‘fashion changes. style remains’ – coco chanel
In the world of white liberalism, this season’s must have accessory is a Kony2012 bracelet. Having wandered aimlessly for a bit since the heady days of Save Darfur, the fashionistas of philanthropy have at last discovered an accoutrement which highlights their morality, cosmopolitanism, and general beneficence of spirit. Though the accessorizing hits different accents this time around (notably a focus on ‘the children,’ which was lacking in the Save Darfur campaign), the essential style remains the same, based on a certain color combination whose potential for customization has proven limitless: white people save brown victims from brown villains.
An interesting development in this season’s iteration of the theme, however, has been the rapidity with which it has met opposition. Immediately after the line’s immaculately choreographed launch, critics from a variety of quarters pointed out its disconnect from its purported objects of concern, its imbrication with imperial designs on the continent, and the stains of racist discourse discoloring the whole endeavor.
The prominence of this critique has provided for an interesting look into how the liberal interventionist crowd reacts to criticism of their project. The dominant response seems to be a sort of wounded aggrievement – a shock that one could criticize such a noble endeavor, combined with an aggressive attack on those making the criticism: ‘what do YOU think should be done?’
The stubborn attachment to the ideals of the campaign reveals a bit of the affective dimensions of liberal interventionism. On one level, the reasons for the attachments formed by the campaign’s supporters are clear enough – they allow them to see themselves as the paragons of morality, they validate nationalist narratives about the world being a place full of problems that America solves, etc. But as significant as these are, I don’t think they quite explain the ardor with which supporters proclaim ‘something must be DONE!’
To understand this, I think it’s necessary to consider the role this campaign plays within broader liberal ideology. For me, this ideology is best summarized by PZ Myers’ response to Terry Eagleton’s argument that liberals refuse to admit that ‘the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body':
If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars.
As a response to Eagleton’s argument, it’s primarily a touching display of the most syrupy naiveté. But it’s interesting for the way it reveals the liberal refusal to confront the basic truth of Eagleton’s argument: our world is one of massive exploitation, starvation, oppression, torture, and misery. For radicals, these are the foundational facts that determine our orientation to the world.
The liberal faith in our world’s basic reformability, however, requires that all of this be denied, or at least suppressed. This is, I think, the role campaigns such as Kony2012 play. They are strategies of containment, a means of partially recognizing the truth of history while quarantining its radical implications. No ideology, after all, is ever based on pure falsehood, but rather exists in a complex relationship of repression, misdirection, misemphasis, and exaggeration with people’s lived experience. The Kony campaign, and liberal moral panics like it, allows a limited acknowledgment of the scale of human suffering that exists in the world. At the same time, however, it immediately works to contain this acknowledgment. Here, one is reminded of Domenico Losurdo’s argument that liberalism works by creating sacred and profane spaces – the former are where the rights espoused by liberal philosophy apply, the latter where their negation rules. In the period of classical liberalism, this allowed philosophers like Locke to create a rights-based system in England, while denying the rights of the indentured servants, Africans, and Indians in the New World. Today, the logic of the spatialization is slightly different, as it works to contain the reality of oppression to distinct spaces (Africa, usually), reinforcing the appearance of justice in the West and simultaneously positioning it as the agent of salvation of the profane spaces.
This dynamic, I think, explains the fervor with which liberal calls to ‘DO something’ are made. The limited eruption of the reality of human history into liberal ideology provokes a fevered counter-reaction, in which the oppression glimpsed must be extinguished as quickly as possible. Once this is accomplished, the world can return to its former happy state. It’s not perfect, of course. Crooked timber of humanity and all that. But once dark blots like Kony are removed, it’s still a beautiful place.