It was one of those accidental juxtapositions that my post about the Rwanda genocide yesterday, prompted by a series of movies I’d ordered from Netflix a year or more ago, and then a comment in the form of a url from a friend who’s more alert to social networks than I, has involved me in thinking about Kony 2012. This publicity event sets up opposition between some handsome young “millennials” and a “heart of darkness” warlord who hijacks, mutilates, and murders youngsters as part of his terrorism against villages while claiming to be a freedom guerilla. It’s a confrontation of video against guns and machetes. (Just google to save me from listing ten url’s, please. Or consult the New York Times. Even the Great Falls Tribune has picked it up now.
I began this post with ideas about the warring YouTubes and blogs trying to figure out why Kony 2012 went viral, whether it will do any good, whether to contribute, whether these filmmakers are just getting rich, and the true nature of Kony. It’s a much larger and more dramatic version of things like, for example, the quarrel over Mortenson and his teacups. (Friends in Bozeman say forget the books and money -- some people just don’t like Mortenson’s personal attitude.) The arguments range all the way from the highest political philosophy (Why is the white West once again trying to step in and solve African problems versus only a few years ago begging the West to send troops to resolve the Rwanda genocide) on down to Millennial name-calling which is strangely low-class sexual (cunt, douchebag).
It’s one of those situations that can either be an opportunity to learn or a mudfest that can damage philanthropic efforts for decades. “Invisible Children,” which is the name of the idealistic organization, is taking the high road, making everything “transparent,” meaning disclosing their money sources, expenses and salaries. (This is as much political as factual. And whether $80,000 annual salaries sound high or low to you will be relative.)
I’m going to do my usual attempt to come in from the side, horizontal drilling, you might say. First of all, the REAL money is in the harvest of email addresses that “Invisible Children” is compiling -- not just a select group of YouTubers (young, prosperous, educated) but also the fan lists of every celebrity involved. These addresses are worth BIG money and are the main way that social networks can monetize their web presence. A big adversarial issue inflates that list beyond understanding. These lists are power and they are going into the hands of international corporations who do more damage than Kony could do in a lifetime.
Which takes me to my second point. Humans see danger in terms of individuals. The superintendent when I taught in Heart Butte kept a list of ten kids he wanted to get rid of, no matter how he had to do it. When the boy at the top of the list tried to fight adults, he was arrested and removed in handcuffs. No attempt to counsel. This is the heart of rebellion. That superintendent also had a list of trouble-making teachers: I was on it. To him I was Kony. He did not grasp that getting rid of me only replaced me with others, maybe more powerful and resourceful than I.
My conviction, experience, and training is that rebellion arises out of the structure of the situation (often unjust), not from the orneriness of disaffected individuals who simply get pulled into alignment by the circumstances. In short, I would say that Kony is the product of whatever complex situation exists where he is (and in the six years since the Invisible Children film was made he has moved to a different area with a different government). The Rwanda genocide was an opportunity to identify many of those forces, many of them the debris of the colonial era and the excesses of the post-colonial decades. I suspect that Kony is part of that as well.
My point is that if someone managed to murder Kony tomorrow (the bin Laden solution) he would soon be replaced by another smart handsome ruthless fellow who has found the formula. It amounts to a big game of whack-a-mole unless the ecology is changed to eliminate mole-ness. Otherwise, the game of predator/prey simply continues with the younglings merely “mushrooms” as some in the drug wars call them. Collateral damage.
But we react to babies with their lips cut off. We don’t react to corporate machinations or the internal politics of African nations. So why not use this point of entry that the Millennials can understand? If Invisible Children is willing to take the issue to the level of Jason Russell’s small son, they do it because it works, but also it is an irritatingly smarmy use of sentimentality to oppose reptilian opportunism. (That child is amazing and MUST be getting offers to be in the movies.)
Everything we do in this culture is monetized. Even Romeo Allaire, whose true bravery SHOULD be celebrated, can be opposed by Belgian senators who want to attract voters by using dissension. By choosing social media as their means, Invisible Children is in danger of making the heart of darkness into a “like” issue with thumbs up or down buttons. (I never get over the echo of the Roman coliseum in those thumbs.) Idealism is a precious commodity and should never be discouraged, but it can be twisted into a new excuse for domination.
The United States IS part of this problem. “Occupy” is responding to systemic forces in the same way as African guerrillas and Israeli politicians and Canadian resource developers crossing Montana with their big pipe-lines, electrical transmission lines, gigantic hauling loads. The same as the environmental citizen groups increasingly organizing and hardening to push back against a multitude of invasions. The same as mayors determined to make their towns centers of profit. Personally, I thought “The Constant Gardener” did a better job of lining out the forces and the price of opposing them, but that was a big-time movie -- not three guys and a camera.
I was interested to be able to watch Kony’s face as he was questioned. He was concentrating hard to mind-read these white boys who had come to confront him and play with his guns. What do they want? Can they come up with money or arms? What would happen if he just killed them? I’ll say this for sure: if Kony kills those handsome boys now, the stakes will be entirely changed. But maybe the stakes for a child in Africa are the same.