Posted by: beckydale | March 16, 2012

KONY 2012 is not real.

This is not an analysis of KONY 2012, nor is it a response to every criticism. A few are glaringly absent – not for lack of response, but for lack of time to do them justice. These are my thoughts and feelings in response to some of the media attention, criticism, and inspirational stories that accompany each. I do not try to conceal the fact that I am a part of the campaign and unconditionally support it. I do stress that my opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Resolve, Invisible Children, the Enough Project, or my colleagues. 

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The critics had it right all along. Of all the angry, indignant “facts” flying around, this one is by far my favorite. Yes, the publicly available 30-minute video was actually dreamed up and realized by a few southern Californians with the sole, malicious intention of filling their pockets with the millions they would undoubtedly receive in proceeds. I like it even better when “southern Californians” is replaced with “Pentagon officials” and “filling their pockets” is replaced with “expanding their budget.” KONY 2012 is a video vendetta against the American populace. Period.

And while I may be hard-pressed to mask my sarcasm, the title of this piece remains true. There is something about this entire campaign that is a bit difficult to wrap my brain around. But the accusations of falsehood, of neocolonialism, of shady financials, what have you…all of that is manageable and – quite frankly – irrelevant.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), as a few minutes of research will quickly reveal, is a rogue rebel group marauding through western South Sudan, eastern Central African Republic, and northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Boing, Yahoo, Google, and Wikipedia will also inform the average passive reader that the LRA began in the mid 1980s as an attempted resurgence of a similar group called the Holy Spirit Movement, headed by the charismatic mystic named Alice Auma. Alice, who is often referred to by the name of the spirit who possessed her, “Lakwena,” gathered her own Acholi people around her and ignited them with a fervor to overthrow the evil dictator of Uganda. Such a movement was possible because of the outrage and shame the northerners felt at their ostracism by their Bugandan neighbors and fellow countrymen. Two years passed with plenty of Acholi taking up arms and fighting for the cause, but with little in terms of results. President Museveni seemed rooted in his position of power. As the movement diminished and Alice Lakwena found herself exiled from Uganda, the crowd of impassioned Acholi was ripe for new management, and Joseph Kony was the man for the job.

Stepping into Alice’s rather large shoes, Kony found himself pulling together a handful of splinter groups that had formed from the once-united Holy Spirit Movement upon Alice’s exit from Uganda. Joseph Kony’s ability to join these small bands together to a single militant group is quite commendable, even if sadistic in nature. Clearly this leader draws on a wellspring of magnetism that should not be so quickly tossed aside as superfluous. True, the group was not called the Lord’s Resistance Army at the time of its formation under new leadership. In fact, it would be several years before the LRA adopted those three words as its brand and banner. By that time, however, Joseph had managed to turn what began as a united force of freedom fighters into a brainwashed band of boys and girls toting guns as large as themselves and preying upon their own villages and communities to stay alive.

What idealism first gripped Kony and his commanders transformed into a sick, twisted worldview. His intention to overthrow Museveni’s spiritually lapsed government and replace it with one founded on the Ten Commandments (no doubt with himself as supreme leader) is no less alive and true today, I would argue. Yet Kony has adopted a false existence – one in which the lifestyle that has become his reality now contains such vast contradictions that his defense of them portrays the inner workings of his mind as mad and scarred by some possessive power, be it drugs, spirits, or what have you. Kony is living a lie. The saddest part is that such a lie has now become the story of hundreds of others who are currently members of his LRA and a part of the story of thousands before them. I would not go so far as to say that Kony is a madman. He is a clever, strategic man as evidenced by his ability to stay alive this long without capture, starvation, or other such life-threatening situation.

Uganda is no longer the central focus of this story, but neither should it be ignored and forgotten when discussing the LRA. The ideology of the militants is deeply rooted in the beliefs of 26 years ago – the notions that so gripped the Acholi people as to inspire action against their southern government. Even as the Lord’s Resistance Army moved out of northern Uganda and into South Sudan, and then DRC, and now CAR as well, that original ideology is still present. The LRA communicate in Luo – the native language of the northern Ugandan Acholi. Many of the fighters, particularly the more senior commanders, retain their Ugandan roots and can no less shake their Acholi tribal identity than wish their skin lighter. Not to say that they would want that. It would make stealth operations in the dense jungle a bit more difficult at the very least.

The three currently-affected countries where the Lord’s Resistance Army makes its bases and carries out its raids, killings, abductions, lootings, rituals, etc. tell some very different stories than the people of northern Uganda. These stories range from politically motivated claims that the LRA is no longer a threat within the country’s borders (a claim by the DRC government, despite that being the area of highest LRA activity) to pleas to the international community to bring the LRA violence and perpetual uncertainty to an end (words documented time and time again by Resolve’s field researcher Paul Ronan on his trips to the region). Where lies the truth, however, is found in the jungle and dense vegetation of the areas in which the LRA operates. It seems to be a blend of the two extremes, though certainly skewed far in favor of the latter.

The LRA is a reduced but hardly spent force, known for long periods of relative calm before large scale attacks. The LRA Crisis Tracker (a joing project by Invisible Children and Resolve launched last fall) documents the activity of Kony’s forces. This includes not just attacks on villages but also escapes, returns, abductions, and records of what items were looted from people and villages by the LRA. Those who claim the LRA is not worthy of American attention should perhaps read the history associated with the group and maybe adopt a bit of compassion in place of what I have often found to be academic skepticism. Those who have studied the LRA for years and have come to understand its patterns should not comfortably argue that this lull in activity is no different than any other. As the KONY 2012 video states, the game has changed. Kony is changing tactics. Now more than ever we must be paying attention to the movements and actions of the LRA. Joseph Kony is aware of world events and he has certainly not missed his own name cropping up in international news. We do worry about retaliation attacks; that risk has always existed. That risk will continue to exist with or without international media hype until the Lord’s Resistance Army is finished and Joseph Kony is in The Hague.

The stories of LRA violence are the stuff of legends – children forced to kill and eat their own parents, families displaced for years from their homes and receiving nothing in the way of food support, entire communities afraid to till their fields and therefore starving, retaliation attacks that slaughter hundreds and abduct hundreds more, escaped child soldiers shunned by the very people they used to call friend, mother, father. I do not want to take the time now to expound on these stories. Many have been documented, many more continue to surface from years past, and many continue to be reported every day. The gruesome nature of these incidents and their innocent victims is what engaged me in the issue seven years ago. To do these stories justice would take more time than I am allowing myself in this post alone.

It is this violence, orchestrated by a man who has recently been equated with evil itself, that has inspired a nation to action. The LRA operates unmolested in central Africa not because nobody knows, not because nobody cares, but because not enough people know or care to do anything. Does watching a 30-minute video bring this decades-old conflict to an abrupt end? Absolutely not. Does it tell the nuanced history and politics of the region in a thorough and comprehensive manner? How could it, when not a single academic, researcher, or local can today claim to be a foolproof expert on these three countries and on the LRA in particular? Does this video explain the series of steps necessary to capture Kony and rehabilitate his hundreds of soldiers and concubines? Though I do believe it could have been more direct, the bottom line is that there is no formula. Ask any military commander who has experienced several conflicts. They can describe one conflict as “just like” another, but the truth of the matter is that each conflict is situationally unique – each conflict has a specific set of factors that set it apart from any that came before it and any that will come after. The set of factors surrounding the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army is no different.

Returning to the inspiration to action, therefore, I want to focus on the calculable results of KONY 2012. Oft-debated among idealists and cynics, KONY 2012 has had an undeniable impact on the average household in America. The campaign has two taglines: 1-“Make Him Famous” and 2-“Stop At Nothing.” The first, without argument, has certainly been accomplished.

In less than 27 hours, the KONY 2012 film had been viewed 1 million times, according to the Invisible Children interns who frantically messaged me with the news. After just a few days the online hits had exceeded 70 million. Today, over 120 million views and counting has made this film the fastest-growing viral video to date, not to mention I would imagine it’s also the longest and most depressing. As the twittersphere exploded with hashtags heralding the news that Kony must be stopped; the world must watch this video. Every view above 2 million is incomprehensible to me. The numbers can be total spam, the tweets and facebook comments all a farce, and at this point my brain might actually believe it. I question if that would that even matter, however, since the “damage” has been done. My life has turned a full 180. I hear Kony’s name mentioned on the metro, in coffee shops, on the news as I wander my apartment with the tv on, in parks with dog owners concernedly discuss world affairs, on the phone with friends and family back in Missouri. Before KONY 2012 I could not speak of Joseph Kony without gauging the political and humanitarian interests of the other party, or without slipping into my 5-minute/1-minute/single-sentence spiel about the LRA and the cause. For the record, Invisible Children has been lambasted for oversimplification, but in a world of people with short attention spans and snazzy headlines that are unrealistically assumed and expected to contain the entire message of the subsequent article, I credit them with retaining interest for 30 minutes, albeit in such a way that may oversimplify the conflict’s and region’s complexity to a rather childish level.

What I want to draw attention to is not the sensationalism of the response, nor even the sensationalism of the video itself, but to the second tagline that seems to be lost amidst the fiery criticisms and supportive articles alike.

Stop At Nothing is a weighty phrase. Despite or perhaps because of this weight, it has been the modus operandi of organizations like Invisible Children, Resolve, and the Enough Project for years now. The Lord’s Resistance Army is not a “fad issue,” there is no “bandwagon” to join, and the sudden attention to Kony and the LRA is neither “misguided,” “imbalanced,” or “neocolonial.” My pockets are not filling with the royalties skimmed off the millions Invisible Children reportedly makes off its flashy animation and camera angles. Au contraire, my pockets fill instead with lint, notes-to-self, ink stains from pens that take a beating and unleash their innards, and quarters for coin laundry. My days start early and end late. My inbox fills, my inbox empties. I run, I cook, I sleep, I work, I read, I write. My life can be considered normal, but for the fact that I receive phone calls from central Africa without blinking an eye and I incessantly research an area of the world that is rarely if ever in the public eye. At least until quite recently.

For years I have faced patronizing criticism from friends, family, acquaintances, and perfect strangers that my keen interest and work is “cute” and that this phase will surely pass. At times I have withstood lectures, snide comments about being a neo-hippie, and sneering looks if disappointment that I could be doing something so much more “beneficial to my being.” I could, after all, be in grad school at this very moment studying law or medicine or any such profession that most people assume will make me a richer, more secure human being. I challenge them, however, would that make me happy? After seven years, I think a few of the people who know me best have quieted down and have stopped the direct verbal abuse, for which I am grateful. I never imagined there would be a day when the tables turned and strangers now support me and the critics have become media moguls and fly-by-night bloggers.

Reporters who have documented the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the past and assert their knowledge of the issue with abandon have entered league with those who are learning of Invisible Children and the LRA for the first time. Both groups wag an accusatory finger at Invisible Children (the most visible face of the recent phenomenon) for not having a long-term strategy to capture Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen. With little to no research, these same reporters seem not to notice that IC has for years emphasized sustainability in its approach. Programs such as the Legacy Scholarship Program, Village Savings and Loan Initiative, and MEND have long since replaced the very temporary and unsustainable bracelet production. All of those programs were conceived and formulated by the locals who would benefit from them and who understand many of the implications that may be lost on westerners like myself. I may not agree with everything Invisible Children does, says, and stands behind, but their programs in central Africa I admire. Having lived through the crazy roadie life, visited the IC programs in northern Uganda, and watched the development of the organization for many years, I can admit that they are not perfect, but they sure try to be. I can’t fault them for trying.

But IC is not the only organization working on KONY 2012. The campaign is co-branded by my current organization Resolve (repeat disclaimer, all thoughts expressed here are my own). I have now seen Invisible Children from a very different perspective – one of a partner and a friend, rather than as an integral part or excited onlooker. I carry a tremendous amount of respect for Invisible Children and the work it does with the people of central Africa affected by the LRA. Equally and separately – with no allusion to Jim Crow –Resolve has gained my respect tenfold since I began working here 9 months ago. The labor that goes into every decision; the debate that surrounds the nuanced points; Resolve’s emphasis on honoring the needs/views/wishes of the people in South Sudan, CAR, and DRC who face the LRA threat daily: I love to be part of the process and observe, many times firsthand, the mental and emotional strain that accompanies each decision.

The criticism that KONY 2012 has no long-term plan to address the issue of Joseph Kony is blatantly untrue and is planned out step by step in a report that my colleague published a month ago called Peace Can Be: President Obama’s chance to help end LRA atrocities in 2012. To anyone criticizing the campaign’s temporary nature who has not read this report, I respectfully refer you to its 37 pages of thoughtful analysis and ask that you not speak again until you have read, absorbed, and fully appreciated its contents. This particular document, formulated over years of careful attention to the issue, building off a previous report released in 2010, and solidified during Paul’s 3-month trip to the LRA affected region last summer, was the basis of the entire campaign and indeed the foundation of not only Resolve’s current advocacy campaign but also a resolution that was recently introduced into the House to reaffirm the White House strategy released in 2010. The Senate version of the resolution will be introduced shortly. My job these past few weeks has been to channel the mass interest and awareness being raised by the KONY 2012 video toward local lobby meetings being held all over the country to garner Congressional support for these two resolutions. And what I have found has been heartwarming at worst.

I come from an area of the country where politics are taboo to discuss and being involved in them launches you into celebrity status but also to a position of suspicion. Nearly one year ago I moved to the political capital of the United States where discussion of current events, party allegiance, and campaign strategies are the topics du jour tous les jours. I’m no fan of politics, and to be surrounded by it quite literally 24/7 means I am suddenly hyper-attuned to its existence and prevalence on an almost dramatic scale. Politics is everyday fare and permeates everything from our purchases, to our education choices, and even to the friends we hold dear. I can neither escape it nor ignore it, and where before politics was an academic interest, it has now become a subject I can happily engage with, however limited my contribution may be.

My political involvement encompassed voting once in the 2008 presidential election, researching a piece of legislation in fall 2009 that has since become Public Law 111-172, or The Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. My roadie teammate Brian and I spent countless hours reading about the political system, filming YouTube videos asking Members of Congress to cosponsor the bill, talking to kids all over the country about what it meant to call a Senator or Representative, and dreaming up creative ways to catch the attention of our politicians. We became resident “experts” on the bill, though neither of us would ever use that term ourselves and we can both recognize now how little we truly knew and understood. That can be considered a fault – two underinformed youth preaching to hundreds of high school and college students about how to get engaged on the issue of the LRA – but we knew enough. We knew enough about how bills worked in the legislative process to speak knowledgeably about S.1067 and H.R.2478. We did not understand the ins and outs of the development of the legislation, but we had debated enough of the content that we both felt comfortable speaking on its behalf from stage before thousands of students, teachers, and parents. We were hardly experts on the region, the conflict, the bill, the political system, or even our schedules for the remainder of tour, but we knew enough about each of them to proceed.

Today both of us are much better informed on all of the above (except perhaps the schedule part), but what I have been feeling for the past two weeks since the video was released has been reminiscent of these naïve years gone by. The thrill of adding cosponsors to an ever-growing list; the high we got from explaining to a high school student how to contact their representatives and the pride they radiated when that first call was completed; the conference calls to discuss local lobby meetings; the teary welcome and surge of emotion at the news of 250,000 signatures on a petition to the White House finally being reached. These were battles both grand and small that we had tackled day in and day out. Each successful result was a boost in momentum and morale. That process has just begun this time. The critics are quick to jump on the controversy of the campaign, but I believe wholeheartedly that within a month they will discover that the impassioned youth of America have achieved again some unprecedented milestones in this journey to end LRA violence and restore peace to the affected communities.

I am a closet optimist and trusting soul with a pessimistic or skeptical demeanor that borders on outright cynicism, unwilling to truly take sides before I’ve read thoroughly through as many sides as I possibly can and heard multiple opinions on a matter. This means that I am rarely one to jump at the opportunity to be the first in line for a new product. I will never be that daredevil investor in some new project or initiative. I will never be the one to dream up the next greatest invention. It is simply not the way I work. But my inner optimist trusts with all its being that this campaign is correct and good – not without its risks, to be sure – but overall beneficial to the missions of Invisible Children and Resolve, both of which can be found HERE and HERE in case someone is confused as to what they might be.

To return at long last to the issue at hand, I re-reference the title of this post: KONY 2012 is not real. It is the one phrase that has circulated time and time again with conviction (stated in a tone of utter disbelief) among the many people working on this campaign. The 100+million views of the video? Not real. The 800 lobby meeting signups from people hoping to get more involved? Not real. The fact that Kony is not just being discussed by a handful of 20-somethings in San Diego and Washington DC anymore, but is now a household name? Definitely not real. We are all in a state of shock.

Criticism aside, I have found the response to be a beautiful thing. As humans we seem hardwired to focus on the bad in the short-term and, paradoxically, to cut it from our memories once the emotional wave has passed. My dear friends on the other side of the country are facing some rough challenges at the moment. Their financials – which I have always seen to be honest and transparent – have come under some close and misguided scrutiny of late. Critiques of their video have bled into critiques of the organization as a whole, which is a dangerous and hypocritical stance for a reporter to take: accusing the organization of the same flippant generalizations and un-researched efforts that they themselves are actively practicing. This is not my outlet to defend Invisible Children nor to distance myself from them in self-defense. I simply believe that they can speak for themselves much better than I can of them. I have supported them in the past, I support them now, and I will likely support them in the future. They have received an unfair amount of backlash for what is, in my humble opinion, a very well structured and strategic campaign. Absolutely there are things I would change about the video; absolutely I am not one of the organization’s cute, grinning, bracelet-wearing, meme-dropping teen activist-in-training with an unhealthy amount of idealism and “passion”…but I once was.

From my standpoint here in the city where idealism is ousted like a cockroach and passion is almost tangible with many organizations advocating without ceasing for years for the same issues over and over and over, I have trouble wrapping my head around the numbers and the support and criticism alike. But I don’t experience that in the same way Invisible Children does. I get to speak with the young activists, many of whom have never been or are not even now interested in politics, and discuss what options are available to them to “get Kony,” or, my favorite, “to stop that Kony guy.” They are well intentioned without a vehicle to guide their footsteps forward. My job is to help walk them through what for many is their first time engaging with the political system. I help them make calls, write letters, set up lobby meetings, and serve as a guide all the way through until the meeting is over.

Critics want to point fingers at the massive drop-off in twitter attention as a good gauge for the lack of interest. I am of a different opinion. the KONY 2012 film achieved its mission of making him famous and igniting the spark of interest in enough dedicated people that want to bring an end to this conflict once and for all. Twenty-six years is too long. I have an inbox filled with requests to join lobby meetings, not just from every single state in the country, but from dozens of countries around the world: Serbia, Czech Republic, Algeria, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, and Colombia, to name a few.

The emails that sometimes accompany these sign-ups are endearing, though some do seem to border on outlandish. Razi* (*not real name) from UAE wants to lobby with her sheikh. Robert* from China has a body of students who want to Cover the Night on April 20th. Mara* from Morocco expressed her contempt for Joseph Kony in no less than 4 paragraphs. Over 30 people from Australia want to know how they can help. Santo* from Argentina is looking for a Spanish version of the movie and posters to share with his friends and family. And we’ve even received word that a student group in Libya is hoping to raise the profile of Joseph Kony among their friends and family. Unreal.

And that resolution introduced to the House of Representatives on Monday of this week already has 10 cosponsors. That’s excluding the two honorable Congressmen who introduced it. The Senate version is expected to be introduced next week. Watching each name join the list of its bipartisan colleagues is so thrilling. It’s a competition that fills the people working on the advocacy side of the campaign with hope and pride in the youth that have brought about that change. Not unlike watching the bill cosponsors roll in, I look forward to proving to the critics that KONY 2012 is not just hot air and is much more than a viral video. There is a real impact that is being translated from video to advocacy to action. I never thought I would get to see this level of interest in the niche issue that has been so near and dear to me for the past 7 years, but without reservation I am proud to be a part of it. I look forward to the rest of 2012.

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[Again] This is not an analysis of KONY 2012, nor is it a response to every criticism. A few are glaringly absent – not for lack of response, but for lack of time to do them justice. These are my thoughts and feelings in response to some of the media attention, criticism, and inspirational stories that accompany each. I do not try to conceal the fact that I am a part of the campaign and unconditionally support it. I do stress that my opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Resolve, Invisible Children, the Enough Project, or my colleagues. 

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