Maybe this is a conversation that started with the decline of the Iraq war. A February 2003 poll estimated that nearly 60% of Americans supported an invasion. By May 2007, 61% said the U.S. should have stayed out. The lessons were about more than the limits of American power or the wisdom of this particular conflict (although those are both important), but, underneath all of the questions and national soul-searching, the first hints in a century of American dominance that maybe our power isn't always and necessarily a force of good. English poet Rudyard Kipling first raised this idea with his 1899 poem "The White Man's Burden," but it can take a long time for these things to sink in.
Maybe that conversation continued with the Arab Spring movements of early 2011. Not only did North Africans and Middle Easterners change history on their own and without American support, they actually did it despite American power. Probably not many Americans were entirely aware that the U.S. was propping up lifelong Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak; even fewer, one imagines, had thought through the possibility that this might be a form of neocolonialism. Yet, during the two weeks of wall-to-wall American media coverage of the Egyptian revolution, hardly 10 minutes of cable news could go by without someone mentioning U.S. support for Mubarak. Americans were rooting for Egyptian protesters but, at the same time, they were helping to prop up Mubarak by participating in an American system that proudly promotes American hegemony by backing guys like him. The big contradiction in how Americans see our role in the world, obvious for so long to people in Africa and Asia and the Middle East, was finally becoming clear to us.
(The U.S., though, also helped instrumentally in toppling Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, a reminder that American power can be a force for good. But there's nothing that means it has to be good, that by simply exercising our ability to invade Middle Eastern countries or impose "activism" on Central African societies we are necessarily improving them. And the fact that American power can do such good, and often still does, could be part of why the idea of benevolent American hegemony is so persistent.)
The thorny, awkward, difficult conversation that we began with Iraq seems to have finally come to a head with Kony 2012. If a decade of failed war has taught us to question whether or not the world shares our excitement for American hegemony, and the Arab Spring led us to wonder if American power can in fact be a cause for real harm in the world, then the U.S. financial crisis has humbled even the assumption that the U.S. will stay on top forever. The Kony 2012 video, in which a bunch of eager white kids make transparently self-aggrandizing and short-sighted assumptions about the power and goodness of their own involvement in a far-away society that doesn't really want them, brought all of these anxieties together. And it brought them together in a form that is far less painful to examine than, say, the war in Afghanistan. Kony 2012 is a microcosm of American hegemony, American neocolonialism, and the white man's burden, but it's still just a microcosm. It's something other people did, and thus easier to reject than the totality of American foreign policy, in which we all participate and from which we all benefit, whether we like it or not.
News cycles move awfully quickly; this moment of subtle national reflection will probably slip away within a week or two. When it does, maybe we will have all gained a little more appreciation of why so much of the world resents American power, of the unstated assumptions and beliefs that guide so much of American thinking and thus American foreign policy, and of the ways that the Kony 2012 backlash was really a backlash against American nationalism itself. If this little California-based NGO can teach us that, it will have done something potentially far more valuable than a campaign to raise awareness about Joseph Kony.