Occupy, StopKony, and “Good Intentions”

One comes across reports and essays about the Occupy movements unfolding in big American cities and metropolises as The Occupy Movement — the national, the global. Seldom does one get to read about Occupy in a small town — and I don’t mean a mid-sized town at the periphery of a metropolis and sucked dry by it, but a provincial town –or much about mass politics or political culture in small towns (unless, of course, it is something that appeals to urban horrors a la Deliverance). Truly, “one should never underestimate the profound provincialism of the Metropole.

Following are some quick notes on my interaction with a small-town Occupy (which is actively participating in foreclosure defense in the town) vis-a-vis events that are considered national and global.

I.

Heeding the call for a day of protests on Feb 4, 2012 against a possible U.S. led war against Iran, our local Occupy banded with a few other small-town Occupys and staged a march from the football field to a U.S Military recruitment center. Thus far, the General Assembly (GA) meetings I had participated in have not been well attended, but I have only been to only a few, and to none that occurred on a weekend. They were all white, sausage fests. So, it was something of a relief to see women participating in the protest. A couple of the male marchers were veterans. One of them carried a distressed U.S. flag, while others carried anti-war signs.

As if on cue, a burly man in a big truck pulled over, got into the face of the protester carrying the upside-down flag and started yelling, “If you hate America, why don’t you get out,” and then my favorite, “You pieces of shit, If you don’t hate America, why do you say no to war?” How does he get to decide who should leave the country or why an anti-war position is necessarily one that indicates hatred for America? “I’m a veteran,” he said, as if that qualifies his warmongering as the “expert” opinion on the matter. Presumably, it should be yielded to because of his patriot credentials burnished through military service. The synonymy between patriotism and militarist nationalism for imperial ends is taken for granted. He said that Americans are dying “over there” for our freedom. At that point, a woman protester walked up to him and asked the question that to me went to the heart of the matter and to which he had no response, “What about the people U.S. military kills? What are they being killed for?” Overall, a couple of such incidents notwithstanding, people driving by honked and gave us thumbs up.

We chanted anti-war slogans and some of the stock Occupy slogans such as “We are the 99 %,” and “This is what democracy looks like.” The latter was being chanted as the older guys fell way behind the rest. Someone (ahem) finally did a mic-check and pointed out that the slow-walkers, the tired, and the old falling behind, while the rest walk un-concerned all the while announcing that they are a model for democracy, is the issue. There were some planning and communication issues involved there as well. People were unaware of the distance they had agreed to marching. That not everyone would be able to walk the distance (and back) was also not taken into account. So, the marchers put the older guys, those falling behind due to bad knees and poor planning, in front. (On the way back, one of the marchers who had parked his car part way through, drove those that felt they needed a ride back.)

The old anti-war chant “1,2,3,4, we don’t want your fucking war” was given the Occupy flavor — focused as it seems to be so heavily on class to the detriment of say, gender, or race, or both, or on other experiences of differential oppression– and modified to “1,2,3,4, we don’t want your corporate war.” The absence of why such wars of aggression are tolerated and stay largely unremarked upon started to grate on me. Shuffling through the marchers, I read the sign that one of the older white men — and I was the only non-white at this protest — was carrying. It said “No Racism.” That gave me the nudge I needed and I started chanted aloud “1,2,3,4, we don’t want your racist war.” The rest chanted with, but it didn’t stick for long.

II.

We are all susceptible at times to arguments that take away the confusing complexities of our world and give us a black and white picture of reality.

Amitava Kumar

Given this anti-war protest and other discussions of U.S. wars and interventions abroad, I was surprised to see our local Occupy’s facebook page post the Stop Kony video with a breathless pronouncement: “Knowledge is power.” So, I sent off an e-mail to the few Occupiers whose e-mail addresses I have. I enclosed Mahmood Mamdani’s essay, “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency“along with some (other) critiques of Kristoff’s brand of self-ameliorating “awareness-raising,” charity-based activism, and interventionism (here , herehere) to ask, “No war on Iran, instead intervene in Uganda?”

The said video is only the latest bit of African-misery-White-Savior porn: White saviors and imperial interventionists saving black Africans from themselves; Or saving the good child-African from the bad African savage. We are familiar with the Noble Savage and the Wild Indian stereotypes from our own American history. What we are watching is an illustration of the textbook colonial “civilizing mission.”

The irony of starting this video — portraying its simplistically defined heroes (the makers of the video and its targeted audience, the American viewers) and villians — with the ‘oh everyone likes to be in an action movie’ is lost on the man-child maker of the documentary. The four year old to whom he tells the story is supposed to represent the viewer: Innocent (innocent of the history that produced and still exacerbate this and many such other conflicts, which is total nonsense). Not to mention someone that probably can’t grasp complexities of a distant place, conflicts, and human beings. Or may be the four year old can do it better than his adult dad who is all hopped up on playing the savior. As Alex Dewaal points out, “The ‘let’s get the bad guy’ script is a problem, not a solution.”

III.

As I waited for further correspondence with the Occupiers about the Kony video and especially the dissonance between posting pro-war propaganda on the one hand and protesting possible massive military intervention in Iran on the other, I expressed my frustration to a friend. She responded that Occupy Movement is run by confused individuals or is confused. That is something one hears routinely about Occupy. It is perhaps a testament to Occupy’s novelty that it does not make sense to many and its seeming incoherence is conceptualized as confusion.

The usual mode of mainstream politics is vanguardist, with its leaders, charters, hierarchies, focused on electoral politics, providing a cogent set of positions, pronouncements, demands, and prescriptions. This makes politics into an assembly line affair whereby you would have an idea of what a party line is. The variations between and within party lines yield unending spectacles of bickering that can only be called narcissism of small differences. Occupy(s) may appear “confused,” but some “confusion” is to be expected in a movement that eschews conventional models of political organization, is not focused on electoral politics, is not a single issue based movements or a lobbying special interest. 

Occupy is an opportunity to ask fundamental questions about our societies and how to live; to not only think about how democratic processes ought to work — and to participate in the consensus process is something to be experienced to know how refreshingly democratic it is– but to also rethink politics; to learn how to think globally but from a local standpoint, and reflect on how to be in-the-world. What this means is getting to know the complexities of everyday life and one’s complicity in structures of dominance and violence. This to me is the first thing that one needs to understand in order to withdraw one’s consent, and resist. This Invisible Children video does nothing of that sort. In fact, it does the opposite.

IV.

One of the Occupiers wrote back, and a thoughtful response it was:

I personally would not have put the Kony video up myself. I don’t know that any of us you emailed have any input on what goes on the Facebook page. It might make sense to put up a comment to the video on the Facebook page, pointing out that demonstrating against intervention in Iran while advertising for intervention in Africa is a mixed message. Get people to think rather than the usual, “I like” or “I hate.”

For what it’s worth, this kind of thing tends to happen with very general causes like Occupy. All through the 1990s, I was getting email from feminist friends about how the US needed to act to get rid of the Taliban. It’s one of the reasons I don’t hold Bush solely responsible for the invasion of Afghanistan — there was a lot of antagonism toward the country even during the Clinton administration.

Ideally, Occupy should be a venue where people get exposed to the progressive causes that they haven’t run into yet, so the anti-banking people learn about anti-colonialism, and the anti-war people learn about feminism. Not an easy thing to do, though, as people tend to consider that what they care most about is the *really* important thing, and the other causes can wait until later.

For my part, I am against war in central Africa (and the corporate and colonial interests that have supported it), and I am also against US military intervention in Africa.

V.

“Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan blogger, responded this week to an American social media campaign against Joseph Kony, an African warlord.” h/t The Lede, The New York Times.

This is the extent of capitalism’s hegemony, that it has colonized our capacity to imagine alternatives, and has transformed our potential for meaningful political critique and activism into a profoundly depoliticized, consumerist passivity.

Hickel and Khan, The Culture of Capitalism and the Crisis of Critique

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.

Teju Cole on Kony and the White Savior Industrial Complex

A friend (who isn’t a part of Occupy as far as I know) posted a link lauding the Invisible Children (now reportedly congratulated by the emperor himself) and their Kony video. As a counter-point I posted this FP piece that fact checks the video. My friend, Y, posted it on their wall saying something like, “I’m just putting it out there, not saying that’s the truth,” illustrating how critique can be enlisted in installing oneself at the perch of centrist civility, even as one cheer-leads the barbarities of empire. The post generated some chatter on the said friend’s page, making the following criticisms of the FP piece or perhaps of critique in general:

X: Ok, this one is a little frustrating to me in that, yes, the video could have been more clear, but that doesn’t mean that Kony isn’t evil and needs to be stopped. Nor does the pressure of “how best to do it” need to be on the filmmakers, as the article implies. Yes, it is good to have criticism and accountability, but scathing critiques with no solutions, leaving us to burrow back into our little holes of ignoring the world, do little good. This is why very few people want to do anything. They are crucified. Yes, we need to find people who have the best solutions, and be careful what we support. But lets not nit-pick and hate on something so that no one else dares try and help, lest they be torn apart too.

Y: Agree… The bully is just a bully… If someone has a critique they should give a solution, and all critiques should be done with kindness. Truth without love & kindness is just browbeating! Although-not saying this guy is speaking truth. Just putting it out there so people can be fully informed. I still felt compelled to post it as it is one of the main articles that critics are referencing. I would rather people read it in conjunction with the response from Invisible Children first rather than hear of it from someone who knows nothing about human trafficking & slavery & who doesn’t post the counterpoint to the counterpoint. … [I] didn’t want to support any browbeating as truth. I don’t mind diverse opinions & people questioning, but i can’t stand bullies. What X said is true… many people don’t take a stand because they are afraid of the attacks on themselves if they stand for others.

Elliot Ross’ essay, The #Kony2012 Show, makes some points that it seems to me, need to be made again and again, and entirely too often:

The problem with the “awareness” argument is that it suggests that interest in the war in Uganda can be separated out from the experience of intensely racialized and charisma-driven moral masturbation, an experience which turns out to be, more than anything, one of the most intensely satisfying kinds of identity-formation.

…To ask people to climb down from the soaring heights of “Kony 2012”, a place where they get to feel both sanctified and superior, and truly descend into the mire of history and confusion is simply too big an ask. It would be boring and difficult and it would not be about Facebook or Angelina Jolie or coloured wristbands or me. When the euphoria evaporates and the Twittersphere has dried its tears (probably by the end of this week), all that remains will be yet another powerful myth of  African degradation beneath Western power–and Jason Russell will be famous and rich.

But it may be too strongly/harshly worded for some. I personally like critique that has some bite and is done with verve, as opposed to, say, in a cheery and motivational manner, or in a flowery language, or by meandering about in dead, jargon-laden academic prose. The aesthetics of a critique are a different though, admittedly, related matter. The causticity and acerbity (or rage) comes from the weariness of having observed, studied, or lived through empires claiming to know best, even as they resurrect and recycle the same old missionary narratives endlessly.

I don’t consider it the task of critique to cough up prescriptive remedies, or the ten steps to a peaceful world, or a bullet-pointed problem-to-solution brief. The act of critique should, um, encourage critical thinking. That is, to analyze what is represented as reality or the question/issue, and what is presented as a solution. Out of the debris of demolished narratives arise new, alternative ways to think, unexplored potentialities and possibilities. To critique is already to think of alternate ways of seeing and being; to engage the world both deeply and broadly. Deeply in the sense that it is historically informed and locally rooted as much as possible. Broadly, in a sense that it builds (on) solidarity and highlights entanglements of our lives. That is what I think Judith Butler calls the shared precariousness of our lives. To do so, one needs to see how one is complicit in the issue (or a similar issue). Something that does not challenge, or implicate its readers/viewers — not necessarily in the sense that they haven’t acted to prevent a misery but how they are tied up with it already– should be considered suspect, or at least something to be looked at cautiously. Worst of all, imo, is to become implicated in causing more and many other miseries while having the intentions to do good. But alas, historically that has been the case more often than not. As Aldous Huxley said, “Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too.”

Lastly — and this is not an argument for apathy or isolationism, but to the contrary — we also need to ask why we should  make it a priority to “stop” a war-criminal in a foreign country we know nothing about. That too by using U.S military resources, arms, and arm-twisting (or arm-breaking). Remember that nation-states are not altruistic entities; they have their own agendas and interests — which is not the same as national interest, whatever that may mean — serving which is their primary and perhaps only goal. Why campaign for stopping a foreign evil, instead of or ahead of pushing for “stopping” and bringing to justice our own war-criminals, torturers, and mass-murderers, when the many victims (and counting) of our own imperial juggernaut and its global war-machine litter the earth without recourse, recompense, or even recognition? And we are complicit in the wrongs done to them, then and now.

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2 Responses to Occupy, StopKony, and “Good Intentions”

  1. historianess says:

    It strikes me that pinkwashing and konyposting are related activities.

  2. Nabeel says:

    great post. i really like the passage on critique, even though i don’t fully understand it. because in my experience, ‘critique’ can also be, and often is, a form of immensely satisfying moral masturbation. at least part of the time, it’s not quite slacktivism to think ‘yes, i encouraged some critical thinking!’ as much it is wishful thinking.

    i am not at all arguing for encouraging simplistic thinking of the kind that leads to konyposting (love that word) but i am also wary of being content with the belief that one has encouraged critical thinking and that it is enough – of this potentially leading to confusion, not clarity (which is not to say that confusion cannot lead to clarity).

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