Call me a traditionalist, but when a non-fiction film’s soundtrack includes anything but incidental music, my eyes cease to view it as a documentary and begin to receive it as propaganda. Kony 2012, this week’s viral video sensation on YouTube and Vimeo, reaches for the heart-melting, minor-chord music about 16 seconds into its 30-minute run, efficiently alerting me to its emotional scheme.
Produced by the non-profit group Invisible Children, Kony 2012 implores viewers to purchase bracelets and action kits (tax deductible!) to help stop the murdering, raping, looting and enslaving ways of African warlord Joseph Kony, head of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and to forward the video to friends. Kony 2012 also calls for U.S. support for Ugandan efforts to capture the warlord. According to the YouTube counter, the video has been viewed close to 40 million times since its release on Monday, although New York attributes that performance to clever marketing, high production values and a website that made it easy to push the link to celebrities who tweet.
Whatever the source of Kony 2012‘s viral power, it has been more than matched by a swift anti-viral counterreaction, with commentators at the Atlantic, the Guardian, Jezebel, the Independent, the Wronging Rights blog, the Traveling While Black blog, the Backslash Scott Thoughts blog and the Visible Children blog scrutinizing the video and its maker-marketers. They criticize the Invisible Children project for exaggerating the evil Joseph Kony is perpetrating these days; for engaging in paternalism that verges on colonialism; for failing to note that some of the “good guys” that the group supports are known to rape and loot themselves; for pretending that viewers sharing a video with other viewers will change the world; for selling “yesterday’s papers” and calling it news; for portraying Africans as helpless victims in need of saving by Westerners; for oversimplifying the central-east African crisis; and for other clap-your-hands-and-everything-will-be-all-right dreams.
Even the Associated Press is giving the slick video the stink-eye this morning.
By any measure, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 has backfired. Every project and video the group now launches will be analyzed and criticized to the nth degree, and I can guarantee that enterprising reporters are excavating the group’s history looking for dirt. People who hate to be taken for a sucker — that would be you, me, and the ghost of Christopher Hitchens — will avoid the group, its maudlin videos, its fundraising forays, its silly T-shirts and its action kits with maximum effort.
If only there were more of us. The people behind the Kony 2012 video aren’t so stupid that they couldn’t have foreseen this week’s backlash, even if they may have underestimated its potential. By making war criminal Joseph Kony its literal poster child, the reductionist face of African evil, it risked ridicule. An emotive, fundraising video such as Kony 2012 — filled with footage of innocent, defenseless, crying children who live in fear of an evil rapist-abductor — must be careful not to overtax the heart. Push the message too far in one direction, and you produce a snuff film. Too hard in another, a camp classic. Not hard enough, a fundraising failure.
But the fact that Kony 2012 is closing in on 40 million YouTube views indicates that the group hit the sweet, sentimental spot — that tens of millions of viewers didn’t come away from the video irritated that their emotions had been shamelessly abducted. As genre work, you’d have to place Kony 2012 and other Invisible Children videos alongside the work product of televangelists and telethon producers, who make a living by picking your pocket while soaking your eyes in stories of redemption and good works. As long as villains like child-killing diseases, Satan and Joseph Kony continue to exist, the telefundraisers will always be in business.
Invisible Children, which like the 700 Club or the March of Dimes is primarily a fundraising group, knows better than any of its critics how this game works. They cherish today’s criticisms because a backlash always comes paired with a front-lash. For every person who ever tuned out the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon because he couldn’t endure the host’s mawkishness, another five tuned in because they couldn’t miss it.
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PHOTO: Lord Resistance Army Major General Joseph Kony, in this exclusive image, poses at peace negotiations between the LRA and Ugandan religious and cultural leaders in Ri-Kwangba, southern Sudan, November 30, 2008. REUTERS/Africa24 Media