Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Kony 2012 and the "Do Something" Impulse

I will confess to being taken rather by surprise by the Kony 2012 video phenomenon. What surprised me was not the revelations about child soldiers in Africa, or the brutality of the Lord's Resistance Army movement in Uganda. What surprised me was that these things, which have been going on for a long time and have been well-documented, suddenly caught the attention of a lot of people who "discovered" what others had known for a long time. In this information-rich age, it's interesting to see that there is so much that many of us still don't know. (Granted, I'm a "conflict geek", having studied this stuff for years, so I tend to be more up on war-related atrocities than your average Joe).

So one takeaway - prepare for a shock - is that young people are more likely to pay attention to a viral Youtube video passed around among their peers than to watch CNN. No news there, though we don't usually see that gap quite so vividly.

The other dimension that the sudden interest in Kony and the LRA has raised is the "Do Something!" impulse. I was struck by this in reading a BBC article about an upcoming sequel to the original Kony 2012 video promised by the group Invisible Children. The article included this nugget in the middle: 

"All three of my kids, in different context and different times have said: 'So what are you doing about Joseph Kony and the LRA?"' Senator Chris Coons told the Associated Press in a recent interview.
Mr Coons is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African affairs subcommittee. He has travelled to Africa to hear about the issue firsthand.
The dominant response here might be to say, "Great! It's working!" After all, this is the point of "awareness" campaigns - to bring problems to the attention of powerful people who are otherwise likely to be unaware of them, in hopes that they will ... well, do something to solve the problem.

And it's this last bit that I find a little troubling. Very often, there is precious little that can be done to "solve" the problem. Short of sending a large invasion force to root out and arrest Mr. Kony, what exactly is it that the US Congress is going to do?

There is no end of possible measures that will likely do little to change the behavior of the LRA, but will make us feel good about having "done something" so we can move on to the next issue. Half-baked measures - usually some form of sanctions - rarely have their intended result, and often have unintended consequences that either make the problem worse or cause "collateral damage" to others. Simply scolding the bad guys is just as pointless; as comedian Bill Maher recently pointed out, "awareness" without effective action is, well, just silly.

And what about all of the other horrible problems and crises around the world that haven't (yet) had viral videos made of them? As bad as the LRA is, there are other things going on in other parts of the world that are just as bad, if not worse. Will we solve those problems, too?

Eventually, a form of political fatigue sets in. People get tired of being outraged. Energy shifts elsewhere. And in the meantime, little of lasting value has been accomplished.

At root, the problem is the the US has never quite decided what its role in the world should be. Given the chaotic nature of our democracy, this isn't surprising - isn't even necessarily a bad thing. But what we tend to get, in the absence of a coherent idea of what our capabilities are and what we should do with them, is foreign policy by outrage - a random set of actions fueled by the video of the moment. There's an argument that the ultimately ill-fated Somali adventure of 1992-3 (spanning two Presidents) was of this kind.

Ultimately, I don't expect the US government to solve this question. Politicians will always respond to the "do something!" impulse, because they can't afford to be seen as doing nothing. But what we could use, instead of a sound-bite fixation on the celebrity crisis of the month, is a broader conversation as citizens about what kind of problems we should, and shouldn't, try to address. Our resources and capabilities are limited, and our moral and ethical commitments complex. It's time we stopped turning to our "leaders" with a cry of "Do something!" and turned to each other to figure out what we should and shouldn't do, and who we want to be when we grow up.

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