“Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue — most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes — and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions. Actually stopping atrocities would require sustained effort, as well as significant dedication of time and resources that the U.S. is, at the moment, ill-prepared and unwilling to allocate. It would also require a decision on whether we are willing to risk American lives in places where we have no obvious political or economic interests, and just how much money it is appropriate to spend on humanitarian crises overseas when 3 out of 10 children in our nation’s capital live at or below the poverty line. The genuine difficulty of those questions can’t be eased by sharing a YouTube video or putting up posters.”—The Atlantic: Solving War Crimes with Wristbands
I recently posted a link to the Kony 2012 Invisible Children campaign as well as a link to a critical commentary on the flawed nature of the activism. While this blog’s original intent was to focus on travel, I think the Kony 2012/Invisible Children debate relates strongly to some of the tenets of travel. For example, who is it that is able to travel most? Of course, one needs resources (economic and otherwise), a healthy body, and the stability of an accepted passport (i.e., if you reside in a country in which you are required to apply for a visa to travel most anywhere, your nationality itself handcuffs you to your birthplace). I
am fully aware that I am, due to the vagaries of birth, an exceptionally fortunate individual. I have always found that travel is critical to my own growth and understanding, both on a global and local level. Which is why the Invisible Children argument particularly hits home for me. The conflict of navigating a complex world in which one’s historical context and place of birth dictate so much is one I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember (I was the eight year old who listened to Phil Collins’s ‘Another Day in Paradise’ then wanted to spend my birthday dispensing $$ to Boston’s homeless). That said, this is my unique ability as someone with resources, education, white skin, blonde hair… But does that mean I shouldn’t travel? What then, is proper way to conduct one’s life and one’s desire to see the world?
I agree with Conscience Commentary’s blog post and the above cited Atlantic article that awareness alone does not alleviate us from guilt. At the same time, I am constantly plagued by both awareness and despair regarding my place in this ‘system’ (be it the ‘post-colonial’ historical/geopolitical construct of ‘globalization’ or the ‘capitalist’ economic system). I am deeply *aware* that every item I purchase implicates me in something else (from the gas I use to fill the tank of my *hybrid* to the oolong tea I drink after lunch to the Chilean wine I buy at the grocery store).
Yesterday, I had the uncomfortable thought that
everything I was wearing was made by a person I didn’t know, living somewhere in this world—as close as LA and as far as Indonesia. It was packaged by another person, marketed by another, shipped by another and yet here I was sitting, in this shirt, these underwear, these pants, not knowing the name of all the people (likely several dozen) who made it possible for me to be clothed. The system in which we are a part (and which allows us to voice our concerns on blogs like this) also has disassociated the process. I strongly believe that this disassociation is an active part of the perpetuation of the system—as long as we don’t know how the oil companies extracted the gas we use to heat our homes, we will gladly pay our electric bills, watch American Idol on our flat screen TVs … Yes, ignorance is bliss, but it is also deeply dangerous.
I think that the problem at the root of the Invisible Children campaign is one of generalization and disassociation. The film itself glazes over the hard facts about the LRA and the nuances of Ugandan and Central African politics in order to garner in its viewers a sense that, like the four-year-old son of the filmmaker’s conclusion, Kony is ‘bad’ and we have to make him pay. This simplistic rendering may go far at pulling at our heartstrings and raising awareness of Kony, but it fails to meaningfully discuss how we, as a viewer, are implicated in this struggle.
And I suppose this then returns me to my original question: What’s this got to do with travel? I would argue everything. As I’ve repeatedly stressed on this blog, great travel requires not only paying attention but also engaging. For example, talk to that local on the streets of Beijing about his experience growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Tell the restaurant owner of that shop in Singapore that they should reconsider serving shark fin soup. But then don’t stop there—read more about the history of a place you are visiting, join an organization that benefits a cause you learned about while traveling. And, of course, traveling, as I’ve repeatedly reiterated, does not simply mean leaving one’s country. More than anything, it means challenging your comfort zone, exploring a part of your city you’ve never visited before, making friends with someone you never would have expected to know.
I understand that these gestures alone are not enough. We are simultaneously fighting against the pull of a flawed history while also finding our way to create a more perfect global society. Simply wearing a ‘Kony 2012’ wristband doesn’t exonerate us from doing more, or doing better, but exposes the workings of a capitalist society, one in which marketing campaigns and social networking are supposed to solve ills that have existed for as long as humankind, a problem that goes well beyond Kony, race struggles, poverty, the inequities of capitalism: we do not deserve earth’s riches any more than anyone else. In other words, (HU)mankind doesn’t have a right to fight over resources, or bulldoze entire species from existence, or claim the boundaries of land, water, air, space. We do not own anything here, as evidenced by my realization that every garment I wore was made by someone else. Until we realize how futile and pointless the striving for more is, I’m afraid we will decimate this place we call ‘home’ and find ourselves standing naked in a house with no walls. But isn’t this how we began? How did we get so off track?
My conclusion then is that the problem isn’t Kony, we are the problem—humankind in general. Until we understand that the system we currently subscribe to is one in which we believe we deserve to be here, we will continue to decimate any prospects for peace—social, environmental, or otherwise.
Finally, I challenge you to test your knowledge of Africa in this interactive map (man, did this make me feel like an ignorant American!).
I’ll close with the wise words of my favorite Chinese poet, Han Shan:
As long as we’re bound by the Six Extremes
discussing the Nine Knots is futile
talented men remain in the wilds
the unskilled close rough doors
the cliffs are still dark at noon
the valleys stay dim on cloudless days
here you’ll find the sons of elders
and none of them owns any pants
*An update as of March 21, 2012: Here’s another good article to read on the subject of Kony and Kony 2012, written by Norbert Mao, a lawyer and politician in Uganda. Here’s another on the idea of the ‘White Savior’ from The Atlantic.