Grassroots American Militarism… For the Children

Or “weighing in on the Kony 2012 campaign…”

Here is the video:

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When I first watched it, having seen it posted on facebook by a do-gooder Canadian friend and a very-smart-cookie friend from Africa, I was inspired. To get me to watch anything not related to my studies these days is quite a task, and this video managed to get, and hold, my attention for 30 (precious) minutes.

I reposted it. A couple more of my friends reposted it as well.

And then I saw a message stating that the organization behind it, “Invisible Children,” was “questionable.”

Uh oh. Perhaps this is “Three cups of Tea” all over again?

After reading this (npr) and this (jezebel) I’ve decided that my enthusiasm for the video and the awareness it attempts to raise is not the least diminished.

Here’s why:

  1. It appears (and nobody has disputed) that this grassroots campaign has rather amazingly led to the US government committing resources to capturing a criminal who in no way threatens US security of economic interests. Now, I’m a peace-loving hippy liberal Buddhist, but I do think America and other nations that have grown wealthy on the backs of those in other countries have a moral responsibility to help innocent people in those countries.
  2. Joseph Kony, like Slobadon MilosovicMuammar Gaddafi, and many others has committed unthinkable atrocities and must be brought to justice.
  3. Like many of you, I didn’t know who Joseph Kony was before I saw this video. Now I will never forget his name, his crimes, or his face.
  4. I didn’t plan on committing financially to the cause (I’m poor and I have a few charities that my spare nickels already go toward), but I was encouraged to spread the word and still am. You can check out Visible Children, a site often referred to in the criticism of Invisible Children, for other organizations that you can support.
  5. Building on the last two points, the best part of the video is its ability to raise awareness an to empower others to do likewise. As a Buddhist and an educator I think it is too often simple ignorance that prevents us from doing the right thing.
  6. What caught my attention was that he was the #1 Most Wanted man according to the International Criminal Court. I haven’t actually been able to verify that status, but if that is the case, and people like me still didn’t know who Joseph Kony was, then bravo Invisible Children for raising awareness where it was needed.

Some of the criticisms of the video are just silly. From the jezebel story:

That idea is to make Kony, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, into a household name. The video profiles Jacob, a Ugandan boy whose brother was killed by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which routinely abducts children and turns them into soldiers — but it also cuts away from his story to scenes of non-profit members showing adorable blonde kids photos of “the bad guy” to make sure Americans don’t get too bored with the facts.

“Bringing it home” to the filmmaker’s “blonde kid” isn’t really a problem for me. I remember Al Gore talking about his tobacco farm and loss of his sister in An Inconvenient Truth and appreciating the personal side of his story, which, if I’m not mistaken, helps the rest of us relate and make it personal to us. Do you really want a lecture? Just a list of facts? It’s not just “Americans” who get bored with lists of facts…

But the self-satisfied voiceover and slick editing reminded me of the most obnoxious Kickstarter-funded documentaries I’ve been asked to fund. Is that truly a reason not to get behind a worthy cause? Not really.

So why bring it up? A bit of self-indulgent cynicism perhaps? Yes, it’s a well-made video, and it has voice-overs. If you’re a fan of the BBC and David Attenborough, you’ll get off your high horse and actually appreciate decent editing and some ‘tasteful’ voiceover (video below).

Again from From the jezebel story: From Yale Professor Chris Blattman:

“[The video] feels much the same, laced with more macho bravado. The movie feels like it’s about the filmmakers, and not the cause.

Me: I didn’t ‘feel’ that. But okay.

There might be something to the argument that American teenagers are more likely to relate to an issue through the eyes of a peer. That’s the argument that was made after the first film. It’s not entirely convincing, especially given the distinctly non-teenage political influence IC now has. The cavalier first film did the trick. Maybe now it’s time to start acting like grownups.

Me: Not sure what this is about exactly…

There are a few other things that are troubling. It’s questionable whether one should be showing the faces of child soldiers on film. And watching the film one gets the sense that the US and IC were instrumental in getting the peace talks to happen. These things diminish credibility more than anything.

Me: I didn’t get that ‘sense’ either – only that Kony was using peace talks as a ploy to rearm. So no credibility lost here.

“Invisible Children is staffed by douchebags”

“Now when I first watched the Kony 2012 video, there was a horrible pang of self-knowledge as I finally grasped quite how shallow I am. I found it impossible to completely overlook the smug indie-ness of it all. It reminded me of a manipulative technology advert, or the Kings of Leon video where they party with black families, or the 30 Seconds to Mars video where all the kids talk about how Jared Leto’s music saved their lives. I mean, watch the first few seconds of this again. It’s pompous twaddle with no relevance to fucking anything.”

Me: Really? Funny, but the video didn’t immediately draw my mind to any music videos or movie stars (perhaps I’m too far out of pop culture for that). And “no relevance…”? Yes, I suppose if I go back to your first sentence, “I finally grasped quite how shallow I am” then I can make sense of the rest of the paragraph. Connecting child soldiers, systematic murder, rape, and gorilla warfare in Africa with Kings of Leon? Shallow. Very. Enough said.


As with any causes, movements, or the like, do your due diligence. While I wasn’t going to donate money to this cause, I am grateful for Visible Children and others for poking around and showing that other charities might be better choices. But I am still very grateful to Invisible Children for bringing awareness to this issue which would otherwise still be hidden… Cynicism, especially to the extent displayed by some, really has no useful purpose in the world we live in.

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  • NellaLou

    “It appears (and nobody has disputed) that this grassroots campaign has rather amazingly led to the US government committing resources to capturing a criminal who in no way threatens US security of economic interests.”

    US gov & many others have been committing resources to this for several decades. Sanctions, advisers, weapons, etc. Example: This hardly came about because of this, or any of the other 11 videos these guys have put out (at a cost of over 8 million dollars).

    I’ve got more but I’ll save it for my own blog.

    • Justin Whitaker

      I might be reading this wrong, but the article seems to be about a tour and a ‘verbal assault’ – no mention of troops/military advisors or the likes.

      Here is their breakdown of expenses (for 2011 at least):

      I look forward, as always, to reading your post.

  • Richard Harrold

    Thank you for the very thorough analysis. When I was first asked to attend an event through a Facebook friend, I wondered what the heck this was all about. Then I watched the video. I felt compelled to do something. Anything. As I mentioned to another, yes the world is full of intrigue and duplicity, and against the powers that be I may never be able to do anything significant to alter their course. But I can alter mine. I can stand for something. I can show compassion. Even if that compassion is impotent. Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. Either I am an ox dragging a cart, or a shadow weightless without burden.

  • Karma Yonten Gyatso

    Without disputing the horrific nature of Kony’s crimes, it is worth noting several other criticisms of the movie and its producers, based on facts brought forward by other commentators…
    1. Kony’s activities in Uganda occurred more than six years ago, contrary to what is implied in the movie. The country is working hard to rebuild, while his reduced band of bandits has been pushed into much less-populated jungle areas to the west.
    2. As a charity, Invisible Children has distributed less than 35% of the money it has raised, using the rest for salaries and self-promotion. That is a very low throughput for a charity which has no specific proof-of-success criteria.
    3. American involvement in foreign wars has always come at a high cost.

    A very quick perusal of other media will yield much information upon which one can decide how to respond to the video. It is not constructive to imply that doing nothing on this particular atrocity negates the value of working for the causes of Burma or Tibet, or of simply living as best we can in our own communities as a valid practice.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Well, I’ll just add the ICC chief prosecutor’s comments and leave it at that for now:

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