Knee-Jerk Contrarianism And Kony 2012

Many ‘journalists’ are up in arms over last week’s release of Kony 2012, a viral video produced by an NGO called Invisible Children. The video, which has generated millions upon millions of views over the past few days, calls attention to the extremist Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and their brutal thug of a leader Joseph Kony.

No mention is made of Uganda’s tumultuous modern political history, the plight of the Acholi, Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Movement, the abundant misdeeds of Yoweri Museveni, regional politics, the obstacles the pursuit of justice has posed to attempts to foster a peace process, and a lot of other contextual details that help to explain the current state of affairs in Uganda and the rise of the LRA. So, the video is not very informative.

But let’s get something straight — As its (kind of annoying) narrator states very clearly, the trendy video was produced with two very simple, relatively benign objectives in mind: to raise the profile of a barbaric war criminal, and to ensure that 100 American military advisers remain in Uganda to provide support in the transnational hunt for Kony.

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But again, a large number of ‘journalists’ are just not having it. Kony 2012’s rising popularity has been marked by a general response low in self-criticism — Why exactly was it that one of the ICC’s most wanted war criminals remained a relatively obscure figure, while third-rate, demonstrably unelectable, Republican presidential candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry were transformed into household names across the globe? — and high in potshots at Invisible Children and “fact checking.”

Perhaps, reporters and bloggers feel threatened by the prospect of individual NGO’s creeping on their turf — After all, NGO’s, are, generally speaking, just supposed to be reported on, not seen or heard. Right?

Or maybe, they find the idea of a U.S. foreign policy guided by the recommendations of relatively small individual NGO’s along with masses of social media and internet users even more frightening than a foreign policy driven by extensive and well-oiled lobbying machines, collections of private firms that own large concentrations of financial and political capital, and idealistic notions of a monolithic, amoral, and real national interest.

Who knows?

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Anyway, many of the critiques of Kony 2012 follow two salient lines of argumentation. One entails Invisible Children’s alleged mismanagement of funds. The other focuses on the viral video itself — particularly, how its (practical) oversimplification of the whole LRA issue and popularization of Kony wrongly lures people into the trap of supporting U.S. interventionism.

So, first, does Invisible Children overspend on marketing and staff salaries? Not really. At least, their gross monetary mismanagement doesn’t seem to be causing them that much of a problem. It’s safe to say that Invisible Children has, now, been more successful at drawing attention to the issue of the LRA and it’s war crimes than any other competing NGO. Clearly their funding is going to some good use.

Perhaps it could do more on the “charitable ground-operations to rebuild Northern Uganda” front, but it seems fairly clear that reconstruction is low on Invisible Children’s list of priorities. Yes, it spends a lot more on marketing the issue than it does on charity, but that’s because Invisible Children isn’t really a charity at all. It’s an advocacy group, advocating for the administration of justice. It wants to see Kony brought to trial — and that’s just fine.

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Next, let’s deconstruct the more compelling second argument — This is how WSN puts it:

“As part of its campaign to rid the world of the menace that is Joseph Kony, Invisible Children advocates for American military intervention in Uganda. President Obama ordered the deployment of 100 American troops in October, but sending more soldiers to become embroiled in a conflict between the lunatic war criminal Kony and Ugandan President Museveni — who has been in power since 1986 and has abolished presidential term limits since  2006 — will escalate a cancerous situation.”

Not quite WSN, not quite.

According to this secret diplomatic cable from back in 2010, brought to us by Wikileaks, $4.4 million worth of U.S. logistical aid was actually very effective in empowering the Ugandan government to “systematically dismantle the LRA” and to “reduce LRA atrocities against civilian populations.”

In the body of the quite apparently off-the-record cable, the U.S. ambassador to Uganda, Jerry Lanier, characterizes continued U.S. logistical support as “critical” to finishing the greatly weakened Kony and his LRA off.

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Now, there’s nothing wrong with criticizing interventionism, but in doing so let’s distinguish between different types and degrees of intervention. What’s the extent of U.S. intervention advocated for in the video?

As mentioned above, the narrator clearly states that Invisible Children hopes to prevent the U.S. from withdrawing its 100 armed military advisers who are already stationed in Uganda.

Compare Invisible Children’s supposed ‘war cry’ with our recent bouts of intervention in Libya and pre-withdrawal Iraq; our active intervention in Afghanistan and post-withdrawal Iraq; and our, unfortunately, likely future intervention in Iran.

Where was WSN’s critique last week of war-hawks like Rick Santorum promoting massive airstrikes and all-out-war with Iran in the wake of a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu? That’s real intervention.

And don’t forget about the ongoing campaigns in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia — countries with political circumstances no less complex than Uganda’s. There, we have, routinely and without any real semblance of due process, assassinated thousands of peopleincluding hundreds of civilians — with “precision” drone strikes.

Is there not something to be said about the distinction between this sort of intervention, and the sort of intervention advocated for by Invisible Children — namely, administrating justice through the ICC or another court, with, at least, some regard for a judicial process?

Juxtaposed with many of our current undertakings, the intervention being advocated for by Invisible Children appears remarkably nonintrusive. At this point, drawing our collective noninterventionist line at Invisible Children’s plea to maintain 100 military advisers — that weren’t planning on leaving anytime soon, anyway — in Uganda seems pretty arbitrary.

That doesn’t mean we should avoid scrutinizing our government and military’s involvement with the Ugandan government — that’s certainly more important than scrutinizing Kony 2012 or Invisible Children. It’s a shame that inquiry in regards to this particular issue really wasn’t that prevalent prior to Kony 2012.

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I’ll wrap up this long post by again saying that, yes, the video is uninformative, but at least this spectacular testament to the power of the internet has finally gotten people to discuss the LRA, Museveni, our involvement in Uganda, and even the ICC (a little).

Now that you’ve endured Invisible Children’s emotional primer, brace yourselves for a historical one. I recommend this very short and gruesome video as an intro to the history of Uganda and the rise of the LRA.

And here‘s a good followup with a healthy dose of criticism towards the ICC at the very end.

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    11 Comments

  1. P Partha says

    This is a great piece. My 14-year-old sister actually sent me the video. While vague and somewhat factually shifty, the fact is that my kid sister who was previously unaware now knows that a war criminal is still at large and cares. In the long run, how can that be a bad thing?

  2. Steve Mei says

    @ Partha – Its not a bad thing, but it is an external situation of conflict, where once again…the U.S. is asked to play policeman.

    Do we always clean the apartments of friends before cleaning ours first? Shouldn’t we focus on the war criminals who reside in our own country first? War criminals who have FAR MORE BLOOD on their hands than Kony? The blood of selfless U.S. soldiers, and anywhere between 110,000 and 1 million Iraqis?

    I am referring to Dick Cheney and George Bush, in that order, of course.

    I look forward to seeing the same riveting, tear jerking style mini doc about the BS war propaganda, outright lies and WMD obfuscation Dick Cheney pushed on a terrified American people in the early 2000s and a corporate status quo “gotta keep the lights on” mainstream media.

  3. Billy Rodriguez-Lopez says

    This article brings up some good points; a lot of the criticism of Invisible Children is unwarranted, but some of it is fair game. Of course IC needs to use some sensationalism in it’s advertising to get people interested, but there’s barely any real information in the video and I know a majority of the kids in my area who support Kony 2012 have never seen anything relating to Uganda besides that video. If we set a precedent for blindly advocating for causes we don’t understand, we could get ourselves in real trouble without even realizing it. There could’ve been a better balance between pathos and facts.

    Also, why are Bush and Rice, two people who have no real political power now and are also the faces of unwanted US foreign intervention, the first two people on the list of policymakers?

    Also, the difference between Uganda and Yemen, Pakistan, etc. is that those situations are a much more direct threat to the US. Of course, we’ve made some pretty major mistakes in those places as well, but I’m not sure if comparing those places to Uganda is 100% accurate.

    Don’t get me wrong, Kony should be stopped, but I don’t really understand how plastering posters all over major cities is going to do much besides cost local governments money to clean up. There’s not much the US should/can do that it hasn’t already done. But honestly, whether we intervene too much or not enough, no one will be happy anyway…

    All that being said, I support the overall cause of the IC, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months. Hopefully Kony’s found and brought to justice as soon as possible.

  4. says

    David, supposing your claim (no doubt based on a handful of Youtube videos and blog entries) to be true, the video was not released to make the general populace of Uganda happy.

    First of all, the LRA isn’t Uganda’s problem anymore, it’s the CAR’s and the DRC’s (and maybe South Sudan’s?).

    Second, the video was essentially produced to support the administration of justice.

    There’s a debate between people who would like to see a swift, amnesty-driven, peace in regions affected by the LRA and people (in particular the ICC and apparently Invisible Children) who would like to see some war-crime tribunals kick-off. They essentially argue that it’s worth pursuing justice even if it means complicating a peace deal to ensure that there’s a deterrent in place to prevent the ascension of a new, similarly criminal, Kony-like figure in the future.

    So, no it doesn’t say enough.

  5. James Kelleher says

    The line needs to be drawn when gross over-simplification of a complex issue leads to massive numbers of people demanding military action. Take Iran for example – according to a recent NY Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/us/politics/obama-approval-rating-down-in-new-york-times-cbs-poll.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&sq=approval%20rating&st=cse&scp=1), almost half of Americans believe that the US should support Israel if they attack Iran. Even after more than a decade of multitrillion-dollar war in the Middle East, too many Americans still see it as their duty to go after the “bad guys” Bruce Willis-style because of the simplistic views they hold on the conflict.

    Of course, an attack on Kony would be on a markedly different scale than an attack on Iran. You yourself claim that there is a distinction between our previous interventions and IC’s proposed intervention against Kony. Regardless, military intervention is military intervention, and as the articles you linked to show, armed conflict will always lead to other problems such as the loss of civilian life, the destruction of property, the benefits of private interests, and the disregard for human rights. You argue that the “intervention being advocated for by Invisible Children appears remarkably nonintrusive”, but this apparent non-intrusiveness is exactly IC’s sales pitch; if we go after him there will be other costs. As you pointed out, our drone attacks have been imprecise and have resulted in the loss of innocent lives – what makes you think we will fare better against Kony? Other than scale (and perhaps the issue of manned vs drone missions) there is no difference between previous interventions and IC’s proposed intervention; it is hypocritical to be in favor of one and against the other.

    While I do believe the man needs to be brought to justice, I fail to see how removing Kony ensures the safety of future children. Kony’s arrest will certainly be a powerful message, but unless we plan on policing the region and addressing the issue of child abduction in the Ugandan military, I do not see what is stopping more Konys from emerging.

    On a final note, it would take a Buddhist monk not to be irked by the Kony 2012 narrator’s self-satisfaction. Perhaps that is my main beef with the movement.

  6. says

    I am not for military intervention. I am actually wholly opposed to it. I am for the prioritization of critiques. There’s a lot more to be worried about right now, in terms of interventionism, than 100 military advisers being kept in Uganda. That’s hardly intervention at all.

    What about our 16,000 person embassy in Iraq? Where’s the uproar?

    Now, I will disagree with your point that “intervention is intervention.” For instance, there’s a huge difference between assassinating a criminal and arresting a criminal. We don’t need to be in favor of either. We can be against both. But, in my mind, one option is definitely preferable.

    Perhaps a more extreme example would be better? There’s a huge difference between providing a government with logistical aid, and a massive ground invasion of a nation.

    As far as I know, the Ugandan military doesn’t still use child soldiers. When Museveni was himself a rebel — backed by Muammar Gaddafi — he did.

    Anyway, the ICC [not IC] would essentially argue that if Kony is tried and convicted of war-crimes then that conviction would serve to deter future militant groups from engaging in similar practices.

    And yes the narrator is irritating, as I stated in my article.

  7. durka mang says

    2011 – 2 billion barrels of oil discovered in Nigeria
    2012 – Obama doomed to lose election

    KONY2012 distracts from both issues.

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