Kony 2013 and the Spirit of Internationalism

Cynicism has gotten to be quite popular. I like to be cynical when I see people making strong statements without adequate backing for them. Everyone likes to be cynical about their least liked politician’s motives when he or she advances a policy. Certainly, the author of “Kony 2012: A Heartwarming Tale of Cynicism” likes to be cynical.

But I’ve never found that cynicism heartwarming.

There’s a certain view of human history that perceives society as an organism evolving in a series of stages. Humans have progressed from identifying with a family, to a tribe, to a nationality, until finally one identifies simply as a member of the human race, capable of empathizing with any of the former “others.” (Robert Wright’s book Nonzero does a great job detailing this evolution through the lens of Game Theory, the science of decision making.) Given that most of the Beacon’s readership will condemn bigotry in all of its forms (tribal, religious, racial, ethnic, gender, political, national, and so on), I will assume that most them support this “evolution.” I will then take the approach of the internationalist, because I think it follows from the first.

Another view of human history (perhaps not incompatible with the first) – particularly supported by people who want to show their intelligence through their cynicism – views virtually all conflicts in terms of a resource grab – almost always a grab for oil, in fact. Its proponents suggest that the United States invaded or wants to invade Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, North Korea, …, Portugal, and Canada purely for the purpose of burning oil fields, which will cause the oil to be transmitted to Dick Cheney’s pockets through the little known physical principle of “conservation of oil.” Others leave out the oil part, but are firmly convinced that every action by the United States government (in particular) is grounded firmly in realpolitik; in essence, the claim goes, a country (which is in many ways analogous to a corporation) cannot act altruistically.

In principle, I believe this is nonsense. Governments, like corporations, are composed of people, and people tend to get a warm feeling when they think they are making the world a better place. I would point to the recent intervention in Libya (which I tentatively supported, but I’m still not sure was worthwhile) as evidence that America can act in that interest: America had no national security interests in Libya, but it assisted the French and British armed forces in removing Gadhafi because the man was brutally slaughtering his own people in a flailing effort to maintain power.

Joseph Kony, like Gadhafi, was indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Court of Justice. Also like Gadhafi, he is no longer much of a threat, though Kony is still a potential threat in the future, as he is alive, at large,  and backed by some forces. There is no question that this man should be locked up, and equally no question that this should not be the top priority of a government that has far more pressing problems to address.

And yet, Kony 2012 was important. It was important because it was self-evidently not cynical, because it united millions in fighting for a cause that did not directly affect them. It was important because, while it bowed before the prevailing “wisdom” of realpolitik, it declared that it would change the terms on which governments act, so that it should act not in the narrow interests of the country but in the interests of the world. Kony wasn’t important because of “Kony 2012” but because of “X 2013.”

Who will be X, the next target of millions of people who want to rid the world of the world’s most brutal dictator? Bashar Assad? That could be a good thing, though I’m confident our elected officials are watching Syria very closely, and I know that there would be many dangers involved in military action in that country. Kim Jong-un? I know the United States has a constant eye on North Korea, and any military attempt to “democratize” that country would almost certainly be disastrous. But in a way, that’s a source of relief. I know that Western militaries will be very careful about engaging in any armed conflict, and I think public outcry will teach them to be more cautious, not less so.

However, we have let too many genocides go by without stepping in. Kony 2012, first and foremost, fights against this apathy, this indifference towards injustice in other parts of the world. It shows that the the idealism of ordinary citizens, combined with the caution and expertise of their governments, can be a great force for good. And I consider that a lesson well worth learning.