It is quite possible that there remains nothing new to say about Kony2012. This thirty-minute video, narrated by Jason Russell, co-founder of the non-profit organization Invisible Children, aims to rally mass awareness and support for the campaign to capture Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA). But Kony2012 is, after all, the gift that keeps on giving. Its tally includes an unprecedented humanitarian social media coup with close to ninety million YouTube views, a mind-boggling number of (re)tweets, and various Facebook-related milestones. It has generated comparable measures of support for and backlash against it, copious analyses of both, and even analyses of these analyses.
According to its supporters, Kony2012 may be a giant leap towards rallying the youth of the United States to seize their asserted destiny as global agents of change, in this case, by bringing an end to the horrors wrought by the LRA in central Africa. To achieve this goal, Kony2012 arms its viewers with a strategy for pressuring the US government to sustain military assistance to the Ugandan army for Kony’s apprehension. Those critical of Kony2012 have condemned it both for over-simplifying the nature and causes of the conflict in central Africa, as well as for advocating further militarization of the region, a solution they view as likely to exacerbate this and other neighboring conflicts. Critics have also roundly condemned the video for what some have termed “the white savior industrial complex” (See descriptions here and here).
As viewers of Kony2012 grappled to reach their own conclusions regarding whether Kony2012 is a “good” or a “bad” thing, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times treated his readers to the gift of the following tantalizing heuristic as part of his article “Viral Video, Vicious Warlord”:
I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.
I am not a Congolese villager. But if I had been born about an hour and half’s drive northwest of my birth city of Kitwe, I would have been firmly in the running. Instead, it appears I am cruising rapidly towards the proverbial armchair, amassing more sneering scorn than I would like, and possibly approaching that infernal frontier that is “doing nothing.” Ironically, if I were to drive two hours southeast of my current location of Los Angeles, I could perhaps join the staff of Invisible Children’s flagship office and become, on Kristof’s account, the type of person whose efforts a Congolese villager would welcome.
Viewers of Kony2012 and readers of the New York Times are likely able to conjure with ease an image of Kristof’s Congolese villager: some variant of a black, terror-stricken, probably emaciated, child or woman. However, the utility of this two-dimensional construction for determining the views of those directly affected by the violence, or what the appropriate response to this violence might be, requires serious interrogation. Here, however, I wish briefly to offer an argument for why Kristof’s potent if deeply problematic rhetorical device—“a Congolese villager”—might welcome the analysis and insight of an “armchair critic,” maybe even over the well-intentioned actions of Invisible Children.
I take Kristof’s position, cast in its most generous light, to be the following: From the perspective of the actual or potential direct victims of human rights violations, mass mobilization to apprehend and prosecute a key perpetrator of the violations is inherently better than theorizing about the mass mobilizations and the violations, without anything further. It is not the sneering scorn that is at issue, but rather the cynical criticism from individuals who supposedly contribute nothing beyond theoretical insight. Kristof is not alone in his view. Others, like Roger Cohen, have similarly chosen to “back Russell over his armchair critics,” arguing that at least he is doing something. In fact, if we take a closer look, we see that Kony2012’s primary objective—the arrest and prosecution of Kony—mirrors that of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the only permanent international criminal tribunal in existence and a much-vaunted torchbearer of international justice, which issued a warrant for Kony’s arrest in 2005. In a Kony2012 cameo, eerily tracking the recommendations of Russell’s toddler son Gavin (another star of Kony2012), ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo tells viewers: “The criminal here is Kony. Stop him, then solve all the other problems.”
What Kristof and others have cast as primarily an earnest, compassion-driven act to do something (as opposed to nothing) about a horrific situation, is also an act that advances specific norms, interests, and thus politics. It is disingenuous to obscure both the full universe within which Kony2012 is an active player, and the possibility that the “something” for which it advocates does more harm than good. Kony2012, with the imprimatur the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, reduces the violence and suffering in northern Uganda to the problem of individual criminal liability. Its framing of what the issue is, and the subsequent specific intervention this framing recommends, are, among other things, votes in favor of the primacy of one set of norms—the value of individual criminal liability and international accountability—over all others represented by a multitude of possible responses to the conflict in central Africa.
Peace, for example, was a value that was important to many on-the-ground actors at the time the ICC issued the warrant for Kony’s arrest. In his book Saviors and Survivors, Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani explains how in the wake of the brutal violence of the conflict in northern Uganda, the Ugandan parliament passed legislation offering amnesty to the leadership of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) as a means to secure peace in the region. More importantly, the civilian population of the region most severely affected by the violence—the Acholi districts—were among those that called for peace, even if such peace was conditional on amnesty for those responsible for the violence. However, in firm opposition to this amnesty, Yoweri Museveni—Uganda’s president and a darling of the West—referred the matter of the LRA to the ICC, inviting the prosecutor to hold the leadership of the LRA criminally accountable. Accordingly, in 2005 the ICC issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four other members of the LRA leadership. Following the Kony indictment, many—including those involved in negotiating a peace agreement with the LRA—identified the indictment as an insurmountable barrier to his surrender and the possibility of peace in the region.
The point here is not to advance an argument for an irreconcilable tension between peace and individual criminal liability. Rather, it is to show that by calling for mass mobilization to effect the arrest and prosecution on Kony, Kony2012 casts a vote in favor of a particular normative framing of the problem in central Africa (impunity for individual criminal liability) and its solution (prosecution), and then prioritizes this solution above all else (“Stop [Kony], then solve all the other problems.”). It also asks the millions of people who populate the “Facebook world”—which Chief Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo tells the viewers of Kony2012 is the world we now live in—to do the same.
It is also important to note that the ICC indictments for the conflict in northern Uganda were limited to the LRA leadership. This in effect amounted to the absolution of the Museveni government for its role in fueling the conflict in northern Uganda, as well as that government’s responsibility for the civilian deaths in the region, which former Ugandan ambassador to the United Nations and UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, went so far as to label genocide. Beyond its complicity in human rights violations in northern Uganda, the Museveni regime remains politically repressive of the Ugandan people and has been a key player in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). US military support for Museveni’s army is thus, at a minimum, highly politically charged. So in addition to staking a normative claim, the well-intentioned Kony2012 campaign confers further legitimacy on a politically repressive regime. Furthermore, it also asks that we, the viewers of Kony2012, do the same.
Gross simplification of overwhelming complexity in order to mobilize well-intended action, where the value of the action is determined by the purity of its intentions, is nothing new. In fact, where the African continent is concerned, this approach to humanitarian intervention is hegemonic. Whether the authors and supporters of these interventions intend it or not, what some would have us believe are simply or primarily compassionate acts are also simultaneously normative and political acts with real-life consequences. And any attempt to dismiss efforts to reveal the normative and political agendas of these acts, and their potential negative real-life impact on the basis that such critical analysis operates in the realm of theory should be rejected. Theory-based analysis is vital for making sense of the factual complexity presented by conflicts such as the one at the center of Kony2012’s efforts. It also offers an important means to discovering and explaining the root causes of conflict, and ultimately to recommending solutions to meet the needs of the victims of such conflict. Characterizing theorizing as simply “doing nothing” belies its crucial worth for evaluating humanitarian interventions and the ways they are narrowly tailored to achieve intended results.
In an interview with the BBC in which he responded to the backlash against Kony2012, ICC Chief Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo declared: “Criticism is stupid.” We should reject out of hand and with suspicion (sneering scorn is optional) any attempt to muzzle intellectual contestation of the norms and politics advanced even by compassionate responses to embroiled conflict. This is particularly the case when confronted by those who would have us believe that Africa’s problems are the stuff of an old-school Batman comic—two dimensional, gripping, and conveniently shelvable once the caped hero has zinged the baddy into prison. Kristof’s “Congolese villager” deserves better than that.