Yesterday my daughter sent me a link to this video. You might well have seen it by now, since it has gone viral in a big way over the last couple of days. In blogging about it, I’m aware that I’m straying into a hornets’ nest. That seems strange, for surely nothing defines human decency more simply than wanting to bring to justice a man who has been responsible for the abduction and brutalization of thousands of innocent children. When you consider the outcry that the case of even one such child abduction provokes from our tabloid press here in Britain, the charity Invisible Children make a valid point – surely there is something very seriously wrong with our world if these crimes can remain unrecognised by the developed world for so long.
The backlash has already begun. Given the complexity of African politics, there really is no morally pristine way through this situation. The involvement of the US Military, in particular, has provoked charges that the charity’s tactics strengthen the hand of the Ugandan President, whose own human rights record leaves much to be desired. There have been accusations of figures being exaggerated, and of a lack of transparency in the funding arrangements of Invisible Children. For those who wish to read further, I can recommend this background piece from the Washington Post. It presents the arguments clearly and succinctly.
It is right that we scrutinize the organisations that distribute contentious and emotive material, particularly when they demand our money and our time. Free debate should never be silenced. Having said that, I sense a spectre lurking behind much of this criticism. And here I enter difficult territory. I’m old enough to remember Live Aid, and the complaints about that, particularly in the US, had a similar ring. The phrase “white man’s burden” has been mentioned in both contexts. In Bob Geldof’s autobiography, the comparative lack of enthusiasm for the American supergig, compared to the Wembley one, was closely linked to the complaints of black activists who found the spectacle of a white-dominated entertainment industry rattling the tin for starving Africans deeply offensive. There were claims that Geldof’s simplistic approach completely overlooked the complexity of politics on the ground, particularly the use of famine as a weapon against the movement for Eritrean self-determination.
I have a real problem with all of this. Whether we’re talking about denying IRA terrorists “the oxygen of publicity” or the moral undesirability of dealing with the Taliban, the unpleasant fact remains that in the world we live in, the path to peace and stability often includes a dialogue with those we find repugnant, or at least deeply suspect. And we can all retain our ideological purity in our ivory towers, but the people who get the world changed are the ones who are prepared to wade in and get their hands dirty getting things done.
I’m white, and white people have done terrible things. A recent history of the Second World War by Lizzie Collingham disabuses us of the comforting notion that we are above using food as a weapon. I won’t even start on slavery, or the numerous manifestations of institutionalised racism that still exist. It’s essential that we reflect deeply on all these things and seek to understand them. But that simply won’t happen if we are so paralysed by the mistakes of the past that we never challenge anything, never seek to make a change, to draw a line and say that beyond this no decent human being, regardless of the colour of their skin, ought to go. It seems to me that there are people of colour – a minority, but a vocal one – who would have white people punished by imprisoning them in perpetuity in the paralysis of guilt.
And you know what? My daughter’s generation don’t see it. And it’s right, and beautiful that they do not. For the last two years, my partner and I have opened our home to her friends (and my slightly older son’s). They are a wonderful mixture of ethnicities. Our lives are immeasurably enriched for having known them all. I grew up in one of the most uniformly white communities in Britain. My teenage years were culturally impoverished compared to those of my children.
They make no distinctions. Look at the little boy in the Stop Kony video. Does the fact even register with him that his beloved friend Jacob is black? I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that is the attitude that is normal and natural among the young people I interact with. They take the moral lead and occasionally put me to shame. I know I don’t need to offer to help organise something on April 20th. They’re the Facebook generation and they are already on the case. In fact, my daughter turns 18 on April 19th and she’s already said that sticking up posters to make Kony famous is far more important than enjoying her coming of age by legally ordering booze in pubs.
That is why this video, against all my cynical expectations, made me cry. I saw my children’s generation taking the tools of information technology into their own hands and using them in an incredibly powerful way. Right, they said, you say nobody will help these kids because they’re not American and they’re not famous? Let’s take the values and tools of our culture, its obsession with celebrity and communication, and use them against your cynicism and apathy. We will make mistakes. Young people do. They don’t see all the shades of grey in a situation. They aren’t rendered mute and incapable by the shameful acts of the past. They believe in transformative change, and what is more, they get on and make it happen. And thank God for that.
We cannot clutch the slights of the past to our bosoms for ever, no matter how severe they were, or we risk poisoning the future. And I absolutely endorse the words of Jedediah Jenkins, director of idea development for Invisible Children:
“There is a huge problem with political corruption in Africa. If we had the purity to say we will not partner with anyone corrupt, we couldn’t partner with anyone.”
No political movement should be immune to criticism. That way lies totalitarianism. So I welcome the challenging questions that are being asked about Invisible Children. But I still wonder, and weep, at the determination of my children’s generation to demand change.
I end with a few lines from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “Slaughterhouse Five”:
We went to the New York World’s Fair, saw what the past had been like according to the Ford Motor Car Company, saw what the future would be like, according to General Motors.
And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep, how much was mine to keep.
In the interest of balance, I recommend this: