Narrative is a crucial element for any war, whether on Bin Laden in Afghanistan or on Joseph Kony in Uganda. Generally this narrative, to settle public debate and drive broad sentiment towards a single goal, is one-sided and oversimplified. An opposing narrative is difficult to craft because it must either be complex, therefore hard to process, or also simple but contrarian. However, the first one to the narrative struggle usually claims “nationality” or “humanity” as part of the story, so that contrarians can be portrayed as threats or something less than human, and thus preventing a counter-narrative.
With the Kony2012 campaign, Invisible Children have produced a wonderful propaganda piece to encourage the narrative of perpetual war that Americans have been hearing for over a decade. Even more unfortunately, it offers as solutions the very strategies that have proven to be detrimental failures.
Fighting a transnational force by supporting a corrupt military supported by a weak government in a nation-state that no longer harbors the person sought after is the strategy pursued by the United States in Afghanistan and is now being called for by Invisible Children in Uganda.
This strategy was of course pursued before 9-11, when the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan was perceived to be a force that could be trained to pursue one of the most sophisticated organized crime groups in the world. When this proved ineffective, American troops were eventually deployed. Despite 10 years and an estimated $500+ billion, many analysts call it a failed effort. Even the alleged target, Osama bin Laden, was captured in neighboring Pakistan where many experts had expected him to be. Yet even his capture has not ended the war effort or resulted in on the ground successes.
T-shirts with Osama bin Laden’s face on them were becoming increasingly popular right after the September 11 attacks. He had become something of a “celebrity” in IC parlance, though I would consider him to be more of an icon. The shirts were direct, some featuring a snipers sight over his face, and offensive to some Americans and many abroad. The goal of the Kony tshirts that are being sold are to raise funds, but also to raise Kony’s profile so that American law makers see that their constituents care to then support legislation that will send troops to train Ugandan soldiers. While logically sound, the idea of a Russian citizen campaign to wear Osama2004 shirts to get their government to promote military action in Afghanistan, I’m sure would have produced a certain amount of anger and backlash here in the USA. Seeing Malcolm Webb’s reporting on the anger IC produced in Uganda is not surprising given the different cultural context shared by those abused at the hands of Kony’s Lords Resistance Army.
This anger goes to the top, with Prime Minister of Uganda Amama Mbabazi releasing a statement stating that the “slick” video produced by Invisible Children was misleading, that Uganda is not in conflict, and that Joseph Kony is probably in the Central African Republic, or perhaps in Democratic Republic of Congo. He even joined twitter as @AmamaMbabazi to reach out to the likes of @Oprah and @RushLimbaugh to rally celebrities to the cause of “rebuilding previously ravaged communities” instead of funding and training his own military to pursue Kony’s LRA.
Different audiences react to material differently. Young Americans have been growing up on propaganda cinema, branded as “issue docs,” from Waiting for Superman to recent Michael Moore films. Harder to find are the Errol Morris pieces that not only question truth, but at times uncover it and save a life, as with The Thin Blue Line. Now in the digital era of storytelling, even issue docs have the ability to transcend their own narrative by incorporating the narrative of others. Granito is a film about the genocide in Guatemala, but uses technology to combine police archives and family records into narratives for prosecution and memory, while helping give content to the filmmaker for a better narrative. This new multi prong approach to storytelling includes the subjects themselves, rather than leaving them feeling exploited, as with IC.
The danger in selling propaganda is that it could be used for positive or negative purposes. The power is in the hands of the storyteller. In IC’s case, the story does not lead to action that can or should be supported. Moreover, the funds have not resulted in providing tangible results for the people living in Northern Uganda, according to what I know from experts working in the region. While their ability to tell stories is nearly unparalleled in the space and their advocacy and awareness-raising abilities can be lauded, it’s the end-game that I’m most concerned with and that I unfortunately do not stand behind.
I hope to experience a time when Ugandans and others will experience justice for the crimes that Joseph Kony and the LRA have committed and I will do whatever I can to help get there, if they ask.