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The Road to Hell Is Paved with Viral Videos

For all its goodwill, Invisible Children's Kony 2012 film is dangerous propaganda, pure and simple. It's not a call to make a notorious celebrity out of Joseph Kony -- it's a call to war.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Click here to see photos of the evolution of the LRA. 

When and how so many Americans, young people in particular, were convinced, or convinced themselves, that awareness offers the key to righting wrongs wherever in the world they may be is hard to pinpoint. But whatever else it does and fails to do, Kony 2012, the 30-minute video produced by a previously obscure California- and Uganda-based charity called Invisible Children that seeks to "make Joseph Kony famous in 2012" so that this homicidal bandit leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa will be hunted down and turned over to the International Criminal Court, illustrates just how deeply engrained in American culture this assumption has now become.

As a film, as history, and as policy analysis, there is little to be said for Kony 2012 except that its star and narrator, Jason Russell, the head of Invisible Children, and his colleagues seem to have their hearts in the right place. But this do-good spirit is suffused with an almost boastful naiveté and, more culpably, an American middle-class provincialism that illustrates beautifully the continuing relevance of the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. At one point, Russell’s commentary over a scene of a center in a northwestern Uganda town where children who have fled their villages for fear of LRA attacks are seeking shelter is "If [this] happened one night in America, it would be on the cover of Newsweek," says Russell. Russell’s argument is that the rise of global connectivity means that we are all "living in a new world" of plugged-in citizens who can change the world through the new modes of activism that Kony 2012 exemplifies — earlier in the film he trumpets the fact that there are more people "on Facebook than were on the planet 200 years ago." But Russell’s is a bogus globalism: His film basically ignores the world outside North America, where the people he is trying to mobilize live, and central Africa, where Kony and his victims are.

And whatever Russell may imagine, there is nothing new about that binary view at all. To the contrary, if the narrative structure of Kony 2012 is reminiscent of anything, it is of a tried and true paternalism that the missionaries milked for all it was worth when they returned to the metropole from the outposts of the British and French empires in which they were  working. Rather than trying to inspire, inform, and mobilize kids through the efficiencies of Facebook to care about faraway tragedies and needs, the missionaries had to content themselves with the largely retail work of mobilizing the faithful. The film is full of Russell’s techno-utopian pontificating about connectivity turning the world upside-down, transforming politics, and instilling on a mass scale an ethic of borderless caring — a message underscored by Jedidiah Jenkins, Invisible Children’s "director of idea development," who told a reporter that the film had created "a tipping point" in getting young people to care about something that did not affect them.

But unless you truly believe that "the medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan — the Canadian futurologist who coined the expression "the global village" more than half a century ago — kept insisting, then what Kony 2012 exemplifies is not new thinking but a new delivery system for the humanitarian wing of the old imperial enterprise, in all its stunning condescension toward the Global South, its sense of entitlement, and not just its contempt for both historical and moral complexity and ambiguity, but its actual reveling in that ignorance.

In fairness, Russell has made no secret of this. The film "definitely oversimplifies the issue," he recently told an interviewer. "We made it quick and oversimplified on purpose." Russell insisted that the video was "not the answer" and that Invisible Children wanted people who had seen the film to "keep investigating … to read the history." The problem is that everything else in Invisible Children’s advocacy campaign, from the T-shirts and bracelets that read "Kony 2012" to the group’s plan to "Cover the Night" on April 20 with posters and hortatory slogans such as "Stop at Nothing" and "One Thing We Can All Agree On," is equally reductive. Make that simple-minded (not just oversimplified) in the literal sense of the term. But how could it be otherwise in a campaign that deploys the worst and most manipulative tricks of advertising with the stated goal not of making famous the context in which Kony and the LRA have committed their terrible crimes, but rather to "make Joseph Kony famous."

Russell and his colleagues seem to believe that because their goal is not to make Kony famous so as to celebrate him, but instead "to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice," that this justifies the fact that they don’t need to explain anything complicated to the young people they are trying to mobilize. Albert Einstein once observed bitterly that "he who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him a spinal cord will suffice." If one watches the music-video-style evocation in Kony 2012 of crowds of young people joyfully mobilizing en masse to demand Kony’s arrest, it is quite hard to believe Invisible Children’s claim that their campaign encourages deep thinking — or, frankly, any thinking at all — beyond the expression of moral outrage. In the end, this is Kony 2012‘s deepest flaw. For what it is actually peddling (under the flag of grassroots activism and a universal ethics of caring) is little more than a cheap techno-utopianism that conflates the entirely admirable wish for a better world with the belief that knowing how to move toward it is a simple matter, requiring more determination and goodwill than knowledge.

This is a fundamentally childlike view of the world. But even by the standards of the contemporary United States, where feeling and the instinctual is raised high above reason — a view encapsulated in author Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that "there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis" — and the child’s eye view is held by many to be more discerning than the adult’s, Kony 2012 is an extreme version of the idea. The early part of the film, after a few opening bits of technophilia about global connectedness, is followed by Russell sitting down with his young son, Gavin, to "explain" to him what "the war’s about and who Joseph Kony is." He does this, and it makes for painful viewing — a politically correct catechism in which it is unclear whether it is Russell or his son who is the more infantile. "What do I do for a job?" Russell asks. "You stop the bad guys from being mean," Gavin replies.

This might be written off as a relatively harmless narrative device were the rest of Russell’s explanation to his viewers more nuanced, which is to say, more adult. But Kony 2012 is rhetorically seamless in that it delivers all its argument at the same level of maturity as Russell exhibits in his conversation with Gavin. Joseph Kony is the bad guy, and it is up to the good guys — Russell, the Facebook millions, the U.S. military, and you — to stop Kony. Nothing more, it seems, needs to be said. One more military intervention by the United States in the name of human rights, with all the imperial echoes that go with it? No problem in such a good cause. Ugandan history? Some other time, perhaps. The context of Kony’s rebellion? Too complicated, at least for now. In short, nothing must be allowed to get in the way of building a movement, getting ready to put up posters, and pressuring the celebrities and politicians, or "policymakers" and "culture-makers," as Russell calls them in the film, to find a way to arrest Joseph Kony.

Here, too, Russell’s choice of whom to try to influence is revealing, for the infatuation with celebrity, the worship of (American) power, and the refusal of politics is at the core of the campaign. It allows Russell to lump together Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Sen. Harry Reid, and Rep. John Boehner in the list of policymakers he wants to influence (U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are the only non-Americans on the list) with Lady Gaga, Oprah, Rush Limbaugh, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg among the culture-makers. (Justin Bieber, a Canadian, is the lone non-American on the culture-makers list.)

Again, in a film that treated its audience as adults, rather than as children or the recruits Einstein evoked, joyfully marching in rank and file, Russell would have had to pause to ask himself hard questions, such as: What might be the risks to Uganda’s civilian population if the U.S. government were to give aid and more advanced military equipment to the Ugandan military to track Kony, thus strengthening a regime in Kampala whose hands are anything but clean — as anyone who was in eastern Congo during the Ugandan intervention there in the late-1990s can attest? And as they say in the military, in war, the enemy gets a vote. At present — though one would never know this from Russell’s film — Kony and the LRA are a largely spent force. But if a new campaign against them were launched, what would their response be; what crimes would they commit? Russell can talk all he likes about "arresting" Kony, but what Invisible Children is actually calling for is "war" — without acknowledging that in war there are invariably unintended consequences. The lesson of the U.S. invasion of Iraq — which is that hoping for the best is not a plan — does not seem to resonate with Russell at all.

Given these confusions, the challenge after watching Kony 2012 is not finding things in the film to criticize, wince at, and object to, but rather to find something that is not an intellectual or political embarrassment. Comedian Jon Stewart may tease the media for being jealous of the film’s success, but his mockery misses the point: It is popular not because it is true, but because it is infantile, lowest-common-denominator activism. And in this culture, at this time in history, you are not likely to lose any money trafficking in that.

Still, it is understandable that there are many intelligent people who concede at least some of these faults of Kony 2012 but nonetheless defend the project as useful and worthy of using consumerist means to channel young people’s energies away from that consumerism. The problem is that while self-evidently it is worthier to care about Joseph Kony than the Kardashians, caring by itself is not enough — at least if the idea is that this caring should impel people to act and, more importantly, demand that their government act. To do that demands something more than actually knowing that Joseph Kony is an evil man and peddling the fantasy that, if he can be arrested, it will prove that, as Russell puts it, "the world we live in has new rules" and that "the technology that brought our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends." And it is this deeper knowledge that Kony 2012 seems to have no interest in communicating, even though, presumably, Russell and his colleagues could impart it if they chose to.

Officials of Invisible Children are on record as admitting that, yes, in Kony 2012 they kept the thing simple, but they insist that simplifying is not always a bad thing. Because of their good intentions, this claim may at first appear credible. But if we call what they are peddling by its right name — propaganda — their campaign looks very different indeed, for propaganda is propaganda, no matter how worthy the cause, however and in whatever form it comes in. That Russell and his colleagues seem so blind to how dangerous this is suggests that the old adage of the road to hell being paved with good intentions is as alive and well as ever, and, in this case, flourishing on YouTube.

David Rieff is the author, most recently, of "In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies." Twitter: @davidrieff

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