From the early 70s until the mid 90s, west German train stations, post offices, and other public spaces were routinely equipped with the infamous ‘Terroristen’ posters parading mugshots of wanted Red Army Faction militants. A hefty reward was promised for any relevant information leading to capture – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, not one RAF member was ever caught based on these posters, seeing as any reasonable terrorist would drastically change their appearance the moment their picture went public.
That was of little relevance to the German authorities, however, as the popular involvement they really desired was of the psychological rather than proactive kind: the menacing appearance of the mugshots, enhanced by extreme contrasts added in post-processing, was meant to nip any potential sympathies with the aims of the RAF – and, by association, the aims of the entire far left – in the bud. Simultaneously, the bond between the ruling class and its subjects was reinforced: the struggle against sinister extremists, after all, is something that everybody can agree on – right?
“No matter what side, this is something we can all agree on”, whines Jason Russell’s collegeboy-like voice at the end of his half-hour agitational video Kony 2012, as the logos of the Democratic and Republican parties fill the screen. On the surface, the film calls on the United States-led ‘international community’ to hunt down the Ugandan Lord Resitance Army’s (LRA) leader Kony. But much like the RAF wanted posters, its main function is to reinforce a particular set of ideas rather than lead to the capture of its target. In all likelihood, Kony has already left Uganda – some say as early as six years ago.
Produced by the decidedly shady ’non-profit’ charity Invisible Children, Kony 2012 is strong on moralising and features zero analysis. In the bourgeois view of the world, politics and history are simply a succession of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leaders, and Kony 2012 is true to form. Its ahistorical approach is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in the segment that parades images of Hitler and Nazi concentration camps (“when we heard about injustice we cared” claims the voiceover), followed by a quick glimpse of Gaddafi. A poster that promotes Kony 2012, likewise, places the Ugandan rebel leader’s portrait next to that of Adolf Hitler and, quite helpfully if you consider current US foreign policy objectives, that of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
One thing that stands out as particularly crass is the way in which the film uses children to manipulate the viewer. There are, of course, the child soldiers at the centre of the movie. But there is also the filmmaker’s little son, who is repeatedly asked “who is the bad guy” until he remembers the answer. “Who should we stop”, asks Russell. “Him”, replies the kid while pointing at a picture. As the camera follows the little index finger, we learn that the image is, of course, not a caricature of a hook-nosed ‘eternal Jew’, but Kony.
The way the kid ‘speaks the truth’ straight from its little heart is meant to be cute and disarming. Few viewers would find footage of Chinese children chanting ‘Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts’ equally cute; but the device works here because it reaffirms the target audience’s own prejudice and invites it to project its ignorance of the subject onto the child. Unlike, say, the documentaries of John Pilger, which may contain their fair share of crying children but take great care to put any injustices reported into a global political context, Kony 2012 selectively highlights one piece of the puzzle and doesn’t ask any questions at all. Bad things happen because bad people exist, and bad people must be taken out by good people – that is the whole infantile message.
Hence, Kony 2012 is in many ways a fairly typical entry in the liberal intervention genre. Such films routinely utilise the power of ‘good’ causes to rally nice middle class folks behind ‘bad’ things such as war, aggressive policing, or draconian legislation. The made-for-TV documentary Inside Afghanistan: Behind The Veil (2001), for instance, exploited women’s rights themes in order to drum up liberal support for America’s foreign policy. The fact that the film was broadcast months before 9-11 is of little importance, seeing as the war had, for all intents and purposes, already begun in October 1999 in the form of UN-imposed sanctions. It was, in any case, duly rerun by the BBC at the beginning of the NATO military invasion of Afghanistan.
Another example worth mentioning is the Channel 4 production Sex Traffic (2004). A ‘realistic’ television drama rather than a documentary, it deals with the trafficking of eastern European women into the UK. Whatever use the movie might have to win bleeding-heart liberals to a strict immigration control agenda, the broader ideology that the movie upholds is more important than its immediate political agitation. Whereas Inside Afghanistan subtly persuades the viewer by refusing to entertain any possibility of regime change from below, Sex Traffic has the luxury of being able to introduce a noble and soft-spoken British saviour to its narrative. The trafficked women possess no active agency whatsoever, let alone are capable of collective resistance – they are mere victims in need of a strong yet civilised helping hand sanctioned by the authority of the British state.
What is innovative about Kony 2012 is how it attempts to connect with younger people, perhaps the first generation in a while whose consciousness, in the wake of the Arab Spring, has begun to extend beyond mere hedonism and self-absorption. Kony 2012 incorporates language and iconography borrowed from Obama’s election campaign, and in particular from the Occupy movements. In doing so, it very consciously takes advantage of the movement’s naïve ‘horizontalism’, which leaves it particularly vulnerable to penetration and co-option by whatever forces know how to mimic its radical forms.
Whatever the political shortcomings of movements such as Real Democracy and Occupy, they have at least proposed some rudimentary notion of resistance ‘from below’. Kony 2012 is here to undermine just that. Pouncing right into the power vacuum, it establishes a link between popular outrage and action taken by the ‘relevant authorities’, i.e. professional bourgeois politicians and the army.
Thus, “the game has new rules”, as Russell’s voiceover informs us: “those with power and money used to dictate what we do, but now we’re turning the system upside down”. But in reality, the participatory component is converted into a kind of imperialist Crimewatch. Instead of self-emancipation, the movie wants protesters to cry for mommy and daddy. Instead of anti-capitalists, it wants grassroots supporters for the murdering, raping, and plundering NATO armies. Helpfully for Obama & Co, the film rallies the excitable behind ideas that are more conductive to imperialist interests than their enthusiasm for Arab uprisings.
While the parade of billionaire do-gooders at the end of the film makes for an oddly anachronistic moment – Bono, for instance, is frowned upon by activists because he evades taxes – the overall effect is one that may appeal to the more gullible elements on the Occupy periphery. I am not suggesting that in a week from now, people will be camping near army bases demanding ‘our boys’ arrest evil men in Uganda or Iran – although, given some online comments on Kony 2012 that I have read, the scenario doesn’t seem an entirely unlikely proposition.
It is futile to ponder whether Jason Russell is in the pay of anyone other than the purchasers of his ‘Kony 2012 action kits’, a seriously confused individual, or just a nice guy who is, like, trying to help, man. The matter of fact is that charities are ideological state apparatuses which embody the pretence that capitalism itself can end the suffering it perpetuates – and as charities go, Invisible Children is a particularly perfidious example. At its core, Kony 2012 serves to buttress the idea of humanitarian intervention, which has once again gained currency during the NATO operation in Lybia. Jason Russell is a dangerous man – and we need to be prepared for many more initiatives like his.