A Failure of Storytelling: Kony 2012 and the Social Imagination

After watching the massive controversy over Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign develop, I asked my friend Jake Meador to write about it.  Jake writes frequently about Africa and our relationship to it.  He writes regularly at Notes from a Small Place

In a private security meeting in 1960 with President Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explained that the soon-to-be-independent Congo was a diplomatic quagmire for the United States. The nation possessed enormous mineral wealth and if the United States didn’t find a way to create healthy trading relationships with the Congolese, the Soviet Union would.

Adding to the complexity, Congo was an amalgamated country comprised of a number of different regions with no minimal historical, linguistic or political alliances. As a result, the country had 80 political parties, but little of the modern infrastructure needed to make even the most simple of democratic political systems work. At this point, Eisenhower expressed surprise, “80 political parties? I’m surprised they have 80 people who can read!”

In the 52 years since that meeting, American attitudes toward Africa have shifted tremendously. Eisenhower saw Africa purely as a token on the international game board on which the United States competed against the Soviets. In contrast, many today have adopted a more altruistic view of the world’s second largest continent, actively seeking out ways to learn more about it and to help make it a better place.

There is, of course, something inherently commendable about such an attempt. And so as we consider the Kony 2012 campaign and the larger work of Invisible Children, we shouldn’t forget how preferable the well-intended charity of a group like Invisible Chlidren is to the cold-hearted machinations of most every American president prior to George W. Bush (who, on Africa at least, actually had a rather good record).

Yet, while we shouldn’t ignore the positive change, we also shouldn’t mistake it for a deep, systemic change. The shift from 1960 to today hasn’t been essential, but cosmetic. The most important point isn’t the surface-level change from the cynical maneuverings of Eisenhower to the altruistic campaigning of Invisible Children. Rather, it’s the fact that the underlying story behind both approaches is remarkably similar.

One of the hallmarks of the modern west has been the desire to achieve an ever-increasing degree of control over all areas of life. One of the sections where Matt’s Earthen Vessels really sings is when he discusses the notion of the technocratic body, the idea that the body is a tool for self-expression that can be created through the use of various techniques.

A slightly different view predominates in our thinking about the body politic. In a telling scene in the Kony 2012 video Invisible Children founder Jason Russell tells a group of young people “You might think, ‘who am I to stop a war?’ But who are you not to?”  It makes for nice-sounding rhetoric, but the notion that a group of young Americans utterly disconnected from Uganda, save through the giving of small sums and a general feeling of sentimentality toward Africa, can stop a war there is laughable.

Yet in the technocratic world, everything can be brought under human (or perhaps more accurately “American”) control through the use of techniques. So we view a tragedy like the Lord Resistance Army’s abduction of children and subsequently turning them into child soldiers (through the use of unspeakably appalling means) as a problem that we in the United States have the ability to solve.

Of course, another point that can’t be ignored in this particular conversation is the appropriate project-fatigue of many Africans. For all the superficial changes in western policy in Africa since the 19th century, one point that has remained largely unchanged is the conviction of westerners that they absolutely know what is best for Africa and that the Africans don’t.

Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire pithily summed up the problem: “You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe I can change what is going on.” Another African writer, Teju Cole, puts it more bluntly: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”

There is a deep-seated fear in much of Africa about American involvement in Africa. And it’s not misplaced. American “advisers” were sent to the Congo in 1960 with orders to assassinate democratically-elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Only months after their arrival, Lumumba was dead. Six years later, more advisers went to Accra and, as best we’re able to piece together based on the limited documents that have been released by the American government, aided in the coup that overthrew President Kwame Nkrumah.

In the 1980s, the murderous tyrant Joseph Mobuto Sese Siko (best understood as Idi Amin minus the cannibalism) was welcomed to the White House by Ronald Reagan. Like many presidents before him, Reagan was quite happy to shake hands and adopt positive diplomatic relationships with a tyrannical butcher, provided he was a right wing tyrannical butcher. In the 1990s, President Clinton attempted an “intervention” in Somalia that failed and then sat idly by and watched 800,000 Rwandans get killed in less than three months – ironically, the one case in which American intervention would have been welcomed.

In recent years, Americans have taken a greater interest in Darfur, yet as many African critics have pointed out, the human rights interest in Darfur only developed after China began reaping the considerable benefits of a trade relationship with the Sudanese government. Before Sudan was selling oil to China no one in the United States cared about Bashir’s brutality, which took the exact same form in southern Sudan throughout the 80s and 90s that it took in Darfur in the 2000s.

So all of this is to say, besides the larger problem westerners have with control and technique more generally, there’s a particularly thorny history between the United States and Africa that calls for a special kind of caution and reluctance to assume roles that will look like another manifestation of the “White Savior Industrial Complex,” as Cole dubbed it.

Of course, such a comprehensive criticism demands an equally comprehensive alternative. Thankfully, many in the church are now envisioning what such an alternative might be. In his book The Sacrifice of Africa – which should be mandatory reading for every American Christian interested in Africa – Emmanuel Katongole explores the role of narrative in shaping a people’s social imagination.

Katongole makes the crucial point that the very structure of the African nation state is predisposed to creating autocrats. When the west established the colonial boundaries of modern Africa, they were establishing a system of government designed to enrich a relatively small group of elites through the exploitation of a much larger group. It wasn’t simply that vicious individuals took positions of authority and used the political community in that way. It’s that the nature of the African nation-state cannot do anything other than produce autocratic leaders who enrich themselves by exploiting the masses.

This makes sense when you consider the origins of African nation-states. They are not the product of centuries of internal discussion amongst their citizens and careful negotiations with their neighbors. Rather, European delegates at the Conference of Berlin haphazardly drew them on an incomplete map of the continent in 1885. When he returned to London from Berlin, Lord Salisbury told the British public “We have been engaged in the act of dividing up rivers and savannahs with the lone impediment being that we don’t know precisely where they are.”

The purpose of drawing the boundaries in the ways that they did was to enhance the commercial prospects of European leaders, in short to enrich a few at the expense of the many. Political independence therefore became a kind of Pyrrhic victory.  Africans now ruled, but they did so within a structure guaranteed to produce the same result as before, only now with African autocrats instead of western. Katongole puts it provocatively: The African nation state has not failed; it’s done exactly what it was designed to do, enrich a few and oppress the many.

Viewed this way, the attempt to use American intervention to take down a single warlord isn’t just reflective of modern ideas of technocratic control or Americans clumsily relating to Africa, though it is that. It’s also a Sisyphean task – take down Kony and someone else will replace him. (Frankly, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has been in office over 20 years, has a questionable human rights record himself and doesn’t show any sign of being open to democratic elections anytime soon.) They may not be as bad as Kony, but they may just as well be worse. 40 years ago many Ugandans couldn’t imagine anyone worse than Milton Obote. But what they got to replace him was the aforementioned cannibalistic mad man Idi Amin.

The difficulty, then, with Kony 2012 has very little to do with the pragmatic objections raised by some. Yes, it is problematic that we don’t know where Kony actually is or that we don’t really know what IC does with all their donations. Those are problems, but minor ones. When the house is on fire you don’t really care that a window is cracked or that there’s a hole in the ceiling of the master bedroom.

The deepest problems are less a matter of pragmatic difficulties and much more a question of the underlying social imaginations of Americans and many Africans. It’s a failure of story telling, in other words.

In the United States, the formative stories of our social imagination are all predicated on achieving control through the use of innovation and enthusiasm culminating in a technique. In Africa, the dominant social narrative is one of various groups always fighting over positions of leadership with the goal of enriching themselves through the exploitation of the masses. Again, remembering Katongole: The African nation-state has not failed, at least not if failure is measured by whether or not something has done what it was designed to do. In both the American and African cases, the remedy is a new formative story producing a redeemed social imagination.

In The Sacrifice of Africa, Katongole highlights briefly how core Christian teaching, such as the Trinity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection provide the basis for a different story and a different imagination. In the Trinity, human beings see a healthy answer to the problem of the one and the many. We see how it is that beings can exist in relationship with each other without consuming each other.

Likewise, in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, we see a model of leadership premised on service and self-sacrifice rather than enriching one’s self. And at the resurrection we are reminded that ultimately the final victory is God’s and must be accomplished by God – a firm chastening of any aspirations we might have toward control.

In short, Christianity when it functions as the foundational social narrative – and not simply in some narrowly-defined sphere of “religion” – offers us resources that can reshape our social imaginations and in so doing reshape our societies for the good of all. The beginning of our response to Kony 2012, then, like our response to all other areas of life, is repentance of the ways we fail to live out that story.

Then we begin the work of living as baptized Christians in the already, not yet, seeking the health of the nations through a deepening understanding and applying of these core Christian teachings. And as Matt has written elsewhere that work will look like a cheerful, whistling walk in a radically different direction from the one we’ve known thus far.

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  • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

    ‘A Failure in Storytelling” is perhaps the best summary of the situation I’ve seen yet. Thanks for writing here on this important topic.

  • John

    I don’t know where all of this skepticism is coming from, in regards to Kony2012. I think bloggers are making this far too complicated than it needs to be. These guys are simply trying to get a monster arrested. What is it that everyone is afraid of will happen, if this takes place?

  • http://graphw.wordpress.com Ryan Lunde

    I greatly respect your muted rhetoric. You’ve obviously taken pains to remain civil despite having a passionate and well-thought position.

    With that said, it seems to me that bloggers are primarily inclined to critique the Kony2012 movement not because there is something inherently wrong with the movement, but because internet demographics (of the trendy vs the intellectuals) demands it.

    It seems the question underneath this whole discussion is whether the globalized, international community has the ultimatum (indeed, responsibility?) to address local problems. When local solutions are inadequate the answer to me seems an obvious yes, especially when there are some Ugandans (though obviously none of the Ugandan bloggers) that support US intervention.

  • Josh Newton

    Congratulations on using a lot of words to say absolutely nothing at all.

  • http://double-woe-seven.blogspot.com/ Ben

    A failure of storytelling might make sense if it wasn’t the most successful viral campaign ever. It’s forever infuriating that the film cannot be perceived as it was intended (and was obviously very successful at), as a hook to get people interested in the topic. And then instead of massive half-baked criticism from all sides, it could be followed by, “And here’s how we’re not going to do it wrong like has been done in the past.” Further education could follow rather than what is framed as invalidating criticism. That would be forward thinking, I know. Too much for critics? But as it is, the only thing the film was advocating was what was already being done. It was to sustain the advisers already on site to work with the local authorities. So even the white savior criticism is just as irrelevant as all the others. I look forward to the next inept criticism and why we shouldn’t all be interested in seeing the worst war criminal in the world taken down.

  • http://www.andykristian.com Andy Kristian

    Great piece of writing Matt. I think you have tried as much as possible to be objective and balanced. Reading through the comments, it’s as if any criticism to the IC campaign is construed as opposition. It needn’t be looked at that way. You do share some historical perspectives that have shaped and reshaped the geopolitics of Africa which is very important. Without dealing with these; the core issues, there cannot be sustainable peace. And without war and conflict, we wouldn’t have this debate. And in my view, without poverty, we wouldn’t have these kinds of conflicts…

  • Chris

    I would entitle this article “a failure of rebuttal”. The author contradicts himself by decrying the idea that America can solve Africa’s problems but then says U.S. involvement in stopping the Rwandan massacres would have been welcomed. Is it the author then who decides which acts of bloodshed America should try to prevent?

    He also makes generalizations, including my favorite- no one in America cared about Sudan, until people realized there was oil to be had. The experts he cites for this are “many African critics”. These same critics berate Americans for making judgments about a continent halfway around the world. But obviously these African critics are such experts that they can determine the motivations of the American people from thousands of miles away.

    Granted, one would be hard-pressed to try and defend the actions of all American foreign policy through the years, and I am not a fan of our culture’s innate ability to create “the tremendous cause that no one will care about by next week”.

    However, if you are going to criticize sloppy story-telling then it should be done in a clear and concise manner. I don’t believe this article fits that criteria.