Over the past few weeks, we continue to hear of the travail of 200 or so girls kidnapped by a “terrorist group”, Boko Haram, operating in Nigeria. The leader of the group has been very public in his intentions – the girls are going to be sold in to slavery. Period. Around the United States have come calls for the Obama Administration to “do something”, so some American Special Forces troops have been dispatched to help the Nigerian military search for the group and the girls. I’m guessing they won’ have a whole lot of success.
For all the horribleness of the story, however, I fail to see why we’re involved at all. Except, alas, I understand all to well why we’re involved. In recent years, I’ve noticed a decided uptick in what I call “do-somethingism”, the desire on the part of the American people to do something about some perceived injustice or cruelty. Far too often, what we the general public think we know about the situation has little to nothing to do with what is actually going on. Our desire to “do something” – rescue girls from modern slave traders, for example – clouds our ability to understand all the dynamics involved and help local officials deal with the problem constructively.
A couple years ago, in the midst of the Arab Spring, there was an uprising in Libya. The Libyan military responded accordingly, reacting to Civil War with violence against those trying to overthrow it. Americans from all over demanded we “do something”. The chorus came to include Sen. John McCain, who always loves an excuse to send other people to bomb far away places about which he knows nothing. Bending to the pressure, Pres. Obama ordered American military aircraft to reduce the ability of the Libyan military to attack targets in civilian areas. Why he did so, in the midst of two other wars, our equipment stretched to the breaking point, our resources and lines of supply and logistics already a tangled mess, and our military too much in need of a respite, is beyond me. Fortunately for us, our participation in this little campaign was not a failure – which overall should be viewed as a shining success – although it was a marvelous example of what Noam Chomsky, in the title of one of his many books, called The New Military Humanism.
Around the same time as the intervention in the Libyan Civil War came the flaming spectacle of Kony 2012. You all remember that, right? Representatives from a group based in California even came to my daughters’s school here in Illinois, instructing the young girls and boys on the horrible things Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan resistance force known as the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), was doing, including “recruiting” child soldiers. Except, Kony 2o12 was a ridiculous mess, full of inaccuracies and a kind of American (read white American) narcissism that was so horrible it was kind of funny. The whole thing came crashing down when the maker of the film #Kony2012 was arrested for public nudity, caught running naked through the streets of his city in California and masturbating in a public park. A fitting, even allegorical, end indeed.
At the time I wrote the following:
Standing off from a distance, it is easy enough, I suppose, to become overwhelmed by the situation in Uganda. Kony is an easy enough target for hatred and disgust. Hatred and disgust at an easy target is not a substitute for careful thought, for educating oneself on the facts of the matter, and for constructing possible responses out of a sense both of how much as well as how little one knows about a particular situation. The American response, I maintain, is rooted as much in guilt over our inaction – and, according to areport from the Organization for African Unity released in 2000, its complicity – during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990’s as our concern for the specifics of the struggle between the LRA and the Ugandan military. That the Uganda of today has far different concerns and problems stemming from the heavy hand of the dictator we are currently supporting would, if we were a bit more aware, mock our good intentions.
It is all well and good, I think, to desire to do something to alleviate suffering. It is all well and good to believe and work on the principle that individuals can make a difference in the world. Done without regard to the realities on the ground, rooted in an unreflective, patronizing racism that is all the worse for going unrecognized, the #Kony2012 video is a travesty, a mockery of the very ideals from which it purports to come.
I used the following quote from Guy Debord as an epigram for my post: “To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep. I used this quote as a jumping-off point for further reflection directly following what’s quoted above:
As the epigram from Guy Debord makes clear, however, it is easier for us to rely on the spectacle of the video and the equally engrossing possible spectacle that shows us riding to the rescue of the Ugandans; these nightmares have the singular virtue of being those of other people. We can sleep at night knowing that, watching a video, we have done something. The consolations of our detachment keep us from the far more difficult work of actually learning things and doing things.
In yet another Lawyers, Guns, & Money post on Nick Kristof and the scam being run by Somaly Mam (it seems, at least according to a report at Salon.com, that Kristof was complicit in at least some of the grifting going on), we hear, again, that the real work against human trafficking, including sex-work trafficking, is far more boring than it is lurid. The problem itself is rooted in mutliply intertwined systemic problems, from poor socio-economic conditions to misogyny and male privilege, and the real work involves as much grant-writing and fund-matching as spreading hyped tales of childhood exploitation. As the piece at Salon.com makes clear, one of the reasons Mam’s group was so successful was the influx of funds from conservative American Christian groups, who, whether or not they really care about the issue of childhood slavery and sex trafficking, can use their support for groups like Mam’s to demonstrate their work in helping to improve the lives of others, at relatively low cost to themselves, while ignoring the systemic issues that perpetuate the degradation of women and their ongoing sexual exploitation. It’s easy to be against trafficking in underage girls for sexual slavery. It’s much harder, and more mundane, to work to change conditions so that these are no longer live options. One group mentioned by a commenter at the linked LGM article, buys sewing machines for women, providing socio-economic freedom of choice, the possibility of growing economic and power, and breaking the cycle whereby sexual exploitation may no longer be the only route to keep abject poverty at bay. Not as headline grabbing as some white guy “buying” a couple alleged “sex slaves” from a brothel in Phnom Penh. But it at least has the virtue of doing something real.
And this is where I make my plug for the United Methodist Church. With our General Board of Global Mission, we are involved around the world, helping people in all sorts of mundane ways. In northwest Zambia, our missionaries are teaching farmers contemporary animal husbandry techniques, including the benefit of goat-herding, as well as contemporary agriculture. Locals are saving money to purchase modern farm equipment to expand their fields and diversify their crops. The women are being taught crafts and marketable skills that not only help support the local communities but give them a sense of real empowerment, an economic and political stake in furthering the betterment of the community. This is boring work, really, which is why it’s sometimes hard to get the word out. One of the missions our denomination supports is an after-school program in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. I love this particular work because it’s so simple; an after-school program, a place for kids to go after school in the midst of social situation defined by poverty and controlled by crime tempered with violence.
The United Methodist Church can – and it may, for all I know – go to Cambodia, learn the basics from those already on the ground, including local Buddhist monks and missionaries. They can observe best practices from secular NGOs and local groups working to provide alternatives to families to selling their daughters for sexual favors in order to bring in extra income. The presence of United Methodist Missionaries, practicing our personal and social holiness in ways that might not draw headlines, is a far better way of “doing something” than making a horrid – and inaccurate – film, or worse, dropping bombs in the midst of a civil war about which we know nothing. This is the kind of “do-somethingism” I can get behind because it makes a real difference in the lives of real people. It might even transform the world. Not the whole world. A little tiny sliver, what seems an insignificant corner, might well be changed for the better because of the work we do. Boring work. Mundane work. You know, actually doing something instead of “do-something”.