In The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a small town suffering from a rat infestation is greeted by a strange visitor who promises to rid the village of the vermin by playing a magical pipe in exchange for a fee. The townspeople eagerly agree and as promised, the piper plays a song and the rats follow in tow as the piper marches out of town. When the piper returns to the village to collect payment, the people of the town refuse and in retribution, the pied piper sneaks back during the night and plays a song that causes the youth of the village to become so enchanted that they too begin to follow the piper. He lures them out of town just as he did the rats, never to be seen again.
Some historians have equated the Pied Piper of Hamelin with Nicholas of Cologne, who conscripted large numbers of youth from Germany to fight in the disastrous children’s crusade aimed at driving Muslims out of Jerusalem in 1212. While these events took place 800 years ago, liberal youth of today are still all too willing to be enchanted by charismatic leaders championing western ideologies in the defeat of racialized enemies.
The past several days has seen an explosion of attention centered around Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and a man responsible for untold amounts of torment in the form of systematic murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, piracy, and the forced conscription of children into his army. A large segment of America knows of his crimes due to the operations of a project called “Invisible Children”.
Invisible Children (IC) started when a group of young American filmmakers traveled to Africa looking to document the events unfolding in the Darfur region of Sudan. What they came up with was no doubt a very important issue – one of Ugandan child soldiers and the violence committed at the hands of the LRA.
My criticism of the IC campaign generally, and the “Kony 2012” campaign more recently isn’t that it has malicious intention. I have no doubt that the people supporting these projects mean well. However, the form which this message is delivered is one which is saturated with a deeply Eurocentric and patronizing attitude towards those who it affects. My intention is not to argue for inaction or apathy but rather to expose and challenge what I consider to be damaging representations and flawed strategies for addressing global violence.
Two Girls Having Fun Fighting Genocide and Sexual Slavery At An Invisible Children Rally
The Invisible Children franchise makes its finances public and despite it taking in almost 14 million in revenues last year, it spent only $2.8 million on direct services, i.e. services which directly aid those who you see in the videos they create. Despite this, they managed to spend over a million dollars just on travel expenses, which comes down to almost $3,000 per day, every day of the week, all year long.
If you donate to Invisible Children, there is a good chance your money is going to buying these people plane tickets or hotel rooms, not helping those who are being raped, kidnapped or tortured by Joseph Kony’s LRA.
Their official explanation for this is that they prefer to focus on strategies which “raise awareness” instead of direct aid. This of course raises the question- what is the point of raising awareness, if after people are made aware and choose to contribute, that money isn’t actually used to help people? Millions were made aware already. Millions of dollars were donated to their cause. They have chosen to spend a small fraction on directly aiding those they claim to represent and have instead chosen to jet-set around the world, rubbing elbows with politicians, appearing for interviews, amassing celebrity rosters, and generally living like superstars.
If your money isn’t bankrolling their lavish lifestyles, there is a good chance that your donations end up funding the very brutality you thought it was going to stop. Invisible Children, Inc. supports the Ugandan military, which, like the LRA, is known for its use of systematic sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch has noted that the Ugandan Government also engages in torture, extrajudicial killings and forced labor. Some might say this is a necessary evil, justified if it roots out Kony and the LRA. Such an argument however, doesn’t hold water. As we’ve mentioned before, and as multiple intelligence reports confirm, the LRA no longer has a presence in Uganda. Kony has been out of the country for years.
The Creators of Invisible Children Pose With The Ugandan Military
Turning our attention to their most recent publicity stunt, one which has untold numbers of kids on Facebook patting themselves on the back for posting a link in their status updates about it, the group at Invisible Children has released a video which attempts to raise awareness of Joseph Kony so that the world would take notice and presumably do something about it.
Ignoring for a moment that this film is about a decade late in its release and the height of Kony’s violence ended years ago, it is incredibly unclear WHO exactly this film is trying to motivate, or rather, who the average American college student should try to motivate once they watch this film. Surely not our government, as the United States has already launched several attempts on the life of Joseph Kony. In fact, just in October, President Obama sent a ton of Special Forces into Africa to eradicate the LRA.
It also couldn’t be the international community who we are supposed to inform about Mr. Kony’s actions. They have been on the case for years. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Kony in 2005.
The thesis of the Kony 2012 campaign, which is that he is at large because people are just unaware that he is an asshole, would be funny if it were not so terribly sad. The fact that so many people believe something that is so patently and obviously false is astounding.
Of course, such shallow and misleading reporting should not surprise us coming from a group which Foreign Policy has said “manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil”.
More than likely, this is about fame and money for those involved. A quick trip to the Kony 2012 video reveals that the top two ways to help are to “Donate to Invisible Children” and to “Purchase KONY 2012 products”. Of course. No discussion of how to become better informed. No links which can provide us with background information on the conflict. The only ways to help listed are 2 ways to donate money and the option to sign a pledge promising to share the video with more people (who could then potentially donate money).
Jason Russell, the narrator of film and a co-founder of the Invisible Children project provides us with a different explanation for the campaign towards the end of the film, stating
“In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That’s where the American advisors come in. But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them. They’ve done that, but if the government doesn’t believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled.”
Really? That’s interesting, because despite having followed the mission since Policy on Point first covered it last October, I have not been able to find a single instance of the Obama Administration threatening to end it for any reason at all. One would think that if the threat of withdrawing forces is so imminent that it demands a wide-ranging marketing campaign that will no doubt generate millions in donations someone besides the narrator of the film would have heard about it.
Joseph Kony (Far Left) With An United Nations Official
Finally, there is the clear racial element at play in the depictions used in the film. The main character of the film is Gavin, a white, American child (who is the son of the producer), which seems odd given that this is supposed to be a film about an African war criminal and his victims. The film uses constant allusions to the idea that such brutality could never happen in the West, further entrenching the idea of Africa as the dark continent in contrast to America as a safe, enlightened and noble society. What this obscures, of course, are the ways in which Western colonialism created the conditions that led to the formation of the LRA to begin with.
Great Britain colonized Uganda in the 19th century and chose to develop southern Uganda at the expense of the northern part of the country. The people of Northern Uganda, known as the Acholi, were treated terribly by the British and uneven systems of development created a deeply rooted economic divide and resentment that persisted into the 20th century. A Northern Ugandan resistance movement known as the Holy Spirit Movement led an insurrection against the government of Uganda in the 1980′s and an offshoot of this movement came to be known as the LRA.
The narrative of the conflict the film gives is narrow, one-dimensional, and far too simplistic to capture the complexities of what has happened and is continuing to happen in Central Africa. (This is a habitual shortsightedness on the part of the filmmakers, who have previously homogenized those who have been raped in the Congo as simply “The Raped”.) Kony 2012 portrays the issue as though it is a clear good v. evil struggle between the LRA and American/Ugandan freedom fighters. In fact, the narrative becomes so reductionist at one point that the producer directly asks his toddler aged son who “the bad guy” is in Uganda. After a few seconds, the producer confirms that indeed, Joseph Kony is “the bad guy”. In reality, of course, the demarcations of right and wrong are not so simple.
Much of the lines are blurred between good/evil in the region. Atrocities have been committed on both sides and much of the region has connections to either side of the conflict. One of the issues that makes it so hard to prosecute wrong-doing is that there are laws in place within Uganda that still protect members of the LRA. There are paths to amnesty for those who were former LRA members and these laws still enjoy wide support because much of the country has family who are former LRA members.
Of course the film doesn’t go into any of this. The film just asserts blanketly that Kony “must be stopped” and shows several montages of carnage meant to provoke emotions in the viewer which will lead them to give money to the Invisible Children campaign. Between the representations of mutilated black bodies and the call to arms directed for the affluent west to stop the personification of evil in Joseph Kony, it is easy to become enraged and forget that the film gives no mechanism, very little history and almost no serious geopolitical analysis. The film finally ends showing a montage of U.S. celebrities who support their project: Rihanna, George Clooney, Oprah; suggesting that people print flyers and wear bracelets; and of course, asking for money.
The apathy of the West in the face of atrocity is repugnant but perhaps how easily the West is willing to buy into narratives about saving the developing world is equally so. There are ways you can become involved and raise awareness without donating to Invisible Children. Very little of the money they receive actually goes to helping those they claim to represent and there is a high chance it will be used to fund more orientalist propaganda to be consumed by those who feel that linking to a YouTube video equates to “doing your part” to challenge global violence.
To learn more about the game of oil politics surrounding Obama’s decision to deploy troops in October to eradicate the LRA, I highly suggest you read Mark Sheffield’s excellent piece HERE.