Category Archives: Activism

Was Radiolab Racist?

This story has come across my news feed more than a few times in the past few days. I respect Radiolab a hell of a lot and it was disconcerting to see Mr. Abumrad and Mr. Krulwich charged with approaching a story in a racist manner. I wanted to do some research and form an opinion before rendering judgement. Now I feel ready to do just that and, well, it’s complicated.

First and foremost, I have little doubt that the “Yellow Rain” mentioned in the segment was not a chemical weapon, but a type of mass hysteria. Given the attention chemical weapons tend to draw in conflicts, it is hard for me to believe that if there were a chemical weapon that was used on the Hmong peoples as they fled Laos, there would be such a huge difficulty finding evidence of it, especially if it were as potent as it is described in the story. Satellite photos would show evidence of patches of second-growth vegetation (or no regrowth at all) in areas where the agent had been used, to say nothing of the fact that the remains of people or animals upon whom this agent had been used should display telling signs of toxicology. That none of these secondary indications appears to have been discovered strongly points me in the direction of believing that “Yellow Rain” was a means for Hmong refugees to have a bogeyman upon which to direct their (deserved) resentment of their treatment both by the Laotian government and the United States. I’ll be more than happy to eat my words if any of these secondary data sources proves the case that “Yellow Rain” was indeed a real chemical or biological weapon.

All that said, the mass atrocities waged on the Hmong are very real and sadly yet another example of the US government accidentally enabling the targeting of civilians by playing a short game both in civil war and the aftermath. We can see the same pattern at work throughout Latin America, the Middle East, and countless other countries that became collateral damage during the Cold War. This is not the first time I’ve encountered the Hmong story and I absolutely believe it deserves more exposure. The way the Hmong were targeted during and after the Laotian Civil War is no less deserving of our attentions, sympathies, and respect than the experiences of the Kurds, Darfuris, or Tutsis.

Was Mr. Krulwich insensitive to this story? Yes, absolutely. Did it constitute racism? No, I don’t believe so. I personally think the story was edited in a way that was equally fair (or perhaps unfair) to all parties involved. Case in point: Mr. Krulwich was a straight-up bully in the interview, there’s no doubt about that. It would have been a simple matter to present the facts as he had them, and let the Yangs present their answer as they saw fit. He remains belligerent in the wrap-up after the interview (which was an opportunity for him to express some form of regret for his treatment of the Yangs and he blew it) even as Jad and Pat confess to finding the direction the interview took disturbing.

But here’s the other element that disturbs me: the Hmong have been treated horrendously by the United States, Laos, and history–their story hardly needs embellishment in order to have a moral transcendence, yet that’s exactly the route the Yangs have taken it down. Despite Ms. Yang’s admission that the purpose of the interview was stated to be on the Hmong experience specifically with Yellow Rain, she states in the difficult portions of the interview that she’d thought Radiolab was interested more in telling the story of the Hmong themselves. What kind of journalist (and here I refer to Ms. Yang), award-winning or otherwise, goes into an interview on a controversial topic without expecting the controversy to be touched upon? Equating mass atrocities against the Hmong with the veracity of whether chemical weapons were used against them is not only disrespectful to the experience of the Hmong themselves, it is also downright dangerous to their cause. If it can be proven (and I think it likely that it can) that the deaths attributed to chemical weapons had another cause, by focusing the suffering of the Hmong upon this single element of the story it only makes the discrediting of it more damaging to the story as a whole.

This is a huge issue because to me it seems a case of emotional manipulation of the audience. And Ms. Yang isn’t content just to stop there: for this article she doubles down, rather than focusing on what the interview got wrong (I’d love at least one link, any link in the article to any of the pieces of research she claims bolster the claim that “Yellow Rain” was indeed a chemical or biological weapon), she talks about the experience of losing her baby. What does this have to do with the interview? One could argue it might have to do with her emotional state as she fielded Krulwich’s ever more aggressive questions or explain her reticence in engaging in the debate, but I frankly think it has more to do with generating sympathy in the audience. The message she presents is: look at these scientists beating up on my uncle and I while I suffered a miscarriage. She refutes none of the claims of the piece aside from claiming they edited out portions of the interview in which her uncle explains his experience with bees (which again, she could have presented in detail herself but opts not to), but instead focuses on the most emotionally charged pieces of information she has on hand to generate sympathy: by bringing her miscarriage into the story and by describing the treatment of her and her uncle as racist. The story of the Hmong is tragic enough–by manipulating the audience in this way it only serves to make the Yang’s seem even less rational than they appeared in the interview itself. What is the basis of the claims of racism in the interview? That the findings of a number of scientists were presented as more credible as those of a Hmong refugee and his niece? Given that only one of these parties has to submit their findings to peer review and prove their case in the court of public opinion, yes I’m going to say one of them does indeed have more credibility to bring to bear. If that is racist then all of physics, biology, geology, and chemistry is racist.

This is the one and only reason I sympathize with Krulwich: there have sadly been more than a few cases in history of sympathies of well-meaning people being directed into destructive means. One example that comes to mind was a story from the Invasion of Kuwait in which a Kuwaiti refugee claimed to have seen invading Iraqi soldiers killing babies in hospitals and more specifically seeing babies removed from incubators and left to die. The story was repeated to congressional inquiries and used as a talking point by then-president George H.W. Bush to bolster the case for repelling the invasion with US troops. The problem, as it turned out, was that the story was a fabrication. I’m not going to argue that it was the sole reason for the first Gulf War, but the fact that it was used on any level to justify that armed conflict is disturbing enough. As Krulwich points out in the story, the belief that the Hmong were attacked with chemical weapons was again used as a talking point to help justify the United States return to chemical weapons production. Nobody should want to build a case for sympathy on a house built even partially on the suffering or potential suffering of others.

All that said, I would love a follow-up piece about the Hmong out of NPR–something that addresses the deep history of their culture and experiences as an ethnic minority in both Southeast Asia. This interview wasn’t that and from what I can tell was never intended to be that. But when and if a journalist of any ethnicity does do a story on the Hmong, I can only hope that they let the story speak for itself rather than sensationalizing it by resting the case for the Hmong’s suffering on the most sensational pieces of it they have at their grasp. Ultimately the biggest disservice that does is to the Hmong themselves–it suggests their story isn’t tragic enough on its own and I assure you it is. They don’t need a twist worthy of Hollywood to lay claim to a heartwrenching story of oppression and suffering, it’s already there.


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On Kony and African Advocacy

Kony 2012 — that’s the name of a campaign that’s blown up on Facebook and Twitter this week. Its defining meme is a 30-minute video released by Invisible Children to try and raise awareness of Joseph Kony and the campaign to bring him to justice. I’ve seen a LOT of posts both pro and con in the past few days and given that I used to work for an organization that also raised awareness of atrocities in Uganda, I wanted to weigh in because the debate seems to be getting ever more muddied due to a variety of circumstances–many of which are among the reasons why I left the organization in the first place.

The video in question details the life and military campaigns of Joseph Kony. If you haven’t viewed it already, feel free to check it out below:


The bits about Kony kidnapping 30,000 children, raping young girls, and enforcing a variety of nefarious initiation rituals upon the children he kidnapped? All true…seriously, if I were to make a list of most evil human beings on the planet, Kony would be in the top 5 if not the pole position itself. He’s spent 30 years making life hell for people all across central Africa. That said, he hasn’t been a problem in Uganda since 2006. The LRA is now less a group of radical rebels and more a group of bush thugs that take advantage of the difficulty traversing terrain between Eastern Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Uganda. We don’t know for sure, but the smart money says he’s currently in either South Sudan or Congo. As for the 30,000 children he’s drafted to fight for him in the past 30 years? He likely only still has 200 of them.

What is being done to capture him? For one, last year President Obama signed into law the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act–a $40 million package to send elite US troops to Uganda to train and arm the local troops there to bring Kony to justice (the operation has also been expanded to DRC and South Sudan). The fact that Kony is an awful human being hasn’t escaped the world’s attention–the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest way back in 2005 (after Uganda referred the case to them) and there have been multiple attempts to bring him to the bargaining table and end the LRA’s operations in Central Africa. There’s no doubt that his influence has waned considerably in the years since and that his support is on the ropes. Is it likely that Obama’s effort will bring him to justice? Maybe…it seems as though there is a strong confluence of events in the region that may lead to his apprehension, including a new government in South Sudan eager for aide money and good relations with the US government, a desire for peace in Eastern Congo, and the stabilization of much of the Central African Republic.

So what about the video, then? Why put the screws to Kony in such a public manner when things are looking good for his capture? It’s possible they want to cinch the deal…or try out the efficacy of new social networking tools…or that they’re worried international focus will shift so far to the Arab Spring that Kony takes advantage of the shift in priorities and slinks away again. I can’t tell you for sure. What I can tell you is that the video isn’t terribly unique. Invisible Children has been producing videos to galvanize activism now for nearly 6 years. The organization started out with three young filmmakers who traveled to Uganda and documented the lives of the children they found there who had been effected by the fallout from Kony’s disastrous campaign in the region. They took their film on the road to raise awareness of the situation in Uganda and built a non-profit organization dedicated to taking Kony down and rehabilitating many of the children he’d kidnapped.

They’ve taken heat for many of their advocacy techniques–among them that they’ve spent only 32% of the money they’ve raised over the years on efforts back in Uganda while the rest has been spent to continue advocacy efforts. I’m not terribly concerned by this–it’s not unusual for advocacy organizations to have budget structures like this. For example, the One Campaign spends nearly three-quarters of its budget on its outreach efforts. People who are greenhorns at international activism frequently have the expectation that when they give to an organization involved with crises abroad that that money is going to find its way directly to the people affected by said conflict. When it comes to advocacy this isn’t always the case: frequently the money goes to raising awareness of organizations that are doing the on-the-ground work or lobbying for increased federal funding to go to these efforts. Whether this is a more effective means to provide support is a long, long debate that doesn’t have any kind of clear answer remotely close to being in sight. What we do know is that well-executed advocacy measures can increase funding to charitable causes, but they can have some awful side-effects.

This brings me to a second piece of criticism I’ve seen floating around related to Invisible Children: the founders cozying up to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Was posing for the photo a dumb move? Yes, absolutely…just the kind of dumb move that three young men traveling through Africa for the first time are likely to make. Is the case, as one blogger suggested, “Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting?” Yep, absolutely. No belligerent army of the past 100 years has not been accused of rape and looting…including the United States military. In the case of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, they were fighting against a military force from North Sudan that was accused of vastly worse atrocities both there and in its Western region of Darfur.

And here’s where the question of advocacy gets really sticky, because there’s an overwhelming truth that is impossible to ignore if you do any amount of background research into conflicts in Uganda, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, or any of the Central African nations that have been host to destructive and appalling loses of human life in the past 30 years: there are no angels. It’s exceptionally difficult to put together a narrative that galvanizes people to action that doesn’t overlook this fact–and it can be tremendously damaging. For example, in Darfur there has been a long-standing narrative of a powerful North Sudanese military executing a campaign of mass human rights atrocities on members of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit tribes of the region, and by and large it’s true, but not a full picture. The conflict exists due to a civil war between Darfuri rebels that have fought a guerilla war in the region for nearly 8 years. Due to diplomatic pressure from the United States, among others, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has frequently signed peace agreements with different rebel groups from the region that are seldom honored for very long due both to some rebel factions abstaining from the negotiations and the tendency for rebel groups that do sign the agreements to have splinter groups that refuse to honor the stipulations of these agreements. The cycle then begins anew: fighting breaks out again, the US sends diplomats to get the two parties back to the bargaining table: lather, rinse, repeat. Part of the issue is that there has been a great deal of US grassroots support to pressure Bashir to end the conflict, but thanks to the simplified narrative used to galvanize such support, these efforts frequently ignore the role of the rebels in making a lasting peace happen and tend to drive the cycle anew.

This is the dark side of advocacy: poorly thought out narratives or programs can have catastrophic effects. One such example is the Conflict Minerals campaign promoted by the Enough Project. This campaign began by suggesting that the video game system boom of the early aughts helped drive a destructive civil war in DRC by filling the coffers of militias who were taking a cut from sales of essential minerals coming of out mines in Eastern Congo. The meme then expanded to include cell phones and other electronic devices, driving home the point that the computer you are using to read about conflicts abroad might be having a role in exacerbating said conflict. Two years ago, the campaign led to a provision of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that required electronics manufacturers to disclose the supply chains for their electronic devices and avoid trading in sources of minerals that had come out of Congo. Aside from being incredibly difficult to enforce (melt down ice cubes from two different refrigerators and then tell me where the resulting water came from), it also put a stranglehold on mining operations in Eastern Congo, which as it turns out was also a legitimate form of employment for thousands in an incredibly poverty-stricken region of the world. While these miners have been put out of work, belligerent militias in Eastern Congo continue to terrorize the populace and support themselves with protection money gleaned from a variety of sources, including cattle farming, banana farming, and money laundered over the border from Rwanda. Not only has this measure failed to halt violence in Eastern Congo, it has also contributed to continuing poverty there.

So, here’s the question you get left with: clearly, there are awful things happening in the world. Invisible Children is raising awareness of these things, even if they’re leaving out a few key facts, what can you do when you want to help? While clearly ill-informed advocacy can have drastic effects it’s also just as bad to have a nation of people ignorant of the problems of the world. Honestly (and you’re going to hate me for this), the answer is to do your homework. Think about the amount of research you put into reading up on cars or houses before you’ll buy either one of these things. If you buy the wrong car or house, it could cost you thousands of dollars down the road or possibly put your life in jeopardy. If you put any less thought or research into efforts to help people in crisis on the other side of the world, it can be vastly more dangerous and put many thousands of lives at risk. You wouldn’t buy a house just because someone put together a half hour video telling you that you needed to buy a particular house. You’d ask your friends, you’d consult an agent. You’d get a lot of conflicting data, for sure, but in the end you’d know you did your due diligence. And here’s the other important component: if that house turns out to be a lemon (and yes, I’m still using this as a metaphor), there’s no shame in admitting that this call was a bad one and working to fix the problem. This is my biggest problem with the non-profit world currently. There is so much stigma attached to failure that such things don’t exist: even if a program is a catastrophic failure it is still promoted as a success to keep donations coming in to an organization. There are no simple answers to any of the problems I’ve outlined above. Every one of them will require a lot of time, energy, and effort to solve. There are no silver bullets…if you’re fired up and want to do something to help, do your homework, accept all viewpoints, make the most informed decision you can, and be willing to admit it when you were wrong. That’s the best advice I can give.

So should you take part in Invisible Children’s campaign? I wouldn’t, but I’m far from the last voice on the issue. There are people vastly better educated than myself that are taking part in it. What I can do is point you to resources of people I regularly read and respect who do work in Africa:

And by the way, if you’re horrified by Kony, you should really look up some of the stuff going on in Syria right now. They need your help and they need it fast!

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