Watching Kony 2012: Civilization and Its Discontents

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Soapbox warning… highly untypical posting for a blog focused mainly on my fire escape garden and food.

Yesterday was a lazy Saturday morning like any other, when I clicked on a link posted by my friend on Facebook—containing a video that by now has gone crazily viral. I have mixed feelings about Jezebel, which I can only really describe as TMZ for the Rachel Maddow set. ANYWAY Jason Russell, evangelical Christian founder of the now famous “Kony 2012” campaign apparently suffered from a breakdown after a night of drinking and was arrested after masturbating in public… and it is only after this that I finally decided to watch his “Invisible Children” campaign video. I am a terrible person.

Now, I can’t help but be equally depressed and somewhat uplifted by this video campaign. On the one hand I think… AWESOME! People care! Young people can mobilize! Slick video editing skills and super cute five year olds finally being put to good use!!! And on the other hand I think… there’s alot behind Joseph Kony— a desperately poor country in a massive amount of debt, racked by civil war and huge disparities in wealth even despite recent and modestly robust economic growth (and as those of us in this country should have realized long ago there is never and was never a ‘natural’ relationship between these two economic conditions), a country fatigued of foreign involvement, and let us not forget a relationship with the West that long after the end of colonialism was deeply exploitative (alot of that economic growth is coming from Uganda’s highly coveted fossil fuel resources).  And so I think we have to think a bit harder about the conditions that produced a man like Kony—a man who, like Jason Russell believes he is acting in the name of God. Maybe all of this ‘fame’ that Jason Russell is looking for will lead to a deeper investigation of the roles we may play in the global economic disparity that created and continues to create the extreme conditions under which men like Joseph Kony emerge (one can only hope).

Let there be no mistake, I think this man is a criminal, and that the Ugandan government (and maybe even the ICC… though for me the jury is still out on that one, so to speak) has the right to bring this man to justice (though apparently, according to a Ugandan President dismayed by Russell’s do-gooder meddling,  he is no longer operating in that country). Instead of donning yet another bracelet for a cause and postering about bi-partisan unity over this, first I think we need to take a long deep look at our own reflection… the one that shows up in our iphones before we push that animating home button.

Why is it that when the Foxconn story broke,  nary a whimper was made for the 14 year old workers manically polishing our iphones? I really don’t care whether parts of Mike Daisey’s play were elaborated, or even fabricated— he’s a storyteller that speaks to a greater truth… that we (including myself) have an ethical dilemma sitting in our pockets, in our shoulder bags and on our desktops (Full disclosure, though it should come as no surprise, I am writing this on my MacBook Air—though it would make little difference if I were writing this on my Samsung or Acer or Toshiba or Vaio). What would be actually revolutionary is if we decided to do the TRULY unthinkable— why has no one called for a massive Facebook campaign to burn our iphones? Well, I’ll give you an answer:  unless this was an incredibly well coordinated simultaneous effort this movement would not go very far as we depend on these very devices to “spread the word” — virality is not simultaneous,  you see— it just moves very fast, and any movement that silences its own channels of communications— its own media— cannot move at all.  Our relationship with activism today is complicated.

But should we just shrug our shoulders about deplorable labor conditions in countries half way around the world? I don’t pretend to have the answers, and it may require that we, as consumers of electronics have to shift our expectations— we have to give up the idea of dramatic unveilings and massive simultaneous releases. We may have to ‘suffer’ longer wait times, we may have to re-calibrate the ‘speed of innovation’ to the speed of human(e) capacities. We may have to re-develop a manufacturing economy in our own country. We may have to make sure that people working in a factory can earn enough to make a living. We have to bravely face an apparent insolvency. We may have to reorient our creative capacities towards such seemingly impossible goals.

Besides the inhumane labor conditions that are behind those spectacular iPhone and iPad releases there ARE other things that I do wish we (that includes me) were more enraged about, regarding the domestic state of affairs. I wish we had a better  understanding of  the violence of financial capitalism— the violence that emerges out of our own ‘civilized’ and hyper rational world. Russell’s call to rally behind the “one thing we can all agree on” misses a big fat reality. The sad truth is that there are TONS of things that the Republicans and Democrats  agreed on—  and there is something that they, not so miraculously  achieved together—under the uniting figure of Alan Greenspan. This was something that the apparently ‘refreshing’ Libertarian voices have been religiously fighting for since the very beginning— a massive deregulation of the market. Admittedly it’s more complicated than that because in some ways there is more government in business than ever before—though it seems its role is to lubricate market movement as opposed to ‘liberate’ supposedly self-adjusting and apparently benevolent market forces (the more conventional and straightforward libertarian philosophy… and yes libertarianism is a philosophy… this is in no way a positive assessment… but I will reflect on this later).

While the American public focuses on hot-button cultural issues (by the way are we REALLY fighting over reproductive rights again? WTF??!!) the Republicans and Democrats were in cahoots with Wall Street’s princes of finance in a massive and coordinated scheme to destroy America’s middle class. What I’m trying to say is —Don’t let this massive distraction campaign fool you while mega banks,  drug companies, insurance companies impoverish you! And by “you” I mean the middle class, and yes you may feel like you’re part of a very privileged class, but it’s most likely that even you don’t belong in the .1% that makes a minimum of $370,000 and an average of $1.12 million.  I really don’t have time to get into it, but everyone should make time to watch The Inside Job, Cleveland vs. Wallstreet, and Mortgage Meltdown—which unlike the recent outrage at Rush Limbaugh and the Kony 2012 campaign do not focus on one terrible man but on a structural problem and yes, despite what I just said, a cultural problem (but it is the insider culture of corporate boardrooms and Washington lobbyists that we need to focus on here, that is to say I don’t think this is a problem we can simply regulate our way out of, though reinstating Glass-Steagall would do our system tons of good). Structure is harder for us to focus on, but it is something that we need to learn to see.

He apparently wasn’t suffering from a breakdown in this photo.

At the risk of edging on the acadmicky I think that it’s actually appropriate that we think about Freud for a second. Joseph Kony is almost too easy for us to relate to, as our mirror opposite, the opposite of our civilized selves— a discontent of civilization, as Freud might put it. In a seemingly strange turn of events Jason Russell’s public masturbation outburst dramatically demonstrates Freud’s “return of the repressed.” It seems that the construction of his own image — as a shining beacon of humanity was just too much for him— and who could blame him really, it’s hard to live up to that squeaky clean image—and it really is too much for us to live up to as well. We have to give up our addiction to being heroes, because the reflection just doesn’t measure up. We who sit with an ethical dilemma weighing heavily in our pockets will still have alot of work to do, long after we capture Kony.

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