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The Profitable White Savior Industrial Complex: KONY2012

March 12, 2012

Invisible Children founders from the STOPKONY2012 video:

The Invisible Children had this to say about the photograph above.

Let me start by saying that that photo was a bad idea. We were young and we got caught up in the moment. It was never meant to reflect on the organization. The photo of Bobby, Laren and I with the guns was taken in an LRA camp in DRC during the 2008 Juba Peace Talks. We were there to see Joseph Kony come to the table to sign the Final Peace Agreement. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was surrounding our camp for protection since Sudan was mediating the peace talks. We wanted to talk to them and film them and get their perspective. And because Bobby, Laren and I are friends and had been doing this for 5 years, we thought it would be funny to bring back to our friends and family a joke photo. You know, “Haha – they have bazookas in their hands but they’re actually fighting for peace.” — Invisible Children

Three white Americans went to Uganda, met children who were devastated by trauma and somehow got to be part of a historical moment that (for all they knew) had a chance of brokering peace and bringing an end to violence. Does it seem like these boys want to tell the story of what happened there that day? Is there any sense from either the photo or their response, that they understood and respected the importance of that meeting to the children whose lives and stories they occupied in their video?

I am enraged as I write this — not because they are savior wanna-bes, and not even because they are ignorant — but because it occurs to me that these men met the children whose lives were devastated by Joseph Kony. They video-taped these children, listened to their stories of unimaginable horror and — somehow, inexplicably — they made that powerful story about their own privileged banality. They went to a meeting with Joseph Kony and decided to “play around” and take pictures of themselves as if Ugandan politics, its soldiers and even its villians all existed for their personal entertainment (and career enhancement opportunities).

It takes a special kind of creepy to witness stories of children living in fear, wanting to die and weeping about their dead brothers — and turn it into one big, elaborate home-video, social-media advertisement and personal public relations machine. It’s one thing to distort facts to sell products — inanimate things — it’s another matter entirely to sell the rape and torture of poor, vulnerable children. Invisible Children made $15 million dollars in revenue this week alonemost of which will be used to make more vapid movies that sell more merchandise.

@tejucole nails it in seven tweets.

This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah. The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

Invisible Children tells us that 95% of their staff are Ugandans and that the organization values local initiatives. And yet in a film which is the biggest PR push for the organization to date, this staff appreciation fails to translate into more than a few thin seconds of screen time. I know more about Jason Russell’s son, Gavin’s hobbies than I do about the work of Invisible Children’s staff with Ugandan children. I also know that somewhere crowds of college-age, mostly white, facebook users stood around, waved and “visiblized” African children through the bravery of the dollar.

Others who are far more engaged with Ugandan politics than me have eloquently and convincingly clarified the numerous factual contortions in the film. Go read them or hear them speak.

Still others have graciously, thoughtfully and patiently pulled apart the basic wrong-ness that is the soul of the KONY2012 video. Check them out.

 
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And then there are others, who were somewhat less than patient and helpfully expressed my first thought which was “What the fuck is this bullshit?”

 
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