One hundred million acts of vanity

So the now infamous Joseph Kony video has been watched one hundred million times and the backlash has taken many forms: Ugandans asserting the video is neo-colonial because they are cast as hapless victims without agency and that, anyway, Kony left Uganda years ago; Americans complaining that the charity that made it, Invisible Children, spent too much on travel and salaries; and everyone, it seems, questioning the wisdom of papering the world’s walls with Kony 2012 images as if he were an American presidential candidate rather than a bona fide killer.

But The Lede points to this question, directed to Invisible Children on Twitter, and I don’t think it is adequately answered:

The Al Jazeera report this tweet refers to is astonishing to watch.  It seems that Invisible Children only belatedly thought to screen their video for the people in northern Uganda who they were ostensibly trying to help and when they did the screen was pelted with rocks in anger.  The Ugandans interviewed all say they had come to the screening thinking they would see something about their suffering and instead were shown a video about an American and his little boy.

I am generally skeptical of the “neo-colonial” argument — as I have written about in the context of Libya and Egypt — regarding it in most instances as the argument of last resort turned to when more reasoned argument fails, but this Joseph Kony video strikes me as truly neo-colonial.  This is not, as is often supposed, merely because a white guy is cast as the hero; it is because the video has nothing to do with Kony or Uganda at all.  Every charity simplifies their complex cause in order to make their pitch more effective but this video, which runs thirty minutes, explains absolutely nothing about Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Ugandan politics, or the wider context of Sudan and Congo except that Kony is a ‘bad man,’ as the narrator’s son says, and abducts children — this takes simplification to such an extreme that it feels like appropriation and that, surely, is what led the northern Ugandans at the screening to take up their stones.

One does not have to question the sincerity of Invisible Children’s commitment to Uganda to recognize that the search for Kony, in this instance, functions like what is known in the film world (popularized by Alfred Hitchcock) as a MacGuffin: the never-explained plot contrivance that sets the film’s action in motion but is essentially superfluous to the real story.  The ‘action’ in the Kony video is not catching Kony: it is getting all these young Americans to join something and participate in this newly fabricated community branded Kony2012.  We are the heroes of this video and our hundred million downloads are an act of vanity.  That is what is so objectionable about it.  Invisible Children really could have chosen Lady Gaga as the catalyzing agent to bring this community together — except that Lady Gaga would have mounted a legal battle over the appropriation of her name and image for this purpose, whereas the people of northern Uganda can only hurl stones at a bedsheet.


Some credit can be given for ‘starting a conversation’ about Kony, as the saying goes.  But look closely at much of that conversation, including this post: I am not really writing now about Joseph Kony or the LRA.  This is a post about social media, mostly, and marketing strategy.  So here’s a related prediction: the makers of this video are going to end up working on an American presidential campaign team in the 2016 cycle because — Kony aside — this is the most masterful exploitation of the American psyche since the 1964 Lyndon Johnson ‘Daisy’ video, embedded below, which tapped into a deep paranoia about Barry Goldwater and the prospects for nuclear war.


Update: Oh boy, how strange is life? Less than seven hours later and I need to amend that prediction I made: the makers of the Kony video won’t be working on a presidential campaign anytime soon. The Lede had a follow up post:

Jason Russell, who directed and starred in the “Kony 2012” documentary that became the Internet’s most viral video, was detained by San Diego Police on Thursday for masturbating in public and vandalizing cars, NBC San Diego reports. He was later hospitalized after an evaluation.

According to the San Diego station, a police spokeswoman said Mr. Russell, 33, was possibly under the influence when he was picked up by officers in the city’s Pacific Beach neighborhood. “Police said they received several calls Thursday at 11:30 a.m. of a man in various stages of undress, running through traffic and screaming,” the NBC affiliate reported.

The spokeswoman, Lt. Andra Brown, told reporters, “During the evaluation we learned we probably needed to take him to a medical facility because of statements he was saying.”

Mr. Russell, one of the founders of the charity Invisible Children, is described on the group’s Web site as “our grand storyteller and dreamer.” The biography adds: “His sparks of creative intelligence and insanity have propelled IC to redefine the concept of humanitarian work, offering new life to old hope.”

And in a bizarre art-imitates-life turn for an Africa charity, the chief executive of Invisible Children, Ben Kessey, issued this statement:

Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday.

So, make that one hundred million and one acts of vanity.


Lots of people have objected to the #Kony2012 campaign, for various reasons. The novelist Teju Cole objected in tweeted form, sparking second- and third-tier debates about what he calls “the White Savior Industrial Complex.” There is a lot that I find facile about framing the argument that way but, at root, we are objecting to the same things about this video. Cole also provides a valuable round-up of other people who have taken issue with the Kony campaign:

Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire, who covered the Lord’s Resistance Army in 2005 and made an eloquent video response to Kony 2012; Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, one of the world’s leading specialists on Uganda and the author of a thorough riposte to the political wrong-headedness of Invisible Children; and Ethiopian-American novelist Dinaw Mengestu, who sought out Joseph Kony, met his lieutenants, and recently wrote a brilliant essay about how Kony 2012 gets the issues wrong

Mahmood Mamdani, by the way, is a favorite of long standing who contributed to Transition, the journal founded in Uganda in 1961 that I recently lauded.


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