Fri. April 20
Kony 2012: A Retrospective
by Nash Keune
April 20th is, among other things, the day the Kony 2012 campaign singled out for nationwide “Cover the Night” events. But, despite the popularity of the Kony 2012 video only six weeks ago, this capstone event has gotten little fanfare.
Because of my tendency to reflexively avoid anything that it seems like everyone else on Facebook is talking about (a tendency which has served me well–I was able to ignore Rebecca Black for months), I didn’t watch the original Kony 2012 video until my roommate insisted I watch so we could mock it together. By then, this new, Facebook-era, commercialized humanitarianism offered by Kony 2012 was dominating my social media feeds. Tweets and Facebook statuses were the main accessories of this crisis chic, although hip STOP KONY string bracelets would become available later in the season.
But the backlash was already starting. It turned out that Kony might actually be dead already. At least he’s on the run, so there are at least a dozen international criminal entities more deserving of Internet celebrity. Anyway, Obama already sent troops–what more can we expect? Strict anti-interventionists already thought that amount of involvement in an entangled foreign affair was too much. Kony was orders of magnitude less effectively evil than Saddam Hussein–are we to intervene in Uganda just because we send them TOMS? Some African commentators felt patronized by the Whole Foods brand of the White Man’s burden. Did white, upper-middle class American teenagers really think they could solve Africa by liking a status?
In our collective conscious, Africa in specific and the non-Western world in general often seems like a sort of depoliticized or unpoliticized continent. Nicolas Kristof is arguably the thought leader of this brand of internationalism. As Elliott Prasse-Freeman discussed, his typical story includes four parts:
(1) a construction of a bestial and demonic Other creating a spectacle of violence; (2) a rendering of the object of that horror—a depoliticized, abject victim, usually no more than a body; (3) a presentation of a (potential) salvific savior figure (typically the West writ large or a Western agent—some teleological process immanent in capitalism or development, the reader himself [who can act by donating money], and almost always Kristof himself as well); and (4) an introduction of potential linkages with larger systems and structures … only to immediately reterritorialize around the non-political solutions and the savior implementing them.
The Kony 2012 video, narrated by Jason Russell of Invisible Children, employed this script perfectly. There’s a barrage of images of children mangled, dead, or living in abject conditions. Kony, never situated within a social, economic, political, or historic sphere, is so evil, even a five year old could point out that he’s a bad guy (a point reenforced a few minutes into the video, when Russell’s adorable five year old son Gavin points to Kony and says he’s a bad guy). The pain is localized and humanized by the Russell’s “friend” Jacob, a Ugandan boy he’s taken a special interest in. Right now the savior is the Invisible Children campaign, but you can join in by giving a small donation and trying to move American politicians and celebrities to action. There are only the briefest hints of the lack of local political order which enabled Kony’s rise, but you can help solve all of that and make the world safe for Jacob (and, weirdly, Gavin–Russell closes by wistfully imagining Gavin growing up in a world without Kony).
This image of Africa as a nonpolitical morass–as if Africans only started forming poleis in the age of Joseph Conrad–fits perfectly into our current, new-media environment. Social media have become an integral part of our self-fashioning, not just self-branding. Kony was originally successful because it engaged people who are hungry for meaning in an increasingly digital world abstracted from human interaction. And Kony 2012 didn’t ask for a long-term, deep engagement with the issue–all you needed to contribute was a Facebook page. But people who are looking for meaning on Facebook, who would be motivated by snappily edited YouTube videos to spread the word on Twitter and Facebook (i.e. the people who made Kony go viral) are still creatures of Facebook, who run through two memes a week. In short, Kony was momentarily important for the same reason that its big day of action is going largely unobserved–it engaged the ephemerality of Web 2.0.