit happen again and again and asking why nothing ever actually gets better. Why does charity not solve these problems? Why is Western intervention not gradually eliminating the advent of dictatorship?
These questions are what really matters. If the only thing that gets asked is “who can I petition in my own country” followed by a guilt tripping of anyone who suggests it’s more complicated, then it amounts to a selective form of caring without bothering to try and challenge root causes which serves to show off your liberal credentials to your mates and little else.
More dangerously, a Pession actively palms off responsibility for showing concrete, living solidarity to the very elite interests which have been allowing — or even encouraging — this stuff to happen or whose interest in ending it is bound up with competing expansionist desires.
For anyone who actually wants to end such suffering, a Pession is simply not good enough. Solidarity cannot be restricted to asking Team America to sort it, or for Amnesty to set up a letter writing campaign. The likes of Kadyrov are not going to be impressed by whinging and they are never going to be menaced by imperial powers mindful of his direct links to the Kremlin. Kony doesn’t give a shit if online activists put his mugshot up and Museveni will be laughing all the way to the bank.
These people might start worrying if grassroots activists working independently of them start getting serious contacts and backup. Trade unions, community activists, journalistic rebels and political groups can actually use such support. So that, if you're really bothered, is where you should start.
- 1. I mean how many of those who shouted so loudly for something to be done have bothered to follow on as UN troops brought cholera to the country, disaster capitalism techniques began permanently tanking its economy and huge aid pledges failed to materialise or did so only with extortionate demands attached?