UPDATE (10 March): Material is coming thick and fast on #Kony2012, so I’m adding three recent interventions. The first is from Ismael Beah, he of child soldier fame, on CNN (apologies for the awful interviewer).
The second is from Adam Branch (who just has a book out on Uganda, war and intervention) on the wrongness, and also the irrelevance to Northern Ugandans, of Invisible Children:
My frustration with the group has largely reflected the concerns expressed so eloquently by those individuals who have been willing to bring the fury of Invisible Children’s true believers down upon themselves in order to point out what is wrong with this group’s approach: the warmongering, the self-indulgence, the commercialization, the reductive and one-sided story it tells, its portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans, and the fact that civilians in Uganda and Central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money. This, of course, is sickening, and I think that Kony 2012 is a case of Invisible Children having finally gone too far. They are now facing a backlash from people of conscience who refuse to abandon their capacity to think for themselves.
This IC campaign is a perfect example of how fund-sucking NGO’s survive. “Raising awareness” (as vapid an exercise as it is) on the level that IC does, costs money. Loads and loads of money. Someone has to pay for the executive staff, fancy offices, and well, that 30-minute grand-savior, self-crowning exercise in ego stroking—in HD—wasn’t free. In all this kerfuffle, I am afraid everyone is missing the true aim of IC’s brilliant marketing strategy. They are not selling justice, democracy, or restoration of anyone’s dignity. This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant. They are, in actuality, selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. All I have to do is show up in my broken English, look pathetic and wanting. You, my dear social media savvy click-activist, will shed a tear, exhaust Facebook’s like button, mobilize your cadre of equally ill-uninformed netizens to throw money at the problem.
Cause, you know, that works so well in the first world.
Glenna Gordon‘s 2008 image of the Invisible Children founders in cod-Rambo pose with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army now defines the #Kony2012 backlash. Jason ‘Radical’ Russell – he who speaks excitedly of ‘war rooms’ – and his compatriots have thus far notched up 12 million-odd Vimeo hits and over 32 million YouTube hits with their 30-minute hymn to awareness, social media, atrocity prevention and youth power. A simulacrum of solidarity now not quite besieged, but at least peppered, by an array of critiques and counter-points, almost always from scholars and activists with their own well-established records of engagement and internationalism.
That backlash is now, predictably enough, giving rise to a counter-backlash from newly enlivened global citizens, and the predominant form taken by this response is itself instructive. Comment threads on posts like Mark’s consistently reveal a nascent activist consciousness which is hugely fragile, but also aggressive. Although many presumably did not know of Joseph Kony until this week (and in this minimal sense, #Kony2012 clearly ‘worked’), they are now so outraged at even the hint of complexity or counter-point that they denounce others as self-promoters, ignorami (ignoramuses?), complacent and/or complicit (by some unspecified metric) in human suffering. The juxtaposition is telling: the fresh anger and one-dimensional vigour of discovering atrocity and of being “empowered” (however vaguely) to end it is simply too appealing to withstand reasoned discussion. And so newly-minted ‘doers’ find themselves in the position of having to attack those old established ‘cynics’, Ugandans and Uganda hands among them, in whose very name they “won’t stop”. Say, at what point exactly did common humanity come to mean lecturing Ugandans that they were “ungrateful” and “negative” for pointing out that Museveni is not so nice either?
But what has been the content of this unbearable counter-critique?
Most crucially, it has been geo-strategic:
…the Lord’s Resistance Army operates in a pretty big swathe of Central Africa. Kony is pretty decent at manouvering between borders. It has kept him alive for the past couple of decades, so on a planning position, let’s take it is a given that he will carry on doing this. The LRA is currently operating somewhere between the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Combined with Uganda, those four states have him penned in. The problem being, pressure in one will lead to him skipping across the border into another. Unless Kony 2012 want state militaries to start walking across borders after him, that’s four pretty weak state governments that need to be considered. How much will their armed forces cost to bring up to scratch? The alternative might be to arm one, and let them play Texas ranger across the borders of three other sovereign states. I’m not using sovereignty here as a barrier, but it’s something to consider. Helpfully, the video excludes the fact that Uganda helped invade the DRC in the 1990s, DRC politicians are currently under indictment for war crimes committed in the CAR and when Uganda went into South Sudan to chase Kony, their own troops were accused of killing and kidnapping South Sudanese civilians. I’m no Africa specialist, but that sounds like a disaster in the making…
According to local sources, the LRA has already announced that it is ready for a fight, and is said to have called on its members to gather and “celebrate” Christmas and New Year’s — a reference to the string of violent retaliatory attacks it carried out on December 25, 2008, and in the days that followed. Increasingly fearful local populations have started to create their own protection forces. Leaving aside the general problems associated with the militarization of civilian societies, it is unrealistic to believe that such units will be able to respond effectively to LRA retaliations. And, although the United States has committed itself to protecting civilians in Uganda, it appears to have no plans to do so. This is rather baffling, since much of the pressure on the administration comes from groups asking it to do exactly that. There also seems to be no consideration of the broader implications of strengthening the national army of Museveni, who is apt to use those forces to maintain power, and of the long-term plague of the continued militarization of Central Africa.
To be sure, Kony’s death would be welcomed at home and abroad. But the mission would not be entirely satisfactory if troops killed him instead of bringing him to trial at the International Criminal Court. Only there could his crimes — and those of others — be examined in detail. The United States has not, of course, ratified the statute of the ICC, and did Obama not make reference to trying Kony in his announcement. If U.S. armed forces do engage in combat, it will be revealing to see whether they facilitate the LRA leader’s capture or his killing.
Beyond the ins and outs of dealing with Kony, the political challenges in the region are simply too massive for Obama’s new operation to yield much fruit. The violence in Uganda, Congo, and South Sudan has been the most devastating — anywhere in the world — since the mid-1990s. Even conservative estimates place the death toll in the millions. And the LRA is, in fact, a relatively small player in all of this — as much a symptom as a cause of the endemic violence. If Kony is removed, LRA fighters will join other groups or act independently.
It has sought to supplement the generalisations of emotional ratcheting with some North Ugandan details:
Furthermore, the crisis in northern Ugandan is not seen by its citizens as one that is the result of the LRA. Yes, you read that right. The conflict in the region is viewed as one wherein both the Government of Uganda and the LRA, as well as their regional supporters (primarily South Sudan and Khartoum, respectively) have perpetrated and benefited from nearly twenty-five years of systemic and structural violence and displacement. This pattern is what Chris Dolan has eloquently and persuasively termed ‘social torture‘ wherein both the Ugandan Government and the LRA’s treatment of the population has resulted in symptoms of collective torture and the blurring of the perpetrator-victim binary…The main beneficiary of this narrative is, once again, the Ugandan Government of Yoweri Museveni, whose legitimacy is bolstered and – if the ‘Kony 2012′ campaign is ‘successful’ – will receive more military funding and support from the US.
Rather relevantly, this has included criticisms from those in purported need of saving:
I understand the anger and resentment at Invisible Children’s approach, which with its paternalism has unpleasant echoes of colonialism. I will admit to being perturbed by its apparent top-down prescriptiveness, when so much diligent work is already being done at Northern Uganda’s grassroots. On the other hand, I am very happy – relieved, more than anything – that Invisible Children have raised worldwide awareness of this issue. Murderers and torturers tend to prefer anonymity, and if not that then respectability: that way, they can go about their work largely unhindered.
Yet, though President Museveni must be integral to any solution to this problem, I didn’t hear him mentioned once in the 30-minute video…Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – it didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora. It didn’t ask its viewers to seek diplomatic pressure on President Museveni’s administration.
About ten minutes into the video, the narrator asks his young son who “the bad guy” in Uganda is; when his young son hesitates, he informs him that Joseph Kony is the bad guy. In a sense, he let Kony off lightly: he is a monster. But what the narrator also failed to do was mention to his son that when a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it. He probably should have told him that, too.
Then there’s the race thing:
One problem: It falls into the trap, the belief that the problem is ignorance and the answer is education. When we tell more people about Kony and the LRA, something WILL happen. It’s not true. Bono, Bob Geldolf, Angelina Jolie and thousands of others have brought more attention, more education, more money to issues – it doesn’t solve them. White ignorance is not the problem. White colonialism/oppression/domination/violence (whatever you want to call it) in the past and present is. It is built on the idea that Africa needs saving – that it is the White man’s burden to do so. More education does not change the systems and structures of oppression, those that need Africa to be the place of suffering and war and saving.
It’s also about history. White folk have for centuries built industries on saving Black people in Africa. In creating images of what Africans look like, in order to justify saving them. Is it any coincidence that all of the filmmakers and subsequent heads of the NGO are white? Is it any coincidence that, despite ‘partnering’ with local people, on Invisible Children’s website, in a colonial-esque era division, that the White people involved in the organization are framed in a modern, neutral (White) room in ‘hip’ fashion while the Africans all have straw huts in the background? No, the ideal African still lives in huts! They’re exotic and poor. This is all no surprise when we bring history into the picture.
Part of this is the centering of our Western vision and logic. The very idea of ‘Invisible’ is ludicrous – these children were never invisible to their communities and families – only to us. It harkens back to the ‘unspoilt’ land of the new worlds where ‘no one had ever been before’ and which completely ignored the lives and realities of the Indigenous people, the Africans who had lived there for centuries before – who knew everything there was to know about this ‘untouched’ land. It is the re-centering of the West and the glossing over of those whose lives are being impacted most. We need to learn: It’s not about us. Race does matter for this reason, because of how it is constituted by history and continues to shape how we view the world.
Remember Things White People Like? Things like awareness:
An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.” Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.
This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges. Because, the only challenge of raising awareness is people not being aware. In a worst case scenario, if you fail someone doesn’t know about the problem. End of story.
Of course, this is where things get kind of personal, since even the ‘well-meaning-but-wrong’ character of Invisible Children has been thrown into question:
Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven’t had their finances externally audited. But it goes way deeper than that.
The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money funds the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Here’s a photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with weapons and personnel of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations ofrape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them, arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission.
And rather similar things are said by those who used to be Invisible Children activists themselves:
I spent four years being heavily involved with Invisible Children (IC), the organisation behind the viral Kony 2012 campaign. I was a founder and officer of a student club which raised over £20,000 for Invisible Children, I went to ‘Displace Me’, attended ‘The Rescue’ and even attended their first internal conference “Africa: It’s not a country” in 2008.
I have so far seen two broad responses to the Kony video:
1. This is great! Stop Kony!
2. I am a wise internet philosopher, you naive children will accomplish nothing with your internet advocacy.
…and I identify with the second response.
IC’s programs on the ground in Northern Uganda have measurably improved the lives of several thousands of Ugandans, but they have done this only by spending millions of dollars. How you say… lacking in efficiency, you twenty-something philanthropic dilettantes. Invisible Children represents the poisonous subspecies of aid organisation which is predicated on the belief that good intentions are an adequate substitute for previous experience in aid work, a holistic understanding of the problems being tackled, or any of the other multifarious strengths which large/established aid groups are able to draw upon. Invisible Children’s exciting mixture of media savvy, good intentions, and no experience has only succeeded in throwing a lot of money at a nasty problem. Awesome, great job!
I refer you, as ever, to Africa Is A Country:
And so it was that Jason Russell came to make a film (well, the eleventh version) in which the heroic Jason Russell makes a film in order that everyone in the world should finally know the name of the internationally-renowned, globally notorious, definitely already world-famous warlord, Joseph Kony. It was to be the untold story of a much-chronicled man.
If this challenge were not daunting enough, Jason Russell also took it upon himself finally to convince the world that Kony, the man who had hitherto been merely the very first name on the International Criminal Court’s most wanted list (indicted on 33 counts including war crimes and crimes against humanity seven years ago), should in fact be arrested.
Great Scott! Why didn’t anyone think of that before?
The “Kony 2012” show is here, and the whole thing is a miserable fraud.
It’s meant to be an “awareness-raising” film. What it is is a study of a bunch of vain and ignorant young people who can think and feel only in cliches and appear to be laboring under the notion that Mark Zuckerberg invented both compassion and democracy for them sometime around 2004.
They want to empower you. And as a group of entitled white Americans, they know exactly what real power looks like. That’s why they’re giving you the chance to demand that America wage yet another bloody war based on zero knowledge and maximum hysteria whipped up over the wickedness of a single foreign figure. This is what democracy looks like according to Jason Russell: the power to choose on Twitter and Facebook who is to be the next target of America’s moral manhunt, all with the benediction of a panel of biddable celebrities.
Some minor details aside (apparently Invisible Children’s charity ranking is now three out of four stars) the sweep of this critique is fair and relevant, particularly when discussing the likely consequences of the policies #Kony2012 encourages. That adherents in their righteous anger seem so often to find this irrelevant is already a worrying sign, and only adds credence to the idea of badvocacy as something primarily meant to make the ‘giver’ feel good, rather than to contribute anything substantial or meaningful to the recipient. The defence that there is no other way to engage the slacker youth of the over-developed West only redoubles the contradictions of political agency in the Age of Social Media. If we take it as true (and I don’t think we should) it invokes a paradox: if only a shallow and emotionally manipulative gloss can ‘engage’, why should we think that the resultant policy will be anything but ineffective or counter-productive?
The implicit answer, in spite of the rhetoric of empowerement and networked solidarity, is that the mobilisation is not intended to be informed or substantive. It is the force of visibility alone, and the more flimsy the understanding behind the visibility, the easier it is to take up for other purposes. Those might be financial, as when action purportedly aimed at alleviating ‘African’ suffering lines some rather more Northern pockets. Or merely self-promotional, piggy-backing to a Geldofian status on the manipulated and edited pain of others. In policy terms, the danger of the #Kony2012 experiment “working” is not actually that Russell and co. will make money, nor that largely American college students will be duped into some pointless photo calls, nor even that representations of voiceless and powerless Africans will be reinforced once again.
No, the danger is that a real groundswell of short-term pressure will result in further funding and political support to armies with despicable human rights records, armies which will use their new power not to “end a war”, but to consolidate the militarisation of social struggles in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, to further victimise “their own” populations, to ratchet up the exploitation of collective wealth for private and state gain, and to open the door yet wider for AFRICOM and others, all processes which reproduce and entrench the social forces #Kony2012 fanboys and fangirls think they’re getting away from. Whatever happens with Kony, this is congealing into a distinct and clumsy post-Iraq pattern: activist networks, dependent on flimsy and superficial friend/enemy constructions, seeking to put state and private military power to work. Save Darfur re-iterated; the development-security nexus socially-networked; the armed wing of faux-civil society.
And yet the petulant requirement for some alternative from critics (what would you do, then?) matters. As usually put, the charge is hollow. Clarifying context and arguing against counter-productive policy is also ethical action, and so, by the way, is research and writing (however bad academics are at popularising their products). Moreover, the demand for action is not the same as action, still less effective political action, and no one should be detained overlong by childish injunctions that something must be done, with no thought as to the what, the how or the why.
That said, it is one of the consequences of #Kony2012 already that many more people are critically informed about Uganda (and its associated regional war complexes) than they were a week ago. That may unsettle us as academics, and it won’t do much good if the relative balance of attention is regressive, but the sheer scale and reach of badvocacy has produced its own partial counter-effect. As they say, there is at least now a debate, even if most of the terms are wrong.
Our problem is this: it is not at all clear that a serious and politically sound version of #Kony2012 could succeed, even if we could command their resources. Instant sharing simply may not bear 30 minutes of historical background or ethical debate. In this sense at least, the standard teacherly defence is right. It is not the responsibility of analysts and academics to dilute reality for your easy consumption. It is your responsibility to be able to focus for long enough, and to care seriously enough, to apprehend things in the complexity they require. It is not the critics who are complicit and complacent, but a supposed “public” that can only grasp war stories pitched at the level of Disney outtakes. The plot and cadence of #Kony2012 make this abundantly, even insultingly, clear. We, the audience, are invited to understand only in the form possible for very young children: either as Jacob, who cannot bear the pain of losing his brother and so himself wants only death; or as Russell’s son Gavin, who wants to know who the bad guy is and how daddy will stop him. And we are never, in half an hour, invited to transcend this narrative. If you cannot do better than that, at least have the self-respect not to attack those capable of more complex stories.
So the critics are right, and the ingenues wrong. But the shallowness with which #Kony2012 has been received too easily tempts us into dismissal. There is no question that academics and analysts could do better in making more complex public understandings possible. Part of the reason for their failure to do so, but only part, is the widespread view that citizen-publics will react negatively to anything that challenges a one-dimensional worldview, as the #Kony2012 counter-backlash seems to bear out. This danger is more contingent than we think, and there is real scope for re-thinking the public university and its forms. Ephemeral as it may turn out to be, #Kony2012 should at least jolt us into some thought, and some action, aimed at reconfiguring our own narratives of good guys and bad.
And, since we should never deny ourselves some easy joy, Wronging Rights’ #Kony2012 drinking game:
- Footage that makes you concerned that you are watching the wrong video because all you see is a bunch of white people doing hipster shit like undergoing vimeo’d Caesareans and making home movies of their children that involve actual special effects – slam a shot of pickleback, brace yourself for what comes next.
- Nonspecific use of “Africa” or “African” instead of precise location or actual nationality – pound a Tusker…
- Statement that all that’s needed to solve the problem of the LRA is for enough Americans to “know” and “care” about Kony – slam head against brick wall, consider just giving up entirely.
- Assumption that girls are only good for sex slave-ing, play no other role in the violence – drink a My Little PonyTM, feel kind of icky about it.
- Exasperated Prendergast hair flip – drink one Zima, consider washing your own headsuit.
- Assertion that “no one” cared about Joseph Kony for decades until white college students took up the cause – drink half a bottle of wine, wonder why all those Ugandans he was attacking and kidnapping during that period were unaware of him…
- Three-point action platform consisting of (1) signing a “pledge,” (2) sending money for an “action kit” that contains some bracelets, stickers and posters, and (3) sending more money so that IC will have that money – imagine what the results could have been if these genuinely brilliant marketers turned their attentions to a cause that is actually within the U.S. government’s direct control, like the Dream Act, cry so hard that you can do a shot of your own tears.