There’s a line in a TS Eliot poem that goes: ‘It seems as one gets older, that the past has another pattern and ceases to be a mere sequence’. The passage of time, Eliot pondered, was more an ongoing carousel of events than any linear path.
Such seems the case with the advent of the new hashtag du jour, #BringBackOurGirls. Considering just the last few years, the hashtag appears an exercise in futility: those tired debates about the efficacy of social media campaigns and Western intervention and the overshadowing effect that problems abroad have on local maladies. Significantly, the message hasn’t changed, merely the medium.
For those that haven’t seen the placards, on the night of 14 April a convoy from Boko Haram – a local Islamic militant group – abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, a government area in the North East of the Borno State in Nigeria. The group’s opposition to women’s education appears the root of their action; Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader announced in 2012) following the detention of commanders’ family members by police: ‘Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women.’
Notwithstanding the violence of the situation, those on the ground have warned against Western intervention. Jumoke Balogun writes, ‘You might not know this, but the United States military loves your hashtags because it gives them legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa.’
Imagine how much more forcefully, and gleefully, the West would have ridden into Iraq and Afghanistan if Twitter was around to spawn #nineeleven. More than a decade has passed since the spectacularly invasion of the Middle East and yet another generation is mustering a call for Western paternalism. A decade of war left Iraq in a gruesome tumult: power and sewage systems dysfunctional; unemployment and violence spiraling; corruption rife. (As of April 2014, there had been 188,000 violent deaths in Iraq since the invasions. Of these, between 123,000 and 137,000 were civilians.)
These statistics are sobering, but not all that surprising. The figures represent the aftermath of populist, state-sanctioned violence.
Though in their infancy when Iraq was fought and won and lost – ostensibly all at once – it was only two years ago when the cataclysm of KONY2012, the spiritual predecessor of #BringBackOurGirls, arrested our collective imaginations. Of course, KONY2012 proved an utter farce: driven by American documentarians, the campaign did little to galvanise real, positive support for social change. Though American troops and military advisors were deployed in Africa, the eponymous Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army is still at large.
Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole criticised the White Savior hijacking of a grassroots campaign against a national government: “Remember: #bringbackourgirls, a vital moment for Nigerian democracy, is not the same as #bringbackourgirls, a wave of global sentimentality.” He further notes that ongoing and historic violence in the region goes ignored as “unhashtagable”.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the historical repetition of popular clamours over tragedies abroad is the way they render invisible domestic shame. When we cry, #BringBackOurGirls, and look to mass abductions in Nigeria, we overlook the mass theft of children occurring on our own soil. The Stolen Generations, described by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as ‘this blemished chapter in our nation’s history’, appears again as part of a pattern rather than some distant historical relic.
Until the early 1970s, the forced removal of Indigenous children was coded as government policy. Today, it is merely practice. Today, the removal of Indigenous children far outstrips the 50,000 that were reported forcibly taken according to the 1997 watershed Bringing Them Home report. As Paddy Gibson recently wrote in Overland:
Figures from the Productivity Commission show that at 30 June 1997, the year of Bringing Them Home, 2785 Aboriginal children were in out-of-home care. At 30 June 2012, there were 13 299 – almost a five-fold increase. For each of the last five years, approximately a thousand Aboriginal children have been coming into the ‘out-of-home care’ system long-term. This is a higher number than were removed during any time in the twentieth century. Half of the children have not been placed with kin or relatives.
Systemic poverty, rooted in structural disadvantage, settler colonialism and genocide, has left Aboriginal communities utterly devastated. In 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that Indigenous lifespans were on average a decade lower than non-Indigenous lifespans. Participation rates in education were approximately half that, when compared to the Australian population as a whole. In Western Australia, the incarceration rate of Indigenous males was 18 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians. Since then, this number has only grown.
Eliot reiterates that ‘time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future and time future contained in time past’. Shades of the present, and the past, are certainly visible in #BringBackOurGirls. We are indeed so often caught up in the groundswell of the Groundhog Day that is interventionist social media campaigns that we fail to consider the consequences of our actions, and of the actions of our states.
If we are to learn anything from time past, it is that Western intervention is not the panacea we collectively imagine it to be. Perhaps there is a way to break from the pattern and plod down an advancing path. To achieve radical control of time future, though, we must learn from the errors of time past.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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