#PrayForVenezuela and the Dangers of Hashtag Humanitarianism

by R.L. Stephens II on February 23, 2014

Photo by Daniel Nunley

Photo by Daniel Nunley

I wrote about the “Social Justice Outrage Machine” and its pattern of frivolous fervor. No one is going to die because you shared an article defending Beyoncé’s feminism, but “Hashtag Humanitarianism” actually puts lives in jeopardy. These web stories drive huge internet traffic and influence opinion polls. Under neoliberalism, measurable figures like polls and internet traffic provide the rhetorical justification for murderous government policies.


Right now, we’re scrambling to take positions on the crisis in Venezuela. Despite the obvious evidence that the United States has been attempting to destabilize the country for years, the rush to condemn the Venezuelan government has been overwhelming. #PrayForVenezuela is the popular trend of the day on social media, but I see the blood on the keys.



We promote these human rights stories, feel good about ourselves, but never have to deal with the repercussions. We don’t have to be aware of the impact that our “humanitarian” sentiment has on the far off places that we claim to care about so much. The tragic outcomes don’t matter because we will have already moved on to the next scandal or crisis. Liberalism means you never have to say you’re sorry.


Back in college, the Save Darfur campaign was all the rage. Though I wasn’t directly involved, like many people, I assumed the campaign was positive and progressive. I was wrong. I watched the shocking documentaries and the decontextualized images of “senseless” gore and horror, and I too was fooled. Worse of all, I knew better. I had a limited understanding of Western imperialism, but all of that was wiped from my mind by a few human rights slogans and a flashy movie.


Save Darfur  was a massive scam. Casualty statistics were exaggerated, a simplistic good and evil narrative was fabricated, and the role of the U.S. military in bringing about the conflict was obscured. After all of the “awareness” raised around Darfur during the campaign, how many of us know what’s happening in South Sudan right now?


March 2012 saw the rise of the Kony 2012 video that received tens of millions of views within a few short days. Most people knew absolutely nothing about Uganda, and yet people were suddenly supporting a U.S. military invasion in search of Joseph Kony. Hashtag Humanitarianism at its finest.


It turned out that the documentary was comically inaccurate. One showing in Uganda was shut down because the audience began to throw rocks at the screen before the film had even finished. Ben Affleck was “thrilled to watch the Kony 2012 video”. Now he’s going to the U.S. Senate to testify as an “expert” on Africa. Not only are humanitarians like Affleck out of touch, but their advocacy is nothing more than liberal imperialism. How many times must we see this faux humanitarian posturing before we learn to discern?



Given this history of humanitarian imperialism, I believe that the recent anti-Venezuela news is a propaganda campaign in pursuit of geopolitical goals that have virtually nothing to do with the lives and rights of the Venezuelan people. Besides, if Madonna is a vocal supporter of your politics, then it’s probably time to reassess.


Venezuela isn’t the only target of humanitarian imperialism. Recently, a video depicting brutal antiqueer violence in Russia was uploaded by Human Rights Watch, and in less than a week it had 3 million views on Youtube. Some people have even refused to watch the Sochi 2014 games in protest.


Of course anti-gay violence occurs in Russia, but life ain’t been no crystal stair for LGBT people here in the United States either. Many of my queer friends can tell you stories of violence that will make your skin crawl. Anti-queer violence is part of the very fabric of any heteronormative society, it’s not just a Russian problem.


Chrissy Polis, a young transgender woman, was nearly beaten to death for attempting to use a women’s restroom in a Baltimore area McDonald’s in 2011. CeCe McDonald, who survived an attempted anti-trans* lynching, was sentenced to prison time for defending herself against her would-be killers. Although not explicitly illegal, in the United States, being trans* is a capital offense.


It was just ten years ago when the Supreme Court of the United States declared anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. Yet, at least 13 states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books, continuing to criminalize gay sex through selective and targeted enforcement. Additionally, if you’re visibly trans*/queer in public, the police can stop you on the street, search you for condoms, and if you have some in your possession, you can be taken to jail for prostitution. These are just two examples of the legally sanctioned anti-queer structural violence that is rampant here in the United States.



Given the United States’ own deplorable record on queer rights, the lack of progress in correcting these injustices, and the tremendous violence that queer people face here in this country, we can see that the reports highlighting the very real threats to LGBT people in Russia for what they really are. These narratives are not motivated by a desire to improve the condition of queer lives; rather, these media frames are part of a coordinated anti-Russia propaganda crusade.


Many times these humanitarian stories are just propaganda for Western geopolitical interests. If we passively consume these narratives, then we play into the hands of the very interests that many if us claim to oppose. Fresh off the anti-Russia outrage that was ginned up during the Olympics, the United States is now supporting Ukrainian Neo-Nazis in an effort to further antagonize Russia. We have to investigate, and not just react.


This is the week of the 49th anniversary of El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz/Malcolm X’s assassination. His words remain as relevant as ever. [pullquote]“Western interests: imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, racism, and other negative -isms.”[/pullquote]

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”

I’ve been featured on local news, national print and cable media, and international press. Many outlets do wonderful work, but in some cases the truth is an afterthought, if it’s even given any consideration at all. I’ve had a media figure lie about me, and I helplessly watched as the lies were repeated on numerous platforms as if they were true.  So, I’m not trying to be an asshole or a know-it-all when I point out that many of the media narratives that we’re fed are total crap. Media distortions hurt people, and these misrepresentations can even get folks killed.


I just think it’s time to be responsible. Liberal and humanitarian imperialism is real, and media distortions are one of the key vehicles for advancing oppressive agendas. We owe it to ourselves, and more importantly, we owe it to the people that we claim to care about to not get fooled again.

For more information on the current situation in Venezuela:

For non-fascist critiques of the Venezuelan government

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