I’m not alone in my fascination with the YouTube video Kony 2012. It splits me right down the middle, tears at opposing sides of my identity as an intellectual. When you’re opened at the middle, your heart is exposed. So let’s go to the heart of the matter, to my heart.
Let’s get past the detour of pedantic correction, which some of my Africanist colleagues can’t seem to pass up. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if Joseph Kony is in the Congo now. It doesn’t matter (as a pure factual correction) if the Ugandan army is also guilty of human rights abuses (which is assuredly is). It doesn’t matter if the American people didn’t “demand” anything when it comes to Joseph Kony or Uganda. Yes, sure, getting the people inside the Beltway to write some proclamations isn’t the same as a huge popular upswelling of support, as the video itself acknowledges at 22:56.
I’m tired of this particular staging of the conflict between activists and scholars. It allows us to adopt a neutral pose, to act as if we’re just about accuracy, about facts, about truth. It’s acting as if all the world is an essay to be marked. It’s a misdirection, a cover for our deeper discomforts.
What I love about Kony 2012 is that it puts into action everything I push my students to consider: to understand how to speak effectively, to leverage the digital public sphere into an end run around the tired cynicism of our political elites. I love that it’s technically well-done, that it’s smartly circulated, that it weds organizational work to a powerful narrative. It’s a brilliant way to put a different kind of pressure on Kony. It’s basically taking a tactic from Amnesty International’s bag of tricks and amplifying it a thousandfold through new media.
What I hate about Kony 2012 is that it puts into action everything that I push my students to consider. I don’t want to get too distracted by the self-aggrandizing, self-congratulatory, white-man’s-burden tone of the video, though that certainly grated on me as much as it has on many others. I don’t want to get distracted because it’s true, as its makers have pointed out, that you don’t mobilize people by telling them that they don’t matter, that they don’t have a right to act or have an opinion, that every time they might care about an issue in Africa they need to issue a long string of pre-emptive apologia for having that opinion. An automatic genuflection towards local, from-below ‘voices’ can be just as troubled a gesture as the instantaneous dislike of Westerners talking about doing things for or to African societies. At its worst, this is a move straight from a hyper-nationalist playbook, a way to capture all ‘voices’ and hand them over to a small autocratic elite, as the UN New World Information and Communication Order sought to do.
That the tone does irritate me even when I feel I shouldn’t be so easily annoyed helps me to understand what it is that really bothers me. It’s not facts I want to correct. It’s something far more elemental. I want to correct the social theory behind the video. I want to contest its underlying philosophy. When I respond, my knee-jerking frantically all the while, that the world is just more complicated than that, I’m not marking up a point with red ink, I’m not being anal-retentive about the facts. When I and other commenters say that there’s a history here that runs far deeper than the filmmaker knows, I’m not just wagging my finger schoolmarmishly.
The heart of the matter is that when I see the video, I realize that I largely believe in a kind of inaction. Suggesting that the situation is really very complex is just a polite way of saying, “It won’t make much difference if you actually capture Joseph Kony, and it might actually make things worse if you succeed in making him the singular, obsessive focus of an international campaign.” If we lived in a world with superhuman ninja assassins or suavely indestructable British spies, you know what? I would totally support one of them sneaking through the northeast part of Equatorial Africa and blowing Joseph Kony’s head off. An international trial in which he was found guilty of every crime imaginable and thrown in jail for life, executed, you name it, would be a satisfying moment of justice in a world largely absent of it. But Kony is not a monster who clawed his way out of some subterranean hell. He came from the history of his place, out of the circumstances of his time. He has lived in a sociopolitical world full of warlords, guerilla leaders, state presidents, and generals whom he resembles and who resemble him. He is not the only person to take children as soldiers, maim civilians, order the rape of women, facilitate a shadow trade in weapons and drugs, operate in porous physical and institutional spaces at the boundary of national sovereignty.
In real life you don’t get to throw the Emperor down a shaft in the Death Star and watch all the bad guys crash and burn. The world should know about Joseph Kony, but then, they should know about a lot of leaders in Central and Northeastern Africa. They should know about Kony’s kidnapping of children, but then they should know that most rebel movements and national armies in the region have resorted to the same tactic. They should know about Kony’s use of rape as a weapon but then they should know that the war against women washes through the entirety of eastern Central Africa. Outsiders should know about the Lord’s Resistance Army but also know that there are deep recurrent forms of militant prophetic leadership in the region that go back into the colonial era. Catching one man hardly matters against that backdrop. It certainly would not make any warlord, general or autocrat feel any fear of the same thing happening to them.
If with its current resources and aid, in a simple or unobtrusive way, the Ugandan army and American advisors can catch or kill Kony, that’s great. Making this the singular, surpassing international demand by the world, making this the objective that launches a million postcards from American schoolchildren, pouring whatever resources might be available into that goal? Not only does it miss the forest for a single tree, it runs the serious risk of turning into precisely the kind of crusade that does more harm in the end than it does good. A very similar rhetorical logic was used to sell the war in Iraq: get Saddam Hussein at all costs. A similar logic drew the American military into a disastrously misconceived crusade to “get” Mohammed Farah Aidid in Somalia. Real life isn’t Roy Rogers, it’s Unforgiven. Going after the bad guy often makes more bad guys, or gives other bad guys a gold star and lets them pretend to be the sheriff.
“Direct action” in the Invisible Children sense is all about instant gratification: it’s pushing 1-Click on “Change the World”. And the world just doesn’t work that way. Fundamental change is hard, it’s slow, it involves the messy working out of lives in the local, lives in the global.