This is my Sunday column for the Nation. Joseph Kony is the LOLcat of terrorism now, but may not have reached people that read the physical. So this is a sorta briefer for that audience. It’s called Who Is Joseph Kony?.
If you’re on Facebook or the Internet in general, you can’t have missed Joseph Kony. An NGO called Invisible Children has mounted a campaign to make the African warlord/rapist/child enslaver as famous as George Clooney, and in a matter of days they’ve come pretty close. Just as fast, however, they were hit with a backlash against their pretension, advocacy for US military intervention abroad, and the general hordes of ignoramuses they’ve unleashed. So what’s really going on?
Joseph Kony is pseudo-Christian warlord and mass murderer, originally from Uganda. He’s an armed rebel looking to implement the ten commandments, mainly by breaking as many of them as possible. This messianic leader has gathered an army of psychotics, capturing children, forcing them to kill their parents, mutilate their families and neighbors, serve as sex slaves, etc. He’s a generally horrid individual, but also hard to kill or find, namely because he’s surrounded by psychotics and zombified children that also serve as human shields. So basically he’s like Prabhakaran without the redeeming characteristics.
Invisible Children is an American NGO which is most visible through its film productions, but also does awareness building and work on the ground in Uganda. They have recently produced an extremely polished if also rather self-indulgent documentary. It’s thrust is that the Facebook generation can change the world by influencing celebrities and billionaires to influence to US government to give military support to Uganda. For them this leads to the arrest and trial by the ICC, but warlords rarely go out that way, and they rarely go out alone.
The power of Invisible Children is that they’ve made this issue huge, but the trouble is that they’ve also made it about themselves. The video is largely preoccupied with the white co-founder and his cute son and how people can changing the world by liking and forwarding stuff online. This has led to a digital army of idiots rallying around a simplified presentation of a complex issue, and now IC has gotten some serious blowback from rather reasonable people online.
IC has been criticized for their finances, their disconnect from actual Africans on the ground, and emphasis on American militarism as a solution. At the least, their list of people they’re trying to lobby is rather silly. It includes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, toxic radio host Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush, Taylor Swift and a bunch of American politicians. For an African issue, they’re not targeting African stakeholders, at least not at the top.
Their solution for the problem is also extremely controversial. They are raising money for awareness (which essentially funds them) and to lobby the US government to deploy military advisers and send military equipment to the Ugandan government (itself a weak democracy with human rights issues). While this may be a pragmatic solution, it is hardly the feel-good experience that most Facebook likers have signed onto.
IC has also taken criticism from within Africa for presuming to speak for and save them. There are plenty of human rights campaigners and people in Africa making a difference and an army of largely ignorant and self-righteous westerners has not been entirely welcome. IC has been said to have been taking up the ‘white man’s burden’ to save Africa, an experiment that has gone disastrously in the past.
So where should you stand? I don’t know. I’d recommend watching the video (http://youtu.be/Y4MnpzG5Sqc) to start. Then read some of the criticisms gathered by Al Jazeera’s The Stream (http://bit.ly/waHZ8h). Then read IC’s response (http://bit.ly/xBaa8v). Then do a bit of reading about Joseph Kony and the situation in Uganda. It’s a bit of a reading list, but this is an active debate, so it’s actually quite interesting. I heard about it directly from Facebook friends and even got a physical Kony 2012 sticker last night.
My initial reaction to the Kony 2012 video was something vaguely akin to nausea, but that sensation has evolved. To me, Invisible Children came off as incredibly patronizing, self-promoting and dumb. After seeing the debate play out, however, I have a bit more respect for what they’ve done. Not that I agree with what they propose, but they’ve started a debate, engaged with their critics, and are making a difference in the world.
For every person that couldn’t find Uganda on a map, there are a few people that have looked (myself included). For every criticism that IC has gotten, they have tried their best to respond. So you have a discussion going on – one about Africa, about American power and about right and wrong in a complex world. Which is actually a very interesting and important conversation to have. I can’t tell you what the answer is cause I don’t know yet, but I can tell you that it’s out there. So have a watch, have a read, and then have your say.