I warned you all that a diatribe was coming. Here it is, in four parts. The first examines the general situation in Central Africa, of which most Americans are unaware (or were, until yesterday.) The second part discusses the viral phenomenon of Invisible Children, Inc’s video, which hit the web yesterday. The third part examines the rapid criticism of the Stop Kony movement that has sprung up, addressing some of the arguments made against Invisible Children, Inc. Finally, the fourth part discusses the phenomenon of cultural zeitgeist, and why sometimes hating something is cooler than liking it. This is an insanely long post, but I hope you’ll find that it bears reading. I’m happy to discuss things further in the comments.
WHAT IS AFRICA’S DEAL?
Look, Central Africa is a unique sort of mess. It’s nearly impossible to put in a nutshell, but I’m going to try. I did spend four years studying this in college, and I see no other time when my degree might actually serve me, so here goes.
When Europe “explored” the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what they really did was colonize it. Just like they colonized the United States. They traipsed through Africa, planting flags and drawing arbitrary lines demarcating new states, and began milking the continent for every resource they could squeeze out of it.
And then, eventually, they were driven out. And when I say eventually, I mean largely in the 1960’s (some earlier, some later) which isn’t even a heartbeat on the timeline of history. In a grand scale, the vast majority of these African countries gained independence, like, yesterday. Two main problems emerged. For one thing, those arbitrarily drawn boundaries stayed after the colonists had left, leaving disparate ethnic factions fighting to control the same land. Often, the colonial governments favored one ethnic group over another, which created even more problems in the power vacuum of the post colonial periods. In many of these situations, both groups have committed atrocities against one another as they seek power. And there are good reasons to seek power. Africa is unparalleled for natural resources. From oil to diamonds to rare minerals, Africa has it all and in spades. There are enormous riches at stake.
In fact, a new supply of oil has just been discovered in Uganda, which is the subject of Invisible Children, Inc.’s film. This oil cache is extremely likely to ignite new fighting as the nations rival groups seek to control the government by controlling the oil and vice versa.
Because of men like Joseph Kony, this oil find decreases stability in the region rather bringing about any positive change. Kony and his ilk will simply try to acquire the profits from such a find in order to enrich their own coffers so that they can increase their power. The Ugandan government, in turn, will have to seek to use those oil profits to maintain their hold on power in the face of assault by groups like the LRA. Neither of these courses of action improves the infrastructure, security, or state of the citizenry of Uganda.
Both the governments and the rebel groups often fight these wars with methods of rape and murder and mutilation that would turn the stomach of even the most hardened cynic. Assuming that those cynics know about the situation, which most Americans don’t. This is exactly why Invisible Children, Inc. has created the Stop Kony video and campaign.
WHAT’S WITH THIS KONY VIDEO, ANYWAY?
Yesterday, Invisible Children, Inc.’s Stop Kony 2012 video went viral. And I mean, it went VIRAL.
I first heard about it at 8 a.m. – by 11:30 it had 1.5 million views. RIGHT NOW, at 1:30 p.m. the next day, it has almost THIRTY. SEVEN. MILLION. VIEWS.
Here’s the link. If you haven’t watched the video yet, you really should: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc&feature=g-logo&context=G2c59aeeFOAAAAAAABAA
People all over Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Pintrest are abuzz, not to mention the private blogs and websites. And, last night, the major news organizations started to pick up the story.
Just as surprising as the rapidity of the viral success of the video was the near-instantaneous backlash. The first article I saw criticizing Invisible Children, Inc. and the Stop Kony movement was on Jezebel.com.
I’m not one to put the blinders on when it comes to social movements, so I read the article.
And then I read The Washington Post’s article.
And then I read The Daily Maverick’s post.
And then I started to get frustrated.
The criticism is SO THIN. It is so easily pierced.
THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BACKLASH:
All three sources decry the organization’s expenditures, noting that Invisible Children, Inc. spent more last year on travel, filmmaking expenses, and staff salaries than direct aid.
For real? Invisible Children is not currently styling themselves as a direct aid organization. They’re making efforts to make Ugandan citizens safer with things like their early alert radio network, but I think it’s pretty obvious that making the film that everyone’s watching – that EVERYONE’S TALKING ABOUT – has been the main goal of the organization.
They want to draw so much attention to the issue that governments and major non-political organizations (NPOs), whose coffers run deeper than organizations like Invisible Children, Inc’s, will have no choice but to take notice.
THEY DID THAT. Did you know who Joseph Kony was before yesterday? Did you know what was happening to children in Uganda? If you didn’t know that on Monday and you know it today, then Invisible Children has succeeded. Their money has been well spent. Drawing attention to an issue is a pivotal part of any social movement, because with public attention, the movement doesn’t MOVE. You can preach to the choir all you want, but it doesn’t make your audience bigger. This movie does. I think that’s awesome, and I think that the criticism that Invisible Children, Inc. isn’t spending money the way direct-aid organizations should is comparing apples to oranges.
Which leads me to the second criticism, which appears in the Washington Post’s article among others. They claim that Invisible Children, Inc. has exaggerated the number of people harmed by Kony and the LRA.
Oh my God. Oh. My. GOD. Central Africa has been a nightmarish mess since it was decolonized. The insinuation that this organization is crying for attention that is somehow less than deserved is ENRAGING to me. It’s possible Invisible Children has used an inaccurate number. I don’t see anything that looks glaringly wrong, but I’m not going to claim I’ve checked all the math thoroughly. This is mostly because I don’t HAVE to. The totality of victims in Central Africa is incomprehensible. There is no limit to how much attention this region deserves.
Thirdly, a lot of these backlash articles, especially the one in The Guardian, are decrying the “slickness” of the video and the “Americanness” of the IC, Inc. founders and filmers.
Gag. Okay – can we all agree that the mainly white, mainly young, and apparently hip people in the video are not at fault for being young and white? We can decry their idealism, but in my opinion, that’s the worst sort of disaffected cynicism. They made a video that is WATCHABLE for thirty minutes. That holds the attention of a social media saturated market where anything longer than 140 characters is interminable. At the same time, they explained the complexities of the Ugandan situation simply enough to fit in a half-hour. I spent YEARS studying post-colonial sub-Saharan African politics in college. I’m quite impressed with what they did.
I could refute individual points for a long time, and if you want to bring up additional criticisms, I’ll be happy to discuss them in the comments. What I’d like to do now, though is talk about cultural zeitgeist, backlash, leading and belonging. In other words:
I’M COOLER THAN YOU ARE:
When everyone’s talking about something – when you can’t log on to Facebook or turn on the news or pop onto Twitter without seeing the same topic – that’s cultural zeitgeist. Something born of a moment, something that hits with such perfect timing that it saturates everything.
Lots of things do this. Political movements and social movements and religion and even books. I’m going to use Twilight as an example, because I’m a young adult author and I think it’s appropriate.
So. Years ago, Twilight was published. The juggernaut grew quickly, and soon EVERYONE was reading Twilight. Everyone LOVED Twilight. *I* loved Twilight. It became an enormous phenomenon. A major best seller with a movie deal and calendars and mugs and general saturation of the culture. It became completely mainstream. And then the tide turned against it. People pointed out that there are some feminist issues with the book. And pedophilia issues, if you think about it a certain way. And the writing was bad. And quickly, it because much hipper to hate Twilight than it was to love it. Is Twilight perfect? No. It wasn’t perfect when it became popular. And the criticisms – some of which are valid – don’t make it terrible, either. The point is, the leading edge of the zeitgeist changed. And that’s the same thing that’s happening to Invisible Children, Inc, on a warp-speed scale.
This is all tied up with our need to be socially accepted. Almost no one wants to be seen as a tag-along – a last minute addition to a group. We’d rather be part of the leading edge, or at least solidly in the middle, of a cause or a trend that we ascribe to. And when something gets to a certain, undefinable point of popularity, the only way to lead in relation to that book – or that movement – is to lead the backlash against it.
This is not to say that criticism is just latecomers trying to be cool at any cost. It’s not. Well reasoned examination is direly important in political causes. We must continually examine our motives and those of the organizations we support. Intelligent and careful debate is something that should never be squashed. It is also important, however, to examine situations in which the criticism might be less about the subject itself and more about the critic seeking to head a new pack. Much of the backlash I’ve seen against Invisible Children, Inc. and the Stop Kony movement feels suspiciously like the latter. I’ll continue to read articles that challenge the organization, and if I see something that makes me legitimately concerned, I’ll happily take it under consideration.
For now, though, all I see is an organization that set out to open America’s eyes to an atrocity that – for most of us – had been completely invisible. They’ve succeeded in that. I applaud their efforts, and I am excited to see what happens next.