The Kids Are All Right (With Foreign Intervention): Kony 2012 and The Logic of Viral Video Action

Mancur Olson, in his iconic work The Logic of Collective Action, turned traditional group theory on his head. Olson posited that individuals would not collectively campaign for public goods without individual incentives to contribute. This is because there would be a tendency by many to “free ride” on the time and efforts expended by others. According to the logic of The Logic, social movements should be rare, as it would irrational for people to devote their resources for a cause without a direct and immediate benefit as compensation for their contributions.

Olson was wrong, and it is a shame he never bothered to look outside his window while he was describing the thought processes of homo economicus. In 1965, the year The Logic first saw print, the first SDS march against the Vietnam War attracted 25,000 protestors to Washington, D.C. Later that same year, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and the first Civil Rights Act into law, major victories for the Civil Rights Movement, a huge and multiracial movement characterized less by individual reward and more through immense courage in the face of often lethal (and sometimes state-sanctioned) prejudice. Around the world, one could witness the student and worker uprisings in France, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the ascendance of the “New Left” and an explosion in counterculture. Why Olson chose to focus on his abacus instead, however, is unfortunately emblematic of academia, where it is not required that an intellectual trend to be grounded in reality to be fashionable.

Olson was not just wrong in his own time, however. If anything, time has made his theory even more inaccurate, because “getting involved” is not that much of a commitment anymore. Thanks to social media sites like Facebook or Twitter and “viral videos” on YouTube, at the click of a button, you can share a link to a news story, poster or video designed to create awareness about a cause. Granted, there is no assurance that what you post will be read or watched by others – something I consider every time I write one of these things – but you still have better odds than previous generations did, armed as they were with little else besides megaphones and a copy of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

Recently, the advocacy group Invisible Children proved just how irrelevant Olson is today by generating buzz around Kony 2012, a video about the brutal warlord behind the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). As of this writing, the video boasts over 70 million views. Major celebrities, like Oprah Winfrey and Rihanna, have endorsed the video. Donations to Invisible Children are pouring in, despite the mission of “Stop Kony” being one that directly benefits the mostly Western audience responding to it. So much for the “free rider problem.”

That is not to say, however, there is not a problem here. I will not touch on some of the common criticisms leveled against Invisible Children, such as that it is financially questionable organization with questionable accounting and transparency practices. I will also refrain from the much-cited Foreign Affairs article pointing out that Invisible Children and organizations like have “exaggerated the scale of LRA abductions and murders.” Quite honestly, if you have not yet read Mahmood Mamdani’s dissection of the “Save Darfur” propaganda campaign, it really deserves a look at how facts are distorted in order to frame a narrative suiting the intentions of certain deceptive (albeit well-meaning) groups. Pretty much everything that has been said about the mendacity of the “Save Darfur” movement can be said about Kony 2012, so I will not rehash it here.

I will stand Olson on his head and say that people – especially Westerners – are actually quite prone to caring about noble causes, especially when they are told that celebrity statements, wearing bracelets and sharing videos is all that is required to end a problem that has been going on for 25 years. They key is to simplify an issue so that it can be easily understood and digested, and play up your audience’s ego by assuring them that they can be the great saviors who can help poor Africans who cannot help themselves. The former takes some work; the Western mindset is soft-wired to accept the latter.

The truth is that the LRA is just scratching the surface of Uganda’s problems – and it is not even active in Uganda anymore. In actuality, Uganda is dealing with a host of other crises – a tyrant who has held onto power for almost 30 years; millions in missing funds and stolen medical supplies; a nascent oil industry sure to fuel even further corruption; and a population of young people dealing with increasing unemployment. Additionally, if you take the time to learn the history of the LRA, you will see that its roots in northern Uganda go all the way back to Uganda’s creation – the arbitrary drawing of borders by the British Empire, which intentionally exacerbated the tensions between the southern Bantu-speaking people against the Acholi and the Langi in the north. Even if Kony is captured or killed, does anyone who truly understands Uganda’s history believe that the endless cycle of warlords and rebels – Obote, Amin, Museveni – will suddenly stop? That, somewhere down the road, this huge ethnic cleavage will not produce more child soldiers, more abductions, more massacres?

Of course, groups like Invisible Children do not get into all that. It would complicate what they are trying to market to you – namely, that by pressuring Western governments to intervene, Kony can be stopped and the world will be a better place as a result. The appeal of this message too has to be understood with an appreciation for colonialism, as colonialism was justified by the “white man’s burden” – the belief that backward peoples in primitive countries were helpless and needed to be saved by enlightened, advanced Westerners. We still need to believe this today, as the scramble for Africa never stopped. The West continues to plunder Africa for its many resources (the continent is essentially a giant rock rich in minerals and petroleum) and, thanks to the “Washington consensus” and globalization, ensures that none of its countries will be allowed to develop independently on their own terms. Rather than drawing attention to this structural parameter that would be impossible to change without drastically altering the global economic system, advocacy groups present easily identifiable villains – like Kony – who do clearly terrible things – like abduct children and turn them into soldiers. If enough Westerners work together to achieve one simple goal – capturing or killing the villain – then the truth in their hearts, deep down, that the West is helping Africa more than hurting it will be affirmed. The “white man’s burden” will be a little less heavy to carry.

I realize that this post, like so many other criticisms directed at Invisible Children, will be decried as cynical nay-saying, and I will confess that the “wet blankets” dampening Kony 2012 can be as annoying as the well-meaning and naïve defenders of it. Yet my intention is more than snidely rolling my eyes and derisively shaking my head at an Internet meme that will soon be forgotten. My genuine concern is that groups like Invisible Children and the “Save Darfur” movement will engender my and future generations into viewing complex conflicts around the world in staggeringly simple terms, so as to justify future foreign interventions, continuing the neo-imperialism that has so characterized the post-Cold War era and has led to endless war. Seeing the hollowness and misrepresentations of campaigns like Kony 2012 is not about promoting apathy, but rather encouraging people to see the world as it really is, not as it is marketed to us.

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The Neo-Imperialism of Intervention: Syria & the West

Media outlets reported on Friday that Bashar al-Assad’s government killed 37 more people in the ongoing crackdown in Syria against pro-democracy protesters. This mounting death toll, combined with horrific images of activists and civilians alike mowed down by tanks and machine guns, will surely contribute to the growing consensus that the West should intervene to stop the massacres. Considering NATO displayed a marked keenness to step in when Muammar Gaddafi brutally repressed the insurgents who rose up against him, many observers have denounced what they have perceived as hypocrisy. Are Syrian lives somehow worth less than Libyan lives? Is al-Assad any less of a cruel despot than Gaddafi was? The West, these commentators argue, has nothing less than a moral obligation to intercede on behalf of the Syrian people, who stand no chance against the much more well-armed Syrian security forces. Institute a no-fly zone, begin bombing Damascus, supply weapons to the rebels – the whole nine yards.

Of those voices sounding off against intervention, they offer a rationale that Syria represents a different situation than Libya did when the West rode in to the rescue. Unlike Libya, they say, civil war has not torn Syria asunder. The anti-government movement holds no territory of its own, and given the dominance and sophistication of the Syrian armed forces, any internal conflict is likely to be a one-sided affair. Additionally, Syria can count on support from its nearby allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, whereas Gaddafi lacked friendly neighbors. Gaddafi could also not credibly warn that he would launch a suicidal attack on Israel the moment the first U.S. cruise missile hit his country’s soil. On top of all this, these voices note, Russia and China – two illiberal countries exasperated with the Arab Spring and this whole fascination with free and fair elections – are putting their collective feet down, putting the kibosh on an emerging precedent of the West liberating citizens aspiring for freedom under authoritarian rulers. In other words, the West is not being hypocritical in “freeing” Libya and leaving Syria to descend into chaos; it is just that Libya represented a unique opportunity, with its tribal divisions, pariah state status and lack of resources. His tyranny only needed a slight push (in the form of air raids and drone strikes, plus crates of automatic weapons) to bring down.

The only thing keeping the West from fulfilling its ethical responsibility of preventing slaughter of the innocent, according to this line of thinking, are unfavorable conditions particular to the Syrian case. Yet Western inaction concerning Syria is not the exception; it is by far the norm. You might find reams of words on “respected” news and commentary Web sites dedicated to Western outrage over oppression and butchery in Syria, and going back a little farther, will find similar impassioned editorials and blog posts about the persecution of homosexuals in Uganda or the “ethnic cleansing” of Africans by Arabs in Darfur. You will find much fewer paragraphs demanding a Western intervention in places like Bahrain, where over a dozen people have died over the last year due to government use of tear gas against peaceful protestors, or Saudi Arabia, where demonstrations are illegal and the Shiite minority in the eastern provinces has been viciously dealt with, sometimes fatally. In addition, could you imagine the backlash that would occur if The New Republic or The Atlantic – much less TIME or The Washington Post – ran a piece advocating that the United States bomb or invade Israel to end its illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, which leaves a densely populated area without access to imported food, machinery and medicine?

The scholar Mahmood Mamdani has done an excellent job studying why some human right violations and global bloodbaths receive more attention than others do. In his deconstruction of the campaign to save Darfur, Mamdani notes the silence in the West when the United Nations reported that 1,000 people were dying every day in Angola between May and October 1993, and how 3.9 million dead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not raise a murmur in 2004. By way of explanation, Mamdani cited the work of the journalist Lara Pawson, who observed that it was no coincidence that the U.S. received eight percent of its oil imports from Angola during its spiral into violence, while 18 British-based companies currently enjoy access to Congo’s rich mineral deposits.  It would therefore not be in the economic interest of the West for military operations to disrupt the extraction happening in these countries, despite the bloodshed. Yet Mamdani goes beyond economic factors, and argues that the “Save Darfur” campaign framed a complex and nuanced problem as simplistic acts of political violence. It did not inform Westerners about what happened or was happening in Sudan, but played into the hands of the War on Terror, providing yet another example of “Arab Muslims behaving badly.” As in all marketing strategies, the message was clear enough for all to understand: “Muslims, who are evil and just so crazy, are killing Christians, and we all know how religion just makes people do crazy things, not like here in the secular world, am I right?”

It is mentally easy to connect war with profiting from natural resources, to boil wars down to “blood for oil.” Yet I tend to agree with Mamdani as well as the analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein that Western governments and civic institutions are not riled up for refineries, diamond mines and gas reserves alone. There is also genuine bleeding heart liberal faith that the West has a “responsibility to protect,” to institute a “liberal imperialism” to defeat the “bad guys” and preserve the right to life, liberty and the American way – which, at Fukuyama’s “End of History,” is now the international way. If this sounds like the neoconservative ideology, that is because it is. Critics of Mamdani have reviled him for linking the “Save Darfur” movement, an offspring of the U.S. Left, with Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and other neocons. Let us not forget, however, the reason why the intellectual originators of neoconservatism are not called simply “conservatives” is that they used to be radical left-wingers, yet flocked to the imperialist right-wing over what they perceived as a lack of adamant democracy promotion – such as through regime change. It would of course be incorrect to lump all pro-interventionist left-wingers and neoconservatives together, but in essence, their idealism springs from the same conceit: that the West, with its unchallenged power and enormous wealth, has license to stop the worst excesses of humanity, embodied by the Holocaust, from ever taking place again. The West, like a global Robespierre, should decide who lives and who dies, all for the sake of making the world “better.”

There has been a lot of hand-wringing on the Left over siding with traditional anti-imperialist arguments or being guilt-tripped into supporting excursions to topple dictators, end wanton murders and establish democracies. Yet those who struggle with this question should remember the adage to judge a policy by its consequences, not its intentions. Western interventions, even when they have been “successful,” have done little to get at the heart of a cleavage or a conflict, to address the long-standing issues that led to this civil war or that uprising. They have been flash-in-the-pan exercises – bombs and bullets, followed by rushed negotiated settlements that either unravel or barely contain the unsatisfied resentments of all parties. The bottom line is that the “white man’s burden” – to bring civilization and order to backward, bloodthirsty “savages” – is morally bankrupt, regardless of whether it is used as cover by the self-interested or is sincerely believed by naïve pseudo-leftists.