The Decline of American Nationalism: Why We Love to Hate Kony 2012

The backlash against the misguided video campaign may say more about how American self-conceptions have changed in the last 10 years.

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Left, American school children say the Pledge of Allegiance in this 1942 photo. Right, Invisible Children volunteers salute for the Kony 2012 video. / AP, Vimeo

Three weeks ago, a small group of idealistic 20- and 30-somethings in San Diego tried to spark a national conversation about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Their video campaign, Kony 2012, got millions of Americans talking, but about something different. The conversation that people ended up having wasn't about the video's message, which turned out to be misguided, but about the ideas and assumptions behind the video.

On news sites like this one, in newspapers, and even on TV, Americans have been grappling with concepts that normally don't get mentioned outside of a comparative literature class or liberal arts college symposium: neocolonialism, white man's burden, paternalism. Bowing to popular pressure, the NGO's website now has a "critiques" page, which includes an entire section titled, "RE: PERPETUATING THE 'WHITE MAN'S BURDEN' AND THE SAVIOR COMPLEX."

Part of this sudden fascination is probably just backlash. Kony 2012 was popular and (briefly) influential beyond its merits, and the mob loves to take someone down to size. Citing "neocolonialism" is an easy way to express disapproval. Still, insta-celebrities and flash-in-the-pan stories come and go, and Kony 2012-haters only interested in the backlash already have much easier fodder in the very public breakdown of Jason Russell, the group's co-founder and the star of its video. The apparently insatiable reader appetite for stories about neocolonialism and white man's burden, while sparked by Kony 2012, seem to be about more than just backlash. People actually want to discuss this, it seems.

Talking about neocolonialism and white man's burden is not easy in America. The peculiarities of American nationalism -- not just our view of ourselves, but our deepest assumptions about what America does for the world and what it means for all us to participate in that -- make these two interconnected topics remarkably sensitive. To even bring them up is to threaten the very foundation of our self-conception as a country. The debate itself is painful enough on the surface: some of our noblest impulses to help the needy in Africa might be counterproductive, self-aggrandizing, and driven by some ugly race-based assumptions; that it's all just a form of subtle exploitation. But the implications of this debate, the ideas beneath its surface, are even more difficult. This may explain both why the conversation has been so hard to have and why we're finally having it now.

American nationalism says that the U.S. is so special in part because it opposed European colonialism. This is true -- America's condemnation of the British and French invasion of Egypt in 1956 effectively ended the colonial era. But the U.S. still does a great deal of meddling in other countries, often by propping up loyal dictators or "client states", and the people in those countries tend to see this as not so very different from European imperialism.

This gets tricky because the Cold War led us to believe that not only is America the world power, but that our status makes the world better off. The benevolence of American hegemony is an attractive idea. And there is some truth to it: the U.S. helped knock down Hitler's Festung Europa, the Nazi-controlled European continent that might have been otherwise unbreakable; the Japanese and Soviet Empires might still be imprisoning entire swathes of the world had it not been for America. The U.S. helped establish a more cooperative, peaceful world order, run by global institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization. But there's nothing about American hegemony that makes it necessarily benevolent, and it often isn't.

We often take it for granted that American leadership is a good thing, and this has led us to some of our most destructive and misguided mistakes. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2012 Kony campaign are, in this way, not so different. Of course Iraqis want to come under the stewardship of benevolent American leadership; of course Ugandans want to be saved by the stewardship of benevolent American NGO workers. We envision the American cavalry riding in to save the day, as it truly did in both world wars and maybe in the Cold War, and we like what we see. Part of this really is benevolence, or at least the intent of benevolence. Part of it is self-aggrandizement. But it's an idea that Americans, after nearly a century of faith in the benevolence of American hegemony, seem to be questioning.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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