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I Do Choose To Run: In defense of KONY 2012

If you’re on Facebook — or if you’ve been compulsively playing and replaying Carly Rae Jepsen’s hit single “Call Me Maybe” on YouTube, which I certainly haven’t — then you know by now about KONY 2012, the new campaign to arrest Joseph Kony and bring him before the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the end of 2012.

 

You’ve probably also heard that KONY 2012’s parent organization, Invisible Children, and IC’s head filmmaker, Jason Russell, have received a great deal of criticism since the release of their viral video on March 5th. Some of these criticisms are fair; some are well-intended but ultimately misguided and some are simply irrelevant.

 

Let’s go through them one by one.

 

The Video Oversimplifies a Really Complex Situation.

 

This frequently raised objection is factually accurate but ultimately immaterial. There’s no doubt that KONY 2012, clocking in at all of 30 minutes, fails to paint a nuanced picture of what’s really going on in Uganda — most notably the fact that Joseph Kony isn’t actually there anymore.

 

But it’s a bit much to demand that any half-watchable video designed to inspire millions to action also takes into account the full intricacies of a decades-old problem stretching across four countries, all thousands of miles away.

 

By adopting this clear, simplistic medium, Mr. Russell has succeeded where all of his critics have failed: in getting someone besides policymakers and academics to actually care about a problem that doesn’t affect them directly. Where we go from here, and whether we acknowledge and move beyond the inherent limitations of a 30-minute YouTube video, is up to us — but thanks to Mr. Russell, at least we’re talking about it, which is better than you can say for Americans most of the time.

 

But it advocates military intervention!

 

This objection is most often raised by people who love the idea of international law in the abstract but recoil in horror at the thought of it actually being enforced. If the ICC is ever to become more than a pleasant-sounding mouthpiece that periodically issues useless arrest warrants for powerful men, then somebody eventually needs to give it some teeth.

 

And let’s be fair: the continued presence of 100 military advisors who will see no combat and whose roles will be limited to providing advice to Ugandan military units hardly constitutes intervention. If American “interventions” looked more like what IC is proposing and less like Iraq and Afghanistan, I think we’d all be pretty happy.

 

Isn’t this just the White Man’s Burden all over again?

 

Critics of KONY 2012 on the anticolonial left see Invisible Children at best as a malevolent reincarnation of what Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole called the “White Savior Industrial Complex,” and at worst a badly disguised front group for Washington’s ravenous, oil-grabbing militarists. According to this view, IC represents the cancer of white privilege metastasized into counterproductive hipster “slacktivism” on behalf of hapless Africans who allegedly don’t know better. Even worse, Russell and his team at IC could simply be what political scientist Adam Branch termed “‘useful idiots,’ being used by those in the US government who seek to militarize Africa” — unwitting tools in the greedy hands of carbon-hungry neoimperialists.

 

The former charge, which should be taken seriously given the real history of European domination justified by benevolence, is a bit unfair in this case. 95 percent of IC’s staff is Ugandan, and it’s unclear exactly why being white, or any color, should disqualify one from offering help to a fellow human being.

 

As for the conspiracy theories of imminent large-scale American invasion, I have yet to see any proof that the state has had any role in the promotion, financing or development of Invisible Children.

 

There are a lot of other problems out there, and just arresting one man won’t solve them.

 

This objection, while of course true, misses the point.

 

Most development initiatives are prospective and consequentialist: they hope to increase welfare in the future. A significant part of the KONY 2012 campaign, on the other hand, is retrospective and to some degree deontological. Arresting Kony is important not only because it will prevent him from killing in the future (or deter others like him), but also because he has committed heinous crimes in the past. When the police arrest a domestic criminal, they don’t do it on the grounds that he will probably commit another crime later; they rightfully lock him up on the grounds that he has already stolen, injured or damaged.

 

Therefore, even if capturing Kony had no positive effect on anyone’s future welfare (which it clearly would), arresting him would still be a legitimate goal — a goal that needs to be balanced against the costs and benefits of other goals, to be sure, but a legitimate one nonetheless.

 

Buying a bracelet? Or clicking “dislike” on YouTube? Let Miles know at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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