Lots of Problems with Kony2012, But Let’s Give Jason Russell a Break

No sooner had I posted my second piece about the problems with the Kony2012 video than I started hearing that Jason Russell, co-leader of Invisible Children and star of the video, in which he explains Joseph Kony to his 5-year-old son, than I started hearing that Russell had been arrested for public masturbation. Apparently, he broke under the pressure generated by the video and the criticism it invoked, and reacted by taking off his clothes and otherwise misbehaving in public. You can read a pretty objective account of this, with quotations from both sides and a link to a video apparently of the naked Russell, in the Guardian, here.

In today’s political climate of bitterness and invective, it’s tempting to use the opportunity to ridicule Russell, and by extension his approach to world politics (“get the bad guys”), and many critics have not been able to resist this temptation. Sarcastic remarks are flying through twitterspace (e.g., “Now Jason Russell has another difficult thing to explain to his 5-year-old).

It’s also true that the incident has made us more aware of some of the relevant facts: that Russell is an evangelical Protestant, backed by right-wing religious groups, for example.

That said, I think it’s time to give him a break. The video was superficial, insulted people in Uganda (in fact, in all of Africa), and treated the public as if we were all five years old. That was true before he broke down, and it’s true today. But Jason Russell is a troubled human being who needs some space, and some medical care. Let’s let him have it, while we concentrate on the real issue: how to end the system of land grabs, mineral exploitation, and wars, all sponsored by giant capitalist corporations, that is causing so many problems in Africa.

Clarifying the Kony Video Debate

As the debate over the Kony 2012 video released by Invisible Children continues, the issues are becoming clearer. On one side, this March 14 column by Nick Kristof – a journalist with a strong record for supporting human rights – gives the video a “bravo. . .for galvanizing young Americans to look up from their iPhones and seek to make a difference for villagers in central Africa who continue to be murdered, raped and mutilated by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.” Kristof characterizes the negative reaction as “the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”

On the other side, writing from Uganda, Adam Branch – who has worked in Uganda for 10 years, mostly with a Gulu-based human rights organization – writes an opinion piece for Al-Jazeera English in which he argues that “As a result of Invisible Children’s irresponsible advocacy, civilians in Uganda and central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money.” Al-Jazeera also shows this video from Lira, in which a crowd of Kony’s victims are so angered by the video that they hurl rocks at the screen and force its showing to stop.

In this press release from the Institute for Public Accuracy, Kambale Musavuli of Friends of the Congo criticizes the video for supporting the government of Uganda – an oppressive dicatorship – and promoting US military intervention.

Reading and viewing these articles and videos, I’ve come to the conclusion that the real issue is what we think of the US role in the world. For Kristof that role is unproblematically benign. He expects that, if the US intervenes militarily to support human rights, that intervention actually will support human rights. He does criticize our government, but mostly for not intervening (Bahrain) or for intervening too late (Bosnia, Sudan).

For the critics, on the other hand, US intervention is always suspect. Far too often – in fact, almost always – such intervention turns out to be deadly for the people it was supposedly going to help. This has been the case in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – to name the big ones – but also in Somalia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and many smaller cases. Even the supposed successes are ambiguous: our intervention freed Kosovo from Serbian rule, but installed a fundamentalist government that commits regular atrocities against those Serbs still living in Kosovo.

The US has already sent a couple hundred troops to Uganda, months before this video was released. It’s hard to see the video as much more than an attempt to whitewash this intervention.