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American Power and Millenial Social Activism

March 13th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

My friend Dan Parris makes an astute point about the nature of activism:

If you watch [Invisible Children's] past films (or spend significant time in that part of Africa), you will see there are many in Uganda that appreciate and desire the partnership of IC and young Americans. People around the world watch our politics--it's a fact. What we do in America affects the whole world, there is no way around that. These young people who it's "laughable" that they can affect the war in Uganda are some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. Their families consist of CEO's, senators and scholars. When they are ignited, it affects their families and those around them.

That's a perceptive point, but Dan draws the boundary a little too narrowly.  The premise behind campaigns like this one isn't simply that a lot of elite millenials are going to use their status and connections for the sake of good, though they might go about things that way.

Kony 2012 is first and foremost a social media campaign, a realm where 'status' is determined by categories that the traditional meritocracy often doesn't map on to.  It's a populist approach, with hopes that millions of millenials will be motivated to call their Congressman and chime in with their proverbial two cents.

But we should back up a step and revisit Dan's point about the reality of American influence.  American power is, in this case, the presupposition for the pursuit of justice.  And while Dan is brave enough to own the point, it's worth double-underlining.  As a friend wrote me today via email:

If we were a bunch of socially active young Swedes, we could launch Kony 2012 and it wouldn't matter a wit -- we could all call our Swedish Parlimentarian, and even if all the Swedish MPs were moved to action, they'd have no power to act in a way that matters.  But if Kony 2012 gets a bunch of young Americans to call their members of congress, and gets them to get all their friends to call their members, and to show up at town hall meetings, etc., then it can make a difference because the US Congress matters.  Even what individual senators say on the world stage can matter. But only because America matters on the world stage.  Kony 2012 can only exist in a superpower with a big enough military to either send in ourselves or to make the locals listen.

This level of power and influence is part of Jake's concern.  And he is right to be worried.

But the pursuit of justice in a case like this raises a tricky problem for all of us:  is it possible to advocate in a meaningful way without borrowing American political capital, and thereby reminding everyone of just how central America is to world affairs?

To put the paradox on the table for millenials directly, younger conservatives tend to be rather dubious about community organizing on an international scale, even though movements like Kony 2012 both potentially create democratic engagement and tacitly reinforce notions of American exceptionalism and greatness.  And many of Invisible Children's most vocal defenders are content to use American influence when it serves their ends, while remaining resolutely wary of conceptions of American greatness.

Except for Bono, who despite his age remains an icon for many of the (quickly aging) millenial crowd. While I've got my own criticisms of some of his projects, he is at least consistent on this score.

But the above paradox is precisely what makes Kony 2012 so controversial and such a fascinating study.

Self-deception is the inevitable corollary of an emphasis on authenticity, and if ever there was a generation attached to the idea it's we millenials.  In moments like Kony 2012, it becomes clear that we tend to privilege earnestness:  Good intentions are sacrosanct, especially when married to the intuitive pragmatism of "doing something."

And yet, within such an environment the critical reaction that goes on at blogs and on Facebook walls plays an indispensable role.  As Steven Boone put it:

It seems that Russell’s priority was to spur a self-absorbed ADHD generation into action first, fill in the blanks later. That’s the way Internet learning and social-media sharing work. How much do we now learn new things by stumbling across links and re-tweets, then fleshing out our understanding with further reading? Russell was careful to dramatize his own initial boyish ignorance in Uganda video chronicles like The Rescue, where he confessed that he and his collaborators were just some silly Southern California boys touring Africa for kicks when they discovered the Uganda crisis firsthand, fleeing a guerilla raid.

There is something okay with all that.  Public reflection, where we inquire about what has gone on behind us, is an indispensable part of knowing how we shall face the future.  And that is, by and large, what the opposition to Invisible Children's video has engendered:  a sort of loyal opposition that wants the same end, but is uncertain about the means that have been deployed to bring it about.

To return full circle, then, social media campaigns like Kony 2012 don't simply "raise awareness" for a noble and good end.  They are far more complicated, as any sort of robust communication ought be if it is to be anything more than mindless propaganda.  The praiseworthiness of the creator's intentions obscures the reality that such campaigns depend upon certain beliefs and attitudes for their existence and effectiveness, and that such beliefs are subsequently deepened when the campaign succeeds.  In the case of Kony, American power is the presupposition on which the campaign depends for its success, and which will inevitably be reaffirmed.

Which is why the counter-reaction of questioning is indispensable, even if in its worst forms it is merely reactionary and dismissive.  Without it, the feedback loop will be officially closed, and the messages that are conveyed will be only reinforcing of what we already claim to know.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.