Nope, he’s not dead.
Almost two years after the release of Jason Russell and Invisible Children’s “KONY 2012” video that made the Ugandan warlord a household name, Joseph Kony has reportedly reentered negotiations with the increasingly unstable Central African Republic. Kony’s stubborn refusal to die in spite of the 99 million views Invisible Children’s call to action amassed has left many surprised and confused.
KONY 2012 was a truly incredible phenomenon, spreading across continents and topping social media trends in a matter of days. But unlike the Harlem Shake, the death of enthusiasm for KONY 2012 did not signal the discontinuation of practices against which the campaign fought. While the movement (perhaps ironic given the sedentary nature of most supporters) began in earnest, the understanding it produced and attention it procured were so shallow that congratulatory pats-on-the-back preceded any actual accomplishment.
Jason “Radical” Russell’s grand finale in the pop culture spotlight—bluntly punctuated in a fury of public self-aggrandisement—was a fitting, even poetic end to what could be described as the most notable demonstration of the Western public’s own masturbatory exhibition of self importance to date.
For those who may have missed it, or more likely, for those who have forgotten about it, KONY 2012 tells the story of an evil African leader responsible for the capture of 30,000 children for use in his personal crusade against the Ugandan government. Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army have rendered life unlivable for the Ugandan youth. “Who are you to not end a war,” the narrator poignantly asks.
But in the clamour to answer that question with a resounding, “we are people who care,” we missed the most crucial question lying at the heart of the entire movement: What war?
The video, so rife with oversimplification and paternalistic ignorance that it could have alternatively been titled “Rudyard Kipling’s Wet Dream,” leaves viewers with few details on the crisis outside of the antagonist’s name. Between the reenactments of children being snatched from their beds and montages of white kids running around in red t-shirts, KONY 2012 left us with a very simplistic picture: Joseph Kony has an army of brainwashed child soldiers in Northern Uganda that he continues to develop with no real end-game, and we can stop him by spreading word about his existence.
But at the time of the video’s release, as was immediately pointed out in a smattering of critical editorials across the Internet, not only did the LRA number in the hundreds at most, but that they hadn’t been present in Uganda since 2006. And while it is implied that the campaign to stop Kony was directed towards applying pressure on Western governments to take action, serious action had in fact already been taken on several occasions (the most notable instance being the failed 2008 “Operation Lightning Thunder,” by AFRICOM forces). The video also conspicuously lacks any mention of the atrocities carried out by the Ugandan or Sudanese governments against their own people, including the claims of the Ugandan military’s former use of child soldiers. Furthermore, in the absence of clear articulation around Invisible Children’s plan to stop Kony, it can be assumed that part of the plan was to flood the military of the semi-autocratic government with funds to be used to send its troops across borders, disturbing the already volatile Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic. It is also implied that the children of Uganda have gone completely unnoticed by the West, when several instances of celebrity-endorsed public outrage had occurred earlier in the decade, only to be forgotten again by the troublingly forgetful collective consciousness.
In spite of these factual disparities, however, the most glaring and unforgiveable offense perpetrated by KONY 2012 is the arrogant assumption that the West’s knowledge of Kony would bring about a result that decades of searching, years of military assistance, and several millions of dollars a month (provided by the US alone) had failed to secure.
And I think this strikes at the heart of the problem. There is an unspoken conviction that by pasting the man’s name on walls, t-shirts and Facebook statuses, we’re taking concrete steps towards stopping his reign of terror. But Joseph Kony is not some modern day Rumpelstiltskin, and he won’t materialise or disappear when you light a candle and whisper his name three times in front of a mirror.
So yes, it’s painfully easy to mock a self-proclaimed amalgamation of Oprah, Spielberg, and Bono for his company’s explosive yet under-thought campaign. What’s really laughable, though, is the ease with which people transformed from outraged armchair activists into sneering critics as the movement gradually dropped out of fashion.
Sure, Invisible Children made a misleading video that greatly exaggerated the threat posed by Kony, but at least they took action. Their campaign raised several millions of dollars that will (hopefully) be utilised to improve the standard of living for thousands of people who have suffered. All we did was ride the bandwagon, $30 action kits in hand, until it came time to jump ship with everyone else.
The Internet is a tool unmatched in the scope of its utility. It can instantly connect people on opposite ends of the earth and can disseminate information to millions with a single click. But although the Internet is transforming the way we live our lives and can certainly augment social networking for political purposes, it is foolish to treat it as a wholesale replacement for traditional modes of achieving change.
It is understandable how creating a petition on Whitehouse.gov can instill a sense of accomplishment; the feeling of action is there. But even on the off chance that the petition gains the necessary 100,000 “signatures” within the allotted 30 days, it’s worth little more than a brief explanation from a presidential aid as to why such a goal is “unachievable.” Similarly, regardless of how legitimately founded a protest may be, it’s useless until the protesters actually have some understanding of what it is they’re protesting. The spouting of hollow catchphrases and organising of glorified flash mobs through social media certainly creates the illusion of protest. Without critical thought surrounding the nature of grievances, however, you just end up with a mass of neck-bearded Guy Fawkes mask enthusiasts commanding peers to “#OCCUPY” their financial districts without knowing why.
Humans are naturally empathetic, and technology is making it easier than ever to discover causes deserving of our empathy. But we live in an age where instant gratification has become the norm. When our programmed desire for quick fixes is applied to real world problems, whose solutions could never be described as anything short of complex, we abandon any hope of ever being true agents of change. The video by Invisible Children opens with a shot of the words “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” But what this quote seems to miss is that an idea is only as effective as the actions it inspires. KONY 2012 marked a historical shift in the way grassroots political and social movements can take form, but let’s not allow it to mark an historical shift in the way they come to an end.