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.