“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.”
STRAIN OF FAME: Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and director of the "Kony 2012" documentary, suffered a nervous breakdown after the video went viral. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Newscom)
If you haven’t already seen it, San Diego-based not-for-profit organization advocacy group Invisible Children recently launched a video campaign called KONY 2012, designed to raise public awareness and attention toward their goal of seeing U.S. forces capture abductor and child-soldier-exploitationist Joseph Kony .
Now that the KONY 2012 video has already reached over 80 million views in a really short time, the campaign has entered the national conversation. As such, there is a commonwealth of informed voices coming out of the woodwork to shoot it down offer informed rebuttals to their strategy. (Hereareseveralsuchexamples, including two righthere on UrbanFaith.)
Most of these criticisms are, rightfully, engaging the biggest questions concerning the issues of what is best for Uganda, the limits of awareness and advocacy work, and the role of NGOs in Central Africa in general, and how these interact with the larger economic and foreign policy interests of the U.S. government. These are some of the most important issues surrounding the KONY 2012 campaign, and should be debated fiercely.
But I have a much more fundamental issue with the campaign, and it’s with the word “famous.”
Taken from the YouTube page, here is IC’s own description of the KONY 2012 campaign:
KONY 2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.
Can you see the inherent contradiction there?
Fame can’t be tamed
Now, more than ever, perception is reality. And in today’s hyper-saturated world of media, I’m not sure how possible it is to make Joseph Kony famous without inadvertently celebrating him. When in the history of public activism have people ever rallied around a personified symbol of opposition without raising the profile of that person?
After all, there’s a reason why, if we go back to the obscenity controversies surrounding 2 Live Crew in the early ‘90s, Luke fans and anti-censorship activists never went around wearing T-shirts or putting posters with the images of former attorney and censorship zealot Jack Thompson. They never wanted to give him any more exposure than necessary. (And believe me, if there’s anything Jack Thompson wanted, it was more exposure.)
So even if, after painstaking research and deliberation, one were to decide that another military intervention to remove Joseph Kony would be in everyone’s best interests, it’s still a huge leap in logic to conclude that the best way to make that happen is by affixing posters and stickers to public structures with his name and/or image on them.
Because even if we ignore the potential social costs of such civil disobedience (going in at night and blanketing our cities with propaganda could be viewed as overly aggressive or even illegal depending on how and where you go about it), the question must be asked — is making Kony famous even a good idea?
Famous for being famous
It used to be that fame was desirable as a consequence of living a life of significance or achievement. You wanted to be famous for something. Curing cancer, winning the Super Bowl, writing the great American novel, et cetera. “Baby, remember my name,” right?
Over time it became clear that to be famous in the 21st century doesn’t require any particular skills or achievements. People like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have made whole careers out of being famous for being famous — in their cases, being born into famous families. But now, with the KONY 2012 campaign, what we’re seeing is the term “famous” being used in a totally opposite way, to be famous for something really bad.
If only there were other words in the English language that could express this idea — oh wait, there are. Words like “infamous” and “notorious” do the job quite well. To paraphrase a scene from a favorite Sports Night episode, there’s a big difference between famous and infamous. One’s famous, the other’s infamous. That’s why they have those words.
That’s why this whole “make Kony famous” thing doesn’t sit well with me.
Considering how much Twitter has been incorporated into today’s political process, part of me wonders if the biggest reason why the KONY 2012 went viral so fast was because the name “Kony” makes for a great Twitter hashtag. I know he’s a terrible man and has been brutalizing children for decades, but still. It’s no secret that they deliberately chose an election year for this campaign, because it should be the kind of thing that politicians across the aisle should be able to agree on.
But what happens after 2012, especially if he doesn’t get caught?
I suspect he’ll become the new Che Guevara — just another polarizing, countercultural figure whose actual life will become distorted in order to fit the dominant political or social agenda of the day.
And not to pull a Jesus Juke, but every time I see or hear “make KONY famous” I keep thinking about the Chris Tomlin tune “Famous One.” If Kony is our new standard for fame, then maybe Tomlin needs to record it again under the title, “Famous (For-All-The-Right-Reasons) One.”
Maybe that wouldn’t work on Twitter, but I’m a big guy — I could probably fit it on a XXL T-shirt.
Fame bites back
And just when it seemed this story couldn’t get any more controversial, news broke of the bizarre detaining and subsequent hospitalization of IC founder and filmmaker Jason Russell, who was reported to be wandering naked and yelling obscenities on a Los Angeles street. The latest reports say Russell is suffering from a brief reactive psychosis due to exhaustion and stress and that he’s expected to remain hospitalized for weeks. (I join others in offering up prayer for his recovery.)
In general, I’ve resisted the rather cynical argument that KONY 2012 is more about the filmmakers than the children for which they purport to be advocating. Because even though there is an air of White privilege about the whole thing, it’s undeniable that Invisible Children has been successful at bringing awareness of these complex issues to a generation of affluent teenagers who wouldn’t have known or cared otherwise. On balance, I consider that a good thing.
But given the public nature of this latest indiscretion, Jason Russell is flirting with this new oxymoronic definition of fame himself. And if he was only just an entertainer, you might just chalk it up to the axiom of there being no such thing as bad publicity. But that’s clearly not the case here. Even though Invisible Children is not an explicitly Christian organization, Russell has roots in the Christian establishment. So in the light of eternity, the stakes are a lot higher for how he conducts himself, and it’s clear that he has not been able to handle all of the pressure and attention. And despite Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey’s impassioned plea for folks to give his friend some space, I’m sure that privacy will be much harder to come by now that this has happened.
The good news for Jason Russell is that, whether through the buzz surrounding KONY 2012 or because of the TMZ coverage, he now has an even greater balance of attention currency — and after his recovery he gets to decide how to spend it. Hopefully, it will be used with an honesty and humility different from the slick, professional marketing that we’ve seen so far. Hopefully, we’ll witness an organization so humbled by circumstances that it’s willing to admit its missteps.
That, more than the viral video, would impress me greatly.
But if Invisible Children expects everyone to pretend that nothing has happened and go back to being inspired to stop Joseph Kony … well, it doesn’t understand how fame works these days.
VIRAL SENSATION: In less than a week, the Kony 2012 video campaign was viewed by more than 100 million people, including countless high school and college students.
Like most everyone today, I am wired, wireless, and connected. Like millions upon millions, I also was drawn to the Kony 2012 video. Produced by the San Diego-based human rights organization Invisible Children, the 30-minute documentary shines a light on the brutal crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony (especialy his use of child soldiers) and presents a compelling call for his capture. A week after its release, the video already has been viewed more than 100 million times.
Working on a college campus like Seattle Pacific University requires a certain level of social media capacity and commitment. I guess this is how I justify my constant connection to the hit, trend, and tweeting world. Even for the stodgiest of universities, social media “skillz” have become a type of tool of the trade. So when Kony 2012 showed up on the Facebook pages of some of my students as “the greatest story ever told,” I slowed down from my busy schedule and watched the video.
Yes, I did my part to keep the Kony video “viral,” but my interest transcended the obvious curiosity. In fact, the Ugandan and Central African story was one I personally knew well. Many of my students over several years studied the Lord’s Resistance Army and Uganda. They led group presentations noting the complexity of a 26-year war of organized tribal and religiously affiliated groups. We knew Kony was no longer in Uganda, possibly since 2010, and his army was massively smaller than reported. Furthermore, we also regularly send teams of students around the world. We monitor everything from national security issues to communicating and partnering with indigenous leaders. Seattle Pacific University’s John Perkins Center has also hosted Central African leaders who lead reconciliation ministries throughout the region. Combined with my own multiple travels to Africa over the last 12 years, the Kony video was enlightening and troubling, frustrating and affirming, doubtful and hopeful.
It took a few days but eventually I began to share my thoughts. My bias is present and obvious. I favor a faithful, missional response rooted squarely and firmly in biblical justice. My experience and knowledge of these issues may account for something, but they may also lead to a sort of defensiveness. I own that as well. Holding both bias in one hand and defensiveness in the other, struggle with me to reflect on this global phenomenon.
The Limits of Awareness
Creating awareness in response to atrocities hidden in alleys and brothels, tenements and executive offices is very important. Awareness can lead to the pursuit of further education and activism. Awareness can inspire and create hope in the unseen places of our world. To that end awareness means we rejoice with them that rejoice and mourn with them that mourn.
Awareness can be viral in that it can lead to advocacy and activism. But what happens when those creating awareness simplify the message for easy consumption and unashamedly play to our often insular and over-inflated worldview that we can save the world? You get 100 million hits.
You also get passion-filled and loosely educated constituents attempting to become activists. To that end, we can thank the filmmakers for poorly educating millions on a very complex issue. Maybe “poorly” is too strong of a word. How about lightly educating millions?
But it is here I am reminded of John Perkins’s many sermons on “over-evangelizing the world too lightly.” The same can be said in regards to over-discipling the world too lightly.
Some describe the Kony video as a new form of the TV infomercial, light on facts but heavy on hype. The product being marketed can literally do everything for $19.99 plus shipping and handling. Honestly, I have no idea what $30, a bracelet, a T-shirt, and millions of hits on YouTube produces. I am not sure anyone knows. This is new territory in many ways.
What I do know and fear is we run the risk of moving from true advocacy and activism, to what I heard on a recent news show labeled as “slacktivism.” I hope this word never makes it into Webster’s Dictionary, but we can easily assert a definition for this occasion.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE: Filmmaker Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and the director "Kony 2012," agrees with critics who have called the film oversimplified. "It was deliberately made that way," he says. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Newscom)
Slacktivism is feeling satisfied that one has contributed to ending injustice in the world because they have pressed the send button. This is in no way to diminish from the importance of giving of money to support a cause or to make light of informing people about a great injustice. And maybe for some people pressing the send button while sipping a latte is a good start. But can we all agree that it should not be the only missional proposition to millions of viewers? If you really have the platform and ability to tell a great story, please encourage us to do more than purchase a kit. If nothing else, we privileged people need that encouragement.
We need the type of encouragement Jesus provided both in word and in deed. The scripture that says “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” has made its way into my reflection time more than once this past week.
So maybe we should evaluate the integrity of the Kony 2012 video by its ability to inspire churches to build partnerships with ministry leaders in Uganda, send ministry teams to conferences to learn what God is doing in other parts of the world, and organize students across the nation to form prayer teams for Africa and American relationships. Or maybe the video should simply prompt us to connect with the Central African community in our neighborhood. At the very least, it should challenge us to do more than just send money.
Be aware, and be a giver. But also be educated. Be an advocate. Be an activist.
For 45 years, Ugandan leader Joseph Kony “has been killing and raping and maiming often with children as the targets.” This is how NPR leads into an interview about what it calls a “propaganda” video that, at last count, boasted more than 57 million views on YouTube.
Kony 2012 was produced by the non-profit group Invisible Children to bring awareness to the horrors Kony has orchestrated, but as quickly as the video went viral it drew an onslaught of criticism from journalists and other activists.
In his interview with NPR, freelance reporter Michael Wilkerson said Kony’s band of rebels, the Lord’s Resistance Army, had been forced out of Uganda by its military in 2006 and there hasn’t been a war in the region highlighted in the film since.
“Only 15 minutes into this 30-minute film is it mentioned that the LRA left northern Uganda, and they don’t mention the year, and it’s only a few second in the 30-minute video. So it’s easy to understand why people who are directed by celebrities or whatever might misunderstand this,” said Wilkerson.
“Every project and video the group now launches will be analyzed and criticized to the nth degree, and I can guarantee that enterprising reporters are excavating the group’s history looking for dirt,” said Shafer. Even so, he concluded that “like the 700 Club or the March of Dimes,” Invisible Children “is primarily a fundraising group” that cherishes today’s criticisms because “for every person who ever tuned out the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon because he couldn’t endure the host’s mawkishness, another five tuned in because they couldn’t miss it.”
Africans Aren’t Voiceless or Hopeless
The critiques that perhaps matter most are those coming from Africans.
Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire uploaded her own video to YouTube, in which she highlighted African successes in solving the continents’ problems, and said, “If you’re showing me as voiceless, hopeless, you should not be telling my story.” (View her commentary below.)
At AllAfrica.com, Angelo Izama said, “To call the campaign a misrepresentation is something of an understatement. While it draws attention to the fact that Kony, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, is still on the loose, its portrayal of his alleged crimes in Northern Uganda are from a bygone era. … Six years ago children in Gulu would have feared being forcibly conscripted into the LRA, but today the real invisible children are those suffering from ‘Nodding Disease’ – an incurable neurological disease that has baffled world scientists and attacks mainly children from the most war affected districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu.”
Message Is Exactly What We Need
The Chicago Sun-Times rounded up other critical Ugandan opinions, but also reported that a prosecutor of the International Criminal Court told The Associated Press that “the attention Invisible Children has raised is ‘incredible, exactly what we need’” and talked to a researcher on Uganda for Human Rights Watch who said the video “has helped draw attention to an issue the rights group has long been working on” and
A Savvy, Effective Use of Social Media
At The Wrap, Sharon Waxman said, “We are learning how the power of these technology-era tools can be world-changing in their speed and reach. … Invisible Children has been extremely savvy and organized in its use of social media, grabbing the power of the Internet by the tail to force its agenda onto the public stage.” She also said the video launch “targeted high-profile, highly social-networked celebrities to spread the word, and had a website that didn’t crash when their strategy worked.”
He Can’t Hide Now
Among those celebrities is the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. This morning, Warren linked to Invisible Children’s website in a tweet that said, “Help me end #Kony#LRA child cult army. I’ve been there fighting him since 92. He can’t hide now!”
I first caught wind of the story on Wednesday when Christianity Today’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey noted the flip-flopping responses of a couple Christian bloggers to the video.
Today Reuters reported that Uganda has said it will “catch Joseph Kony dead or alive.”
What do you think?
Is Kony 2012 propaganda, effective social action, or a bit of both?