Kony 2012 and The Choir of Saviors: You got a song you wanna sing for me?

You got a song you wanna sing for me?
Sing a song, singing man.
Sing another song, singing man.
Sing a song for me.
One for the pressing, two for the cross,
Three for the blessing, four for the loss.
Kid holdin’ a weapon, walk like a corpse
In the face of transgression, military issue Kalash
Nikova or machete or a pitchfork.
He killing ’cause he feel he got nothin’ to live for
In a war taking heads for men like Charles Taylor
And never seen the undisclosed foreign arms dealer.
Thirteen-year-old killer, he look thirty-five,
He changed his name to Little No-Man-Survive.
When he smoke that leaf shorty believe he can fly.
He loot and terrorize and shoot between the eyes.
Who to blame? Its a shame the youth was demonized.
Wishing he could rearrange the truth to see the lies
And he wouldn’t have to raise his barrel to target you,
His heart can’t get through the years of scar tissue.

-“Singing Man“, The Roots

60 million people and counting have now heard about Invisible Children’sKony 2012“. Criticism of the group has been substantial and judicious. The group has defended themselves. Humorous memes are proliferating. Over-exposure has already begun to create awareness fatigue. Yet there is a serious issue largely unaddressed: the most troubling elements of the “Kony 2012” phenomenon are not unique to Invisible Children, but reflect serious moral and political problems with the pursuit of international criminal justice, and in particular the mission and politics of the International Criminal Court and their controversial prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

To put it bluntly: while Jason Russell addresses his audience in the same way he addresses his five-year-old son Gavin, which is clearly inappropriate given the complexity of the issues he’s asking us to consider, Russell’s framing of the evil of Joseph Kony and “our” responsibility to stop him is importantly similar to the narrative of international criminal law, and Ocampo in particular. We should not be too quick to denounce the moral idiocy of Russell as a personal failing – his sentimental and messianic film represents a revealing apotheosis rather than a transgressive break from our sense of international justice. There are unpleasant resonances between Russell and Ocampo – the ICC prosecutor has already praised the group, saying,

“They’re giving a voice to people who before no-one knew about and no-one cared about and I salute them.”

But the commonalities run deeper than a strategic endorsement and should give us pause before we conclude that while Invisible Children may be unscrupulous and ill-informed, some form of outside intervention is needed to save the children of the Great Lakes region of Africa (to say  nothing of the adults being killed) – and yes, an arrest warrant and possible trial by the ICC is as much an intervention as a military invasion. Russell’s call to “stop Kony” is disturbing beyond his narcissism and the organisation’s inept policies and campaigns, his messianic moralising, in which he positions himself (and those like him who just need to be roused to action) as the hero for the powerless victim, is a single melody line in the score that guides the choir singing for international justice. His self-regarding indignation, and our discomfort, should inspire introspection into the desires that lead us to demand that Kony stand trial at the ICC or to insist that “we” must do something to stop the evil that besets that part of Africa.

The Kony 2012 film is defined by two moments in which the narrator and protagonist, Russell, is speaking to children about profound violence and suffering. In the first he focuses his camera on Jacob, the young boy who lost his family in the war and provided an early inspiration for Russell and Invisible Children. The scene between them is affecting because Jacob speaks openly of the hopelessness he feels. He says he would be better off if he were killed because he is alone and cannot see any future for himself in the world he lives in. Jacob is a child who has seen too much tragedy for a single childhood and has been forced to deal with fears and problems that would crush most adults. Yet this is the only insight we get into Jacob’s experience and his struggles to put his own life back together, to find a family and community life in his country. Russell responds clumsily to Jacob’s pain, and while most of us would struggle to know what to say in such a moment, he turned his response into a multi-million dollar organisation and a global campaign over the past nine years. We are, then, obligated to judge his response. In the film he tells Jacob that he is going to “stop them” – the LRA, Kony, the war – the specifics are never made clear. What is clear, however, is that Russell needs to find a blameworthy cause for the shattered lives he has seen and the sadness he feels for them. Once that blameworthy cause is found, he must oppose it, stop it – and the cause of suffering he has found is a man, Joseph Kony, who has long been cast as a moral monster and seems to willingly play that role given the sad history of violence and destruction he has written upon the lives, and in fact the very bodies, of the people of the Great Lakes region.

In the second defining scene, Russell explains to his young son, Gavin, who Kony is and why his father is working to stop him. The moment captured is less harrowing but is unnerving in its own way. Gavin is old enough to feel sad and frightened by the story of Kony abducting children – children like his friend Jacob – and we can see him struggling to understand what his father has told him. He does not understand why someone would do that to Jacob, who he knows is a good guy, and he also does not understand why the children that Kony abducts would fight for him. Even as a young child, Gavin knows these pieces do not fit together properly, he knows that something very wrong is happening. To use this moment of emotional and moral learning as fodder for a viral video is questionable parenting, I think, but Russell’s real failure is when he steps in to soothe Gavin by telling him that Kony is an evil man and he’s forcing the good people to be soldiers – that he is evil the bogey man. He reassures him further by telling him that his father is going to stop Kony, so Gavin and Jacob, and all the other children and all the other victims need not suffer anymore.

Russell’s failings would be greatly lessened if they were confined to his friendship with Jacob and his relationship with his son, but he has made his personal reactions a worldwide statement and because of that it is important to point to their inadequacies as a social ethic. Consciously or not, Russel has taken Richard Rorty’s words to heart. Rorty famously claimed that social progress in the development of our sentiments, the process by which individuals and societies are made more humane, depended on hearing sad sentimental stories that moved the wealthy and powerful to action, to relieve the plight of the less fortunate. Along with his skepticism of the power of philosophical or religious dogma to change human behavior – work he thought best left to sentimental education – Rorty also advised liberals and human rights advocates to accept the superiority of their beliefs because of the contribution those beliefs had made to improving the world. While Rorty never depended up the notion of evil to explain why certain individuals and groups were violent and exclusionary, his account of insecurity as cause is not actually very different – violent individuals lack the security and emotional openness that liberals enjoy, which is a deprivation that should be remedied. The story of evil sinners in need of redemption – either through salvation or righteous punishment – depends on a strikingly similar dynamic.

The moral narrative offered in Kony 2012 is simple and attractive. Right and wrong are clearly defined, which provides us not only with a clear sense of what to do but also does not require us to ask more difficult questions of ourselves. And the moral narrative that Invisible Children take up is not exclusive to their work – in fact, it is the underlying moral logic of the ICC and international criminal law more broadly. The ICC’s fundamental purpose is to punish international criminals and deter future crimes by ending impunity, which is a mandate that depends on identifying culpable individuals that can be held responsible for mass violence and the susceptibility of those individuals to the threat of international prosecution.

Focusing on the causal and moral responsibility of one individual allows us to satisfy our desire to punish and overcome the discomfort we feel when faced with unjustifiable suffering. Like Russell, however, we are forced to be narcissists when we think in these terms – justice is reduced to our desire to punish those who offend our moral sensibilities. This dynamic is perhaps justifiable where the crimes in question affect individuals or small numbers of people, or where justice is being done on behalf of a relatively cohesive and equal society. International justice occurs in neither circumstance and therefore runs the risk of prioritising the interests of an “international community” largely defined by the politicians and constituencies of  powerful liberal states.

This understanding [focused on trials] gave two distinct groups a forum to express outrage: the international community and the actual individual survivors. The fact that these groups are not necessarily allied foreshadows the complicated, yet largely undeveloped, victimology of mass atrocity.

– Mark Drumbl, Atrocity, Punishment and International Law

The consequences of this go far beyond narcissism, as it leads to a focus on how the international community can intervene to hold international criminals accountable rather than resolving conflicts and rebuilding communities, and even when those communities demand trials, the ICC’s model removes them to the Hague.

Further, the moral narrative provided by both Russell and Ocampo avoids a number of difficult questions. Thinking in terms of innocent victims and evil murders saves us having to ask why the murders kill – Kony’s evil is simply posited without cause or reason, which makes it easy to ignore the culpability of the Ugandan government and the international community, including aid agencies that sustained the displacement camps in the north of the country. It also allows us to avoid the troubling question of what should be with members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (or other groups) who were child soldiers but are now simply soldiers, as these individuals are not simply victims or perpetrator, they are both threatened and threatening – where do they fit into the narrative of good guys and bad guys?

Thinking in terms of bad guys creates the need for heroes as well – particularly heroes who come from outside to fix the problems insiders cannot solve. Jason Russell, Invisible Children, their supporters, all those eager young faces in the Kony 2012 video, Ocampo, the US government and the ICC are all asked to play the good guys. Again this simplifies the political and moral reality greatly – the international community has hardly been uninvolved in the conflict in Uganda  – see Adam Branch on this – and a first best step would be to stop enabling and profiting from conflicts like the one in Uganda. Heroes are needed because the suffering is caused by evil men (nearly always men in the discourse) who are exceptional to the social context, and for this reason we also need exceptional heroes to face such villains – which reproduces the dynamics of colonial intervention and superiority, while justifying a superficial approach to understanding the conflicts “we” are trying to stop. Mahmood Mamdani is good on this point, particularly in relation to the ICC’s involvement in Sudan.

International justice, as articulated through Invisible Children and the ICC, begins from the sadness, guilt and pity felt by the international community, which generates a need to do something to justify their power. Justice becomes the performance of condemnation and redemption, first in the court of public opinion, and, then, in the court of the international community, but it is not condemnation or redemption from, or for, those affected, except by proxy. In this dynamic, justice becomes a cleansing ritual for the powerful and the disengaged, to wash away their responsibility. And for this reason, as important as criticisms of Kony 2012, and the ICC, are, pointing to the tactical failures, political naivety and self-regard takes us only half-way, because these vices are written into the moral narrative on which the idea of international justice is based. So, Russell and Ocampo can hardly be blamed for speaking to us like children, for believing they are the heroes who must save the victims in Africa (and around the world) and that they must sing their songs of justice to get “us” to accept our responsibilities as well – they are products of our social understandings as much as their own virtues and vices.

Our moral responses are lacking, and those advocates of international justice I criticise here are not alone in their dependence on a problematic moral narrative. But what, then, is my solution? Or am I just one of those critics who snipe endlessly at anyone trying to do good in the world? I have no special insight into the practical situation in Uganda or in post-conflict situations more broadly, but I do know that how we think about these matters should be challenged. The first change we could make would be to think about our own desire to respond to suffering and violence with accountability and punishment – as this is as often about our own anxieties rather than the suffering that victims experience. In Kony 2012, a careful viewer is struck by Russell’s insensitivity to Jacob’s pain – the troubled young man in the video is not asking for someone to arrest Kony, but for someone to help him find a place in the world where he can feel secure and loved even in the face of the loss he’s experienced, and to find a future that he can pursue hopefully. If our dreams of international justice focus more on stopping the bad guys than on taking care of the survivors, the ethical value of those dreams seems rather shoddy.

Further, by thinking in terms of individual crimes and culpability we miss out the social causes of mass violence – these events are much bigger than the will of any one individual, no matter how sociopathic. This is an especially important point because it gets to the heart of why a close analysis of the reality of the conflict in the Great Lakes region is absent in Kony 2012 – it’s not only because it is an advocacy film, it is also because the moral imperative of the film does not depend upon understanding the context, only that Kony is evil and must be stopped. A more refined but equally insistent mode of thinking is echoed in Ocampo’s advocacy for the ICC. Branch and many others have done important work to show how the conflict in Uganda is too complex to be adequately represented in a criminal trial, but their goal of adding depth and nuance can only take hold when our moral thinking depends upon such subtlety. We must move beyond, as John Dewey suggested, a belief in magic, which suggests that if we have good morals, good laws and good will than the evils of the world can be avoided and overcome.

Belief in magic did not cease when the coarser forms of superstitious practice ceased. The principle of magic is found whenever it is hoped to get results without intelligent control of means; and also when it is supposed that means can exist and yet remain inert and inoperative. In morals and politics such expectation still prevail, and in so far the most important phases of human action are still affected by magic. We think that by feeling strongly enough about something, by wishing hard enough, we can get a desirable result, such as virtuous execution of a good resolve, or peace among nations, or good will in industry. We slur over the necessity of the cooperative action of objective conditions, and the fact that this cooperation is assured only by persistent and close study. Or, on the other hand, we fancy we can get these results by external machinery, by tools or potential means, without a corresponding functioning of human desires and capacities. Often times these two false and contradictory beliefs are combined in the same person. The man who feels that his virtues are his own personal accomplishment is likely to be also the one who thinks that by passing laws he can throw the fear of God into others and make them virtuous by edict and prohibition.

-John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct

My only conclusion here is that we do not need more singing men to generate a moral frenzy to support their heroic efforts. The interventions of such men cannot solve the deep problems that lead to decades of violence, nor can they effect the broader and deeper social transformations needed to be overcome and actually eliminate impunity or end state violence. For now we would do well to listen more, to speak less and let victims lead in these situations – this would require the international community taking on a very different role, however, focusing on support rather than leadership, and on learning rather than dictating.

We do not think that this story can be told in that simple way, just to say it’s about a good guy and a bad guy. Yes, they are bad guys. Yes, we need to end the war. But how we tell this story of children, trying to give these children a voice…is important if you’re trying genuinely to end a war.

Rosebell Kagumire


4 thoughts on “Kony 2012 and The Choir of Saviors: You got a song you wanna sing for me?

  1. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

  2. I saw the film, sort of slick. I’m curious to know whether Brian Steidle would fall into the same category. His anguish and humility in the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback seemed real enough, but I saw it years ago and I’m wondering if I missed something. What’s your opinion on him?


  3. I read down to the point where the post starts talking about narcissism.

    from my dictionary:
    narcissism = self-love; excessive interest in one’s own appearance, comfort, importance, abilities, etc.

    I think that, properly speaking, a narcissist is someone so wrapped up in him or herself that he/she is not going to worry about punishing an ‘evildoer’ to assuage his/her moral sensibilities. This post therefore, in my opinion, misuses the word “narcissism”. [It can be added to a list of words routinely misused (and overused) by many IR scholars, such as “reification,” which in my opinion does not mean what many IR scholars seem to think it means (however, my point about “narcissism” does not depend on this broader point).]


    • So you read until the 3rd paragraph? Maybe reading the whole post would have made clear I’m talking about narcissism in the context of Radical Russell’s moral thinking – and more broadly, of course. The description certainly fits – ‘excessive interest in one’s own appearance, comfort, importance, abilities, etc.’ – in regards to his (and our) capacity and duty to solve the problem of violence in Uganda, as well as his (our) concern with his (our) emotional reaction to violence as opposed to the victims. Narcissism isn’t limited to vanity or superficiality, though it brings in those conotations. I could have said self-regarding, I suppose, but it lacks exactly that element of vanity that narcissism captures, and which is displayed so readily by Russell and Ocampo – along with the legion of Invisible Children supporters in the video.


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