What do Bruce Springsteen, KONY2012 and Occupy have to do with one another?

10 Mar

This is a guest blog, courtesy of Brian Foster.

Now, no shells ripped the evening sky
No cities burning down
No army stormed the shores for which we’d die
No dictators were crowned
I awoke on a quiet night; I never heard a sound
The marauders raided in the dark
And they brought death to my hometown…

Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything the found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the street as free men now

They brought death to our hometown

—Bruce Springsteen

This week, a video about Ugandan warlord and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony gained worldwide attention. The video, known as “Kony 2012,” went viral, spreading like wildfire over Twitter and Facebook, racking up almost 70 million views on Youtube – a considerable accomplishment, normally achieved by videos of cats reluctantly playing pianos or projectiles connecting with unfortunate groins.

I finally caved midweek and watched the mini-documentary, and like many other viewers, the film left me more uncomfortable than inspired. Having taught African history to undergrads, I was uneasy with what I recognized to be a rather dangerously simplistic interpretation of the Ugandan conflict in the 2000s. I was especially irked by the documentary’s focus on a single warlord and its proposed solution—bringing Kony to justice and helping the Ugandan army.

Legions of thoughtful and considered commentators have since emerged to point out the weaknesses of Jason Russell’s Kony 2012, as well as to draw attention to some disturbing practices of “Invisible Children,” the American NGO Russell founded and did the documentary for.

Russell has begun to fire back. Responding to the criticism of oversimplifying a complex issue, he has maintained that he is “proud” to “tell a really powerful story.” The oversimplification, he says, was a deliberate attempt at effective messaging. The video aimed to tell the story of the Ugandan conflict, child-soldiers, wide scale rape, and sectarian warfare in a tightly packaged narrative, one that revolved around Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The point was to make the story digestible – easily consumed by those unfamiliar with the complexities of Ugandan history and society.

Importantly, Russell has told a number of publications that he decided to prioritize simplicity and digestibility after seeing the “vague” messaging coming out of, and apparently crippling, the Occupy movement.

Occupy, he told the Toronto Star, lacked branding and focus, and it suffered because of it. Invisible Children learned from this mistake, and decided to whittle its story and its message down to “one bad guy and a solution.”

As Russell put it, Kony 2012 is “really about branding the International Criminal Court as the place to bring people that act like Darth Vader or Lord Voldermort”. The simplicity of the story was an aesthetic decision, a way of promoting The Hague by portraying the story of Uganda’s civil-conflict as a story of Good-Versus-Evil that was easily recognizable to Westerners with Hollywood sensibilities.


Others have already made some crucial and sensible objections to Kony 2012’s approach. Here, I want to make just two.

First, while it may be tempting to portray the world in such a neatly packaged narrative, Lord Voldemort and Darth Vader were not real. (Let’s also not forget that Vader turned good at the last minute, proving that the Dark Side was not absolute… duh.) Reducing the Ugandan conflict to the actions of one horrible man ignores the even more nefarious structural forces that drove a nation into civil war. Plenty has been said on this simplicity, by many who are more qualified than I, so lets leave that criticism at that.

Another, and perhaps more immediate problem with this assessment was the criticism—bordering on dismissal—of the Occupy movement as vague, unfocused and lacking “branding.” To say this of the movement that literally mainstreamed the idea of the 99% vs. the 1%, and which has vaunted the issue of income inequality into the legislative and popular discourse of post-industrial nations across the West, is objectively wrong.

To be sure, this same criticism emerged throughout the early Occupations, as established media outlets and politicians grasped for – guess what – a simple message based on a list of central demands.

Following on the heels of the Arab Spring, which was focused on the highly familiar and age-old liberal cause célèbre of overthrowing dictators, expanding and securing the franchise and opening up nations to global trade, the Occupy movement seemed relatively unfocused. This is perhaps why most media were dismissive of the tight activist networks that developed between Occupy organizers and the Arab Spring, and why so many seemed to celebrate the success of the Arab Spring while bemoaning the lack of a clear message of Occupy.

The thing is, it’s easy to recognize injustice in far-away lands, especially when movements emulsify around the familiar goal of overthrowing a dictator, or putting a despot on trial.

Much more difficult is seeing those struggles, often close to home, that are aimed at dispersed and diffuse social and political systems, and appreciating that they are no less focused and no less legitimate than the ones that aim at a single terrible person.

Yet it is imperative that we do come to recognize and appreciate the legitimacy and urgency of these struggles. The enemy of this “generation” of newly awakened and incensed Western citizens is not a dictator or a despot. Western societies have so internalized the ideals of liberalism that the possibility of sinking into despotism or absolutist rule, at least as we know them, seems distant and unlikely. That is, perhaps, why we are so attracted to the story of Kony 2012. It gives us something recognizable to rail against – a despotic warlord held in the same category of evil as Osama Bin Laden or Hitler. We are attuned to feel and react to that form of power; we know what its abuse looks like, we are plainly aware of the threat it poses, and we are more resistant—though by no means impervious—to it.

But power, including the abuse of it, is no less present or catastrophic in our own society. As Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics make beautifully clear, death is brought to our hometowns silently, in the night, by quiet marauders who walk the streets in daylight.

The great trap of human intelligence is that we are particularly adept at figuring out how to make our own insidious abuses of power seem benign by holding them up against more absolute and recognizable examples.

This is the danger of Kony 2012. It helps us tell ourselves that evil and the abuse of power are things that exist “over there”, and that our own local abuses are much more nuanced and therefore less nefarious for it.

The challenge of our generation, and the challenge recognized by the Occupy movement, is coming to grips with the fact that what oppresses us, and so many others around the world, is not one thing or person. It is systemic, interconnected, driven by a mix of institutional momentum, political clout and the almighty dollar, and it demands broad social movements that are capable of addressing such slippery, quiet, dispersed and nuanced things. If only it were as simple as Kony 2012 makes it out to be – but alas, it’s not.


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