On #StopKony and the Role of Context

March 10, 2012

You’ve seen it, or at least heard about it, if you can access this blog: the 29 minute video about a central African warlord who began a guerrilla insurgency against the Ugandan government 26 years ago, an insurgency that devolved into a reign of terror against the civilian population of Acholiland.

Invisible Children, the organization behind both this viral video and aa2005 feature-length documentary on Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, takes its name and its laser-narrow perspective on the LRA from what is arguably the most sensationally disturbing atrocities of the conflict in northern Uganda — the nighttime abduction, indoctrination, and conscription of rural children into the LRA, as well as the so-called “night commuters”, children who came into towns each night to escape the rural abductions.

The key, however, is that Uganda’s conflict has always been more complex than two white surfer dudes from San Diego (IC’s founders) could discover.  To take but one example, Kony wasn’t the only spiritualist leader preaching against the government in 1980s Acholiland.

More broadly, IC tells a very one-sided story.  And they didn’t need to! It is possible to be appalled at the LRA’s (former, more on that below) tactics, to even call them evil, while still condemning the Ugandan military and the regime of Yoweri Museveni for human rights abuses in Acholiland committed in the name of fighting the LRA.  To condemn the treatment of Acholiland by the central government that was a factor in Kony’s rise.

But IC doesn’t give that side. They barely bother to explain, at least in the 2005 documentary, what socio-economic and political forces at work in mid-1980s Uganda led to the LRA.

And as I hinted above, they do not update the story to the present day. Yes, Kony is still at large. But he and the LRA do not operate solely in Uganda anymore. They’ve moved on to neighboring countries most Americans still haven’t heard of: South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They are now one player among the many in the conflicts in each of these other countries.  Meanwhile, they may now only number in the few hundreds in Uganda, although estimates vary widely.

Now, it’s easy to understand why IC chose, for they did choose, to ignore all that.   Those two dudes from San Diego are filmmakers*, not historians of the non-West nor political scientists, and were not any kind of NGO worker prior to IC’s founding.   So they did what filmmakers do: they told a simple story, with an overarching narrative that had clear heroes and villains.

And Kony is clearly made into a villain, even demonized, in the 2005 film.  And nowhere in the narration and witness to the group’s atrocities is the emphasis on “one man, one story” even questioned.  For IC, context is inconvenient: the Ugandan government and the military are barely mentioned, and only in positive terms. The “solution” of essentially permanent camps of those Acholis deliberately displaced by the anti-LRA campaign is not mentioned.  And on and on. Real world conflicts have context: multiple perspectives, multiple actors, history, messy “solutions” possibly worse than the problem, and no completely happy ending.

It really does seem as though Kony is a villain in a vacuum to IC.  But that’s the thing.  If you want to see the inside of a vacuum, watch a Dyson commercial.   Out here in the real world, the Disney treatment doesn’t do real suffering and real complex problems any justice.

*I know a filmmaker, a filmmaker is a relative of mine.  And these, Senator, are two rather naive and disingenuous filmmakers.

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On Studying Abroad Outside the West

March 3, 2012

The stereotype most Americans hold of studying abroad revolves around Parisian cafes, the Louvre, really authentic Irish pub crawls, and the Amanda Knox case notwithstanding, the learning of “romantic” French or Italian, the better to woo or be wooed on the Riviera.

Riding a camel around the pyramids of Giza, walking on the Great Wall of China, learning Zapotec in an indigenous village in central Mexico, or climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro tend not to even register on most Americans’ radars as “studying abroad”.

But those are the areas where the world is changing most dynamically and consequentially, where the most relevant global learning for the 21st century is going to take place.  We need a cultural shift in the U.S. toward seeing the year plus that one of my college classmates did in China as the norm, not a year in France or Italy.

Those EU countries are great — one day I’d like to go to Italy myself.  But studying abroad isn’t the same as a dream vacation.  It’s about gaining knowledge and experiences which will prepare students for their future and the future of the world.  And in most cases, that knowledge and experience is best gained outside the West.

Study abroad needs an extreme makeover, cultural perception edition.