Cost-benefiting the “Stop Kony” campaign’s moral panic

Staff Editorial

Emma Waitzman/The Phoenix

If you didn’t know who Joseph Kony was about a week ago, you most likely do now. The Ugandan warlord has come to be the most wanted man in the world thanks to a recent documentary exposing the vile acts he’s committed.

The documentary, “Kony 2012,” was created by the U.S.-based NGO Invisible Children and went viral within 24 hours of its debut, prompting international outrage and an upwelling of support for Kony’s capture (the rebel leader had indeed been on the International Criminal Court’s “most wanted” list since 2005). Receiving more than 78 million views (and counting) on YouTube since its release early last week, it has also proved itself to be the vessel of a divisive issue across several spheres.

In his video, Invisible Children’s co-founder and filmmaker Jason Russells details atrocities not unfamiliar to those who are well-acquainted with Uganda’s social and political climate: the armed Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its leader, Joseph Kony, are engaged in a 26-year long campaign of brutality in a failed bid to overthrow the Ugandan government, its leader, Yoweri Museveni, and his National Resistance Army (NRA).

With a potent mix of mythical claims, charisma and unconscionable violence, Kony, the short film alleges, forcibly recruits child soldiers and has taken on the sex trafficking of young girls. So irreconcilably spectacular, the videos juxtaposes horrific tales of slaughter and mutilation alongside interviews with Ugandan politicians and an imposing soundtrack. It even sees Russell’s repeated use of his own young son, Gavin, an affected theatrical device all its own. It concludes with a plea to join the campaign to “make Kony famous,” to “raise support for his arrest.”

And while it’s ostensibly drummed up the whole of the cyberverse in ardent conversation (Twitter, Facebook and a myriad other blogs and social media websites), that conversation has been lacerated time and time again in the face of equally ardent criticism. Accusations of Invisible Children’s financial opaqueness, commercializing of a decades-old conflict, ignorance of the larger, deep-seated problems facing Uganda and other African countries and cashing in on a wave of social justice not justified by any realistic conception of a solution have all surfaced in light of the “Stop Kony” fervor.

To these criticisms, Invisible Children has responded thoroughly, insisting that this isn’t just a “slacktivist” campaign, that it wants to invest “one, in local leadership, [and] two, in a long-term development program.” Critics retort that those things aren’t accomplished by watching a thirty-minute propaganda video, subsequently posting it to Facebook accompanied by a pithy echo of moral indignation and wearing a bracelet engraved with “KONY 2012.” This sort of passive participation by “spreading the word” and lobbying influential figures, it’s claimed, does nothing to reverse the systematic terrorism inflicted by both the LRA and the NRA, or to enact a comprehensive humanitarian mission in Uganda.

Supporters maintain, though, that this isn’t just another bandwagon to hop on. That awareness of what’s going on is a crucial first step. That the shock and anger incited by the film is both necessary and useful in taking down Kony and eventually setting a precedent for international justice. Those who are skeptical of these nascent pseudo-activists still contend that Kony 2012 is just another ephemeral PR campaign, colorful and appealing, but ultimately unable to influence US foreign policy in a positive direction. Such skeptics further argue that any such American-led intervention would be due to strategic gains (particularly the establishment of more military basis in Africa to rival China’s presence in the region), and not purely humanitarian in nature. It would be akin to Bush’s Iraq War — ladled in the thick rhetoric of Western liberalism but carried out in the unfaltering spirit of American imperialism. It would be misplaced moralism at its finest.

“Our goal is to change the conversation of our culture and get people to ask ‘who is Joseph Kony?’” Russell narrates near the end of the video. Invisible Children’s certainly accomplished that goal with the pulsing grit of Kony 2012. What remains to be seen, though, is whether asking that one simple question — ‘who is Joseph Kony?’ — is enough to seriously alter the entrenched dynamics of both American foreign policy and Africa’s enduring war — a war, it should be remembered, not started nor led by just one man. A war attributable just as much to corrupt politics as it is to the modern plight of the developing world.

Yet the potential for change is there. When one shoves the video and the whole of the campaign at large under the cost-benefit microscope, the fledgling interest in African conflict by way of appeal to our standard affront to child combatants and sex slavery might be an effective catalyst for a mass movement. That movement however, must go beyond merely swelling the “white man’s burden.” Its true aim should be the obligation of all humanity to be involved, to be activists in the most active way possible.

Such an obligation reaches far beyond the complacency of moral panic. It stretches to effort, real and realistic effort that puts into action the inactivity of digitized words. It begins with a genuinely conscientious understanding and progressive learning about the conflict in northern Uganda and central Africa, and develops into our recognition of how we, as part of a generally privileged society, may be contributing to these ravaged regions — our place in the world as consumers and supporters of military intervention in the name of humanity.

“Kony 2012” is only the modest spark for such a considerable project.

To learn more and voice your own opinion, attend Swat STAND’s campus-wide discussion on the KONY2012 campaign today in Kohlberg 115 from 4:30-6PM.

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