You should watch Kony 2012. It's about Joseph Kony, the leader of Central/North Africa's LRA, an army made up primarily of child soldiers who have been kidnapped from their families and forced to fight. It's about Jacob, a former Ugandan child soldier who was befriended by Invisible Children and rescued from his seemingly inevitable suicide. It's about Invisible Children, who is calling for a day of action on April 20, and to do "whatever it takes" for Kony to be out of power by the end of 2012.
It's a gorgeous piece of social media - a lot of whizzing camera effects and animated photos, a friendly voiceover and a cute little kid. Invisible Children has given us all a clear action plan: buy the Kony 2012 kit (it comes with stickers and posters!), and then take to the streets in April. By plastering Kony's name and face all over the world, leaders will be forced to realize that their people care about this issue, and be moved to rectify it. There are lots of shots of young people standing in solemn groups in front of American national landmarks, fists raised in solidarity. The music builds to a frenzy as those young people take to the streets, covering their faces with thuggish bandanas as they paper their cities with pre-made posters of Joseph Kony.
As I was watching it, I felt myself going through all the usual reactions to a beautifully made viral video - the story is moving, and the film's editing and effects are a golly-gee wonder - but when it was over, I had weirdly landed on anger. There were issues with the video.
For a movie ostensibly about Uganda and Ugandan people, there were surprisingly few speaking roles for actual Ugandans. I got the sense that Jacob, the friend of the filmmakers who featured prominently, was supposed to represent the experience of all the child soldiers - not exactly the best way to honour these people's stories. There was also a brief moment, a throwaway shot, of a quick pan up the hierarchy of the LRA to the top, where Kony's face had been plastered. Getting rid of Kony, Invisible Children promise, will erase the potential for the LRA to continue their horrific campaigns. But every army has its platoon leaders, its lieutenants, and who's to say that once Joseph Kony has been removed, some other despot won't move in? It's not like assassinating the President dissolves the country of America - there are structures in place to keep power and rules. The LRA has been in operation since the mid-1980s, and I'm sure at some point, a contingency plan has been prepared.
But Kony 2012 isn't really about Kony - it's about the movement Invisible Children has created to stop him. The video is only the first step: newly mobilized viewers are then encouraged to log on to Invisible children's website and purchase an action kit. Shoppers get all the tools they need to "Cover the Night:" a teeshirt, a consciousness-raising bracelet, stickers, posters, a button, and an Action Guide. It costs thirty dollars, and you can buy a larger kit for $225. In the video, riot-cop worthy crowds of people - most of whom are under thirty - stand in their matching anti-Kony tees; quick cut to a shot of them taking to the streets and plastering their cities with posters and stickers.
It's a nice in for folks who have never participated in a social movement before, but problematically, it also creates the impression that there's one "real" way to create activism around this issue. There are plenty of other organizations working in that part of the world, on overlapping issues, and they've been shuffled aside because they lack the ability to harness social media in a meaningful way. Combined with the video's slick production values, the action kit feels like Invisible Children is marketing Kony the same way Apple markets iPads.
It reminds me of Kickstarter: donate money to a start-up, and you get something back - usually in the form of a teeshirt or free issue of whatever magazine you're helping to launch, but if you donate more, you can be rewarded with dinners at fancy restaurants, private tours, and all kinds of perks. Both Kony 2012 and Kickstarter have value and mean a lot to the people who participate, but it leaves me feeling like we've become a generation of people who demand a return on our activism investment. We can't just give money to a good cause - we need a button that flaunts our commitment. We need to be seen giving and participating, or it doesn't count.
There's since been a ton of backlash to Kony 2012 and Invisible Children. Other criticisms have erupted - IC has a dubious financial record, these kids were never invisible to their communities, is it noble to spend over a million dollar of an 8-million dollar operating budget on travel, partnering with the Ugandan army to stop Kony has its own human rights questions, so on, into infinity.
I was chatting with my boss the other day, and she said, "Well, isn't doing something better than nothing?" Kony is indisputably a Bad Guy. Ousting shitty people from their positions of power takes resources and money, and spreading the word about that need is part of the process. But do we contribute to organizations who want to make the issues about us and how we feel? Feeling good - proud, even - about the ways we contribute to the world around us is a natural desire, but activism isn't a single-file line-up to the checkout.