AND IT COMES TO THIS: After a long, acrimonious presidential campaign, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, American voters will decide whether Barack Obama earned another four years in the White House, or whether Mitt Romney gets a chance to lead the nation. (Photo: Newscom)
During a seemingly endless 2012 election season, at times we’ve felt like the “Bronco Bama” girl in this viral video. When will it end? Presumably, on Tuesday — we hope.
Until then, we’ll continue to endure the attack ads, the conflicting polls, and the toxic bickering in the social media realm. According to various surveys, this year’s electorate is one of the most polarized in years. This forum will not solve that problem, but we thought we’d invite a few UrbanFaith contributors to share their perspectives on what to expect if President Obama is re-elected, as well as what to expect if Mitt Romney should win the presidency. Check out their opinions (which, we should say, belong to them and not necessarily UrbanFaith), then take a moment to give us your response in the comments section below.
Short Memories, Shorter Patience
By William Pannell
Ah, another opportunity to play at being sagacious. If Mr. Obama is re-elected, I would expect that he will face another four years of deadlock on key issues. Since Congress seems stuck on ideology and not the good of the people, I would expect the Republican Party, now in the firm grip of Tea Party ideologues, will continue to play games all the while having no real alternatives to offer in place of the ones they oppose. And of course, Obama will be a lame duck President in the last two years anyhow, so there goes the neighborhood.
I suspect that Mr. Romney will be elected. White, working-class Americans have very short memories. They have already forgotten that it was Romney’s party that got the country in the mess it is in. And we Americans are terribly short on patience, so if the poor man couldn’t solve real problems (which by their nature are now global problems) in four years, throw him out. Mercy, I hope I’m wrong. But I also suspect that white Americans, or many of them, have never felt comfortable with a black man in the White House. They, of course, are not racists; they are merely pro-white and Romney is all that. By the way, I voted for Mr. Romney’s father when he was governor of Michigan. He probably would have made a good President.
President Obama’s re-election will renew the now undercurrent spirit of genuine concern for the poor. The civic emphasis will shift from the middle-class to reveal the President’s implicit and visceral aim to center the country’s energies and resources toward those in America who need help the most. We will see a resurgence of the middle-class, not as an end in itself, but as the primary avenue toward uplifting the masses of the country’s poor. The President will challenge the rich and the middle-class to open their hearts to make room for those people who find themselves locked out, left behind, and languishing in economic and social sectors. President Obama’s re-election will lift the spirit of the poor across the country. They will greatly benefit from the good news of his return to the leadership of the country and the free world, and from the significant changes that his policies engender for the lives of millions across a wide socio-economic spectrum.
An election of Mitt Romney to the nation’s highest elected office will cause a rise in social unrest in urban areas across the country, and growing acts of terrorism aimed at the U.S. in the world. Simply, millions will release their pent-up anger and frustrations. Many disillusioned souls will act-out their sense of hopelessness, and their angst against a prejudiced and racist America who once again failed to do the moral and political right thing. African Americans will entrench and push back in their activism. A refreshing commitment of the masses to the historic struggles of African-descended people will refocus on the self-determination and empowerment of black people and communities. In reaction to the military-type solutions of Romney for resolving national conflicts on the world front, a radical Islam will thrust itself to the forefront and make as many terror-laden statements as possible. World de-stabilization will grow.
Finally, whomever the country elects as President, the current Christian theological debate will focus on the true meaning or workability of what is genuine “Evangelicalism.” The 2012 electoral politics will thrust into the forefront of the discussion those who are “Evangelicals” of African-descent. The historical and cultural context of believers and churches in the black experience — in both the U.S. and the African Diaspora — will give rise to the most potent definition of historic and genuinely contextualized Christ-centered orthodox or “Evangelical” faith, and to true expressions of its social, economic, and political way of life. Jesus the Gospelizer — the bearer of Good News for the poor — will center this authentic definition. Electoral politics in the U.S. will be the impetus for Black Evangelicalism to come of age and offer leadership in these theologically troubling times.
Rev. Dr. Walter A. McCray is a Chicago-based writer, a leader in Black evangelicalism, and president of the National Black Evangelical Association. His latest book is Pro-Black, Pro-Christ, Pro-Cross: African-descended Evangelical Identity (Black Light Fellowship, 2012). He defines Black Evangelical identity along cultural and theological lines. His statement above reflects his personal views.
Education Is the Key
By Valerie Elverton Dixon
I believe that President Obama will be re-elected. I believe that he will follow through on his plan to strengthen public education and to open doors of opportunity for more people to have access to higher education and/or job training. When I was a girl, I was taught: “Education is the key.” In my life, that has proved to be true.
Education is the key, not only to a good job, but also to self-knowledge. Education is the key to human moral evolution and to human freedom. I think that President Obama will continue to encourage schools to experiment with curriculum, different pedagogical models and teacher and parental training that will inspire students to love learning. Once students understand that the ultimate subject of their education is their own lives, their own questions, their own striving to identify and to perfect the unique gift they have to give to the world, they will have a made up mind to study. And nothing is more powerful in any field of endeavor than a made up mind.
I expect President Obama to keep his promise to rebuild America. He has said that he will use half the savings from the wars we are no longer fighting to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, including building schools. I hope that he will expand this to enter into public/ private partnerships to rebuild the waste cities, towns and villages in America. This can provide jobs and be the opportunity to exercise an ethics of aesthetics that will make communities beautiful.
If Mitt Romney is elected president, it is hard to know exactly what he will do since he is very often on all sides of all issues. However, I think we can count on him to appoint right-wing Supreme Court justices, to put public education on a glide-path to privatization, and cut taxes for the rich, leaving nothing for community revitalization.
So, I am hopeful that President Obama will win because, in my opinion, this will be the best thing for the nation and for the world.
Valerie Elverton Dixon, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and founder of JustPeaceTheory.com. She is a regular contributor to God’s Politics, The Washington Post On Faith, and Tikkun Daily. Her forthcoming book is Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love and the Public Conversation.
The Rise of Jim Crow Jr.
By Randy Woodley
Since the election of President Barack Obama, we have seen a new wave of racism rise across our nation. The kind of racism expressed over the past four years is different than the more overt, socialized Jim Crow era racism. Today, it is unpopular to be called a racist so racism has become more polite, being couched in political jargon, “dog whistles,” voter suppression and public policy aimed at the least of these in society. Meet Jim Crow Jr. The most overt hatred over the past four years has been directed at President Obama himself. Regardless of which candidate is elected, what I think we can clearly see is that there is a desire on the part of some, to “go back,” ushering in another era of racism that could become socialized and institutionalized in America. Jim Crow Jr. is knocking on America’s door.
An election favoring Mitt Romney is inextricably intertwined in this rising form of racism. I believe a Romney presidency will open wide the door to a new form of Jim Crow directed at non-White citizens of the United States. Regardless of whether or not Governor Romney were to return to a more moderate form of politics, or even disassociates himself with the radical right he aligned himself with to get this far, he is their candidate. They have used him as much as he used them. With the re-election of President Obama we do not know whether or not Jim Crow Jr. will subside but it is likely, especially if there is more democratic control in the House and Senate, that it will take the “wind out of the sails” of socialized racism. Obama is one of the most intelligent Presidents in American history. His story is truly an American story in which all Americans should take pride. If the racist rhetoric and proposed policies should subside during the President’s second term, perhaps more Americans will be able to see him in a better light. There will always be racist among us, but in the past four years they have captured many who would not normally fall in their line. If Obama is elected, perhaps more of those White Americans who have been swept away in the “flurry” will be able to claim President Obama as their President
Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley is Distinguished Associate Professor of Faith and Culture, and Director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at George Fox Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee and author of the new book Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Eerdmans). Randy blogs at The Huffington Post, Ethnic Space and Faith, Emergent Village Voice and Sojourners.
Our Politics Are Soulless
By Larycia A. Hawkins
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can expect the worst angels of our nature if Barack Obama reclaims the White House. And rather ruefully, I must inform you that you can expect a similar result if Mitt Romney wins. Presidential politics are a soulless affair.
Here’s what you can expect if you believe President Obama’s experiences of four years past can usher in “an economy built to last”:You should brace yourself for intensified partisan rancor as Congress doubles down on its intransigence given the loss of the presidency in a closely divided race where voter nullification may very well be the feeling people are left with if the popular vote winner in the national election loses in the electoral college. The debt ceiling debate will seem like a piece of cake compared to the looming deficit reduction debate in the next Congress. The middle class Obama purports to champion will be lost in the vitriolic mayhem of civilized debate.
You should prepare yourself for more insidious symbolic racism in the form of racialized rhetoric and images, including, but not limited to “shuck and jive” metaphors of the Commander in Chief, monkey cartoons and evolutionary caricatures of the obviously black President, an unambiguous noose lynching the hope and change President of a country where lynching signified that citizenship and hope and democracy were reserved for whites only, and the racialization of ostensibly race-neutral policies via claims that healthcare is merely reparations from the welfare president.
Here’s what you can expect if you believe Mitt Romney’s the man to “restore America” with his five-point plan:You should reread 1984 to refresh your memory as to the meaning of doublespeak, since the (presumptive) Democratic minority in Congress will strenuously and unanimously oppose all the policies of the newly minted Presidential agenda — even those policies that they agree with — in the name of representation and e pluribus unum. Never mind that a few short years ago, they castigated Republicans for denying a recently enthroned President Obama the same presidential courtesy.
You should prepare yourself for religious wars. While the first freedom of the Bill of Rights is religious freedom — the free exercise clause enabling individuals to choose religion and the establishment clause barring the state from imposition of an official religion, there will be a resurgence of religious intolerance surrounding Romney’s Mormonism. If you think that Romney’s nomination as the Republican candidate for the general election signifies that we are past all that Mormon-bashing, think again. Just as Obama has been characterized by the right as Muslim and foreign-born, expect the left to frame Romney in a similarly disdainful fashion on the basis of his faith. One need only recall recent caricatures of the Christian Right as seeking to engender an American theocracy or the prevalence of media stereotypes which wrongfully equate evangelicals with fundamentalists and which equate both evangelicals and fundamentalists with what are often depicted as solipsist and reactionary cultural practices — homeschooling and having thousands of children. Musicals, movies, and musicians that ostensibly normalize Mormons must be held in tandem with reality shows that portray Mormon men as misogynists and polygamists and Mormon women as oppressed and helpless. Religious intolerance will rear its ugly head if Mitt is the man.
Why, you may ask, is a political science professor avoiding a discussion of the issues that will emerge under an Obama or Romney regime? For one simple reason — the soulless politics of our day incentivizes hateful race baiting and religious bashing rather than substantive policymaking. Yes, bills do get passed under divided government — even landmark policies like the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. But partisan rancor persists amid a seemingly soulless brood of politicians who, on the surface, have more in common than in difference. Rancor proliferates and policymaking is a casualty of the political battle.
While I regrettably expect little of the political context to change come January 2013, I submit that knowing is half the battle. To be shrewd as snakes, we should expect more of the same old politics. To be innocent as doves, we should both demand and expect change from politicians and pundits, especially those who claim to be cross-bearers. Rather than engaging in soulless rhetoric and tasteless tactics, rather than applauding and patronizing the ideologues and elites who propagate misinformation about Mormons and make racist remarks about the first black President, we should demand enemy-loving politics that produces justice-laden policies.
If soulless politics continues, you should look in the mirror. If substantive politics fail to protect the weak and vulnerable, the rocks will cry out.
Dr. Larycia A. Hawkins is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College. She is a co-editor of the book Religion and American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Her research includes projects exploring black theology and its relationship to political rhetoric and black political agendas, like those of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP. Prior to academia, she worked in state government administering federal programs, including the Social Security Disability program and the Community Development Block Grant.
The Church Must Step Up
By Wil LaVeist
If President Obama is re-elected, but the split Congress (Republicans controlling the House, Democrats controlling the Senate) remains, we can count on more of the same gridlock. Republicans will focus on winning seats in the 2014 mid-term election and holding out to win the presidency in 2016. Democrats will do the same. If Mitt Romney wins, but has a split Congress, he’ll face a similar challenge for similar reasons. If either winner gets a Congress that is on their side, they will have a better chance of pushing their agendas. But wait — “the filibuster” looms. Only a drastic threat (war, economic collapse, etc.) would likely shake either party to compromise.
Either way, churches in predominantly black communities should step into the moral gap to inspire people to pursue righteousness, fairness and grace towards others in their own lives — to get their own houses in moral order. We should spark a “moral civic revival” — rallying people to shine their lights on the deepening tragic immoral disparities (health, economics, housing, education, incarceration rates) that exist in predominantly black communities across the nation. Leading by example with solutions, we should urge fellow Christians and Americans of all persuasions to see these growing disparities (rooted in the sin or racism) as a national crisis that endangers all of us. We should demand accountability from elected officials, regardless of party affiliation. Perhaps in this new climate, more public servants will emerge in the spirit of Joseph — willing to serve not their own narrow self-interests, but all of the nation’s people regardless of race, ethnicity or faith. We know the God who lives in us maintains control no matter who lives in the White House. We must act on what we know.
If you’ve never seen the smash viral hit video “Gangnam Style,” and you missed the recent TV appearances by Korean pop star PSY, let me describe it for you.
Take the silliness of Monty Python, the materialist accoutrements (and shiny suits) from P. Diddy, and the outlandish dance moves of MC Hammer, filter it through the Korean pop oeuvre, then multiply exponentially through internet memes… you know what, I can’t do it.
Just stop and watch it already.
(DISCLAIMER — it’s pretty tame overall, but still somewhat uncouth. The chorus says, “hey sexy lady!” and features shots of Korean female yoga-clad derriere. And there’s a random dude with a cowboy hat doing pelvic thrusts in an elevator. It’s a little insane.)
VIRAL SENSATION: South Korean pop star PSY has set off a worldwide craze with the music, dance, and humor of his “Gangnam Style” video, which has received more than 230 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Wikipedia)
In a recent interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, PSY explains the meaning of the song, and came off like a music veteran should – calm, self-assured, and articulate. But there’s no way he could’ve known how far it would go. More than 230 million YouTube views later, the song’s signature phrase, “Oppan Gangnam Style,” has joined the likes of “ayyy Macarena” and “u can’t touch this” as iconic lyrics to dance crazes that people find inexplicably irresistible. (Even SNL couldn’t resist.)
Naturally, it’s already attracted plenty of imitation. And since there are evangelical Christians who love to imitate (seriously, 50 Shades of Grace?), let this post be a public service announcement:
To all the church creative teams out there considering doing a parody of “Gangnam Style,” please don’t. Without a sizable Korean presence in your production, it could very easily come off as racially insensitive, corny, or just in generally poor taste (the Deadly Viper controversy comes to mind).
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate it.
So here are five lessons about creative ministry we can learn from the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon:
1. Top-shelf entertainment is inherently cross-cultural. No longer is something limited in scope to boundaries of nationality, race, or even language. As a matter of fact, the best films and literature freely borrow and interpret from a variety of styles and cultures. Music is no different. Just as Americans have embraced the Japanese word and concept of “karaoke,” so too have plenty of Koreans adopted mannerisms from American pop culture, including hip-hop. And there are plenty of really good Asian emcees, including several who are Christ followers, like Jin (formerly of Ruff Ryders), and Korean-born Brooklynite HeeSun Lee.
This truth is pretty self-evident, however many creative Christians fall on either extreme of cultural myopia (only being interested in your own culture) or cultural appropriation (taking elements of the culture in an ignorant or disrespectful manner). Believers wanting their work to engage with their broader community should take this to heart. We can’t run away from other cultures, and we can’t be irresponsible with our cultural engagement.
2. Today’s pop culture is dominated by visuals. “Gangnam Style” is a perfect example of this. Without the video, the song, catchy as it is, would not be the juggernaut that it is. This is why, as an artist or a band, you can’t just have a certain sound, you’ve also got to have a certain look to go with it. This is also one of the reasons why church creative teams are beginning to invest more time and energy into set design, because the ambiance makes a difference.
While I’m on this topic …
3. Production values matter. I can’t say this enough. Many YouTube videos by Christians have clever ideas and funny concepts, but they’re marred by poor lighting and bad editing. A large part of the reason why “Gangnam Style” is popular is because it looks fantastic. PSY and his crew went to a lot of effort with the various outfits, locales, etc.
Speaking of which …
4. Audiences appreciate commitment. What sets this video apart from the millions of others like it is that it’s really funny. Improv coaches believe one of the keys to comedy is commitment. PSY didn’t just do a few silly things and call it a day. He went all out. Rapping in a tuxedo while confetti gets in his mouth. Or in a public bath (complete with uncomfortable elderly onlooker). PSY is not necessarily the most attractive, physically fit guy out there, but he’s likable in this video because of the lengths he’s willing to go to deliver his message. And because of that, many people received it.
Which brings me to …
5. Great songs unify people. I was reminded by this awhile back when Michael Jackson passed away. One of the downsides of this era we live in, with the proliferation of DIY pop stars and a million different TV channels, is that audiences are so heavily segmented that there are very few things that a LOT of people enjoy together. Thus, viral videos like “Gangnam Style” are filling the void left by top 40 radio and TV shows like Soul Train, American Bandstand, and, if you want to back even further, The Ed Sullivan Show. “Gangnam Style” isn’t necessarily great music per se, but so much of the fun is that so many people love it. When my phone rings out “Gangnam Style” while I’m on the bus, I get knowing nods and grins. It’s like being in a secret club.
And that sense of belonging is, unfortunately, lost in some evangelical circles. There are direct economic incentives for worship leaders to write, record and sing their own music. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I think we all need to remember the power that music has to unify. Few things are more healing than being in an unfamiliar church environment and hearing a familiar song.
So let these principles occupy your mental space as you try to deal with having “Gangnam Style” stuck in your head, and enjoy this latest viral video hit.
Just make sure, if you have kids, that you use a little discretion. You don’t want to have to explain why your 4-year-old loves saying, “heyyyyy, sexy lady.”
POP CULTURE SENSATION: Korean pop star PSY performs his hit ‘Gangnam Style’ on NBC’s ‘Today Show’ at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. The video has surpassed 200 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Nancy Kaszerman/Newscom)
Perhaps you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about “Gangnam Style,” the latest YouTube video-gone-viral with more than 220 million views to date. If you are one of the few remaining inhabitants of the planet who haven’t seen the video, then let me bring you up to speed:
• The rap/song features South Korean pop star Park Jae-Sang, who goes by the name “Psy” (short for “Psycho”), accompanied by a cast of South Korean celebrities who most of us will not recognize, all dancing to a driving, ear-catching techno beat.
• Unless you are fluent in Korean, you can expect to understand none of the words in the video except “sexy lady” (and of course, “Gangnam style”. By the way, “Gangnam” is pronounced Gahng-nahm — not “gang” rhyming with “bang” as I continue to hear many American media types pronounce it.) You can find a translation of the full song all over the Internet; here is one example.
• “Gangnam” refers to the wealthiest, most opulent district in Seoul, South Korea; it’s an area that is only 15 square miles but holds nearly as much of the nation’s GDP as New York state (that’s state, not city) does in the U.S. You can look at this infographic for some more details.)
• No horses were harmed in the making of the video, but they do inspire the dance move that is taking the world by storm.
So is “Gangnam Style” worth watching? I have seen it a few times now, and I admit the tune is catchy and the video visually arresting (albeit occasionally bizarre; Psy breaks down the song scene-by-scene here). I’ve now also seen countless clips of Psy’s appearances on the gamut of American television shows, from Ellen to SNL to the MTV Video Music Awards, each time with Psy doing his signature horse trotting from the song, each time with an exuberant audience laughing and loving every moment.
Yet with each time I see the spectacle of Psy, I feel like my soul dies just a little bit.
Surely I must be overreacting! As Psy himself says, this is a historic moment for Koreans, who have never had the chance to see one of their own experience this level of pop-culture fame and acceptance here in the U.S. Shouldn’t I, a Korean-American, be thrilled for his success and full of ethnic pride for his popularity? Or at the very least, can’t I just enjoy the song alongside his hundreds of millions of fans and try to master his moves like Britney Spears?
The easy thing to do would be to watch the video, have a few laughs, share it like everyone else is doing, then move on with my life. What’s the harm? But I think about an exhortation that Professor Rosalie de Rosset gave to Moody Bible Institute students recently, and it stops me short:
“Having a philosophy of leisure means that, as a Christian, you have thought theologically and biblically about what you do with the time you call your own, with what you choose as entertainment, what you do when you relax or you may fall into the moral problem of drift, of a ‘group think’ mentality which merely follows a leaderless crowd, falling into triviality but even more the great emptiness that can haunt us as we drift along by chance or by circumstance.”
(From Dr. de Rosset’s chapel talk entitled “Mindful or Mindless: A Theology of Leisure and Technology,” September 12, 2012, Moody Bible Institute.)
I think that it’s the descent into “group think” that has bothered me most about the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon. Most people can only discern that Psy is singing about “sexy ladies” and managing to get a whole slew of them to dance like horses. Few have looked into the song enough to understand that it is actually poking fun at the lifestyle and excesses of über-upscale Gangnam.
I imagine my ambivalence about the video’s popularity might be akin to what I’ve heard some of my African American friends say about certain black rappers or shows on BET — that they are unintentionally propagating old stereotypes in the manner of a modern-day minstrel show. The sad irony is that the more popular “Gangnam Style” has become, the more its actual substance has gotten lost amidst the spectacle. What began as a song that contained an interesting social commentary has become a “minstrel show” for the majority masses.
Moreover, when music becomes popularized, it takes on a cultish quality: people become converted, they evangelize about the songs (made easy these days with all of our “liking” and “sharing” and “tweeting” of media), and the artist is turned into an idol. In his book Listen to This, music critic Alex Ross writes that “audiences have routinely adopted music as a sort of secular religion. … Musicians find themselves, in a strange way, both enshrined and enslaved.”
As I watch Psy move from talk show to talk show, repeating his now familiar shtick of “dress classy, dance cheesy,” as much as there is a part of me that is happy for him and his success (and I admit I feel some of that for him), there is an equal or larger part of me that feels sorry for him. He cannot go anywhere right now without doing the same show, over and over, because that is what the masses desire and require.
A MESSAGE BEHIND THE MADNESS: Those who understand Korean know that ‘Gangnam Style’ is actually poking fun at the lifestyle and excesses of an ultra-wealthy and exclusive district of Seoul, South Korea. But most viewers of the video are likely unaware of the song’s satirical intent.
The masses don’t care if the song has some deeper intent; they don’t want to know what all the foreign-sounding words even mean. They’re content with the novelty of it all (and with the horse dance). Likewise, the media doesn’t care about the opportunity the song gives to open a window — damning though it may be — into South Korean culture. They just use Psy to boost their ratings and then move on. Psy might be having the time of his life, but I wonder if there is any part of him that wishes he could just be free of all the madness.
So the popularity of “Gangnam Style” isn’t just a human-interest story of a K-pop (“Korean-pop”) star unexpectedly making it big. It also gives us clues about the world and culture in which we live. And we can either uncritically laugh alongside Psy’s legion of countless new fans, mimicking him with exuberance, or we can take a moment to ask ourselves if there is any downside to spending a few scant minutes of our lives watching the video, sharing it with our friends, and perpetuating the mass hysteria.
In that same chapel talk to the Moody students, Dr. de Rosset says, “What we do with our leisure can have more effect on us than what we do purposefully. What we do purely for pleasure may have the greatest and most insidious effect on us.” A YouTube video-gone-viral of a Korean pop star may just be a YouTube video-gone-viral of a Korean pop star. Or perhaps it is we who are infected, with an ailment that clouds our ability to even discern anymore what is worth watching and sharing, or what is not even worth watching at all.
“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.