Columns / Discourse / April 4, 2012

Voice of Reason: The success of apathy

By Matt Barry-Remember Joseph Kony? Sometime around finals, one of your friends (or quite possibly, you) posted Invisible Children’s Kony2012 video on Facebook with a comment about how it had changed your life or something like that. Then twenty other people did the same thing over the course of the next hour.

Yet with the collective yawn that greeted the African Union’s recent decision to commit a force of 5,000 soldiers to the purpose of hunting down what’s left of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), I think it is safe to say that the natural order of things seems to have re-asserted itself and Americans are back to ignoring Africa again.

The more activist among us moved their focus to the Treyvon Martin shooting, and the rest picked up their lives as they were before Kony2012 and moved on, the impassioned cries that Joseph Kony was the reincarnation of Hitler apparently forgotten.

Though quite honestly, I’m not overly troubled by this. For one thing, I don’t have to deal with the mental strain of figuring out why people who were so dead set against military deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan were suddenly thrilled at idea of American soldiers deploying to another far-off war zone.

For another, the average college student’s efforts are probably better off being directed toward the Treyvon Martin shooting anyway, because Kony2012, for all of the sturm und drang associated with it, was never really about affecting political change in Uganda.

The video purportedly aimed to raise awareness of Kony, which is well and good, but for what end? To ensure that the American special forces currently deployed aren’t pulled out? That would be a noble goal, if there had been anyone with any authority in government who even suggested that such a move was being considered.

The State Department denied knowing anything about such plans. Since a month later, no such evidence has turned up, it is increasingly obvious that the purpose of the Kony2012 campaign was really to raise awareness of not Joseph Kony but Invisible Children.

In the thirty-minute video, there could have been a little time spent explaining some sort of nuance as to what’s going on in Uganda, like mentioning that the war is largely over in Uganda or that the LRA is a shadow of its former self.

But that would have cut into the time of attractive white college students chanting and unfurling banners or the grating scenes where Jason Russell, the narrator of the video, quite literally breaks the conflict down into terms a toddler can understand. So faced between the option of the white Americans or the Ugandans having their screen time cut, it seems like the choice was made that the Ugandans were the ones that had to go.

Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist, said in the Telegraph, “This paints a picture of Uganda six or seven years ago, that is totally not how it is today. It’s highly irresponsible.” Kagumire’s opinion is quite common among the few Ugandans who have actually been asked to comment on the whole campaign. Ugandans are eager to show the world the progress the country has made over the last few years. Instead, the world sees a Uganda of war crimes and frightened children. A showing of the documentary in Uganda ended abruptly after angry Ugandans threw stones at the projector in anger over this portrayal.

In one of the most troubling lacks of nuance, the film never seems concerned that those noble Ugandan government troops occasionally glimpsed in the film are comprised in part, of ex-child soldiers themselves, since President Museveni, in power now for a quarter of a century, finds them the most effective troops with which to hunt down the LRA. In a campaign devoted to fighting child soldiers, it seems that this might have at least merited some mention.

As much as I hate to use academic jargon, it’s hard to avoid labeling the campaign as “neocolonial.” Angelo Izama, another Ugandan journalist, described Kony2012 as, “reminiscent of some of the worst excesses of the colonial-era interventions. These campaigns don’t just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it.” She’s right.

As luck would have it, with the new African Union forces and American special forces still in the area, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army stand a fairly good chance of being brought to justice, whether collegiate America is mired in collective apathy or not. So post away about whatever you wish. Real progress in Africa is being made whether you’re paying attention or not.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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