When I first heard about the Kony 2012 video, I thought: good for them. Fastest viral video ever? Not Bieber's Baby, or thirty seconds of a farting baby, but thirty minutes about one of the world's lesser known conflicts? Can't be bad news. I knew about the Lord's Resistance Army already -- a friend had done a tangentially related oscar-nominated documentary in 2007 -- and had even noted Invisible Children as a potential magazine story years ago, when I first read about their rather impressive high school barnstorming efforts. (In the LA Times, I think.) The basic story -- about some dudes from San Diego who wandered into Uganda and discovered the LRA conflict and were so moved as to come home and criss-cross the country spreading awareness -- was intriguing. Especially since their operation, including their interactive use of stayclassy's Kickstarter-ish team-based fundraising and the real time LRA crisis tracker, are pretty slick. And now, the meteoric rise of that awareness with the Kony 2012 campaign seemed like something non-profits and other activists would likely study for a long time. How can we make 100 million people learn about human trafficking/spina bifida/my homespun cat rescue service? But even before the criticism of the video's substance emerged, which was almost immediately, I wondered about the larger efficacy of the whole thing, and Invisible Children in general. Kony 2012 is of a classic example of awareness activism. But what good is that awareness? Even if Kony was still the threat he was in previous years, and the documentary provided better context for the conflict, what does it mean that 100 million people know about it? Does that change anything? Sure: interested, well-meaning American teenagers can raise some money. Invisible Children can spend that money. Maybe they can even spend it well. (Or not.) Either way, how can any of it affect a decades-old guerrilla war in some of the most difficult terrain and territory on earth, especially when the UN and other international organizations have spent years trying and failing to do the same? I hate to sound the a sober scolds from the conflict resolution seminars at my alma mater, SIPA, but if the adults can't fix it, what makes you kids think you can do any better?
Ethiopian-American Dinaw Mengestu makes the same point in this short essay, along with some larger frustrations in general with clicktivism. (He doesn't use that term. Is that a term? I'm not gonna google it, preferring to believe, as I always do, that I just coined it. P.s. Did I ever mention that I coined the term Bromance? It's true.) Anyhow, I zig-zagged between enthusiasm and doubt and had a hunch that people who think about a lot probably tend towards the circumspect side. And so:
The absence of nuance and depth isn’t a question of screen time, but of effect. The more you know, the more you understand that the answer has nothing to do with fame, money, posters, bracelets, tweets, or even sending one hundred military advisors to aid in the military efforts to capture Kony. The more you know, the more you have to question the millions of dollars in military aid the US government has already given the Ugandan government, whose president, Yoweri Museveni, has all but abandoned any prospect of democracy or dissent. It would also help to know that the last peace talks, which failed in 2008, included an offer of amnesty to Kony, the same amnesty that has already been granted to dozens of other LRA leaders who, despite having raped, abducted and murdered, can be found drinking in the bars of Gulu.
Kony 2012 is the most successful example of the recent “activist” movement to have taken hold of celebrities and college students across America. This movement believes devoutly in fame and information, and in our unequivocal power to affect change as citizens of a privileged world. Our privilege is the both the source of power and the origin of our burden – a burden which, in fact, on closer scrutiny, isn’t really a burden at all, but an occasion to celebrate our power. Mac owners can help end the conflict in eastern Congo by petitioning Apple; helping to end the war in Darfur is as simple as adding a toolbar to your browser. The intricate politics of African nations and conflicts are reduced to a few simple boilerplate propositions whose real aim isn’t awareness, but the gratifying world-changing solution lying at the end of our thirty-minute journey into enlightenment.
Then again, the sheer size of exposure must be worth something, right? Even if the hallmark imagery of kids putting up posters doesn't necessarily translate into tangible conflict resolution, it does widen the horizons of impressional high school students. And we all know they're information-addled, solpisistic materialists-in-training, right? Kony 2012 has surely made a lot of people think differently about the world. And some of them will surely take a more deep interest in human rights. And some of them might study with the sober seminarians at SIPA, or join aid organizations after school, or find themselves at the U.N. doing the real, difficult, frustrating work of peacemaking. Sure, a deep conflict like the LRA needs adults on the scene. We always need more adults. But those adults start as kids watching YouTube.
Sheila: They were putting mobile hot spots on homeless guys and sending them around Austin. So all the venture capital people needing wifi to make their deals could stop at a homeless person and get online.
Dad: Were they getting paid?
Sheila: Oh yeah.
Dad: So what's the controversy?
Sheila: Commodifying a person maybe? But the homeless guys were into it, apparently. They interviewed some of them as well. They made some money, felt part of the action.
Dad: Sounds like an ok deal to me. I mean, it's not like someone greased up a transmitter and involuntarilty shoved it up their asses.
Sheila: True. That might have been a bigger problem.
Dad: [Thinking.] You might call that Butt-Fi.
Sheila: A whole new era in the information revolution. A whole new form of Booty Call.
Who hasn't always been curious about the originally etymology of the douche epithet? More fascinationg, perhaps, is the pattern of its recent resurgence. I know I felt like we crossed a threshold around seven years ago but never could put my finger on it. So thanks Andrew Breitbart, I guess, for prompting Matt Taibbi to prompt Slate to look into it, which prompted me to hit the ol' Ngram:
Isn't that he changed the details of his essay. Or that he argued with the Believer's fact-checker about it. Or that he went ahead and published his version of the essay in his book. Or that he was a jackass to the fact-checker. Or seems like a jackass in general. Or that the talmudic representation that includes his combatively jackassian correspondence with the fact-checker is apparently fictionalized as well.
None of that is the problem. After all, the book is a formally experimental polemic. That's fine. Maybe even nifty. The jacakss part is just schtick. And not a bad schtick either, so far as that goes I guess. The writing realm looks for a polemic to churn over every so often. D'Agata just stepped into the breach.
You could make an argument against the very particular form D'Agata has chosen -- the semi-factual, artistic embroidery in search of Truth -- by pointing out, as did the reviewer of his earlier book, last year, before all the current hubbub, that being semi-factual simply compromises the narrative altogether; that even in the realm of the "essai," Truth without truth might be elusive. (The reviewer says how much he loved the book -- until he realized the facts were fudged.)
But you could still choose to accept to engage his form on its own terms. The problem with D'Agata is his elevation of that form above all others. Since D'Agata believes that only his idea of essay-writing aspires to art, the rest of nonfiction writing does not. The evidence, of course, is to the contrary: some of the greatest writing of the last century has been meticulously fact-checked non-fiction. The Sunday Times book review says it best, as it happens, and so:
Superb literary artists have managed to do their work while remaining precise about details D’Agata would dismiss as frivolous. What of Updike’s criticism and E. B. White’s essays and Joan Didion’s sociopolitical dispatches? More recently, what of the narrative journalism of Katherine Boo, Elif Batuman and Philip Gourevitch, or the essays and criticism of Jonathan Franzen, Pankaj Mishra and Zadie Smith? What of John McPhee, who three years ago in The New Yorker went so far as to write a lengthy ode to his fact checkers? Would D’Agata claim that these writers’ adherence to fact diminishes their art? That when working in “nonfiction,” they don’t weigh the same ingredients he does — structure, theme, resonance, rhythm — in order to wring something wondrous from the ordinary?
No text is sacred. The best writers know this. Fiction or nonfiction, poetry or reportage, it can all be endlessly tinkered with, buffed, polished, reshaped, rearranged. To create art out of fact, to be flexible and canny enough to elicit something sublime from an inconvenient detail, is itself an art. For D’Agata to argue otherwise — to insist that fact impedes the possibilities of literature, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is “unsophisticated” — betrays his limitations as a researcher and a writer, not our limitations as readers.
Is this diplomatic cable from Russian Ambassador William Burns, about a raucous three-day Dagestani wedding. It's 3,000+ words long, and well-written: dramatic, informative, and funny. Like when describes the male attendees to one reception as "pols and oligarchs of all sorts -- the slick to the Jurassic; wizened brown peasants from Burtunay; and Dagestan's sports and cultural celebrities." Among the notable details are the many appearances of Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyron, who dances with a gold-plated automatic stuck in his jeans; showers dancing children with $100 bills along with Gadzhi, the groom's father and clan honcho host; and then drives home because "Ramzan never spends the night anywhere."
I love the idea of the Ambassador sitting down at his desk and carefully polishing his wry dispatch of his long weekend in the North Caucauses, which he seems to have done, as it reads so well, often in long passages, such as:
Though Gadzhi's house was not the venue for the main wedding reception, he ensured that all his guests were constantly plied with food and drink. The cooks seemed to keep whole sheep and whole cows boiling in a cauldron somewhere day and night, dumping disjointed fragments of the carcass on the tables whenever someone entered the room. Gadzhi's two chefs kept a wide variety of unusual dishes in circulation (in addition to the omnipresent boiled meat and fatty bouillon). The alcohol consumption before, during and after this Muslim wedding was stupendous. Amidst an alcohol shortage, Gadzhi had flown in from the Urals thousands of bottles of Beluga Export vodka ("Best consumed with caviar"). There was also entertainment, beginning even that day, with the big-name performers appearing both at the wedding hall and at Gadzhi's summer house. Gadzhi's main act, a Syrian-born singer named Avraam Russo, could not make it because he was shot a few days before the wedding, but there was a "gypsy" troupe from St. Petersburg, a couple of Azeri pop stars, and from Moscow, Benya the Accordion King with his family of singers. A host of local bands, singing in Avar and Dargin, rounded out the entertainment, which was constant and extremely amplified.
The main activity of the day was eating and drinking -- starting from 4 p.m., about eight hours worth, all told -- punctuated, when all were laden with food and sodden with drink, with a bout of jet skiing in the Caspian. After dinner, though, the first band started an informal performance -- drums, accordion and clarinet playing the lezginka, the universal dance of the Caucasus. To the uninitiated Westerner, the music sounds like an undifferentiated wall of sound. This was a signal for dancing: one by one, each of the dramatically paunchy men (there were no women present) would enter the arena and exhibit his personal lezginka for the limit of his duration, usually 30 seconds to a minute. Each ethnic group's lezginka was different -- the Dagestani lezginka the most energetic, the Chechen the most aggressive and belligerent, and the Ingush smoother.
And, my favorite:
The 120 toasts he estimated he drank would have killed anyone, hardened drinker or not, but Gadzhi had his Afghan waiter Khan following him around to pour his drinks from a special vodka bottle containing water. Still, he was much the worse for wear by evening's end. At one point we caught up with him dancing with two scantily clad Russian women who looked far from home. One, it turned out was a Moscow poet (later she recited an incomprehensible poem in Gadzhi's honor) who was in town with a film director to write the screenplay for a film immortalizing Gadzhi's defense of Dagestan against Shamil Basayev. By 6 p.m. most of the houseguests had returned to Gadzhi's seaside home for more swimming and more jet-skiing-under-the-influence.
The Zombie Zeitgeist A full scale movement is on the lurch. But why the best zombie movie ever made a video game?
Believer interview with Mark Allen Digital artist and awesome gallerist Mark Allen talks about Tekken Torture Tournament and other projects where people were wired to machines and did strange things in public.
Believer interview with Marjane Satrapi Enlightening Q & A with the Persian cartoonist, memoirist, quick conversationalist in which she declares: “THE WORLD IS NOT ABOUT BATMAN AND ROBIN FIGHTING THE JOKER; THINGS ARE MORE COMPLICATED THAN THAT.”
Yeti Researcher Yet another 100-page issue of the world's top academic journal devoted scholarship about the Yeti, Bigfoot, Sasqatch, and other mystery primates worldwide. For researchers and lay audiences alike, the latest YR features a history of Sasquatch sightings in southern California, an update on the wily orang pendek of Sumatra, and a new look into Teddy Roosevelt's obsession with bagging a Bigfoot. As Editor-in-Chief, I promise you won't be disappointed.
Panda PowerPoint! I guess I don't mind being "the entertainment" when it's at Mark Allen's second annual Holiday Fry-B-Que. Presented: preliminary findings from my ongoing research into the most charismatic megafauna of all: Giant Pandas.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | Dec 9, 2006 For those who missed it, there will be more. World, Explained is going strong! Money was raised, laughs were had, and for those paying attention, small amounts of useful information about things like the aurora borealis were transmitted. Plus: Michael Cera = lovably funny. And Nick Diamonds' renditions of Dumb Dog and Hanging Tough are still in my head. As is that horribly catchy Fresh Step jam.
Jest Fest at Skylight Books Somehow I wound up hosting the 10th anniversary jubilee for Infinite Jest at Skylight Books. Because who doesn't love a jubilee, right? Despite being delirious with Hepatitis A (that's the mild, non-lethal kind; I'm not at risk for Hep B since I always go the needle share and choose clean-looking prostitutes), I managed to not mis-pronounce anyone's name and make an erudite joke and poke gentle fun at Michael Silverblatt.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | June 10, 2006 Number Three! Last one was sold out so we moved to a slightly larger theater. Andy Richter hosted, and his opening exegesis of CSI: Miami warmed the people up right. Evany Thomas presented her very scientific findings on the Secret Language of Sleep; Starlee Kine bared her neuroses to the world (or at least the 300 people in the audience); Josh Davis showed video of his 135-lb self sumo wrestling a 550-lb opera singer from San Bernardino; and Davy Rothbart closed it out with some Found Magazine magic. Grant Lee Phillips, Sam Shelton and Zooey Deschanel provided the music punctuation! I can still hear their rendition of We Are the Champions.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | Feb 11, 2006 The second in our series of precision comedy and fact-based entertainment extravaganzas benefiting 826LA. Patton Oswalt was kind enough to host, and Jon Brion joined in on the piano and guitar as thematic accompaniment. Presenters included: David Rees, Michael Colton, John Hodgman (along with his hirsuit troubadour, Jonathan Coulton), and me. Plus: a fashion show of exciting multi-user garmentry.
Little Gray Book Lecture at Galapagos How to Observe President's Day. Jonathan Coulton's technical wizardry has made this entire show available online. The summary from PRX: Sarah Vowell, John Hodgman and Joshuah Bearman on Presidents' Day, along with a fifteen-piece marching band and a new song about all forty-three presidents. My contribution? Yes, from Yeti Researcher. Again. Actually that was the first one. So I have only five stories!
July 25: TJ to LA -- A Night McSweeney's Readings I was honored to be part of a strange triptych along with Salvador Plascencia and Josh Kun. Sponsored, somehow, by La Ciudad magazine, we all packed into Beyond Baroque with no air conditions. 150 people showed at 7 o'clock on a Friday evening, which we took as a good sign of something. Sal held up and anxiously discussed drawings from his novel, Josh delivered an essay on the Dr. Moreau of Tijuana, and my shtick (again) was Pac Man and metaphysics, this time with fun slides.
October 8th: Skylight Books w/Stephen Elliott Fun times were had by all. Someone in the audience actually mistook me for an expert on the psychology human character. We ate shrimp cocktail and drank cheap wine and laughed at Bush and celebrated the certainty of right besting wrong in American democracy. A lot of good that did.