Argument

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Viral Videos

For all its goodwill, Invisible Children's Kony 2012 film is dangerous propaganda, pure and simple. It's not a call to make a notorious celebrity out of Joseph Kony -- it's a call to war.

Click here to see photos of the evolution of the LRA. 

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."

Russell and his colleagues seem to believe that because their goal is not to make Kony famous so as to celebrate him, but instead "to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice," that this justifies the fact that they don't need to explain anything complicated to the young people they are trying to mobilize. Albert Einstein once observed bitterly that "he who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him a spinal cord will suffice." If one watches the music-video-style evocation in Kony 2012 of crowds of young people joyfully mobilizing en masse to demand Kony's arrest, it is quite hard to believe Invisible Children's claim that their campaign encourages deep thinking -- or, frankly, any thinking at all -- beyond the expression of moral outrage. In the end, this is Kony 2012's deepest flaw. For what it is actually peddling (under the flag of grassroots activism and a universal ethics of caring) is little more than a cheap techno-utopianism that conflates the entirely admirable wish for a better world with the belief that knowing how to move toward it is a simple matter, requiring more determination and goodwill than knowledge.

This is a fundamentally childlike view of the world. But even by the standards of the contemporary United States, where feeling and the instinctual is raised high above reason -- a view encapsulated in author Malcolm Gladwell's claim that "there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis" -- and the child's eye view is held by many to be more discerning than the adult's, Kony 2012 is an extreme version of the idea. The early part of the film, after a few opening bits of technophilia about global connectedness, is followed by Russell sitting down with his young son, Gavin, to "explain" to him what "the war's about and who Joseph Kony is." He does this, and it makes for painful viewing -- a politically correct catechism in which it is unclear whether it is Russell or his son who is the more infantile. "What do I do for a job?" Russell asks. "You stop the bad guys from being mean," Gavin replies.

This might be written off as a relatively harmless narrative device were the rest of Russell's explanation to his viewers more nuanced, which is to say, more adult. But Kony 2012 is rhetorically seamless in that it delivers all its argument at the same level of maturity as Russell exhibits in his conversation with Gavin. Joseph Kony is the bad guy, and it is up to the good guys -- Russell, the Facebook millions, the U.S. military, and you -- to stop Kony. Nothing more, it seems, needs to be said. One more military intervention by the United States in the name of human rights, with all the imperial echoes that go with it? No problem in such a good cause. Ugandan history? Some other time, perhaps. The context of Kony's rebellion? Too complicated, at least for now. In short, nothing must be allowed to get in the way of building a movement, getting ready to put up posters, and pressuring the celebrities and politicians, or "policymakers" and "culture-makers," as Russell calls them in the film, to find a way to arrest Joseph Kony.

Here, too, Russell's choice of whom to try to influence is revealing, for the infatuation with celebrity, the worship of (American) power, and the refusal of politics is at the core of the campaign. It allows Russell to lump together Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Sen. Harry Reid, and Rep. John Boehner in the list of policymakers he wants to influence (U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are the only non-Americans on the list) with Lady Gaga, Oprah, Rush Limbaugh, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg among the culture-makers. (Justin Bieber, a Canadian, is the lone non-American on the culture-makers list.)

Again, in a film that treated its audience as adults, rather than as children or the recruits Einstein evoked, joyfully marching in rank and file, Russell would have had to pause to ask himself hard questions, such as: What might be the risks to Uganda's civilian population if the U.S. government were to give aid and more advanced military equipment to the Ugandan military to track Kony, thus strengthening a regime in Kampala whose hands are anything but clean -- as anyone who was in eastern Congo during the Ugandan intervention there in the late-1990s can attest? And as they say in the military, in war, the enemy gets a vote. At present -- though one would never know this from Russell's film -- Kony and the LRA are a largely spent force. But if a new campaign against them were launched, what would their response be; what crimes would they commit? Russell can talk all he likes about "arresting" Kony, but what Invisible Children is actually calling for is "war" -- without acknowledging that in war there are invariably unintended consequences. The lesson of the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- which is that hoping for the best is not a plan -- does not seem to resonate with Russell at all.

Given these confusions, the challenge after watching Kony 2012 is not finding things in the film to criticize, wince at, and object to, but rather to find something that is not an intellectual or political embarrassment. Comedian Jon Stewart may tease the media for being jealous of the film's success, but his mockery misses the point: It is popular not because it is true, but because it is infantile, lowest-common-denominator activism. And in this culture, at this time in history, you are not likely to lose any money trafficking in that.

Still, it is understandable that there are many intelligent people who concede at least some of these faults of Kony 2012 but nonetheless defend the project as useful and worthy of using consumerist means to channel young people's energies away from that consumerism. The problem is that while self-evidently it is worthier to care about Joseph Kony than the Kardashians, caring by itself is not enough -- at least if the idea is that this caring should impel people to act and, more importantly, demand that their government act. To do that demands something more than actually knowing that Joseph Kony is an evil man and peddling the fantasy that, if he can be arrested, it will prove that, as Russell puts it, "the world we live in has new rules" and that "the technology that brought our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends." And it is this deeper knowledge that Kony 2012 seems to have no interest in communicating, even though, presumably, Russell and his colleagues could impart it if they chose to.

Officials of Invisible Children are on record as admitting that, yes, in Kony 2012 they kept the thing simple, but they insist that simplifying is not always a bad thing. Because of their good intentions, this claim may at first appear credible. But if we call what they are peddling by its right name -- propaganda -- their campaign looks very different indeed, for propaganda is propaganda, no matter how worthy the cause, however and in whatever form it comes in. That Russell and his colleagues seem so blind to how dangerous this is suggests that the old adage of the road to hell being paved with good intentions is as alive and well as ever, and, in this case, flourishing on YouTube.

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Argument

Cameron Bets on Obama

The British prime minister is a lot more like the American president than you think. And he clearly believes Barack is headed for victory in November.

Barack Obama and David Cameron, who have been meeting in Washington this week, are two leaders who owe their present positions, in part, to the backlash of the post-9/11 era. But both the U.S. president and British prime minister have also demonstrated surprising continuities with their interventionist predecessors while in office.

Obama, of course, rose to prominence as a critic of George W. Bush's "dumb war" in Iraq. Cameron, in addition to his pledges to cut spending and get Britain's fiscal house in order, took special effort after rising to leader of the opposition in 2005 to distance himself from the interventionism of Tony Blair.

While Blair's position in British politics had once been unassailable -- he had completely overhauled a Labour Party that was hostile to capitalism and committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament and won three successive general elections in the process -- he paid a heavy political price for the support he gave to U.S. policy after the 9/11 attacks and in particular for committing British forces to the overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Cameron took full advantage. On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Cameron gave a speech on foreign policy in which he described himself as a liberal conservative rather than a neoconservative. Echoing the Augustinian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, Cameron decried a simplistic vision of a world order divided between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, and he expounded the virtues of humility and patience.

However, just as Obama's presidency has surprisingly come to be defined by drone war, special operations raids, and a troop surge in Afghanistan, Cameron in government is more interventionist than his statements in opposition suggested he would be. And his relations with Obama are warmer than observers of both men's political records might have predicted.

Cameron's Blair-like tendencies have been much greater than the continuities in foreign policy between Cameron and John Major, the Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997. To the despair of Margaret Thatcher, whom he succeeded in Downing Street, Major presided over the greatest catastrophe in British foreign policy since the 1956 Suez crisis: Western inaction in the Balkans. Major completely misinterpreted the war in Bosnia as a recrudescence of intractable ancient hatreds. Possessed not by realism but an amoral conservative quietism, Major's government not only urged no-intervention but actively obstructed the efforts of its NATO and European Union allies to counter Serbian aggression.

In 1999, two years after his first landslide election victory and at the height of the Kosovo crisis, Blair gave a notable speech on foreign policy in Chicago. He cited both Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq's Saddam Hussein as threats to international stability. The emphasis of that speech refutes the absurd and insulting charge that after 9/11 Blair acted as "Bush's poodle." In reality, Blair was arguing a case for the responsibility to protect threatened populations while Bush, then governor of Texas and an aspiring presidential nominee, was opposing the Bill Clinton administration's supposed entanglements in the Balkans.

Cameron was elected to Parliament only in 2001. He voted for military action in Iraq, yet three years later controversially joined with anti-war separatist parties and left-wing Labour MPs in calling for an inquiry into the decision to commit British forces. My own newspaper, the Times, declared on that occasion that Cameron should not have aligned himself with political eccentrics.

It was a fair reading of Cameron's comments on foreign policy, as well as those of William Hague, now foreign secretary, that the Conservatives thought that the disasters of postwar planning in Iraq and Afghanistan were inherent to a hubristic project to establish Western-style constitutional democracies. It was widely expected that Cameron would pivot away from the foreign-policy adventurism of the Blair era.

But from Afghanistan to Libya to Syria, Cameron's foreign policy has been quite different from the modest, Major-like attitude that was expected of him. Interestingly, Cameron's seeming political weakness on domestic issues has given him some room to maneuver abroad. Cameron is the first British prime minister to lead a coalition government in peacetime since the 1930s. Many commentators assumed that the inconclusive result of the 2010 general election, in which the Conservatives won most seats but failed to secure a parliamentary majority, would hamper him. In practice, it has worked to his political advantage, allowing him a freer hand than if he had been elected head of a government comprising only Conservatives.

It was also expected that the Anglo-American relationship would not be as strong under Cameron and Obama as it had been in the days when Bush and Blair bonded over Ben Stiller movies at the ranch in Crawford. British politicians frequently and smugly refer to the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom. And though there are obvious historical and linguistic ties between the two countries, this is a historically dubious notion. For much of the postwar era, relations between the United States and Germany have been closer and more consequential than the Anglo-American alliance.

The famously warm regard between Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as well as between Blair and Bush, was historically unusual. In a fundamental misstep in foreign policy, Thatcher (unlike President George H.W. Bush) failed to see that German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall was inevitable and desirable. Major's Balkans policy was not only catastrophic for Bosnia, but it also caused a serious fissure in Anglo-American relations. There was every prospect that the Obama-Cameron relationship would be, if not of that order, at least cordial and muted rather than enthusiastic. Some British commentators also expected Obama, on grounds of his family history and justified criticisms of British colonial rule, to be less receptive to the Anglo-American alliance than were his immediate predecessors.

None of this has been borne out by experience. In the face of international crises, the transatlantic alliance has been notably strong -- in the closeness of Anglo-American relations, and, more surprisingly, in the participation of France in an interventionist consensus.

In Afghanistan, for instance, the national leaders would in any event have worked closely together, if only owing to the policies of their predecessors. The Afghanistan mission has become untenable, as March 11's one-man rampage sadly makes clear. But the drawdown of Western forces in Afghanistan is a logistical exercise founded on the scaling back of earlier ambitions. It is not a creation of Cameron and Obama's common endeavor.

Two issues, however, take precisely that form. The first is the Western response to tyrants in Libya last year, where Cameron joined Obama and Sarkozy in a swift intervention to save the city of Benghazi. The move cemented the tripartite transatlantic alliance but froze out German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was widely criticized for opposing the war.

Syria presents an altogether tougher proposition in which there is no pressure, let alone consensus, for Western military action. But the least that can be said is that Western diplomacy is united in decrying President Bashar al-Assad's depredations, rather than hopelessly divided and futile, as it was 20 years ago in the Balkans.

The recollection of the Iraq intervention still permeates the British foreign-policy debate, but it is less potent than Cameron's critics assume. At its zenith, hostility to the Iraq war cost Blair some seats in the 2005 general election, turning what might have been a third landslide into a more modest but still convincing victory. Public opinion during the Libya intervention generally followed the progress of the military campaign -- support declined as victory appeared elusive, but spiked as the war of attrition against Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces eventually succeeded. British public opinion is not anti-war; it is averse to defeat and wary of long-term military commitments.

Then there's Iran. Cameron and Obama have found common cause in exerting pressure on the Iranian regime to get back in line with its requirements under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as the most likely ways of preventing an Israeli preemptive strike and neutralizing a potential Iranian military threat.

Much of the message of the Obama-Cameron summit is purely symbolic, but symbols are important. Obama wishes visibly to reciprocate the hospitality he enjoyed on his state visit to Britain last year, cement the notion that transatlantic relations are in good shape under his administration, and finally dispel some of the less informed speculation that he is cool toward the Anglo-American alliance.

It is notable that Cameron is not meeting any of the Republican candidates for the presidency and is therefore placing a lot of weight on Obama's prospects for reelection. Cameron will be particularly interested in two issues of substance that bear on British foreign policy. He will be anxious that the U.S. drawdown of forces in Afghanistan should not leave British troops exposed. And he will wish to impress on Obama that there is no political possibility that Britain will negotiate with Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.

These are points of possible friction that the two leaders would do well now to anticipate and defuse, but despite what many expected when Cameron came into office in 2010, they are two leaders with remarkably similar political trajectories and outlooks.

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