Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"Where you live shouldn't determine whether you live."

This is an incredible film... powerful, effective and moving. Watch it... But read on.


First. Here's my take-away.

Most people have a big issue with ignoring problems around the world. If they don't happen to people we know, or people who look like us or share the same language or culture, far too often, we act as if they don't matter. I've never been very happy about this... If rights to life, liberty & property are moral constructs that apply to people because they are individuals - as I believe them to be - and not as something "granted" to people by any god or government (as Thomas Paine also believed, by the way)... Then everyone has the same rights.

It doesn't matter where they are or who they are.

I chose to title this blog, "Where you live shouldn't determine whether you live", because that - for me - is the really important point of all this. We shouldn't be blind to the atrocities that are happening elsewhere.

Liberals tend to forget what rights actually are, and instead get worked up about anything they just feel emotionally bad about - but many conservatives I've talked to seem to believe that it's the US Constitution that generates rights and those don't extend to anyone who isn't an American.

For that matter, to hell with anyone who wasn't lucky enough to be born here. Right?

This isn't right... And it has always bothered me. People in other countries - especially children - do not deserve to be murdered or conscripted into the armies of statist thugs or religious fanatics. Individuals in America or anywhere else should also not sit idly by while this kind of thing happens. We all should care enough to want to do something.

..............and here we come to the gigantic "BUT".

But... There are two major - and very important - criticisms I have of this film... One of which I had last night when I first saw it, and the other I've come to uncover over the last 24 hours.

The first and most significant criticism is that using the United States government and its military to rush off to Uganda is more than likely to cause far more problems than it solves. For many reasons, the United States cannot be the "World's Police". We cannot afford it, to be sure, but much more importantly - we cannot even begin to know how to do it.

Most regional issues - like the problems in Uganda - aren't so easily broken into heroes & villains.

When we pick one side in such a dispute, we do so at our long-term peril, because we have no idea what the whole story is, and we rarely have enough institutional knowledge of other cultures to really understand what the consequences will be. For some examples, look Arab Spring last year... We supported the dictator Hosni Mubarek for 30 years. Then what? His own people depose him.

Along the same lines, we rush in to a prolonged fight (in spite of Obama's foolish assurances to the contrary) with Libya, and there are already reports about the "new" government being filled with potential Al Qaeda types.

Practically, we're no good at this.

Morally, of course, the situation is even worse! Not only are we imposing our own might-makes-right brand of decision making on the inhabitants of other countries who have no representatives in our legislatures - which is itself a big problem - we're also forcing American taxpayers to pay for all kinds of violence being used in the name of "America" against people we don't know and mostly don't understand. It's nothing but force the whole way down.

So... Kony 2012 glosses over all that when it mistakenly calls for continued and/or expanded United States military support and aid to Uganda.

This is not ok... But as I've said to many people on Facebook, some of whom who have criticized my posting of the film, one can accept that the issue of child murder and conscription deserves a closer look and a lot more world-wide outrage... without accepting the film's ultimate call-to-action, to the extent that that call-to-action involves the state.

I want to see a world where children are safe from these kinds of atrocities, and thus there is a second quote I want to highlight from the film:
"And because we couldn't wait for institutions or governments to step in, we did it ourselves. With our time, talent and money."
This is all I want anyone to do. Ever.

Any time someone says, "well, without the government, who would take care of ____??", my response has to be... You will. If you care about it, you will do it.

Unfortunately, I have to turn this criticism back inward a bit onto libertarians in general - many of whom, for years, have taken the more isolated approach to these kinds of things, worrying only that they have their own security and prosperity. We can't do this, though. Freedom and rights to life & liberty aren't things that should be kept to ourselves, we need these ideas to explode around the world, but libertarians of all people should also understand that this cultural explosion must not be forced or imposed from the top down.

We have to bring it to people through voluntary interaction, or not at all... And unfortunately, if libertarians aren't paying attention to these international issues and taking action on our terms, arguably less informed or thoughtful people will - as the makers of this film did - just try to get the state to do it.

"We" need to be around to offer the voluntary alternative, or no one else will.

A smaller side-criticism of all this, is also that by making this one man - Joseph Kony - out to be "the bad guy", we also forget that it's not an issue of one person, but a cultural and political problem that exists in much of the world and particularly in many parts of Africa. It would be a great tragedy indeed if people were led to believe that if we just get rid of this one guy, that's all we need to do.

Now... Along that line, the other criticisms are a bit more damning on a practical level. Foreign Policy magazine has a pretty robust one that I will just excerpt a big chunk from here:
"It would be great to get rid of Kony. He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years. But let's get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn't been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.

First, the facts. Following a successful campaign by the Ugandan military and failed peace talks in 2006, the LRA was pushed out of Uganda and has been operating in extremely remote areas of the DRC, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic -- where Kony himself is believed to be now. The Ugandan military has been pursuing the LRA since then but had little success (and several big screw-ups). In October last year, President Obama authorized the deployment of 100 U.S. Army advisors to help the Ugandan military track down Kony, with no results disclosed to date.

Additionally, the LRA (thankfully!) does not have 30,000 mindless child soldiers. This grim figure, cited by Invisible Children in the film (and by others) refers to the total number of kids abducted by the LRA over nearly 30 years. Eerily, it is also the same number estimated for the total killed in the more than 20 years of conflict in Northern Uganda.

As I wrote for FP in 2010, the small remaining LRA forces are still wreaking havoc and very hard to catch, but Northern Uganda has had tremendous recovery in the 6 years of peace since the LRA left.

So why is "Uganda" trending on Twitter?

Unfortunately, it looks like meddlesome details like where Kony actually is aren't important enough for Invisible Children to make sure its audience understands. The video, narrated by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, says its purpose is to intensify pressure on the U.S. government to make sure Kony is brought to justice this year, and as the message broadcast throughout says, what is important is simple: Stop Kony.

Among other emotive shots, the video features Russell's attempt to explain the LRA to his toddler son, enthusiastic (and mostly white) volunteers putting up posters and wearing Kony 2012 bracelets, and some heart-wrenching footage of children who walked for miles to sleep in a safe place at the height of the LRA's power in Northern Uganda. The latter comprised much of Invisible Children's namesake first film and brought the organization to prominence.

But in the new film, Invisible Children has made virtually no effort to inform. Only once, at 15:01 in the movie, over an image of a red blob on a map leaving Northern Uganda and heading West, is the fact that the LRA is no longer in Uganda mentioned, and only in passing..."
And additionally:
"There are many reasons uninformed and oversimplified advocacy can cause trouble, and Siena Antsis catalogues some of them here, noting that Invisible Children expertly "commodifies white man's burden on the African continent." Buy a bracelet, soothe some guilt.

But as researcher Mark Kersten notes, after "stopping Kony", then what? Or what if the activism just results the the 100 U.S. advisors staying but no Kony?

One of the biggest issues with a simplistic "Stop Kony" message is that discussions of Navy Seals or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts . But what about the dozens or hundreds of abducted and brainwashed kids? Should we bomb everyone? Will they actually stop fighting after Kony is gone? What if they shoot back?

Coming back to the "Kony 2012" video and its celebrity endorsements, what are the consequences of unleashing so many exuberant activists armed with so few facts? Defining Uganda in the international conversation by issues that are either geographical misfires (Save northern Uganda!) or an intentional attempt to distract the international community (Death to the gays!), do a disservice to the many critical problems Uganda has.

In addition to the problems of poverty and nodding disease Izama highlights, Uganda is barely (if at all) democratic, and the president Yoweri Museveni ushered himself to a 4th term last year, taking him to over 25 years in power. Corruption is rampant, social services are minimal, and human rights abuses by the government common and well documented. Oh, and oil is on the way.

Stopping Kony won't change any of these things, and if more hardware and money flow to Museveni's military, Invisible Children's campaign may even worsen some problems."
It is, as I said, fairly damning.

But it's not damning to my ultimate point, which was, and is, sparked by things actually said in the video. So I will reiterate. Human rights are just that: Human. They aren't "American" or "Canadian", "Australian" or "British" or anything else. Rights reflect our moral responsibilities and expectations regarding how we treat other people.

I have a right not to be killed or enslaved, and my expectation of you is that you will not attempt to do those things, and I won't do them to you. Not because I have a political Constitution that says this is so, but because - as an individual human being - that is the only consistently morally defensible position to maintain and accepting these principles ensures long-term peace and prosperity for everyone.

This applies to small African children as well.

So... For me, this is what's important. We all need to remember that there is a much bigger world out there than the one we see day to day, and we all could probably stand to care about it a bit more... Moreover, we need to do this as individuals and quit expecting violent force through the government to solve big, international problems for us.

It can't, and it won't.

So to suggest an alternate call-to-action from the one in the video, I say this: Instead of banding together to get the state to "do something", let's look instead for ways to help ourselves. First and foremost, this could mean donating to reputable charities that help refugees and help actually defend children from being abducted in the first place. Secondly, we need to start putting some serious effort into voluntarily educating people in that part of the world about the value and crucial importance of economic & social/political freedom.

The Atlas Economic Research Foundation and their partner organizations in Africa do this already...

But there should be hundreds more. So support that now. And maybe don't just jump on board with the whole video - in spite of how compelling and powerful it clearly is.