17 April 2012
“Protest 2.0—KONY 2012”
In this long season of occupation and in the wake of the fallout of Tahrir Square and the failures of the global community thus far in the ongoing Syrian uprising, there has emerged an unexpectedly potent campaign that takes its cues from the global occupy movements but diverges in a few marked—and potentially instructive—ways.
On the fifth of March, the San Diego-based NGO Invisible Children released a thirty minute video piece, KONY 2012, that rapidly set the record for “most viral video,” racking up some 100 million views as it coursed through the internet, accelerated by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and alternating barrages of fascination and snark on news aggregation blogs such as Gawker. The premise of the video was straightforward: draw attention to Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an Acholi nationalist group formerly based in Uganda that has, over the past two and a half decades, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The LRA is noted among central African rebel groups for its consistent use of the most heinous of tactics: rape, sexual slavery, mass murder, mutilations, and the abduction and impressment of at least 30,000 child soldiers. Like the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the ongoing multi-partite conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the LRA’s trans-state crimes against humanity have remained one of those seemingly intractable problems, just beyond the reach of NATO security interests and military capabilities.
Enter Invisible Children, a production company in the guise of a charity, which has organized what is, by all accounts, a truly international community under the premise that an aggregation of young people can give voice to the “invisible” children of northern Uganda. Until late 2011, the group relied on letter writing campaigns, meetings with congressional delegations, and choreographed rallies (all assiduously documented) in order to pressure western governments to send military advisers and materiel to the Ugandan army, in order to rout the LRA forces once and for all. The organization also creates full-on documentary work during their visits to central Africa, interviewing children, community leaders, and sympathetic politicians, and it claims to funnel resources for development projects, such as schools, directly to localities. In effect, Invisible Children aims to pressure conventional state agencies, and also to bypass them.
The 5 March KONY 2012 video was something of a study in narrative tension. It introduces the audience to the LRA and to Invisible Children by way of two real “characters.” One is a young Ugandan boy named Jacob, who escaped the LRA, but whose brother was murdered and who subsequently met Invisible Children founder Jason Russell. The other is Russell’s own son, an angelic toddler who conveniently serves as both a telegenic western youth, and a proxy for the audience itself, which is collectively (but through no fault of its own!) unaware of Kony’s atrocities. In a remarkably telling bit of cinema verité, Russell shows his son a picture of Kony, and explains that not only is he a warlord, but has also hurt Jacob, beloved of the Russell family. The moral imperative laid out here is not complex: to know Kony is to know evil, and now that we know Kony, he must be stopped. Even a child can see that.
The rest of the video uses stirring music and quicksilver editing to create tension and possible release. There are U.S. troops in Uganda now, but they will be withdrawn by year’s end unless the viewer succeeds in “making Kony famous.” This can be done by targeting opinion makers from Condoleeza Rice to Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie, as well as influential congressional leaders. The viewer can also help by donating small sums online to Invisible Children and by participating in a “Cover the Night” campaign on 20 April to wheatpaste, stencil, sticker, and yard sign its KONY 2012 materials—themselves striking persimmon and blue, and expertly designed—in order to create an unmistakable visual spectacle in cities throughout the world. The video is slickly executed and is by turns informative, haunting, and inspiring. It received considerable and immediate scrutiny, however, for its simplistic geopolitical calculus and its less than subtle metonymy, focusing as it did on Russell and his family, rather than taking a more “objective” documentary approach. The goodwill ginned up by the KONY 2012 video seemed to be drowned out by schadenfreude a scant two weeks later, when Russell was found naked and apparently masturbating in public, soon to be hospitalized for a stress-induced “reactive psychosis.”
It is unclear what the fate of Invisible Children will be, in light of its rapid absorption by the media, both old and new, and the lingering stain of its spokesman’s highly public unraveling. We will have to wait until 21 April, the day after “Cover the Night,” to determine the efficacy of its call to arms, and likely many more months before the effect of such an action can be gauged. In the meantime, I want to argue that KONY 2012 is already highly significant as an aesthetic and political action—particularly in light of its technological and temporal proximity to Occupy—for three reasons.
1. It is concrete rather than abstract. Specifically, the KONY 2012 project has one goal, to bring Joseph Kony to justice and disband the LRA. It seeks to do so by raising Kony’s own profile in order to put political pressure on western governments to send military aid to central Africa. In this sense, Invisible Children is a deftly engineered lobbying organization based around a single issue. While it seeks to create a critical mass, culminating in an “occupation” of urban visual space, it does so not as an act of protest but, rather, in favor of a rather conventional military action. The contrast to other occupations this past year could not be more pronounced: Tahrir Square was largely a sustained mass gathering in favor of broad Enlightenment ideals of freedom and representative government and, more specifically, against calcified authoritarian regime; OWS and its local cells, for its part, seems to be a generalized revolt not against capitalism per se, but neoliberalism’s failure to sustainably elevate people into the middle class which is, here, opposed to a nebulous “1%” that one “knows when they see it.”
The occupation of Tahrir Square, fueled by international media coverage and social media as logistical apparatus, has seemingly stalled in the face of a real electoral process; OWS is tentatively reconvening after a winter hiatus. Both formations gained legitimacy and an aesthetic quality from their appeals to twentieth-century modes of address (the non-violent sit-in or march) and generalized humanist ambitions, such as individual rights, liberty, and justice. Seen in photographs and on screen, these gatherings became (and in many cases were organized to read as) sublime agglomerations not unlike the pointalist grandeur of an Andreas Gursky photograph. In the logic of occupation, individuals are subsumed into the mass, and systematically replaced by other symbolic abstractions: the Egyptian flag; the pithy protest slogan. As Siegfried Kracauer famously argued, this sort of “mass ornament” is an ambivalent byproduct of twentieth-century capitalism, and one that perhaps dangerously substitutes abstraction for concreteness.
Perhaps this is a fitting capstone to a decade of spreading “freedom” in the Middle East and fighting a ceaseless war on “terror.” KONY 2012 neatly reverses this ratio. Rather than subsuming individuals into a mass, it aggregates individual subjects organized remotely and appealed to on the level of individual virtue or vanity. Whereas a century’s worth of war crimes were at least partially prosecuted on the basis that wider polities were simply “in the dark,” the KONY 2012 argument is that knowledge can quite directly be translated into individual action and, ultimately, the documentation of such action in blog posts, protest songs, and Tumblr feeds. There is less a modernist project at work here than a tactics that recognizes the hive-like interconnections of a digitally networked world. In other words, where social media gave logistical support to movements whose ends—whose medium—was occupation itself, KONY 2012’s medium is the social network, its ends concrete and political, and occupation itself a periodic maneuver.
2. KONY 2012 is conventionally political, but according to new rules of politics. One of the project’s most striking signs and animations features a donkey and an elephant converging on an olive branch, amidst a blue and red color-scheme, and reads: “One Thing We Can All Agree On.” In this way, the sign both invokes the American political divide, and also looks to a post-partisan politics of pragmatism. If this sounds familiar, it should: this was precisely Barack Obama’s pitch in both his 2004 DNC speech and his 2008 campaign. Invisible Children has similarly appropriated Obama’s use of savvy street art-inspired design by the likes of Shepard Fairey, the power of large individual donations of small sums online, and the promise that an aggregation of young people can improve the world. This is measured not by overturning the political order, but by making it more responsive and, in instances where it fails, getting at a problem directly. In this sense, KONY 2012 is also indebted to the recent boom in micro-lending and an emergent culture of responsible consumerism.
Where it has been common during the past decade to attend an array of protests, from Seattle in 1999 to regular IMF/World Bank rallies and, now, OWS, and leave feeling inspired but powerless, the allure of KONY 2012 is that its videos outline an unequivocal injustice, and offers explicit and measurable inroads into an existing political framework. That framework, part old-school Beltway, part web 2.0 charity, gelled during the Obama administration and, in this election cycle, is the new normal. This is a profound relief for those of us weaned on mass rallies that seemed to invoke the heyday of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam movements, but offered none of their catharsis. When a President can dismiss an anti-war gathering as a thrilling exercise in democracy and nothing more, sitting in against neoliberalism and for socialism (or anarchy!) begins to feel like tilting at windmills.
3. KONY 2012 is unabashedly enmeshed with capitalism and the neoliberal order. Invisible Children has received criticism for its bottom line ratio of donations to operating costs, that, essentially, it is not a pure non-profit. This argument misses the point: Invisible Children is a media company that coordinates charitable giving and lobbies people with influence, be they celebrities or political stakeholders. All evidence suggests that they are very good at this—they succeeded in getting the Obama administration and Congress to authorize limited support for the Ugandan army in the first place, and they have since doubled-down with the KONY 2012 campaign, to ensure that their initial success is cemented. Why is Invisible Children effective as a lobbying organization? For one, they are talented marketers, having developed a simple message, clear brand-identity, and a promised outcome that is both desirable and attainable if, and only if, the audience buys what they are selling.
What is vexing here, is that the KONY 2012 materials—street art kits, yard signs, viral videos, a fluid web interface—betray the growing inseparability between art, fashion, and commerce. KONY 2012 looks and feels like a cross between an ad for a Google product and an inspirational car commercial, it is scored with twee world music from Mumford and Sons and de rigueur dubstep by Flux Pavilion, and its 4/20 “bombing” of the streets loops participants into the practice of urban graffiti on a day synonymous with smoking marijuana. Doctrinaire criticisms aside, the campaign has been successful at garnering attention and, regardless of the organization’s direction as of 4/21, roughly 100 million people or more are now talking about the LRA. What’s more, Invisible Children has adopted the nimble pragmatism of silicon valley and the war room mentality of the twenty-four hour news cycle. The organization responds point-by-point to an already enormous constituency (then amplified by reposts and blogs) to criticisms leveled at it, and on 5 April, it released a sequel video in which Russell was scrubbed from the proceedings, and a numbers-oriented and Africa-centered reboot was voiced by the sober Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey.
Again, the endgame and efficacy of KONY 2012 remains to be seen, but for now, NGOs such as Amnesty International are already cheered by Invisible Children’s seeming success at crossing the line into overt commercialism, which suggest a vast new donor base and source of political muscle. Such a concession to consumerist, lifestyle activism is likely precisely the sort of sell-out that stalwarts such as Immanuel Wallerstein decry in the current political environment, but it may also be an example of not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Vis-à-vis more conventional mass movements, one immediate effect of KONY 2012 is a shift in temporal approach—the 4/20 event, to which the two videos are leading, are less a grueling act of occupational attrition (and hence duration) but an act of singular spectacle that is a means to a measurable political and (ultimately) juridical end, rather than an end unto itself. Perhaps, then, Invisible Children has ironically taken notice of that paradigmatic shift that inaugurated the century: a well-orchestrated terrorist assault, the sort of visual and media spectacle that decisively shakes a society loose from its present bearings. While Occupy appears to be making the mistake of fighting the previous war, KONY 2012 rather pragmatically assumes the techniques of asymmetric warfare against a dangerous and elusive foe.
 The larger arc of humanitarian relief and its military feasibility is central to the larger conversation, but too sweeping to take up in detail here. See, for example, Angelo Izama, “In Uganda, Kony is Not the Problem,” New York Times, 20 March 2012, online; and Mareike Schomerus, Tim Allen, and Koen Vlassenroot, “KONY 2012 and the Prospects for Change: Examining the Viral Campaign,” Foreign Affairs, online feature, available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137327/mareike-schomerus-tim-allen-and-koen-vlassenroot/kony-2012-and-the-prospects-for-change?page=show.
 In The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
 For a reflection on the information and logistical problems that bedeviled the American and European response to the Rwandan genocide, see Alan J. Kuperman, “Rwanda in Retrospect,” Foreign Affairs 79(January-February 2000): 94-118.
 More on this in Kate Linthicum, “Tagged, he’s it: Election Becomes their Turf,” Los Angeles Times, 23 August 2008, online.
 Tellingly, even the LRA itself is responding to the campaign, arguing that Invisible Children is distorting the facts and smearing the rebel army. See “Kony’s Henchmen Speak Out Against ‘Manipulative’ Kony 2012 Campaign,” Gawker reposted from Jezebel, available online at: http://gawker.com/5900296/konys-henchmen-speak-out-against-manipulative-kony-2012-campaign?tag=kony2012.
 Jennifer Preston, “Sequel to ‘Kony 2012’ Video Addresses Critics and Outlines Call for Action,” New York Times, 5 April 2012, online.
 J. David Goodman, “Backlash Aside, Lessons Found in ‘Kony 2012’ Web Video by Charities,” New York Times, 16 March 2012, online.
 See, for example, his full throated defense-cum-eulogy for radical left politics in “Remembering Andre Gunder Frank While Thinking About the Future,” Monthly Review (June 2008): online.
 Indeed, the campaign has already created a running forum about the place of humanitarian relief and war crimes in the upcoming U.S. election cycle. See Michael Abramowitz, “Beyond Kony: How to Prevent Atrocities Before They Happen,” New York Times, 28 March 2012, online.