All the smart people, the thought leaders, the Twitterati, the pundits, are fretting about the Kony2012 phenomenon, which is a case study in an overnight viral spreading of a meme and a cause. Every single teenager in the known universe -- Tumblr and Facebook are that known universe, far more than Twitter, but they are instructed to message their "culture makers" and "policy makers" precisely via Twitter -- are posting thoughts on one side of the issue or another about Kony.
First, my teenage son grumped that it was stupid to arrest a world-class criminal like Kony, "they should just put a bullet through his head," he reasoned. No, I explained, he needs to be arrested and put on trial so that his crimes and accomplices can be known, justice requires this process and this transparency, and you have to use justice to get justice -- otherwise, in countries like Libya or Romania, where rebels just execute the leaders gangland style, justice has a much harder time taking root. Besides, nobody has ever been able to catch him, even those willing to solve it with just a bullet to the head. Usually when that sort of thing happens in the world, it's because he has some state or quasi-state backing.
Then, my teenage daughter saw all the Kony stuff, thought it seemed awfully fake, just like that ridiculously stupid meme thing a year or so ago about stopping child pornography just by clicking. She quickly found the critical Tumblr about the Kony thing, and reasoned quickly that all kinds of people were being fooled into donating money to a two-star operation that was none too open about its books.
Today, as I got on the elevator, I saw that a child had put up a Kony2012 poster by the elevator doors -- he had gone to the trouble to print out the image and cut it to fit above the elevator buttons. Perhaps he instinctively felt this was the way to reach the grannies who aren't on Facebook. Kony2012 was jumping the synapse into the real world.
Fifteen years ago -- fifteen years ago! -- a Ugandan preacher visiting New York called me urgently and asked if he could visit my office with some files about atrocities. I didn't know hardly anything about Uganda or any African countries at that time because my field was Eurasia, but I was just coming to assume the directorship of a small organization that had affiliates around the world and worked at the UN on a variety of country situations, so I was eager to learn more.
When the clergyman came to my office, he brought files stuffed with newspaper clippings, paper reports, and photos of atrocities. We had the Internet back then, but we used it sparingly and kept the web with 'pictures off," looking at just those diamonds and triangles, because the connection was slow (56k) and it made it run faster. Everybody was on igc back then, there were even some Africans. But of course, not this fellow and his church -- so he had everything in paper.
I listened to the Ugandan's tales of terror and tragedy, the kidnapping of children from their homes, the forcing of them to shoot their own parents to harden them for participation in a horrible cult. The name of the cult was the Lord's Resistance Army, and I could tell from this Christian pastor that not only were the atrocities terribly painful, but so was this literal taking of the name of the Lord in vain for such a diabolical purpose.
I hardly knew what to tell him. Groping to try to figure out what we could do or where we could put this, I explained to him that when the perpetrators were "non-state actors" l ike this, i.e. not governments of countries, it was hard to get action at the UN. Even so, we would try to get attention to the issue. The pastor made the rounds of a number of church groups and human rights groups, and returned to his homeland dejected.
For the next 15 years, I went to various UN meetings, sometimes with very high officials, with various Security Council ambassadors, the head of DPKO, the heads of the various humanitarian agencies, even the Secretary General himself, raising this and other causes from the world's conflict zones. There are groups that work on this issue far more than I could, and had up-to-the minute information. For years, it was hard to get anyone to bother with it; the answer that came was always automatic. This was not "a threat to international peace and security," i.e. the threshold for the Security Council to take something up. It could be given to this treaty body or that humanitarian agency -- there was little they could do.
Even so, groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented the atrocities, tried to get action, tried to get various resolutions and statements. At some point countries began to be more willing to "do something" because the LRA was crossing borders and creating refugees and moving closer to earning that badge of "threat to international peace and security".
But it was complicated. The government of Uganda was itself abusive. I knew people who worked in the field who patiently tried to deal with abuses from the government, from the LRA, and then even from one refugee to another -- these situations of post-conflict and protracted conflict dragging on years are brutal and awful in Africa. There was a period when the humanitarian groups said the children were so afraid of being abducted that they would come and sleep on their porches. This issue got a LOT of attention, but then it seemed to subside.
The groups I know in New York have probably spent more time in the last year or so raising the issue of LGBT rights in Uganda, rather than the issue of the LRA and children's rights, mainly because there were leaders in Uganda itself who wanted to advance the LGBT cause, and one was murdered for his work. But there was a more important reason: Kony himself wasn't in Uganda anymore, at least not permanently. He was roaming around here and there and seemed to have settled in the Central African Republic, which despite its name, is one of the poorest and most desperate of countries, with little literacy or resources and overwhelming numbers of refugees from Sudan and other countries. That's the sort of situation the Konys of the world prey on.
Among the various wars that our Nobel Peace prize laureate president has involved himself in is this one, too -- he sent 100 military advisors to Africa to help countries try to catch Kony. This was at the behest of groups like HRW who would be unlikely to sanction something like that in other parts of the world where they fret about the excesses of American influence -- but desperate situations call for desperate solutions, I guess.
So am I mad that some two-star charity exploiting social media has decided to make this an issue? No, not really, because it is awful and because none of us really did anything that effective in at least the 15 years I've been following it. Few professional human rightsniks would admit that, but they should. Yeah, I get it that a military intervention isn't advisable and that the African countries should capture him, not the American commandos. Hmm. Now why haven't these African countries gotten together and done this until now? I'm not sure it's about a lack of capacity.
We're likely to hear more and more about what a bad idea this campaign is -- it may evaporate and be replaced by a video like "Friday" or another Google lobby-inspired anti-SOPA rage fest. But meanwhile, it has some useful side-effects, in that school children begin to grasp something they rarely learn on the Internet, especially in various Redditt forums and Facebook chats -- that there are malignant killers in the world who do awful things, and that America is by no means the worst of them, and in fact is called upon to help. That's not the worst lesson to learn. In fact, there is a decided contingent that works very hard making children UNLEARN that lesson because they think they have to counter "US imperialist propaganda," but then they end up grossly mangling the truth.
And there's another salutary effect, which is that black school children are learning that some African warlords in fact are mass murderers and should be arrested. You can't appreciate this lesson unless you yourself have children in New York City schools and see the outrageous amount of Marxist-inspired clap-trap that is pedaled to kids in their "education". Critical race theory of the sort being debated now around the Obama "vetting" film is exactly the order of the day, and there's a certain premise: that all African nations and rebel leaders are victims of colonialism, which of course they are, but then a certain premise -- that therefore they should not be criticised, and to criticise them is racist and imperialist. This is a very, very hard point to get across in many places where the black power movement has left indelible marks.
I give it about another week, however, before some of those old lefties begin to call this a white man's campaign to distract from white crimes, including the white imperialist crimes committed even by black Obama.
The Save Darfur movement always struck me as rather white -- the demonstrations I went to had only a sprinkling of black folks, usually Darfurian emigres or visitors themselves. This movement put the issue on every single t-shirt, mug, bus-shelter, NGO agenda, and school fair booth. There probably hasn't been such a mass movement related to a foreign issue since the anti-apartheid movement and then the Euromissile protests.
But it was worthless. The agitators spent money mainly on themselves and their advertising (like the Kony2012 people do), and after the South gained its independence, they stopped working on the issue and turned to other causes. They exist, but they've folded into other movements and have less resources -- there are competing causes. And after the secession, more violence broke out and now it's like it was in the days when Save Darfur fretted constantly that no countries would give any helicopters to the cause (funny how they instantly came up with them when they had to go to Libya). Of course there was a reason for the helicopter problem: a) the Russians who had them wouldn't outfit them with weapons and UN staff didn't like flying in unsafe Russian helicopters with the gas tank in the front seat b) more to the point, the Sudanese government in Khartoum wouldn't allow them and threatened the mission with expulsion.
See, that's why these problems are very intractable in Africa. Tyrants, enormous amounts of guns and young men to wield them, and the inability of the West to do an awful lot.
Maybe Obama will ride the Kony2012 wave and get his 100 advisors to actually help arrest Kony and chalk up another scalp to his belt. We'll see.
I'm more worried about something else entirely, however, and that is the "Facebook Nation" crap surrounding this that leads people to begin utopianizing about it.
David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, says this on Facebook today -- and since it's a string of quotes from other people with this theory, I'll quote it in full:
"We are living in a new world--Facebook world--in which 750 million people share ideas, not thinking in borders. It's a global community, bigger than the U.S. Joseph Kony was committing crimes for 20 years, and no-one cared. We care." -- Luis Moreno Ocampo, prosecutor for International Criminal Court
"Right now, there are more people on Facebook than there were in the world 200 years ago. Humanity's greatest desire is to belong and connect. Now, we see each other. We hear each other. We share what we love and it reminds us what we all have in common. And this connection is changing the way the world works...
We have reached a crucial time in history when what we do or don't do, right now, will affect every generation to come. Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules. That the technology that has brought our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends. We are not just studying human history, we are shaping it." -Jason Russell, filmmaker and co-founder of Invisible Children
No, 750 million people don't share ideas. They don't even speak the same language. They have very different cultures. And most important, there isn't a means for them to have a parliament -- and any global parliament that resulted would be either company-appointed, like Facebook's ill-conceived dabbling in democracy some years ago -- or the collection of cranks and cooks and Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous goons that always show up first and win "direct democracy" of this sort, stamping out the voices of reason.
You don't want 750 million doing something together -- what 750 million people might do together is not necessarily some unalloyed good. What 750 million people can do together is, oh, drink Coca Cola. The Coke people said "I'd like to give the world a Coke" -- and they did. Probably it's safe to say that nearly all those 750 million have one thing in common -- they've all drunk a Coke. And maybe they all like sunsets and fluffy kittens. But maybe not. Maybe some of them eat fluffy kittens and hate sunsets.
Back in 2008, when there were only 69 million of us (!), I wrote an urgent blog post: "We Are Not 69 Million of Anything" and even made a group by that name that may have 2 and a half members in it. That's because when I listened to what Mark Zuckerberg had to say when he was interviewed by Sarah Lacey, I was really concerned. The story got overlooked because of the other scandals involved, but there was a distinct ideology formed: that Facebook would first connect up everybody -- since it believed that connecting people made them nicer -- and then it would drop memes into the pool about things for them to do. Ugh. At the time, Mark wanted to get everybody clicking and liking and sharing about the FARC in Colombia, and that was going to stop terrorism. We know how well that worked out...
Maybe Kony2012 is an easier project, but still, you have to wonder: who gets to decide? The hive mind? And you're sure the hive mind is something you want in charge? Read my blog that has the quotations of what Zuckerberg said from this video -- he actually thinks that by getting young men from Lebanon on to Facebook, he could keep them from becoming terrorists.
This is all just goofy nonsense -- doesn't anybody ever argue with him when he goes on like that? But they have the same essential goofy idea at Google -- the only difference there is that they have someone who has actually traveled in the Middle Eastern countries extensively and served in government -- Jared Cohen -- and he has tackled this same issue of how to make people caught up in gangs or terrorist cells leave their violent ways and...connect. Only on Google+, not Facebook, I guess. Cohen is more sophisticated in going about this stuff, but it's still essentially goofy. Why is it essentially goofy? Because young men who connect on the Internet don't automagically become nicer and constructive.
I really have come to dislike the Silicon Valley "better world" philosophy because as I've noted about Chris Hughes taking over TNR today, more often than not, the technology salvation preachers celebrate copyleftism and collectivism, and there's more than a little coercion involved. It's like the theory Sarah Kendzior has begun to peddle about "activism without activism". There are always masses being moved against their will...accomplishing things unconsciously through technology...dropping individuality and adopting group-think, etc. These are all the seeds of totalitarianism that should have been discredited in the last century permanently, but they are only back, bigger and more tenacious.