“I am a rebel soul: dream evangelist…. I am going to help end the longest running war in Africa, get Joseph Kony arrested, and redefine international justice. Then I am going to direct a Hollywood musical.” — Jason “Radical” Russell, filmmaker and co-founder of Invisible Children Inc.
So here’s the thing: I don’t think Kony 2012 is a scam. By which I mean, I don’t think the organization that produced the film, Invisible Children, is anything other than what it says it is: a charity dedicated to building “awareness” of the plight of children in Eastern and Central Africa. There are many legitimate questions about how Invisible Children operates, but I’ll leave those questions to the experts. Here’s what I can say with confidence: of all the charities dedicated to this cause, Invisible Children is maybe the least deserving of our attention. Also, company co-founder Jason Russell is a complete tool, and I don’t think I or anyone else needs to feel guilty for saying so.
It’s not just that Russell betrays a blatantly naive approach to aid in his film, or that he’s perpetuating the stale belief that a bunch of mostly white college kids from the good ol’ U.S.of A. know what Uganda needs more than Ugandans themselves do. It’s his whole ready-for-my-close-up attitude: making himself and his adorable kid, Gavin Danger, the stars of his video. This is a guy who, in a recent interview, described his charitable organization as “a dream factory” and named Oprah, Steven Spielberg, and Bono as his heroes. (“If Oprah, Spielberg, and Bono had a baby, I would be that baby.”) Detect the pattern here? His influences have nothing to do with advocacy or charity — they’re all Hollywood. He may be interested in saving the little African children, but only if there are cameras around to show him doing it.
I know, I know: “At least he’s bringing awareness! What have you done for Africa lately?” My response to that line of thinking is: maybe the best thing we can do for Uganda right now is to question Russell’s motives and the goals of Kony 2012. Not only does the video misrepresent many of the facts (Joseph Kony is not, in fact, in Uganda; the Lord’s Resistance Army is not, in fact, 30,000 strong, but numbering in the hundreds; etc.), it’s siphoning attention away from the real issues. The truth is that Joseph Kony is now far from the most pressing problem facing Ugandan youth. As Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama points out on his blog, Kony has been out of the country for six years, and the major issues now are homelessness, child prostitution rings, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, and the appearance of a little-known neurological ailment called “Nodding Disease,” which afflicts children in war-torn countries and has claimed over 4,000 Ugandan children in the last few years.
In a Toronto Star piece about Invisible Children, a researcher named Ryan Butyniec who’s spent eight years working with the Acholi people of northern Uganda, says the organization doesn’t have a very good reputation on the ground. “They drive around in their white land cruisers, but they don’t actually do much out in the district,” he tells the Star. “And that’s lent to this idea that they’re not really there for the Acholi people.”
Furthermore, Russell is stealing the limelight (not to mention untold quantities of donations) from the many more reputable Ugandan charities that know what the issues are and have been doing good work there for decades. Who knows, maybe Invisible Children will find appropriate uses for the millions currently heading its way. But the manner in which people express their goals tells us a lot about how they’ll go about fulfilling those goals, and I think it’s fair to say Russell and Invisible Children don’t have the best set of priorities. Instead of meaningful assistance, there’ll be more inspiring films spreading the word about a phantom bogeyman. Once Kony is caught, it isn’t hard to imagine Invisible Children raising a “Mission Accomplished” banner ala George W. Bush, while back in Uganda the hardships continue.
Of course, you don’t really need to know any of this to be grossed-out by Kony 2012. You can be nauseated instantly, not just by the snake-oil-salesman slickness of the video, but by the basic concept of making Kony “famous.” I know the intention is simply to bring awareness of Kony’s misdeeds, but it’s just another form of glorification. It’s as if Russell and his millions of new-found fans see no difference between fame and infamy. In essence, Invisible Children is the charitable equivalent of American Idol, with Kony the soon-to-be-crowned winner. And like American Idol, there is no goal beyond fame. Invisible Children isn’t doing anything to get Kony captured; making him famous is its only goal, as if fame were a means to an end all by itself. And let’s be clear: creating “awareness” of Kony amongst bleeding-heart white folks is not a solution. The Ugandan military and a squadron of 100 U.S. soldiers are already in pursuit of him, and it wasn’t Invisible Children that made it happen.
Ultimately, what irks most about the video is its subtext, which is that the surest way to do good is to look at the world through a child’s eyes. Throughout Kony 2012, issues are deliberately reduced to a level that even little Gavin Danger (and, by extension, you and I) can understand. (“Who is that?” “Kony!” “And who is Kony?” “A bad man!”) The implication here is that doing good doesn’t require being smart. Americans, in particular, love this idea, but it’s a dangerous fallacy. The truth is that you can’t do good without being smart, too. If you embark on a goal without being aware of all the possible outcomes and side-effects — side-effects that might well be more damaging than the problem you set out to solve — you’re doing harm. And it’s painfully clear that Russell and Invisible Children aren’t thinking at all deeply about what they’re doing.
But here’s the rub: how much did you or I know about what’s going on in Uganda before Kony 2012? Probably not a lot. I know I didn’t. Does this justify Invisible Children’s approach? Many would say yes. Me, I see it as unjustifiable in and of itself, but justifiable as the first step in a two-part process. Years ago, a friend shared with me his theory about people: that there are “do-y” people and “think-y” people, and the world needs both equally. Russell is clearly one of those “do-y” people: he took the initiative to get this “movement,” no matter how misguided, off the ground, and for that he deserves credit. But his movement is a clueless shambles until the “think-y” people — the ones who might otherwise have sat on their hands — intervene to re-shape it. That’s what’s happening right now, with all the questioning media coverage of Invisible Children. So to all those people who say, “Stop criticizing Invisible Children,” I say it’s only by criticizing Invisible Children that it might one day become a charity worth our support. Already, Russell and his staff have posted a response to the many criticisms, saying, “If [there’s] something you disagree with, suggest an alternative to what we are doing and we will absolutely take heed.” I’m not convinced Invisible Children will ever be a worthy charity, but if it’s going to become one, this is how it’ll start.
Scott MacDonald writes for Toronto Standard.