What We Talked About At ISA: @Hannah_Arendt – A Hypothetical Exploration of Hannah Arendt in Cybersphere

‘Social Media Drawing’ by Tjarko Van Der Pol

This year’s general conference theme for ISA in San Diego centred on ‘Power, Principles and Participation in the Global Information Age’ and, expectedly, gave rise to a proliferation of papers on the value, consequences and effectiveness of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media in the context of international relations and global politics. Having spent the past three years trying to disentangle the thoughts of one of the more intriguing political theorists on power and politics – Hannah Arendt – it has always struck me that she might have had a word or two to say about the supernova that is social networking as such. I couldn’t help picturing her vigorously engaging with a medium like Twitter, firing off Tweets to relevant interlocutors – @karlmarx no, I think that’s where you’re wrong and dangerous: #history is not ‘made’ by men and #violence not the midwife for a new society! Perhaps even: Yep: RT @karljaspers When #language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself – hashtag and all. Or, on the other hand, flatly dismissing platforms such as Facebook as vanity spheres of little or no substance for political interaction. So I pitched in my paper as a playful thought experiment as to how she might have loved or loathed online social networks as viable platforms and public spheres for the creation of power and conduct of politics proper. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of the full-length paper, which can be found here.

The potency of social networking sites, as channels of communication and a medium for people from all corners of the world to meet in a virtual realm and engage with shared ideas – political or otherwise – has become indisputable. Not least since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, where bodies and voices were galvanized to part-take in various acts of revolt and revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, facilitated through online networks like Twitter and Facebook, have people discovered the enormous potential for a transnational coming-together in a shared cause. These networks thus appear to present themselves as a global public realm in a virtual space, transcending geographic limitations and boundaries, broadening the scope of possible political impact considerably. But with such a young medium it is perhaps wise to take a step back from the hype and ask how effective are these networks in creating actual political power? In how far can we understand the possibility to mobilize and plan in a non-spatial realm, through social networks, to constitute the generation of power and the actualization of political action? My paper sought to address these questions with an Arendtian lens – for better or for worse.

Inside the Political Twittersphere. Sysomos

Continue reading

Advertisements

#Kony2012 from Advocacy to Militarisation

Although the attention spike and mainstream media attention on #Kony2012 has receded, not least thanks to Jason ‘Radical’ Russell’s own brush with infamy, the implications of muscular-liberalism-as-social-media-experiment continue to unfold. My feed at least continues to be peppered with anger towards Invisible Children from informed activists and scholars (although Norbert Mao, for one, takes a much more positive view and Jason Stearns makes a few qualifications of the anti-case worth reading). On Saturday, CEO Ben Keesey and ‘Director of Ideas Development’ Jedidiah Jenkins (formerly ‘Director of Ideology’: yes, really) released a short teaser video promising a sequel to #Kony2012 and declaring that the campaign was “working”. Staying stubbornly loyal to the understanding of foreign policy decision-making expressed in the original narrative, this was said to be because the people at the top were now being forced to respond to an issue they previously hadn’t cared about/known about, all thanks to the public pressure of predominantly young activist-citizens. The major consequence of this pressure being the introduction on March 12 of a Resolution in the US House of Representatives, sponsored by Jim McGovern (a Democrat) and Ed Royce (a Republican), to end Kony’s atrocities and bring justice to Norther Uganda. There’s now a Senate version of the Resolution too, taken by Keesey and Jenkins to dispel those loose accusations of ‘slacktivism’ against Invisible Children and its supporters.

But what does the Resolution actually ask for? Having reaffirmed previous declarations, it:

…calls on the Secretary of State and heads of other government agencies to undertake diplomatic efforts with partner nations focused on—
(A) expanding the number of capable regional military forces deployed to protect civilians and pursue LRA commanders; (B) enhancing cooperation and cross-border coordination among regional governments; and (C) promoting increased contributions from European and other donor nations for regional security efforts.

Now that’s a rather curious formulation of “diplomatic efforts”. Nowhere in the text is there any mention of the human rights records of the Ugandan or DRC armies, nor any suggestion that they are anything but (albeit junior) ‘partners’ in this military endeavour. The preamble makes repeated mention of ‘help’ to regional governments, and one line of text hints at problems (to “address shortcomings in current efforts”), but it is clear that these are deficiencies of coordination and military effectiveness, not of human rights concerns. The claims previously made in defence of the campaign (“we do not defend any of the abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or by the Ugandan army”) have rather evaporated in the transition to a formal Resolution, and Keesey and Jenkins make no complaint of that elision. Although recently rather keen to harness #Kony2012’s popularity, Human Rights Watch and others have long catalogued systematic abuses by the UPDF which match the Lord’s Resistance Army closely for brutality. The record of the FARDC (the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo) is worse still. Exact and proportional figures are hard to pinpoint, but there is no question that they are major (and quite possibly the main) perpetrators of rape, terrorism and atrocity in Eastern DRC.

All of this sets a brutal precedent. The vagueness of the call for action and policy detail, lost amongst the emotion ratcheting of being a ‘doer’ rather than a ‘sayer’, opened the door to any number of Liberal Saviour Hawk Military Industrial fantasies (to adapt Teju Cole). This is what groups like the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars warned of, a not-so-creeping militarisation of East and Central Africa. As apparently obvious as stopping Kony’s evil in a hail of righteous bullets cycles seems to Russell and Co., the cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency tends to be draped at each stage in stark aggressions, with those regional military partners enacting their own ‘invisible’ massacres as they go.

Conspiratorial ideas of Invisible Children as a front for the US government aside, there is clearly a whole set of non-humanitarian interests at play here. I doubt there is any real appetite, and certainly very little capacity, in policy circles for any kind of escalation of direct US military involvement in the area, but then ‘support’ and ‘advice’ for regional allies and proxies has more traditionally been the mark of foreign policy. What those exponential click counts will translate into in policy terms thus remains open, but the signs aren’t great.

“Can I Tell You The Bad Guy’s Name?”: A Virtual Read-In and Comment On #Kony2012 and Badvocacy

UPDATE (10 March): Material is coming thick and fast on #Kony2012, so I’m adding three recent interventions. The first is from Ismael Beah, he of child soldier fame, on CNN (apologies for the awful interviewer).

The second is from Adam Branch (who just has a book out on Uganda, war and intervention) on the wrongness, and also the irrelevance to Northern Ugandans, of Invisible Children:

My frustration with the group has largely reflected the concerns expressed so eloquently by those individuals who have been willing to bring the fury of Invisible Children’s true believers down upon themselves in order to point out what is wrong with this group’s approach: the warmongering, the self-indulgence, the commercialization, the reductive and one-sided story it tells, its portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans, and the fact that civilians in Uganda and Central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money. This, of course, is sickening, and I think that Kony 2012 is a case of Invisible Children having finally gone too far. They are now facing a backlash from people of conscience who refuse to abandon their capacity to think for themselves.

The third, from Teddy Ruge, beautiful in its rage:

This IC campaign is a perfect example of how fund-sucking NGO’s survive. “Raising awareness” (as vapid an exercise as it is) on the level that IC does, costs money. Loads and loads of money. Someone has to pay for the executive staff, fancy offices, and well, that 30-minute grand-savior, self-crowning exercise in ego stroking—in HD—wasn’t free. In all this kerfuffle, I am afraid everyone is missing the true aim of IC’s brilliant marketing strategy. They are not selling justice, democracy, or restoration of anyone’s dignity. This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant. They are, in actuality, selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. All I have to do is show up in my broken English, look pathetic and wanting. You, my dear social media savvy click-activist, will shed a tear, exhaust Facebook’s like button, mobilize your cadre of equally ill-uninformed netizens to throw money at the problem.

Cause, you know, that works so well in the first world.


Glenna Gordon‘s 2008 image of the Invisible Children founders in cod-Rambo pose with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army now defines the #Kony2012 backlash. Jason ‘Radical’ Russell – he who speaks excitedly of ‘war rooms’ – and his compatriots have thus far notched up 12 million-odd Vimeo hits and over 32 million YouTube hits with their 30-minute hymn to awareness, social media, atrocity prevention and youth power. A simulacrum of solidarity now not quite besieged, but at least peppered, by an array of critiques and counter-points, almost always from scholars and activists with their own well-established records of engagement and internationalism.

That backlash is now, predictably enough, giving rise to a counter-backlash from newly enlivened global citizens, and the predominant form taken by this response is itself instructive. Comment threads on posts like Mark’s consistently reveal a nascent activist consciousness which is hugely fragile, but also aggressive. Although many presumably did not know of Joseph Kony until this week (and in this minimal sense, #Kony2012 clearly ‘worked’), they are now so outraged at even the hint of complexity or counter-point that they denounce others as self-promoters, ignorami (ignoramuses?), complacent and/or complicit (by some unspecified metric) in human suffering. The juxtaposition is telling: the fresh anger and one-dimensional vigour of discovering atrocity and of being “empowered” (however vaguely) to end it is simply too appealing to withstand reasoned discussion. And so newly-minted ‘doers’ find themselves in the position of having to attack those old established ‘cynics’, Ugandans and Uganda hands among them, in whose very name they “won’t stop”. Say, at what point exactly did common humanity come to mean lecturing Ugandans that they were “ungrateful” and “negative” for pointing out that Museveni is not so nice either?

But what has been the content of this unbearable counter-critique? Continue reading