A miserable fraud

The power to choose on social media who is to be the next target of America’s moral manhunt, all with the benediction of a panel of biddable celebrities.

Photo: Glenna Gordon.

The boy had lost his brother, and as he wept before Jason Russell’s camera, Jason Russell brushed back the loose strands of his magnificent blond coiffure (who will play him in the movie version?) and told the boy in hushed tones: “It’s okay. It’s okay.” Jason Russell promised the boy that he, Jason Russell, would do everything he could, would stop at nothing, would move mountains if need be, just to make sure that everybody in the world would finally come to know the name of Jason Russell.

Wait! Sorry! The name of Joseph Kony. This is all about Joseph Kony after all. Not Jason Russell. Nope, nothing at all to do with him.

It must be because “Kony 2012” is about Joseph Kony and not about Jason Russell that there is so much footage of Jason Russell’s young son, Gavin, worshipping Jason Russell atop trampolines and on beaches and at kitchen tables, and professing his hope that one day he might grow up to be just like Jason Russell.

Obviously! I mean how the hell else do you make a movie about the Lord’s Resistance Army?

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.

You say Zooey Deschanel has tweeted that she wants to stop Joseph Kony? You say Kony has reduced Vanessa Hudgens to tears? But of course, we must send in the drones.

A writer from Northern Uganda, Musa Okwonga writes in Britain’s Independent that he hopes the Invisible Children “see this campaign as a way to encourage wider and deeper questions about wholly inadequate governance in this area of Africa.”

And this, generally, has been the considered view offered by those fair-minded folk who recognise the film’s sheer idiocy but hope that the “awareness” raised by it will lead to intelligent engagement further down the line.

Unfortunately this completely misses the point. The point of the film is absolutely not to encourage deeper questioning of Ugandan governance. The name of Uganda’s Life President Yoweri Museveni is nowhere to be found. Instead the point is to “literally cry your eyes out” (see Twitter passim), having been moved into a frenzy of moral clarity by the quite revolting mixture of generalised disgust at black Africa, infatuation with white American virtue and technological superiority, and a dose of good old-fashioned blood-lust. (When it boils down to it, it is a call for assassination.)

You then parade your borrowed and branded sense of right and wrong (those production values are also your values, after all) by sharing the link to the film. Everyone except for Joseph Kony gets to feel that they’re in the right, and Jason Russell and his friends get famous for being good.

The problem with the “awareness” argument is that it suggests that interest in the war in Uganda can be separated out from the experience of intensely racialized and charisma-driven moral masturbation, an experience which turns out to be, more than anything, one of the most intensely satisfying kinds of identity-formation.

“Fight for that,” says one speaker, without letting on what “that” is, “because that is what is going to change this world, and that is what defines us.”

To ask people to climb down from the soaring heights of “Kony 2012” (remember how we fall down into Uganda from the heavenly realms of Jason Russell’s Facebook page?), a place where they get to feel both sanctified and superior, and truly descend into the mire of history and confusion is simply too big an ask. It would be boring and difficult and it would not be about Facebook or Angelina Jolie or colored wristbands or me. When the euphoria evaporates and the Twittersphere has dried its tears (probably by the end of this week), all that remains will be yet another powerful myth of  African degradation beneath Western power–and Jason Russell will be famous and rich.

The blogging battles that have broken out in the past couple of days are welcome. This is being contested and the controversy, as well as the campaign, is becoming a big deal.

Foreign Policy features an excellent guest post (by Oxford student Michael Wilkerson) where he indulges in a spot of light fact-checking (whatever, so Kony and the LRA aren’t in Uganda, meh), points to Invisible Children’s dubious finances (surprise!), links to a strong piece by Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama and poses the timeless question: what are the consequences of unleashing so many exuberant activists armed with so few facts?

One consequence of all this is that in the future we’ll have to get used to crowdsourced foreign policy that will come with dollops of the white man’s burden and most likely won and lost in popularity contests on social media: for example, #Kony2012 was quickly displaced by #stopKony2012 at the top of the Twitter pyramid.

As for Jason Russell and Invisible Children: Earlier today a Ugandan writer friend wrote to me wearily but pithily: “Invisible Children is quite notorious. They are still stuck with the old, ‘sexy’ Kony story even as Ugandan children die of a mysterious illness [nodding disease]. They refuse to move on. Man, those guys have made money marketing this idea. It’s disgusting.”


Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.