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.
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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.
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.
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