Reconsidering Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 Campaign

(Update: Since originally writing this, I have also come across this: Ugandans are suspicious of the video as well. If you took the time to watch the 30 minute Kony 2012 video, you need to also watch this 6 minute response, which is a brilliant critique that makes many of the same points I attempted to make, but more eloquently and better informed.)

If you are on Facebook or Twitter, you probably have seen someone post the “Stop Kony 2012” video by now. At the time of writing this, the official video has almost 39 million views on YouTube, and #StopKony has been trending on Twitter for the past couple days. If you bothered to watch the video, you will see a well directed 30 minute video by a not-for-profit organization called Invisible Children demanding the arrest of a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony, who is accused of using children as soldiers and raping women. The directors requested everyone share the video on social media sites, in particular targeting celebrities and policy makers, and as a result the video has gone viral. While Joseph Kony deserves to be arrested, this organization and its method also deserves to be scrutinized.

Several other blogs have raised criticism of the Invisible Children organization, and I encourage you to read them (1, 2, 3, 4). Many point out the poor financial record of Invisible Children, which only provides 32% of its donations to the active cause. Certainly there are better not-for-profit organizations that one could donate to if they want to make a difference in central Africa. The video and its directors deserve further criticism though. I am not an expert on Uganda, Joseph Kony, or central Africa, but the fact that I felt just as comfortable talking about the situation before watching the video than I did after watching it raises serious concerns about its educational value. True, the video raised my awareness of Kony, and as an interested person, I will research it for myself, but the majority of viewers will not do the same, and therefore will learn little from the increased awareness of Kony.

What exactly does wearing “Kony 2012” bracelets and hanging up posters do to solve the conflict in central Africa? There is a difference between bringing awareness to the serious issues in Africa and making it a trendy movement that will fade away as soon as 2012 ends or Kony is captured. The film does not explore the roots of the problem or how large the problems are in Africa. Kony is not the only African warlord, and if he is captured the problem is not solved as another one will simply replace him. Yet the video presents it as a single issue that Kony needs to be stopped, and that is the solution to the problems in central Africa. It simplifies the problem to such an extent that the viewer learns little from it, and hence there is no educational value to it. Nothing is mentioned about the diversity of Uganda, which contains many different ethnic groups without any one being the majority. Nor is anything mentioned about Uganda’s colonial past, which continues to shape the country which only gained its independence fifty years ago. When a country consisting of such a diverse population gains its independence, wars between different ethnic groups are not uncommon. Invisible Children seems to ally itself with the Ugandan government against Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but the Ugandan government is not free from human rights abuses itself. The Ugandan government has considered passing an Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would punish those convicted of homosexual acts with the death penalty. Is this the government that an organization for peace should be allying itself with? Arresting Kony certainly will not improve the government’s human rights record. To understand the problems in Uganda or central Africa, one has to know at least a little about the background of the country or the region. In fact, the viewer learns more about the director and narrator’s five year old son, who is vital to the video, than anyone else, including Kony.

The fact that the narrator and his son play such a major role in the video romanticizes their role in an uncomfortable way reminiscent of the White Man’s Burden. I do not believe the narrator had bad intentions while making the video, and I believe he thinks his organization is truly helping, but the fact that he can create a video with his five year old son pointing to a picture of Kony as saying he’s “the bad guy” that needs to be stopped without recognizing the inherent cultural imperialism behind it demonstrates how clueless the organization is. The idea of the White Man’s Burden is that it is whites noble mission to uplift other “uncivilized” races. It makes me very uncomfortable to watch a video where a white narrator talks to and about his son and how he wants to raise him in a world where (black) children in other countries are not forced to serve in a military. His plan to make sure his son does not grow up in such a world is simply to make videos such as this one, have people share them, spread “Kony 2012” posters and bracelets, and press lawmakers to make sure Kony is arrested. White Americans need to realize that the best way to help solve a conflict in Africa is not to make it into movement using social media. If people want to become true activists and raise awareness of complex issues, they need to first fully understand them themselves (which I do not, nor do I claim to) and second they need to educate others so they understand the problems at hand.

Instead of a video about “Kony 2012” that ignores the complexities of the problem and focuses on his (white) five year old son, the narrator would be better suited to make a video about the war torn region and poverty in it that educates the viewer instead of telling the viewer it is our duty to rescue them.


Is the War Drum Beating “Bomb Iran”?

Israeli and American rhetoric condemning Iran’s nuclear ambitions is rising. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will not discount preemptively striking Iran, and he is currently seeking American support for an attack. With the exception of Ron Paul, who has no shot to win the Party’s nomination, the Republican presidential candidates are all competing to use the most hostile rhetoric possible against Iran, which is reminiscent of 2008 Republican candidate John McCain’s “Bomb Iran” Beach Boys song. But an attack seems much more likely this time around. Since the Republican candidates are too busy competing to be the least rational of the candidates, it’s difficult to imagine any of them gaining the support of more moderate Americans, and likely Obama will get reelected in the fall. Would Obama support an attack on Iran? I do not believe Obama would want to strike Iran, but the pressure of Israeli and Zionist lobbies may be overwhelming. Hopefully Obama and Americans can resist the drum beat for a war before it leads us into another disastrous foreign invasion of a Muslim nation.

If Iran did not feel the only way to protect itself from an American and / or Israeli invasion is by possessing nuclear weapons, perhaps it would not feel the need to acquire nuclear weapons. The rhetoric needs to be cooled down or else Israel and Iran will be staring into a new Cold War in the Middle East.

The Uphill Battle for Syria

The Syria problem has me deeply troubled. Assad’s crackdown on protests has gone beyond what Gaddafi did before NATO got involved, but — as I stated in a previous post — the two situations are significantly different, and unfortunately I do not hold much hope that Syrians can topple Assad. NATO will not get involved, especially not until Syrians manage to form their own rebel military force that has a legitimate shot at taking down Assad, and even then I doubt they will. I keep reading articles about how Libya should be a lesson for Syrians, urging Syrians to continue the protests, but these articles seem to overlook the differences between the two rebellions. While Syria’s demonstrations show true courage, they have failed to make any progress in taking down Assad. Assad has promised reforms, but Syrians do not take his word for it, and I would not either. I want to see the Syrian people successful with their desire to overthrow Assad, but they will have to do it on their own, and they face an uphill battle to do so.

Truthfully, while the U.S. would not admit it and has called for Assad to step down, the U.S. probably fears a revolution in Syria, especially a violent one. Syria, in the heart of the Middle East, shares borders with two countries vital to American interests: Iraq and Israel. Israel is obviously the U.S.’s biggest ally in the region, perhaps to a fault even, while the U.S. is enjoying relative stability in occupied Iraq after years of trying to end a Civil War and a scramble for power, which the U.S. caused. Who would have thought five years ago that in 2011 the Iraqi government would seem to be one of the more stable governments in the Middle East? It is somewhat surprising that the “Arab Spring” has not impacted Iraq more. But a revolution in Syria could dramatically alter Iraq because the U.S. has no idea what would replace the Syrian government, and some Syrians — who, perhaps as much as anyone, are taught that the U.S. is evil — certainly resent the American occupation in its neighbor to the east. A violent revolution in Syria would cause a scramble for power and a free for all on weapons, and one has to assume that some of those weapons would make it into Iraq and used against the U.S. there and used against Israel to Syria’s southwest. There was little concern that a revolution in Libya would destabilize its neighbors since two of its neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia, are both going through their own revolutions. The U.S. has to hope that if a revolution in Syria occurs, it happens more like it did in Egypt than Libya — for Assad to step down, hand power over to the military, and have the government implement gradual reforms.

Indeed, the future of Syria lays in the hands of its military; it was the military in Egypt that refused to slaughter citizens and then turned on Mubarak, and much of the military in Libya defected and joined the rebel side, which led to the Civil War. Syria’s military has not seen large defections yet and they have cooperated with Assad. The Syrian military must realize that its role is to protect the Syrian people and not to act as the personal thugs to protect Assad from the Syrian people. Disturbing images, videos, and stories of Assad’s thugs committing atrocities against civilians continue to pour out of Syria, and the Syrian people continue to courageously protest, but the only way things will change is if the Syrian military finally decides it has had enough of murdering innocent people and turns on Assad. Even then, it may lead to more violence because Iran wants to protect Assad and may use military force to do so. There is no easy way to get rid of Assad.

Good luck, people of Syria. I applaud your courage, and the military cannot kill all of you. Eventually it has to turn on Assad, but you likely face a long, bloody, uphill battle before reaching your goal of toppling your murderous dictator.