Kony 2012 & The White Savior Industrial Complex

I’m a bit late to the Kony 2012 party and I’m now feeling very uneasy about Invisible Children’s narrow-minded solution to ending child soldiering in Uganda – just arrest Joseph Kony by December!

Much has been written in the past two weeks about Invisible Children’s lack of transparency and video producer Jason Russell’s recent health problems (read Rhyme et Reason’s post on the topic). What I haven’t read about until today is the campaign’s most glaring and problematic aspect – it perfectly illustrates the White Savior Industrial Complex, as brilliantly explained by Teju Cole, a writer for The Atlantic. (Cole wrote the piece defending a series of tweets he wrote after watching the Kony 2012 video).

The White Savior Industrial Complex centers around white people or people of privilege who enter a country, community or cultural context that is not their own with the sincere and misguided conviction that they are “doing good” for the people they want to “help.” These do-gooders often ignore, gloss over or are ignorant of the complexity of situations or problems they want to solve. They also don’t examine their own locations and privilege (race, sex/gender, nationality, class) and how that impacts their relationships with the communities they want to “help.” (Examples of the White Savior Industrial Complex are also abundant in international women’s rights campaigns. Anyone remember Western feminists’ crusade to “save” Afghan women from the Taliban by advocating for U.S. military intervention?)


Teju Cole@tejucole

2- The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

In the case of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video, Cole writes that the first principle in “making a difference” is doing no harm. Second, it’s imperative that the people we help should be included and consulted. Cole also writes,

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa toThe Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”

What struck me most about Russell’s narrative about Joseph Kony and child soldiering (which is not exclusive to Uganda) is the utter simplicity and childlike enthusiasm of the campaign’s goals. If I understood the video correctly, it goes something like this:

  1. Make Joseph Kony’s name famous in the U.S. by leveraging social media, individual actions and targeting celebrity culture and influential policy makers.
  2. Put pressure on lawmakers to keep American military advisors in Uganda so that they can help find and arrest Kony.
  3. Kony’s arrest = an end to child soldiering in Uganda 
  4. Children return to their families in a joyous reunion.
What’s missing from Russell’s narrative of the problem (child soldiering in Uganda) are the international and national political, economic and social factors that create and contribute to it in the first place. Abducting boys and girls to serve in a resistance army in Uganda doesn’t happen in a vaccuum as Invisible Children presents it. What are local Ugandan activists doing on the ground about the problem and where are their voices? What do they see as the solution and what do they need from Westerners? The viewer only has Russell’s white savior idea of “making a difference,” which sounds increasingly self-serving.
I’d also like for more Americans to be aware of international issues and to be more engaged, but I’m afraid that Kony 2012 and its White Savior mentality will only do more harm than good. Only time will tell what the video’s impact will be. After all, we’re the ones sitting at a comfortable distance and won’t feel the blowback of a misguided white man’s crusade.

(This post first appeared on Rhyme et Reason.)


Remembering 9/11

On Sunday, exactly a decade will have passed since Al Qaeda terrorists piloted and crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on a cloudless, blue-sky, sunny day in September, killing nearly 3,000 Americans.

Sept. 11, 2001 marked the beginning of an era in which our government launched the longest wars in American history, wiretapped innocent civilians and squandered our budget surplus. Fear of another terrorist attack, either by homegrown or foreign enemies, made many of us fear each other and re-elect a swaggering, lying Texan who couldn’t string coherent English sentences together, find Osama bin Laden or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Sept. 11, 2001 was the Tuesday of my third week of my first semester at SUNY New Paltz. I had come back to my cramped, two-person dorm room after my morning microeconomics class to the news that was unfolding only an hour away. My third roommate turned on my small 1980s-era TV that I had unearthed from my parent’s garage and brought to college because a few channels were better than none. We watched as New Yorkers jumped from the burning towers, instantly knowing how desperate the situation was. I later learned that four men from my hometown of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., never made it home to their families that evening.

9/11 altered my path in profound ways, large and small. I had always followed politics and current events, but Sept. 11 firmly pushed me into majoring in International Relations because I had a need to understand my country’s position in international politics and the events that led to this day. I came of age in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11th, during the Bush administration while studying at a proudly progressive liberal arts college. So I became a feminist activist, concerned with stopping imperialistic, preemptive wars and the domestic war on women’s bodies and rights.

Rallying against the impending war in Iraq, feminist campus organizing, marching in Washington D.C. for women’s lives and supporting marriage equality (before the rest of NY state caught up) – somehow I know it goes back to 9/11. To that day when I absolutely realized as an 18 year-old college student that I had to pay attention to what was going on and to actively be engaged in it. That I wasn’t immune to terrorism and war and that my civil liberties could be curtailed under the guise of securing our homeland. I realized that I deeply despised the in-your-face, flag-flying nationalism that reeked of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in the days following Sept. 11. I suddenly saw that for many people, the ideas of liberty, equality and freedom of religion only applied to white Christian Americans. (Cue the ugly Americans…)

Ten years later, I have the privilege of marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in Harrisburg, Pa., and Baltimore, Md., with Clergy Beyond Borders, an interfaith nonprofit. I’ll travel with the group for two weeks starting Sept. 11th on a multi-state and city tour (“Caravan for Reconciliation”) across America to spread the message that fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam promotes extremism in America and abroad. I am eager to hear the coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy men and women speak about creating bridges of understanding between these faiths and respecting religious pluralism in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Disclaimer: I am spiritual, but not a religious person. I am a lapsed Catholic who is very aware of how patriarchal religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam have been used to oppress women. I do have respect for different faiths if they are used for good. I greatly admire clergy and persons of faith if they are instruments of peace, love and equality. That is why I will be with Clergy Beyond Borders on Sept. 11, 2011, because the organization’s work toward peace is still crucial in our post-9/11 United States of America where many are still suspicious of Muslims, foreigners and each other. I’d much rather be part of a force of understanding than one of divisiveness, anger and hatred -wouldn’t you?

(Clergy Beyond Borders will blog, post Facebook updates and Tweet throughout the Caravan of Reconciliation from Sept. 11 – 25. Follow them! For a list of cities on the Caravan of Reconciliation, visit http://clergybeyondborders.wordpress.com)

Weighing the Cost of War in Afghanistan

President Obama will lay out his plan tonight for gradually ending the war in Afghanistan, which is now the longest war in U.S. history. The U.S. spends $10 billion a month fighting this endless war. Bring our troops home!