Kony 2012: what it is
This is an excerpt of a 3000 word analysis of the Kony 2012 video, that I wrote for the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. If this bit interests you, visit the site for the complete essay, “Kony 2012: Taking a closer look at the social media sensation“.
Perhaps the best way to understand the multiple and contested ways in which the video has been, and will be, interpreted, and why it’s had the tremendous impact it has, is by the juxtaposition of three related video scenes. The first is from Kony 2012 itself, the second a video response by a supporter of the movement, and the third, amateur news footage shot serendipitously on the streets of San Diego.
First, a clip featuring Jason Russell, an energetic, slim man who typifies the blonde Californian look, interviewing his young, toddler son (introduced, revealingly, as “This is my son Gavin. And just like his dad, he likes being in movies.”). Gavin is also blonde, and dressed in a black and red striped jersey. “What do I do for a job?” Russell asks Gavin. “You stop the bad guys from being mean”. And, “Who are the bad guys?” ask Russell. Gavin thinks about it. “Um… Star Wars people!”
Secondly, a clip from a video made by former porn actress, Bree Olsen. She’s also famous for being one of actor Charlie Sheen’s two “goddesses” who lived with him during his infamous meltdown that got him fired from the television show Two and a Half Men.
The video shows Olson writhing in a variety of provocative poses on a beach and in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, and perched on rocks in a skimpy dress – all juxtaposed with shots of mutilated victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The most horrifyingly inappropriate image is of Olson posed sexily in a bikini in the mud. There’s a close-up of her face, lips parted and painted red. She pouts at the camera in approved porn star style. There’s a smear of mud on her cheek. We cut from this to a close up of a child whose nose and ears have been hacked off, and lips mutilated. Apparently, we are supposed to make a link between Olson’s beauty being smeared by the streak of mud, and this child being tortured.
The third clip is from a video shot by a passerby. It shows Jason Russell, naked, prancing manically up and down a street in San Diego, and pounding his hands on the pavement. He swears, and rants about the devil, the Apple iPhone, and its digital assistant, Siri. Russell’s wife, Danica (who appears in Kony 2012, giving birth to their son Gavin), released a statement saying that “The preliminary diagnosis he received is called brief reactive psychosis, an acute state brought on by extreme exhaustion, stress and dehydration. Though new to us, the doctors say this is a common experience given the great mental, emotional and physical shock his body has gone through in these last two weeks.”
The first example above, of Russell’s son Gavin equating the Lord’s Resistance Army with the villains from the movie Star Wars, points directly at the mechanism around which Invisible Children is mobilising. It’s the classic tale of good versus evil, of identifiable baddies and unquestionable goodies, of superheroes rushing to the rescue. It’s the same impulse that led to the christening of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as “Operation Iraqi Liberation”. Kony 2012 attempts to configure its supporters, and potential supporters, as fighters for a simple justice, a comprehensible justice. This is one of the ways they’ve harnessed the inherent power of social media, that impulse that people on the networks have to share, and to share in, communal endeavour without nuance.
An early Invisible Children claim of success, made in a self-congratulatory section of the Kony 2012 video, was convincing Barack Obama and the U.S government to send 100 combat-equipped U.S. forces to Uganda to help regional forces, namely Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, capture or kill Joseph Kony and his senior leaders. “After eight years of work,” Russell tells us, “The government finally heard us.”
Detractors of U.S involvement have criticised it on grounds that it provides military assistance to countries, like Uganda and South Sudan, who have themselves used children as soldiers. Jo Becker, child rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, points out that “Countries that keep using child soldiers aren’t going to get serious about ending the practice until they see the US is serious about withholding the money…. These military aid waivers show a lack of leadership and a disregard for US law.”
The second video clip cited above, featuring porn star Bree Olson, can be seen, on one level, as a gross exploitation of a cause to garner personal publicity. But it’s also a (perhaps unwitting) deconstruction of some of the key elements of the Kony 2012 campaign. At one point, the pneumatic Olson tells us that “Right now, you’re watching a video of me outdoors in California, interspersed with pictures of the effect Joseph Kony had on the people of Uganda. I put the two together because I know a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The Kony 2012 documentary runs on the same principle. It’s nice packaging on something that wouldn’t be an inherently fascinating topic to that many people otherwise.”
It is, of course, a grotesquerie worthy of Antonin Artaud, an absurdity worthy of Thomas Pynchon, this mashup of soft porn and hard tragedy. It does, however, highlight – perhaps unwittingly – the pleasure that Jason Russell evinces in doing good. It also underlines the disquieting contention made by both Russell and Olson – that the world, or America, to use the elision they sometimes fall into, cannot feel empathy unless they’re entertained.
This isn’t the first time Russell has put forward this idea. In a bizarre 2006 Invisible Children dance video, which tells the tale of Russell’s attempts to get cynical schoolchildren interested in the cause, Russell sings “We’re on a mission to put Uganda inside your mind. It needs attention and a dance to make it sparkle and shine.” He also does some remarkably twee ninja dance moves, which are guaranteed to make any young person instantly hostile. Do yourself a favour and watch the video.
Read the entire essay “Kony 2012: Taking a closer look at the social media sensation“.