When and how so many Americans, young people in particular, were convinced, or convinced themselves, that awareness offers the key to righting wrongs wherever in the world they may be is hard to pinpoint. But whatever else it does and fails to do, Kony 2012, the 30-minute video produced by a previously obscure California- and Uganda-based charity called Invisible Children that seeks to "make Joseph Kony famous in 2012" so that this homicidal bandit leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa will be hunted down and turned over to the International Criminal Court, illustrates just how deeply engrained in American culture this assumption has now become.
As a film, as history, and as policy analysis, there is little to be said for Kony 2012 except that its star and narrator, Jason Russell, the head of Invisible Children, and his colleagues seem to have their hearts in the right place. But this do-good spirit is suffused with an almost boastful naiveté and, more culpably, an American middle-class provincialism that illustrates beautifully the continuing relevance of the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. At one point, Russell's commentary over a scene of a center in a northwestern Uganda town where children who have fled their villages for fear of LRA attacks are seeking shelter is "If [this] happened one night in America, it would be on the cover of Newsweek," says Russell. Russell's argument is that the rise of global connectivity means that we are all "living in a new world" of plugged-in citizens who can change the world through the new modes of activism that Kony 2012 exemplifies -- earlier in the film he trumpets the fact that there are more people "on Facebook than were on the planet 200 years ago." But Russell's is a bogus globalism: His film basically ignores the world outside North America, where the people he is trying to mobilize live, and central Africa, where Kony and his victims are.
And whatever Russell may imagine, there is nothing new about that binary view at all. To the contrary, if the narrative structure of Kony 2012 is reminiscent of anything, it is of a tried and true paternalism that the missionaries milked for all it was worth when they returned to the metropole from the outposts of the British and French empires in which they were working. Rather than trying to inspire, inform, and mobilize kids through the efficiencies of Facebook to care about faraway tragedies and needs, the missionaries had to content themselves with the largely retail work of mobilizing the faithful. The film is full of Russell's techno-utopian pontificating about connectivity turning the world upside-down, transforming politics, and instilling on a mass scale an ethic of borderless caring -- a message underscored by Jedidiah Jenkins, Invisible Children's "director of idea development," who told a reporter that the film had created "a tipping point" in getting young people to care about something that did not affect them.
But unless you truly believe that "the medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan -- the Canadian futurologist who coined the expression "the global village" more than half a century ago -- kept insisting, then what Kony 2012 exemplifies is not new thinking but a new delivery system for the humanitarian wing of the old imperial enterprise, in all its stunning condescension toward the Global South, its sense of entitlement, and not just its contempt for both historical and moral complexity and ambiguity, but its actual reveling in that ignorance.
In fairness, Russell has made no secret of this. The film "definitely oversimplifies the issue," he recently told an interviewer. "We made it quick and oversimplified on purpose." Russell insisted that the video was "not the answer" and that Invisible Children wanted people who had seen the film to "keep investigating … to read the history." The problem is that everything else in Invisible Children's advocacy campaign, from the T-shirts and bracelets that read "Kony 2012" to the group's plan to "Cover the Night" on April 20 with posters and hortatory slogans such as "Stop at Nothing" and "One Thing We Can All Agree On," is equally reductive. Make that simple-minded (not just oversimplified) in the literal sense of the term. But how could it be otherwise in a campaign that deploys the worst and most manipulative tricks of advertising with the stated goal not of making famous the context in which Kony and the LRA have committed their terrible crimes, but rather to "make Joseph Kony famous."