Phoney 2012?

On March 5th 2012, a video called “Kony 2012” hit the internet. Film-maker Jason Russell has constructed a beautiful and harrowing 30-minute piece of cinema, as part of a campaign to have Joseph Kony, Ugandan leader of the guerrilla group LRA, found and arrested. It is not an unworthy cause. As the video explains, the International Criminal Court put Kony at the top of its list of “world’s worst criminals” for the “perversity of his crimes”: foremost, turning tens of thousands of abducted children into sex slaves and child soldiers.

The backlash (a minority voice) in the YouTube comments isn’t entirely unjustified either. “Love this brain washing. Good job. Fuck this.” pretty much summarises it. The video praises Obama to the skies for the sending of US combat-equipped military troops  “advisers” to central Africa, to “assist” the “regional forces” in removing Joseph Kony “from the battlefield”.  Alarm bells should probably be ringing.  The video takes care to emphasise and impress and repeat that these forces are “advisers” rather than an army, explaining “for Kony to be arrested… the Ugandan military has to find him… they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That’s where the American advisers come in”. The video also features dozens of American teenagers in matching T-shirts chanting “We will fight war.” Mmmm. Has anyone heard the (admittedly glib) phrase “Fighting for peace is like f***ing for virginity”?

There are other issues with the message the video pushes. Senator Jim Inhofe tells the camera “of all the problems out there, none is more severe than one that mutilates and takes the lives of little kids”. That’s true, in a roundabout way. However, without diminishing the horror of Kony’s crimes, what kills more children – the LRA, or malaria? Those seeking to do the most good with their money should look very carefully at the efficiency, and the scope, of the charities to which they donate. Kony is a criminal warlord. He is still only a blip on the vast expanse of human suffering which we could and should address with our campaigns and our money.

We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The charity Invisible Children (of which Jason Russell is co-founder) is repairing the physical architectural damage of warfare, building schools, and educating Ugandan children. Kony is just one criminal leader, but if a beautifully constructed piece of cinema can inspire thousands of people to campaign against him, then we should let that set a precedent. Kony, at the top of that list compiled by the International Criminal Court, represents Step One on a list of perpetrators of injustice.

And the video touches on some poignant and crucial issues. Jason Russell says “If my son were kidnapped and forced to kill, it would be all over the news. So we are making Kony world news.”  That is the right issue to be pushing. People are amazingly ignorant about the world, and anything that raises awareness is the right place to start. It’s easy watching American TV to wonder whether Americans know that the United States is not the universe.  Brits are also culpable. Our lives are easy. For us, university tuition fees are an outrage, the Tory Party is “the Nasty Party”, and it is newsworthy that Kellogs has been “slammed” for the sugar content of its cereals. We don’t bother thanking God or fate or the accident of our births that our children don’t live in fear of being abducted or killed. “Kony 2012” puts a little perspective on life.

The video is propaganda. Of course it is. It’s not an academic paper on the complexities of the issues which leaves its readers to draw their own conclusions. It’s a moralizing polemic, complete with swelling inspirational music and slow-motion shots of people in “Kony 2012” t-shirts punching the air. But if it was an academic paper, no-one would read it. It takes propaganda to make people notice at all.

One last thing. This meme –

…is a joke about a very real problem. But if watching a 30-minute video makes otherwise-ignorant people protest in the street against a man who makes children mutilate each other, than that video is a cornerstone of a campaign for a good cause. If only highly-informed experts were allowed to campaign, it wouldn’t be a campaign. And, more crucially, if watching that video makes otherwise-ignorant people begin researching how to tackle the wider issues, then that is definitely a step in the right direction.

Sarah Gashi