Tuesday, March 13, 2012

White Noise

Like many of you, I've been inundated with news about the Ugandan butcher Joseph Kony over the past week. Given the sudden and spectacular media coverage, it's hard not to hear this all as White Noise. A few of you (notably Ross and Emily and Paddy) have already written thoughtfully on this connection, drawing out DeLillo's line "For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set" (66). Or, perhaps their computer screens, the author might have said in 2012.
Suddenly a man perpetrating horrendous atrocities in a remote part of the world (remote to us, that is), finds himself turned into a celebrity. A quick quiz: Who is he? A foreigner. (The Other would also get credit here). Where does he live? Elsewhere. (Famously, almost 2/3 of Americans surveyed could not find Iraq on a map -- even after the invasion; about a third could not identify Louisiana -- even after all the coverage of Hurricane Katrina).  

This is not, by a long shot, the first time Ugandan atrocities were covered. But it was never done in such a slick and sexy way before. And it couldn't have been done it without star power. Justin Bieber, Oprah, Kim Kardashian all tweeted (and can you think of a more astute observer of  global politics than Kim? I'm going to use her first name because I see her more than I see most of my friends). Rhiana even went topless on her tweet to lend a... hand(?) to the cause.

GettyIn fact, the big story, as of a few days ago, was whether or not the Kony 2012 video could "go viral" as fast as Susan Boyle. (I mean, people, please: How many innocent people does one genocidal lunatic have to kill to surpass the talents of Susan Boyle?). I'm happy to report, he's done it! Or, not Kony, of course, but the Invisible Children organization that sponsored the video.  

The Kony 2012 video taps into the American self-image of a nation of do-gooders. Why can't the whole world be well-off like the blonde family that opens video? (The video also self-referentially turns the film maker into a star, a hero in his own campaign).

Hearing this latest example of Carnage Elsewhere, is anyone else struck with a case of deja-vu? "What [does] it all mean? Is it possible to have a false perception of an illusion?  Is there a true deja-vu and a false deja-vu?"  (122). 

To the media -- a tired loop of inanity orbiting in the same constellation of movie-stars -- isn't Kony just the another "Hitler-come-lately" -- a boogeyman to whom we can attach all our fears and nightmares?   As the Daily Kos wonders, does anyone think "all Ugandan problems would be solved if we took out Kony"? To simplify the storyline, filmmakers seem to think, there needs to be a single clear villain and an "interactive" audience who can donate money and tweet their outrage in order to thwart him.   

There are so many competing causes, inconceivable levels of poverty and suffering worldwide. Even in our country, the richest nation in the history of the world, 46 million Americans live below the poverty level, according to the most recent census data. To do nothing is unacceptable to most Americans, but what is there to do? 

But the solution is not simple. It's not a tweet and it's not a donation. It's not a wrist band or an action kit. As I am sure the Invisible Children organization recognizes, these gestures may provide means, but hardly ends.  

Samantha Power delivered a riveting TED talk on the topic, discussing some of the complicated politics involved in responding to genocide. But Power's own sweeping examination of American response to genocide, in the book "A Problem from Hell", ends with a series of rhetorical questions. This final one is this: "How can it be that who fight [genocide] are the ones deemed unreasonable?" (516). Isn't it less reasonable to do nothing?

Global problems are massive, though, and must be confronted by the entire international community and not just the United States -- and certainly not through the glossy sheen of star power. Yes, friends, this is a problem Hollywood can't solve. This problem is even bigger than Bieber.

Maybe a reality show in which 10 genocidal maniacs are forced to live on an island. Each week, you the viewer gets to decide....


AbbeyR said...

This is a very interesting post that covers many subjects to be discussed. During class, we talked about America being the world's police. I believe this is entirely true in this context. American's are being the "do-gooders" in this situation by allowing and promoting this video to go viral. We are raising awareness throughout the world about the issue. This is because social media raises awareness. However, what can we do to rise above the white noise? That was a question Mr. O'Connor asked in class which I do not have an answer too. However, I also think it's interesting that American's have a fear of feeling leftout; the idea of mass consumption. In order to avoid this fear, many people will write a check for x amount of dollars, forgetting about the bigger picture. How can our society fix that problem?

Ross W. said...

Very risky to make light of such a serious topic, but I do agree that the way Americans are handling this issue (and every other) is a bit concerning. They don't really care to know much about these tragedies in other places that are not their home, it's all white noise to them, so they just throw money at it and hope it goes away. It's great (I guess) that a lot of money and awareness is being raised (although what does this do?), but concerning that Americans simply donate to try to get this problem out of their life, and then feel good about themselves as if they made a huge difference. As I blogged about, it seems to me as if they are doing it more for their own benefit than to actually help the Ugandans, who are to them just people on a screen.

Davidr said...

I agree with Mr.O'Connor that merely "taking out" Kony will not solve Uganda's problems and I find it dangerous that organizations like Invisible Children are marketing a quick means to an end. Yes Ugandans would benefit from not having a man like Kony hanging over their heads, but there would still be countless other problems to be dealt with that aren't as "sexy" so those problems wouldn't receive the same media attention. Why is the fact that there's only 1 doctor for every 300,000 people in Uganda being publicized? That would seem to be just as pressing an issue. Scapegoating a problem is a common theme seen all over the world America included. When Obama was elected there were people calling it a sign that racism was over. I think we can all agree that racism is still very much alive in the U.S. and around the world.

David K. said...

I understand your point Mr. O'Connor, and as you said yourself, the solution is not simple. Many Americans, myself included, live incredibly busy lifestyles with almost no time to spare. On a typical school day, I go to school for over seven hours, play tennis for two hours, go home, eat, relax a few hours, do homework, and go to bed. I know that most other students live about the same way. And my parents aren't any different - first work, then driving everybody around, eating, parenting, relaxing (a little), and going to bed. Everybody is busy. So I don't blame people for not taking an active role in the situation. Even if we knew the unquestionable, correct course of action, where would we find the time to do it?

The other point I'd like to make is that often times, American involvement overseas doesn't yield the results people hope for. For example, US involvement in Libya didn't just automatically fix everything. Although Gaddafi was killed, chaos persists in that region and the same problems still exist from before. Historically, I would argue that US intervention abroad has done more harm than good. Getting the US in the middle of another war might not be the remedy, but rather the continued spreading of awareness and the action and support taken by private groups.

aidanl. said...

I think the video certainly takes advantage of the white noise quote Mr. O'Connor pointed out in his first paragraph. However alot of people seem to see that as a problem, I don't. In class we talked about how Americans tend to simply throw money at a cause and see that as doing their part. And while I agree, maybe there are nobler ways to help, it would be impossible to convince everybody to go off and join the peace corps. And the reality is, in the right hands, alot of money can help alot of people. This video may have taken advantage of people simply throwing money at a cause, but if it helps people, I am ok with that.

Elise H. said...

What I find more troubling is the tremendous amount of obliviousness that surrounds this issue with Kony. As mentioned in the video, most people didn’t even know who Kony was before viewing the video. However, now, after watching a 30 minute video on YouTube, people seem to think that they know everything there is to know about the atrocities that Kony is committing. While the video appears to do a solid job of summarizing what is going on, it is still only one subjective source. If you only acquire knowledge (and base your opinion) of the situation from this single source, you risk having a biased viewpoint. The Kony 2012 video went viral because it tugged at humans’ heartstrings; it was emotionally captivating. And once you are drawn in, it is so easy to believe everything you see/hear. People are so quick to deem what they’ve seen in the Kony video as “the whole truth” that they don’t bother doing outside research. I am not discrediting the information in the Kony video, I am just saying that the creator of the video must have included certain things and excluded certain things in order to better his argument, and the public should be aware of this. It’s important that we take that extra step and further investigate for ourselves to help gain a better, more complete knowledge of Kony, his actions, and the situation in Uganda and its neighbors.

Betsy P said...

Although I agree the message could have been delivered differently, it seems controversy was Invisible Children’s only option. Just how in White Noise Alfonse tells Jack, "The flow is constant...Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics statistics, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention"(65)--Invisible Children simplified the storyline to create “a catastrophe” impactful enough to withstand the white noise and receive America’s attention.

I also found it interesting how Mr. O’Connor’s line, “The Kony 2012 video taps into the American self-image of a nation of do-gooders” related to Murray’s belief that car crashes movies are “part of the long tradition of American optimism. They are positive events, full of the old ‘can-do’ spirit” (207). After watching the Kony 2012 you initially feel the “old ‘can-do’ sprit” to fix the atrocities in Uganda. Yet America’s “old ‘can-do’ spirit” has its faults, for it often results in quick fixes rather than lasting change. I wonder if the increase in white noise has heightened America’s “do-gooders” image now that companies are willing to obscure or exaggerate any storyline to receive America’s “old ‘can-do’ spirit” and attention.