The time has come, the walrus said, “To talk of many things. Of Joseph Kony’s awful acts and little beads of string. And the limits of our caring tweets in the face of complex things.”

IT TAKES A LOT to make a child soldier.

Given a choice, many an abducted child would seize the first available opportunity to escape and return home, making it difficult to raise an army of hardened soldiers from kidnapped children. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) solved this problem years ago by making kidnapped children kill or mutilate their parents and siblings — often publicly — to ensure that they would never be able to return to their communities and be accepted again.

Cut off from a family that you were forced to kill, and a community that would never really be able to forgive you, it becomes easier as the months go by to make the most of what you have. It’s a twisted kind of stockholm syndrome that keeps individuals — men and women — fighting in the LRA, often for years.

It’s obvious that Joseph Kony is a grade-A nasty fucker.

It’s obvious that Joseph Kony is a grade-A nasty fucker. But realising that there is a problem doesn’t automatically make the solution obvious. And outrage, while fantastic at getting people off their couches and out onto the streets with banners and bracelets is, almost by definition, not an intelligent response.

Kony2012, frankly, is the wrong solution, pursued in a deeply manipulative, ethically compromised fashion. Yet even in getting slammed hard by op-eds across the Internet, it may inadvertently be able to do what it really needs to. To not realise the grossly simplified logic of its proposed solution, but to get a greater number of people thinking about at least two very important things:

  1. how we think about Africa, and
  2. how we think about the problem of Joseph Kony.

Maybe, when the tweets die down, nothing changes. But maybe, just possibly, Kony2012 could be the cinematic shtick that pokes a very large bear of a debate about central Africa. The stick bearers themselves might not appreciate the consequences, but it will have put something large and useful into motion.

There are really two key issues here — the way the video itself represents the situation, and the solution to the ‘Kony Problem’ it proposes. Well, actually, there are a whole bunch more questions than that, but there is only so much coffee in the world, and it is best spent on core issues.

So what’s wrong with the video?

Is the story a problem? And if it’s a problem, do we really care, as long as it results in catching Kony? Unfortunately yes, it is a problem, and, yes, we do.

The catalogue of offenses that the video stands accused of is long. It’s a narcissistic reinforcement of the idea that only the white Westerner can save Africa. It fails to acknowledge that Kony is no longer in Uganda, or even in the DRC, as far as anyone knows. We think he is in the Central African Republic (CAR — and yes, that’s a country), but nobody has really seen him in a while. That’s what happens when you are the #1 most wanted criminal on the International Criminal Court watchlist.

The producers also appear to have incredibly suspicious ethics when it comes to interviewing traumatised minors, and depending on what your views are on the profitability of working at a not for profit, Invisible Children may or may not pay its founders too much money for creative work.

On this last point, there are actually two divergent strains of angry objection. The first is that the IC founders earn too much. This is really for you to decide. The second is that they don’t spend enough money “doing real stuff” like building schools and other on-the-ground-projects in Uganda. This latter argument, though, assumes that every NGO should be judged on the basis of whether or not they “do real stuff,” and implies that advocacy and media (which is where a good chunk of IC revenue goes) is not real stuff. That’s wrong.

Whether you think they executed the Kony2012 campaign well or not, advocacy is a valuable activity when done correctly. Subject to a whole host of other variables, media exposure can have an effect on both policy decisions and humanitarian response. So spending money on making films may seem like first-world decadence, but is actually a useful tool in shaping responses to issues.

How useful depends on how you tell your story, and it’s here that the video moves from being an embarrassing outpouring of postcolonial caring to something actively harmful. Because stories, you see, construct the ways in which we understand the world. The more stories you hear, and the more detailed they are, the more likely that you acquire a complex understanding of the world being described. The fewer stories, and the simpler they are, the less you understand.

…it’s easy to believe that all we need to do is overcome some sort of political constipation in Washington in order to apprehend some jungle-bound Hitler.

That offensively obvious observation has profound implications for how you are able to react to problems like Joseph Kony when Invisible Children, to a large degree, frames your understanding of the issue. Unless you are being deliberately critical, or know something of Uganda, the DRC, and the LRA for yourself, it’s easy to believe that all we need to do is overcome some sort of political constipation in Washington in order to apprehend some jungle-bound Hitler. Then all will be well.

It won’t?

No, because what’s left out complicates the picture. And the video leaves out a huge amount. Most obviously, as others have pointed out, Kony is not in Uganda anymore. He hasn’t been for years. Gulu, in Northern Uganda, is as safe for visitors as Luang Prabang. And probably has better beer.

He isn’t even in the Democratic Republic of Congo anymore, actually. So catching him will be a great deal more complicated than a simple hop across the border by the Ugandan military.

This child is adorable. He is also a very poor source of foreign policy. From Invisible Children

Also left out is what happens when the Ugandan military does hop across the border to the DRC — whether to catch Kony in the jungle he is not in (according to the IC version) or on the way to the CAR (in reality). The UPDF (that’s the Ugandan army, for acronym junkies) has a terrible reputation in the DRC. It includes arming local groups in Ituri district in 2003, ensuring a massacre when they left, and having an ongoing habit for sneaking minerals and rare timber across the border. So it is not at all clear that allowing them back across the border would not be the strategic equivalent of placing a large, kleptomaniac bull in a fragile post-conflict china shop.

Finally, the LRA is more than Joseph Kony. As far as anyone can tell, the LRA is a distributed, guerrilla army made up of multiple semi-autonomous bands of troops. Will capturing Kony make them cease activities? The truth is that we don’t know, but it seems unlikely.

The video hides these issues, and so much more. Because the more you know, the more troublesome the mantra of “catch Kony” becomes.

To which the anguished reply of the bracelet-wearing will inevitably be “at least we are doing something,” smugly clothed in a warm blanket of self-assurance that an impassioned something is better than the status quo. The problem, though, is that a great number of people who have lived or studied the history of the LRA have actually been doing a huge amount to repair this part of the world.

It’s this work that created the psychosocial support networks to rehabilitate returned soldiers, and the demobilisation campaigns that brought them out of the bush in the first place. They are also the people hung up on the debates about whether it is more important to bring Kony to justice, or to negotiate with him to shut down his operation — all of it — for good.

These debates are difficult. Difficult because of history, because of politics, because of the memories of the families who lost so much to the LRA. But they must be had if the scourge of the LRA is to ever be properly ended. The simplified understandings of the “do somethings” are the very opposite of an inclusive, considered approach. Ugandans have no voice in their solutions. Affected communities in the DRC and further north are irrelevant, except as silent victims in whose name we are commanded to tweet. Nobody, except millions of outraged middle-class Westerners, has a voice and an opinion based on a 30-minute summary of something so very much more complex.

Raising an army is much easier when the issues are fun and simple.

Passion and outrage is good insofar as it can push politicians to engage with the issues. If it can force the US to endorse proper procedural justice for war crimes offenders such as Kony rather than targeted killings, that will be an important, if small, shift by the country towards participating in a less hypocritical system of international law. If the debate between pro and anti Kony2012 camps forces both to go out and understand the history and politics of Northern Uganda, South Sudan, and the Congo wars, then perhaps an intelligent, educated activism can emerge.

If it turns into a war of memes and counter-memes, then Invisible Children has succeeded in little more than turning what should be a major humanitarian concern into a vehicle for narcissistic Facebook castle building. Part of engaging with the problems of Ah-free-kah is understanding that it’s not a single, exotic place, onto which the West can project its worst postcolonial fantasies and photoshopped jokes involving black children and Kony2012 references.

The video was the elegantly produced historical baggage of the West’s problematic ideas of Africa. But Joseph Kony does exist, and he is a royal arsehole deserving of a powerful reaction by any right-thinking individual. But taking a stand and making a difference is going to start with understanding what is actually going on, and pushing for an appropriately intelligent response.

It’s a lot less cool than a wristband and an activism pack, but your money would be much better spent on a book or two. It’s a bit more like hard work, but that’s what changing the world sometimes demands of you.

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