Maybe you're like me, and all of a sudden, your child or your students ask, no, insist that you watch the viral video "Kony 2012." "So, like 70 million people have seen it, it's so amazing! You HAVE to see it!" She wants your opinion or he wants your approval because they are totally excited and plan to purchase the kits and go out with friends and plaster "Kony 2012" posters everywhere.
Joseph Kony, for those of you who have not been connected to the media buzz in the last few days, is an African leader of the Lord's Resistance Army that kidnapped children for his murderous army that terrorized Uganda. He is now on the run in neighbouring countries. Invisible Children's campaign to capture him, is suddenly the hot cause. Not surprisingly, they are coming under flack from Ugandan human rights activists for misrepresenting the issue, and the fund-raising community for pocketing most of the donations.
But that is not why I'm writing this letter.
How do you explain to enthusiastic kids that this persuasive campaign, urging them to do human rights direct-action, is, uh, well... Great, but... there's a problem... ?
I believe the video can be used as a "teaching moment."
The video is brilliant propaganda that both grabs attention, uses multiple social media technology and most amazingly, holds teenagers' attention for 30 minutes. It seemed until yesterday, that any "message" video would be doomed if it was longer than 7 minutes. Those of us isolated for campaigning against the Israeli occupation of Palestine or the rush to war on Iran are mighty envious, that's for sure.
The dilemma we faced when talking to our teenagers is: Is it wrong to mobilize popular power to force our government to arrest a war criminal?
No, but it is wrong to mislead our kids who sincerely desire global justice to believe that this campaign to capture Joseph Kony is doing the right thing. So let's fix some of the problems with this viral campaign.
My take on the video and the campaign
"Our goal is to change the conversation of our culture, and ask, 'Who is Joseph Kony?' " by "demanding justice on every corner" says the campaign's leader. They are recruiting kids and young adults to blanket cities with their posters modeled on the pop-art images from Obama's 2008 election.
There is no doubt that Kony and people like him are war criminals and deserve to be captured.
But the video is marketing propaganda.
It juxtaposes scenes of African war criminals and victims, with white American human rights activists. (I kept flashing back to the Republican's old Willie Horton ad which led to George Bush's victory -- stoking white fears about a black criminal let loose by the Democratic challenger).
Invisible Children's objective is to create massive popular pressure on the U.S. government to send the U.S. military to Africa to capture Kony. Whoa!
Invisible Children steals our progressive message that could have been stated by the Occupy movement:
"It's always been, that the decisions of the few, with the money and power, dictated the priorities of their government and the stories in the media. They determined the lives and the opportunities of their citizens. But now there is something bigger than that. The people of the world see each other, and can protect each other. It's turning the system upside down. And it changes everything."
That provoked me to write this letter.
Like Obama's masterful 2008 election rhetoric of "Yes we can, Hope, Audacity, and Change," this "arrest Kony" campaign grabs hold of people's best humane impulses, and leads them into a dead end that fights a lesser evil (the Republicans in 2008, a marginal war criminal on the run now). Meanwhile, we ignore the corrupt system that continues these horrible crimes.
We are shown that the International Criminal Court lists Kony as the world's No. 1 war criminal along with other people, mostly from Africa. However, Western names like George Bush, Dick Cheney, Benjamin Netanyahu, etc. are missing from the list. How can we help a kid understand what that means?
Talking points with our kids who probably have or will watch the video
What is the difference between a militia kidnapping children for military service, and a nation drafting children? What does it mean when our society takes away job opportunities for young people, thereby pressuring them to join the military or security forces for a living?
What would Martin Luther King say about a campaign to send in the U.S. military to Africa? King made a lot of enemies when he denounced the Vietnam war and U.S. militarism, but he didn't back down.
So many charities want to do good in places like Africa. What is the difference between helping people with a handout or a military intervention, vs. helping them control their own lives and their society? How do we figure out if a charity is creating dependency on our handouts, or helping people empower themselves?
How do we figure out if a charity is helping or hurting the people it reaches?
Which brings us to this difficult question: Why is Africa so poor and unstable? Have our countries done anything to make it that way?
Is it wrong to create another forward-operating base for U.S. military domination? Should the U.S. military be dramatically scaled down to just a defensive army? Wouldn't it be better to empower the UN to send armed forces to arrest war criminals and maintain true security for vulnerable populations?
Let's talk about our cell phones, mp3 players, computers and other electronic devices. What power and responsibilities as consumers do we have to Africans, South Americans and Asians?
How important is it that we demand that the mining of the minerals used inside of our electronics, and their manufacturing not contribute to the exploitation or enslavement of African, South American or Asian children and their parents? How do we insist that our purchases not fund human rights abusers who terrorize Africans for their labour? How can we get our computer and cell phone companies to sign onto fair-labour agreements or have products fair-trade certified?
Do we have the nerve to show how Steve Job's genius in making Apple products so popular was also based on exploiting African and Chinese workers?
Western nations say they want to help Africa. So does the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, which lend huge amounts of money and set trade polices. Is it charity when they lend money to countries on the condition that public services be privatized? Why have these privatization measures harmed African infrastructure such as health care, education, water, electricity, and city/village services? Why should we end "free trade" policies that destroy sustainable African farming and their environment?
Kids, what was it about your parents' anti-globalization movement way back in the old days of the 2000s? Why did they take to the streets and resist the riot police -- demanding our government and our corporations stop creating African poverty and starvation that breeds violence and wars?
How were Africans affected by the U.S. government's refusal to support the international treaty to ban land mines? Where do the weapons Kony's army use to kill other Africans come from?
How come an official global war criminals list doesn't have any of our own notorious leaders who have murdered and terrorized millions and destroyed foreign nations? Would including them make a U.S.-based campaign to capture one African war criminal less popular with Congress?
Do you think it is OK that a brilliant campaign like Invisible Children does not show that war criminals are also protected in our countries? Shouldn't upholding human rights be universal?
Finally, before you donate money to a cause, how can you find out if your money is being properly spent? How can you search organizations online that monitor and report on how charities use their money and how they perform? Did you know that most responsible charities should use less than 10 per cent of their money on administration costs?
It is up to us to point out to kids in our lives the serious shortcomings of Invisible Children, but at the same time not dissuade them from doing good. A campaign for true global justice should always shine a light on the real connections between the crimes committed against African children and their parents, and our current Western leaders and policies.
Rather than just come off as cynical, we should encourage our children to use this dramatic opportunity to better understand what is really going as they take action in solidarity for global justice.
I hope your conversation with your kid or kids goes well. Be excited that they want to do the right thing. Ours are still going to plaster posters of Kony, but with fewer illusions.
Scott Weinstein is a Montreal-based nurse.
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