Earlier this week, I reluctantly gave Kony 2012 its 84,506,080th view on YouTube. As many of you know, Invisible Children’s portrayal of a raging war in Uganda (which is, in actuality, neither raging nor in Uganda) sparked vehement controversy. Scholars and slacktivists alike weighed in on the cause du jour during the week(s) that the 30-minute shockumentary received more hits than all of those crude cat vids combined. Issues that do not typically enter popular discourse—the paradox of humanitarian aid, the ills of intervention, the infantilizing of the African continent—conflated to take center stage. Last week, arguably misguided legislators signed off on a resolution that supports the mission to catch Kony. Soon after, the African Union announced that it will deploy a peacekeeping force of 5,000 to capture the now-infamous warlord. The propriety of these measures can and will be debated by far more qualified scholars.
For now, color me cynic because what follows may reek of sarcasm and disdain. Below, my thoughts on Kony 2012 as I finally watch what I’ve been loath to for weeks.
(8:34) “If we succeed, we change the course of human history.”
I think it’s dangerous to think that “we,” who have virtually no understanding of the complexity that is the prevailing situation in Uganda, the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan, have the ability to fix it. While Kony may not have been a household name, it’s not as if his crimes (or the crimes committed by the Ugandan army, for that matter) have gone unreported. Solutions have been sought, and the option that Invisible Children will present may not be the most tenable. The problem (one of many) with Invisible Children is that it operates under the pretext that something is better than nothing. When it comes to issues of international aid and military intervention, that’s not always the case.
Of course, individuals and organizations can make a difference if they have a nuanced understanding of the problem and intelligent ways to address it. For that, they will need to devote more than 30 minutes.
(8:46) Finally, almost nine minutes into the film, our narrator Jason Russell mentions Joseph Kony.
Many criticize the film for providing a simplistic account of Kony and the LRA. To this, Invisible Children responds, “In a 30-minute film, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked.” Well, Invisible Children could have covered more ground if it didn’t take nine minutes to start talking about the man that this campaign is supposed to make famous. Right now, I know more about our supporting actor, Gavin, his ninja moves and his bumbling acting skills, than I do about our leading man, the perpetrator of vast atrocities.
(12:08) “He has repeatedly used peace talks to re-arm and murder, again and again.”
Aside from the repetitive nature of this sentence, I take issue with the suggestion that peace talks are definitively not the answer, and that Invisible Children’s alternative—military intervention—presents a better option. Writer Dinaw Mengestu and Professor Mahmood Mamdani offer some thoughts on the specious alternative. In Foreign Affairs, Mareike Schomerus, Tim Allen, and Koen Vlassenroot write, “If the film were actually about change, it might have addressed its own paradox: that trying yet again to end a military conflict with more of the same sort of military engagement will probably cost too many civilian lives.”
In matters of foreign intervention, the US has a bleak track record. Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines offer just a few case studies that Russell & Co. may want to consider before they advocate military aid. On a related note, how can we expect US intervention to be successful when many Ugandans resent this involvement?
(14:40) “They turned their awareness into action.” Does joining a Facebook group qualify as action?
One of the most frustrating arguments is the one that begins, “But at least it’s raising awareness.” Generally speaking, I wholeheartedly support this mission and a certain brand of “advocacy-by-journalism.” Ask me why I chose this field, and you’ll probably hear this motive mentioned in my ramblings. But what will this form of awareness, loaded with misinformation, accomplish? How will this turn into something more than a fundraising campaign for the incredibly visible Invisible Children? I wonder how many people watched Kony 2012 and sought to learn more about the political context that led to the “problem.”
After all, politics heavily shape these disasters. The LRA is not a one-man band, and Kony is not the only player. In some sense, the LRA is symptomatic of larger problems that plague these countries. And in order to stop the LRA, or any subsequent rebel group, governments must fundamentally redefine and revamp the way they operate. To help, we must first understand the broader political context. But Invisible Children doesn’t attempt to impart this information, and so fails to recognize that Kony’s capture will not end the dangerous political interplay that the region continues to endure.
The story won’t end with the capture of Kony.
(15:05) Hold up.
Did that map just show that the LRA has moved into South Sudan, the DRC, and the CAR and is NO LONGER IN UGANDA? Here, the video betrays its dated nature, retelling a story without bothering to elaborate on the current situation.
(16:20) Hm, I wonder where those critics get the idea that Invisible Children’s founders come across as narcissistic, patronizing, self-serving, and condescending.
Perhaps it’s because Russell spent the past few minutes lauding the work of Invisible Children and all it’s done to help Africans. What a load of, um, propaganda.
The “White Savior Industrial Complex” is the paternalistic sentiment that Africa and its people need the Western world to rid the war-ravaged country—er, continent—of all its problems, poverty and violence among them. It seems like that’s exactly the “solution” that Invisible Children has in mind. Of course, the organization calls this accusation the “most absurd and offensive” of them all.
(19:18) African writers and journalists have weighed in on Kony 2012.
All the reactions I’ve watched or read have been critical, if not altogether derisive, about the video and the attention it has garnered. Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama writes that, “Campaigns [like Kony 2012] don’t just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it.” In a more recent op-ed for The New York Times, he adds that, “killing Mr. Kony may remove him from the battlefield but it will not cure the conditions that have allowed him to thrive for so long.”
However, Ugandans who support Invisible Children and this effort to “make Kony famous” have remained silent, it seems. How do the Ugandans portrayed in the film, and those who work with Invisible Children, react to the backlash?
(20:35) International support could be removed at any time?
Says who? I’ll borrow from Michael Wilkerson’s oft-cited piece for Foreign Policy, in which he asks, “Does anyone else have any evidence about this urgent threat of cancellation? One that justifies such a massive production campaign and surely lucrative donation drive?” Wilkerson also calls attention to the films factual errors, such as the fact that Kony’s ranks number in the hundreds, and surely not in the tens of thousands.
(21:20) Cue emotional appeals.
No, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but let’s substantiate it with a comprehensive and contextual analysis of Kony and the LRA.
(22:20) Let’s recap, briefly.
Russell narrates, “We know what to do. Here it is, ready? In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That’s where the American advisors come in. But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them. They’ve done that, but if the government doesn’t believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony’s name is everywhere.”
I’m not sure I follow Russell’s vertiginous rationale. Somehow, the “solution” rests in the purchase of a $30 “action kit,” but Invisible Children fails to connect the dots. How will the purchase stop Kony?
(22:55) That face is priceless.
Gavin, he’s not really invisible. Your dad’s taking some creative liberties. Okay, he’s exercising a lot of creative liberty.
(24:13) “This is something we can all agree on.”
Is the irony of this statement lost on anyone?
(25:21) And rock it they did.
It’s cliché to end on an optimistic note, but after a rant that traffics in borderline disillusionment, it might be appropriate, even necessary. There are a few silver linings. The cause célèbre and its “incredible virality” demonstrate the power that can be harnessed by social media and the “desire to do good” that pervades. The last time I voraciously debated these issues, it was within the confines of a college classroom. I echo what Yale professor Chris Blattman writes: “What’s new and amazing is that, with the direction that coverage has taken, the average high school activist, donor and Congressman might just understand a little better what separates advocacy from badvocacy, and demand better in [the] future.”
Oh, and one more thing.
(26:29) 4/20? Sorry, Jason Russell and Co. This day is already reserved for another hallowed event. On second thought, a converging of the two may be appropriate. (That’s a joke, guys.)