On page 228 (digital copy, I’m not sure where it falls in the paperback), Eggers sets up one of his strongest questions present in the novel. It spans only a single page of the book, which seems like a small investment for what I believe is such a vital segment of his commentary. Mae has just been made aware of Ana Maria and the Central Guatemalan Security Forces when Eggar’s writes:
“Mae hesitated briefly, knowing the gravity of what she was about to do—to come out against these rapists and murderers—but she needed to make a stand. She pushed the button.”
Our brave heroine in action! The button has been pushed, justice will be served, and the world will be a better place. Right? Of course not. I can’t help but be reminded of the “Kony 2012” campaign as I reread this section. Joseph Kony’s LRA paramilitary forces kidnap children, participate in human trafficking and sex slavery, and profit heavily from exploiting regional instability. When the human right’s group Invisible Children initiated a viral marketing campaign to spread awareness of these atrocities, there was a significant outcry across social media. Large sums of money were donated to the cause and scores of people “liked” posts and signed petitions supporting his capture by the end of 2012.
If Mae had been contacted by Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign rather than her college friend that morning, I have no doubt she would still have signed the petition and “smiled” and “frowned” appropriately. I also have no doubt that Kony would remain decidedly free and un-captured as I sit writing this in late September of 2014, despite her support. Why do I say that? Because Kony’s LRA exists very much outside the domain of social media or any sort of digital protocol. No amount of “likes” or “frowns” will ever have an effect on the organization or its operations. But to Mae, this decision to oppose the Guatemalan paramilitary group is so profoundly important that it could in fact be dangerous to her.
Eggers uses the word “hesitated”. He could have used “paused” or “waited” if he was simply marking a passage of time. Instead, she hesitates, “knowing the gravity of what she was about to do”. Mae doesn’t pause for a moment to collect her thoughts before clicking, and she doesn’t simply wait to rest her eyes first. Instead, she’s stopped in her tracks by the fear associated with the pressure, the force, the gravity of what she feels she’s participating in. But she steels her nerves and, as Eggers phrases it, “She pushed the button.”
It’s that statement that I find telling of the care that went into the writing of this passage. He could have phrased that in so many ways, but he keeps it simple and dramatic. In reality she clicked a mouse, or used some other form of control device to select a “frown”, and yet Eggers has her push “the button”, as if to launch the missiles herself. As if what she’s doing actually constitutes action. In her mind, and in the minds of all the other Circlers that “frowned” at the Security Forces, they were making a difference and taking a stand. Mae is so convinced of this idea that she “hesitated”, out of fear of reprisal from the paramilitary group. But as Kony 2012 has taught us, social media activism does not translate into real world change if the group in question chooses not to participate in that virtual space. The irony then, and the genius of Eggers’ commentary here, is that even as he’s telling us that she knows what she’s doing by clicking that button, she really has no idea at all.