On Thursday night, Invisible Children’s self-proclaimed 'grand storyteller and dreamer' Jason Russell, the star of KONY 2012, was detained over fears for his mental health after being found wandering naked and vandalising cars in San Diego.
Invisible Children released a statement citing 'exhaustion, malnutrition and dehydration', but the reality is that the explosive success of KONY 2012 had catapulted Russell to global awareness and with it a level of scrutiny that he and the group had never previously experienced.
When Douglas Coupland subtitled his 1991 slacker classic Generation X, ‘Tales of an Accelerated Culture’, he had no idea how sped up our lives would be in the Internet age.
The same social media apparatus that enabled Invisible Children’s 30-minute film KONY 2012 to sweep across the Internet like wildfire, with almost 110 million views to date, also enabled an instantaneous backlash. There’s a KONY 2012 drinking game deconstructing the film (sample quote: “Statement that Africans are 'invisible' if they aren’t a cause célèbre among middle-class white people – finish bottle of wine, cry”), Charlie Brooker destroyed it on 10 O’ Clock Live, and there’s an ever-expanding backlog of articles, blogs and YouTube videos questioning Invisible Children’s methods and motives.
Manchester fell hook, line and sinker for KONY 2012, with a Facebook group hatching plans for a mass city centre gathering on April 20 with over 12,000 down to attend. With this in mind, just how justified is the backlash?
Style over substance
While KONY 2012 is undeniably slickly-produced and designed to tug at the heartstrings, it’s certainly possible to object to the film on aesthetic grounds. The opening montage, complete with portentous voiceover about the power of the Facebook generation, seems straight out of a Windows ad. Which is hardly a surprise when you learn that Russell, with a degree in Cinema Production from the University of Southern California, lists his chief cinematic inspirations as Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney and Baz Luhrmann, all three of whom deal in lavish cinematic spectacles that provoke a sense of childlike wonder, but don’t exactly deal in the hard currency of historical fact (as anyone who has watched Spielberg's Schindler’s List or Luhrmann’s Australia will know).
And there lies a major problem. As Jason Russell told PMc magazine: “I tell stories by making inspiring movies that move people’s emotions, and then I take those emotions and transform them into action.”
This has been a common riposte to critics of KONY 2012: okay, so the film isn’t perfect, but it has 'raised awareness' by bringing the issue to a vast global audience, who will then act.
There’s two real problems here. The first is that if you’re going to emotionally move a person to take action, it has to be meaningful action. Getting web users to share a link and buy a wristband and a $30 'action kit' (now unfortunately sold out) doesn’t seem to accomplish a great deal, beyond allowing people to give themselves a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Invisible Children deals in posters, sticker campaigns and advocacy videos, but there’s precious little suggestion that anyone might go and, say, volunteer.
Far more problematic, though, is the focus of KONY 2012: Joseph Kony himself.
Humanitarian intervention and AFRICOM
It’s become a cliché of the KONY 2012 backlash to point out that Kony has not operated in Uganda for six years – a fact that Invisible Children’s film does actually acknowledge. What is less remarked on is that many commentators think he is already dead, and his group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), now only number around 250. Why then build a film around him?
To be fair to Invisible Children, a half-hour promotional video is never going to be able to capture all the complexity of the situation on the ground - and major simplification is probably required to engage the average internet user with an attention span shot to pieces by high-velocity browsing. But there’s simplification, and then there’s distortion.
One of the most troubling scenes in KONY 2012 shows Russell evangelically telling a lecture theatre of students: "Who are you to end a war? I'm here to tell you who are you not to". And that 'evangelically' is telling, because Invisible Children’s project is rooted in evangelical Christianity, not that you would have any idea from watching KONY 2012.
You can watch Russell openly talk about his evangelical leanings in his talk at Liberty University in November 2011, a talk in which he advocates the kind of ‘invisible’ religion seen in KONY 2012: “The trick is not to go out into the world and say ‘I’m going to baptise you, I’m going to convert you, I have an agenda to win you over’. Your agenda is to look into their eyes and say ‘Who are you? Will you be my friend?’
The existence of an unspoken religious subtext isn’t necessarily a problem - missionaries have performed some extremely good work on the African continent. However, liberal activists wielding their KONY 2012 stickers might want to know that Invisible Children has received hefty funding from evangelical groups in America with a strong anti-LGBT, creationist agenda – a fact, as one blogger put it: "Jarringly at odds with the secular, airbrushed, feelgood image the nonprofit has cultivated.”
KONY 2012’s message, when you boil it down, is simple: military intervention is a necessary and good thing. This is, to put it mildly, extremely contentious. Firstly there’s the small fact that the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002 – the body that put a warrant out on Joseph Kony in 2005 – was signed but not ratified by America. In essence: Invisible Children are calling on the U.S. to help round-up a war criminal and have him tried at court whose jurisdiction does not cover Americans.
But even if that fact is dismissed as a grand irony of international relations, KONY 2012 is dangerously naïve to the practicalities on the ground. Previous attempts by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to get rid of Kony and fight the LRA in the Central African Republic and Southern Sudan, such as Operation Lighting Thunder, have provoked a brutal backlash from Kony's followers and undermined beleaguered peace talks. As a recent piece in Foreign Affairs made clear: “Far from neutralizing the LRA, [the operations] prompted a strategically effective and ferocious response. In January and February 2009, the LRA abducted around 700 people, including an estimated 500 children, and killed almost 1,000.”
The road to perdition, as they say, is paved with good intentions.
One of the most puzzling thing about KONY 2012 is that America already has 100 Special Forces on the ground as “advisers” (read: military strategists) to the Ugandan government forces, who have themselves been accused of serious human rights abuses. With US military forces already engaged, what, then, are the filmmakers hoping to achieve? KONY 2012 makes the case that without continued public backing, "international support could be removed at any time," which seems a bit of an airy claim to warrant such a lavish advocacy campaign.
And when it comes to American intervention, it doesn’t take much scratching around for you to be sceptical. While the Lord’s Resistance Army is still causing immense suffering, America has happily ignored the misdeeds of plenty of dictators and warlords – in fact, has backed them heavily – where it was politically expedient to do so. Kony, in the global context, is extremely small fry.
So why do the U.S. care about rounding up a warlord whose powers are on the wane? Being extremely charitable, there’s a grain of truth in the theory that American political figures care about what the American people care about. When an issue reaches critical mass among the American citizenry, senior political figures act – which is why Invisible Children take credit for the military advisers being out there in KONY 2012. They’ve raised the awareness, hence they’ve made it happen. This sort of thinking harks back to the Biafra war in 1968, “the first war waged by a public relations firm” (read BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis’s brilliant blog about the Biafra campaign for hearts and minds here).
The less palatable truth is that intervention suits the U.S.’s strategic thinking in Africa. For the past decade China has made serious excursions into Africa, offering developmental aid in exchange for access to the continent’s plentiful natural resources. There’s a desire on the part of U.S. policy planners to challenge Chinese colonization of Africa’s oil and mineral wealth. In the New Statesmen, Tom Rollins pointed to an AFRICOM Conference at Fort McNair on February 18, 2008, at which Vice Admiral Robert T. Moeller declared the programme's mission meant maintaining "the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market." Don’t delude yourself into thinking that U.S. military strategists are suddenly getting misty-eyed for Uganda.
The White Man’s Burden
One of the main criticisms levelled at KONY 2012 is that it reinforces the idea of The White Man’s Burden – that is, the neoliberal idea that white westerners have a duty to swoop into foreign countries and “fix” them. Invisible Children's Jason Russell certainly looms large in the film, as he alternates between his fretful serious face and then his determined, something-must-be-done face, looking, as Charlie Brooker put it, like a “clean-cut Abercrombie and Fitch version of Jesus Christ,”
What’s noticeable though, is that there’s a distinct lack of Ugandans in the film. Russell’s blonde, tousle-haired five-year-old son gets more airtime than Jacob, the only real Ugandan voice, who is there to talk about his experiences as a child soldier. In one of the most cringe-inducing passages in his talk at Liberty University, Russell actually says: “When I met Jacob, our friend who was 14 and he said 'I want to kill myself because I have nothing to live for', I actually resonated with that because when I was 16 at high school I wanted to kill myself because being raised in musical theatre wasn’t cool," thus contriving to compare Kurt from Glee to the plight of a child soldier.
Still, as a friend said, I'm sure the guerilla stickering campaign-night will be an unmitigated success and the clean-up operation of a night of middle-class whimsy won't be left to minimum wage Ugandan immigrants.
In an ideal world, Invisible Children's millions-strong army of latte-drinking clicktivists could swoop in to arrest the war criminal and liberate the child soldiers. That would at least help Jason Russell check off the first entry on his wish list (and sadly this is not a joke): "I am going to help end the longest running war in Africa, get Joseph Kony arrested & redefine international justice. Then I am going to direct a Hollywood musical. Then I am going to study theology & literature in Oxford, England, and then move to New York to start “The Academy” – which will be a school where the best creative young minds in the world attend.”
Kony is a deeply unpleasant man, and I hope if he is still alive he is eventually apprehended. But KONY 2012 is flawed to the point of being almost meaningless. As a Ugandan named Leo said on Al Jazeera: “If people in those countries care about us, they will not wear T-shirts of Joseph Kony for any reason, that would celebrate our suffering.” Take heed Manchester.