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The Ipad and the Warlord: Widening the Circle of Concern and Care

March 22, 2012

Most privileged Americans are dismissed as too pampered and self-absorbed to care about anyone they do not know personally, or whom they cannot identify with in terms of race or class background. But we see in two of the biggest and most surprising social media stories in 2012 so far an intense hunger for social justice, a compassion for oppressed people far beyond the national and cultural borders that are supposed to constrain the typical American’s world of concern and care.

However flawed and limited by our current bias and ignorance, compassion needs no apology. Compassion is the starting point for change, the first step in the march toward a better world.

In January, the popular NPR program This American Life aired a show called “Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory.” The show featured excerpts from the acclaimed stage monolog by performance artist Mike Daisy recounting a trip he took to China to visit the factories where his beloved Apple products were made. In powerful, moving words that we confess moved us to tears, Daisy described conversations with Chinese workers whose bodies and lives were used up to produce the gadgets that have virtually come to define a life of middle class American privilege, gadgets that some of the workers themselves would never even see in operation let alone own. It quickly became the most popular episode of all time for This American Life, with more than 880,000 downloads and 203,000 streams. A listener-generated petition to Apple in response to the show quickly got nearly a quarter of a million signatures. That’s a significant response from a public that is supposed to be too enthralled by technology to care much about the conditions in which it is produced in far-flung Asian factories.

The second story was the 29-minute video Kony 2012,  produced by a relatively little-known (until now) non-profit group called Invisible Children, that aimed at creating massive public demand for the international community to bring to justice the central African warlord Joseph Kony, who stands accused of abusing and abducting tens of thousands of  children and forcing them to fight in his armed insurgency. Improbably, the video went wildly viral, getting 100 million views in only six days – faster than any video in YouTube’s history. And the video, much longer than the typical viral YouTube video and emotionally wrenching, was spread through the facebook and twitter feeds of young people and soccer moms that are typically obsessed with the latest episodes of Glee, American Idol or banal internet memes like “Laughing Baby” or “LOL Cats.”

Of course, as has been widely reported, both of these stories are rife with ironies and complications that have led some critics to dismiss their social, political and moral significance. Mike Daisy’s brilliant performance turned out to be too good to be true. The reporter who covers China for business show Marketplace that also airs on NPR, suspicious about some of the details of Daisy’s show, tracked down Daisy’s Chinese interpreter and established that many of the personal encounters with Chinese workers that he described were fabricated. This American Life retracted the story in an additional hour-long episode, but re-iterated that the problems in Chinese factories on which Daisy based his (it now turns out) fictionalized work are true – corroborated in a investigations by other journalists, advocacy groups, and in some cases confirmed in the internal audits of Apple itself. Some (including Daisy himself) have defended his lies as an understandable and perhaps even necessary use of dramatic license to get people to care about the issue, while others have seen it as an unforgivable breach of journalistic trust that undermines the cause he claimed to be supporting.

Although no one has accused Kony 2012’s creator Jason Russell of lying outright, many have pointed out that the film presents a greatly oversimplified and in some cases misleading picture of the complex situation in central Africa – most egregiously, ignoring the fact that Kony was pushed out of Uganda years ago. Yet critics of Russell were much more vehement than critics of Daisy, accusing him and those who pushed the campaign of having a messiah complex with neo-colonial if not  racist overtones. Though this criticism might seem extreme, Nicholas Kristoff’s measured defense of the film despite its flaws and the nuanced criticism of Ugandan writer and musician Musa Okwonga (captured nicely in interviews of both on the program On the Media) make it clear that it is far from baseless. Clearly there is a real danger of reinforcing paternalism and stereotypical views about Africa and its people when a story is deliberately simplified to appeal to the sensibilities of white middle class America. The tragic circumstance that a week after defending himself and his organization from these criticisms, Russell himself was found running naked through the streets of San Diego in a psychotic state, which will inevitably lead to speculation about whether his breakdown was caused by the criticism and/or the burdens of setting oneself up as the white savior.

It would be sad if the controversies that quickly engulfed both of these stories reinforced a sense of apathy and cynicism among the many Americans who were stirred by them to care about distant people and situations that they never had cared about before. However flawed and limited by our current bias and ignorance, compassion needs no apology. Compassion is the starting point for change, the first step in the march toward a better world.

There are many more steps that must be taken – steps to educate ourselves more fully, steps to determine an effective course of action, steps through the complexities and challenges that will inevitably dog our best intentions and efforts. But the first step is always compassion – and Americans by the millions demonstrated their capacity for that first step in their response to these stories. We pray that the sense of meaning and connection we experienced through these stories will sustain us in walking further along the path of justice.

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