Starry Eyes on Uganda: Some thoughts on #KONY2012

Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell is all smiles at a 2009 event. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you hadn’t thought much about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army prior to March 5, you aren’t alone. Before then, the LRA rarely cropped up on the collective North American mental map. Yet for decades, the LRA have been waging a bloody guerilla war across large swathes of Central Africa, killing and displacing thousands—all with too little coverage from major western media outlets and even less engagement from the general public.

Enter Invisible Children, Jason Russell, and the internet phenom known as #KONY2012. Joseph Kony was transformed into a household name overnight—igniting an explosive online debate over developmental ethics in the internet age.

By now, you’ve likely heard of Kony 2012. The awareness campaign, launched by San Diego NGO Invisible Children, aims to bring Joseph Kony to justice by making him “as famous as George Clooney.” Over the past week, the campaign’s thirty minute film has received over 75 million views on YouTube, and articles and opinion pieces on #KONY2012 are proliferating like mushrooms. Criticism of the video has been vitriolic and varied. It includes everything from astute observations about how the campaign reenforces colonial “white-saviour” stereotypes to (hopefully) off-the-wall claims that Kony 2012 is part of a U.S. conspiracy to secure newly discovered Ugandan oil.

Like it or Lump it, the fervour around Kony 2012 tells us something interesting. What exactly that is, however, is up for debate. Some thoughts:

What #KONY2012 Tells us about Uganda: If we’re speaking in terms of the film itself, then the answer is “not much.” Invisible Children glosses over or misrepresents many of the nuances of a decades long conflict which, according to most credible sources, is now winding down (the LRA fled Uganda in 2006, and though they still carry out brutal attacks across Central Africa, their power is on the wane). Of the serious problems facing Northern Uganda today—poverty, land ownership, the mysterious nodding disease—the film says nothing. And if this recent response from Northern Uganda is anything to go by—and what, other than that, is a better barometer for this debate—Ugandans are less then pleased.

Then there is the fact that much of the film reads like a blatant reformulation of the “white saviour” myth for the internet age. Ugandans are depicted as uniformly poor, wretched, and helpless, rendered visible only when Westerners know and care about their plight. This, as I’m sure you know, is utter bullshit. I’ve spent some time in Africa—in Uganda, in fact. Not a lot, but enough to know that the country is full of smart and capable people who can and are solving their own problems. This fact is demonstrated by the nuanced critiques of the campaign offered by African commentators such as Musa Okiwanga, Angelo Opi-aiya Izama, and Frank Odonga, all of whom write eloquently about the surreal experience of having a completely decontextualized slice of their collective history fed back to them over the internet by a bunch of starry-eyed white folks. The fact that these intelligent African voices now have an international audience is perhaps the real story behind Kony 2012.

What #KONY2012 tells us about our idealism (and our cynicism): The answer here is “a whole bunch.” Kony 2012′s massive popularity is built upon the idealism of millions of (mostly young) Westerners . While critics have cynically dismissed the campaign’s supporters as “a bunch of vain and ignorant young people who can think and feel only in cliches and appear to be labouring under the notion that Mark Zuckerberg invented both compassion and democracy for them sometime around 2004,” this is only part of the story.

Kony 2012 also represents a genuine, if misguided, desire to engage with a world that too often leaves people feeling powerless, confused, and apathetic. True, it is dangerous to simplify issues that aren’t simple, and Invisible Children can’t be excused for the way it commodifies and co-opts African subjects for its own gain. At the same time, it is a mistake to completely write off the campaign and its millions of supporters, many of whom are young people encountering real injustice for the first time. While they may be naive, it’s their naivety which allows them to feel a real sense of horror and injustice upon encountering Kony 2012.  Rather then crapping all over the naive, the initiated should recognize this sense of horror. It is a first step towards a clearer understanding of the world.

From this angle, the kind of vitriolic glee with which many in the media have responded to the campaign seems reminiscent of Santa Claus denial on a mass scale. It also points to the omnipresent self-hatred that hums quietly behind the scenes of an often frivolous and narcissistic culture as it faces an experience that few of its members can even begin to understand.