What Would Joseph Kony Do?

By skepticlawyer

What would Joseph Kony do
If he were here right now?
He’d burn a blond gay muppet or two,
That’s what Joseph Kony’d do

Last week, it emerged that the M25 — for those not in the know, the ‘London Orbital’ and Britain’s biggest carpark — was turning into a tourist attraction, presumably by means of the odd national capacity for self-flagellation that Britons evince with regularity. During an M25 coach tour — joined by Guardian reporter Patrick Barkham — one passenger responded to an ‘incident’ thus:

“Let’s see if there are bodies!”

Like one of the M25’s bloodier incidents, the #Kony 2012 viral video has also produced plenty of bodies, only some of them real. It has also revealed something rather monstrous about both contemporary Christianity and its manifestations in US youth culture: the extent to which shallow sentiment has triumphed over knowledge and hard work when it comes to achieving good things.

My little Kony

For those of you who’ve spent the last week on Mars, Kony 2012 was an half-hour video about Ugandan warlord and Lord’s Resistance Army head Joseph Kony that, shall we say, went viral. It was watched by tens of millions (the numbers keep getting bigger) and caught the zeitgeist: here, it seemed, was a group of passionate young people trying to do the right thing about suffering in another part of the world. Except it wasn’t.

First it emerged that the charity that filmaker Jason Russell represented, Invisible Children, used very little of its funds in Africa generally or Uganda specifically. Then it emerged that Invisible Children has spent six years avoiding legitimate questions from the US equivalent of the Charities Commission, the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance:

“I don’t understand their reluctance to provide basic information,” says H. Art Taylor, President and CEO of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. “The whole point of the effort is to shine the light of truth on a terrible atrocity, and yet they seem to be reluctant to turn that light on themselves. It’s really unfortunate, because their campaign has the potential to inspire and galvanize millions of young activists and future philanthropists.”

It got worse. Much of the charity’s funding came not just from American evangelicals, but from American evangelicals actively involved in anti-gay campaigns, including supporters of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Yes, that one. The ‘kill the gays’ bill.

Thereafter, it just got weird. It turns out that Jason Russell’s Invisible Children exists to promote this musical comedy lover’s desire to make his very own Glee one day. No, I am not making this up. Aaron Stewart-Ahn did the legwork:

Here’s where the money has been going to: Invisible Children founder Jason Russell’s vanity dance musical numbers which start off with exploitative footage of suffering children. How did no one else catch this? It makes the Kony 2012 video look subtle and sane. He’s basically using this to fund his desire to make Glee.

This is where the millions are being spent: vanity musicals. Did Trey Parker write this??!! Russell has mentioned repeatedly how his ambitions were to make musicals. He intimated that he was going to make the musical popular again á la Glee, but this didn’t work out—so he ended up in advocacy. It was that chat at the evangelical conference. So, here’s a direct youtube link to 9m 10secs in the video where he talks about making musicals, and casually talks about his dream of documenting genocide.

Aaron was referring (in particular) to this video:


I defy you to watch it and retain your toenails. It is toe-curlingly embarrassing. There is one vaguely Michael-Jacksonish scene in there involving an unzipped jacket that made me want to pick up a corner of the carpet and crawl underneath. Fortunately, Charlie Brooker did that for me (do watch this; it saves me going into further gory and grisly detail):


Brooker also showed clips from another video — which I can’t embed — and that in any case is being pulled from everywhere on the internet, presumably by Invisible Children. By the time you read this post, it may no longer be available. If it is, though, watch it. It features Invisible Children’s Token black member playing air guitar whilst posing on top of a moving van and wearing what appears to be a Jimi Hendrix fright wig.

Brooker’s comment? (via Twitter):

Can ANYONE explain how this EPIC visual embarrassment helps Africa? OH GOD THERE’S MORE. Also: how much did this cost, did donations fund it, and what the TWIRLING FUCK does it mean?

If you’ve stayed with me until now — and watched at least some of the videos — you’ll have noticed that Jason Russell (despite being married with two children and, according to at least one report, wanting another nine) is camper than Fort Dix. As DeusExMacintosh keeps pointing out, ‘he even has gay hair!’ International development aid, as a chap from Médecins Sans Frontières quipped on Wednesday, ‘just got Justin Biebered’.

If he is closeted, then in a perverse way, his homophobia is rendered explicable: if he can kill all the other gays, there will be (as the law and economics nerds put it), ‘a substantial lessening in competition’. Bit difficult to imagine musical theatre without TEH GAY. Which leaves more room for Jason…

Finally, it got distressing and disturbing in equal measure. Yesterday, Russell was arrested in San Diego at around 11.30 in the morning. He was naked, screaming at traffic, running in between motor vehicles and masturbating. He appears to have been sectioned (or the Californian equivalent, whatever it is). Some of the incident has been captured on video (I’m not normally inclined to post ‘trigger warnings’, but if you’ve ever had a run-in with one of the more demonstrative mental illnesses, I’d avoid the link).

So, there are bodies. And treacly, saccharine, sentiment.

The White Saviour Industrial Complex

That line isn’t mine, but is part of a short piece from US writer Teju Cole. In it, he refers to the ‘banality of sentimentality’, a point on which I disagree with him. His first four observations are nonetheless telling:

1. From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Saviour Industrial Complex.

2. The white saviour supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

3. The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

4. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.

Camp out. Wear wristbands. Listen to incredibly bad Christian rock music. Try to dance like Michael Jackson. Use exploitative footage of Ugandan children. Be enthusiastic. Be weepy. Elevate victimhood. It’s all about being a rockstar saviour, you know. Spend money on a Biblical scale on overproduced video clips. Engage in unironic high-production-value appropriation of whatever your church ministers think will appeal to the kids (from raves to extreme sports to… well… irony). Turn someone else’s country into fodder for your exercise in vanity-charity so that you don’t have to think about your toxic attitude towards certain people [TEH GAY] in your own country. Spend bugger all of your charitable ‘take’ on Ugandan kids in need; instead, create ‘awareness’ —  you know, promote your cause as if you were Derek Zoolander. And yes, awareness campaigns have got to be the worst thing to happen to private charity in the history of the concept (which, in its modern form, goes back to 1601 — the Statute of Elizabeth).

Absolutely Fabulous! (and ressentiment, too)

Much of this weirdness, as should be obvious, has its roots in the current fight — throughout the developed world — over same-sex marriage. Now, in days gone by Christianity dealt with everything from interracial marriage to abortion to feminism to socialism to classical liberalism to Marxism with at least some equanimity and sometimes even dignity (this especially applies to the Marxist challenge). The gays are asking for less, for fuck’s sake — a lot less — and as a side-serving the rest of us get to sit around and watch the Christian churches try to prove Nietzsche right. Is Christianity really all about evincing ressentiment? Does it really need a conga line of enemies in order to sustain itself? If so, does this mean that Joseph Kony, the warlord-who-hasn’t-even-been-in-Uganda-for-six-years will do as an interim measure?

The short video above shows — I suspect — Jason Russell losing his mind. For some reason, gay marriage is providing a trigger mechanism for the major religious tradition of which he is a part to lose its collective marbles — all over the world. It’s not just the American evangelicals and conservative Catholics, although they’re the most obvious right now thanks to the Republican primaries (the worst Christian meltdowns — over abortion, for example — tend to be confined geographically to the US. Not so over gay marriage; in that case, the meltdown is global). Russell Blackford has been collecting and commenting on an efflorescent selection of postmodern theological piffle, most of it published over at Your ABC. It makes fascinating if unedifying reading (when a theologian starts sounding like a second rate Derrida, then you know that a Sokal hoax or something similar is just over the horizon… oh, wait. #Kony 2012).

One of his finds, however, is less ill-written than the others. It’s by Tracey Rowland, a Catholic theologian, but it contains only a little theology. It’s about marketing, and not very good marketing at that:

Just take, for example, the question of contraception. The real issue is not about producing millions of Catholic babies; the real issue is about the meaning of sexual intimacy and the Catholic claim that in the act of sexual union a couple is participating in the life and creative love of the Holy Trinity. The trouble is how does one explain this to people for whom “the Trinity” is at best a fuzzy concept?

What Austen Ivereigh and the Catholic Voices group recommend is that, instead of answering the precise question which has been put, which is usually loaded with a bundle of misunderstandings, Catholics need to learn to “reframe the issue.” Included here is the idea that behind every criticism of the Church is an ethical value – in other words, that there is some ethical motivation behind the judgments themselves.

‘Reframe the issue’. Riiiight. It appears never to have occurred to this woman that the Catholic Church could hire marketing gurus from the Macquarie Graduate School of Management or the Said Business School until Benedict XVI goes blue in the face, but even they can’t polish a turd. All they can do is play diversion games: look, over there, at [insert hobbyhorse]; give money now! Engage in piss-in-a-dark-suit politics that ‘feel good but don’t show’, as my father used to say.

Teju Cole spoke of the banality of sentimentality in his piece, but I think he’s wrong. If evil is banal, then sentimentality is evil, for it achieves precisely nothing.

[Cartoons by DeusExMacintosh]


  1. paul walter
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I’ve avoided the Kony thing like the plague since news of it first began to percolate through.
    I knew, soon enough, some thing of a definitive explanation would eventually emanate from a detached observer; an SL or Guardian journo; the like. It’s about what I suspected.

    That Trey Parker is invoked, as a metaphor for the extent to which parody has imitated reality; and is a sad commentary on the magnitude of another daft American assault on the text.

  2. David Jackmanson
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    +1 for the parody of “What Would Brian Boitano Do”; a great song from a great movie.

  3. Sifan
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink


  4. Posted March 17, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    He’s definitely been sectioned under the Californian equivalent of the Mental Health Act. They call it ‘involuntary detention’ over there, apparently.

  5. Posted March 17, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Quakers don’t evangelise, for which I am eternally grateful.

  6. kvd
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Well who knew Joseph Kony worked for Goldman Sachs? Not me – just as I always thought the answer to “Is the Pope a Catholic?” was obvious, until today. This blog can be very educational.

  7. Posted March 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    kvd wins the internetz for today…

  8. Patrick
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    I am not sure about this one. Yes the Stop Kony guys appear to be idjits, but so what.

    There is a much bigger question about moral engagement with the world.

    For example, Syria – should there be a ‘Stop Assad’ video? Circulation of that in China might be very helpful, for example!

    Also, sure, the video was simplistic and in parts mis-stated the case. But is this that big a deal?

    My initial reaction to even the very first tweets was probably the same as most of yours – largely one of contemptuous certainty that this was simplistic agit-prop that completely failed to consider the ‘broader issues’, complexities of intervention and whether this should really be a priority.

    But then I thought again – was my reaction merely elitist defensiveness? Very possibly so – after all what is the first and most appropriate reaction to a Kony? Moral repugnance, as far as I am concerned. Does it matter if the treatment is perfectly accurate and balanced? Does it matter if other people elsewhere did or are doing things? Yes, if the question is one of what resources we should devote to it, but if the question is how we should react, as such, then perhaps not really?

    As for the ‘white saviour industrial complex, whilst I couldn’t agree more with the scepticism of Jeff Sachs and his ilk, the term does beg a bit the question – what other kind is there??? After all stuff like the Red Cross and MSF are also fruits of this mentality.

  9. Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Robin Sandall’s book review in the latest Quadrant is pertinent to your concerns.

  10. Posted March 20, 2012 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    That article in Quadrant is very unclearly written and confusing; it is hard to see which book he is reviewing, or whether it is just a comment on an essay on the appropriateness of purchasing slaves in order to set them free. I think it is (appropriate to buy-and-free), based on a fairly decent knowledge of the history of slavery.

    There have only been two broad scale abolitionist movements in history: Stoics and Quakers. One failed and the other succeeded. Stoics and Quakers alike purchased slaves only to set them free; in both cases that was part of their abolitionist ‘schtick’. There are laws dating to the time of Augustus prohibiting the simultaneous manumission of any more than 30 slaves (even as part of one’s will), clearly directed at Stoics. Sometimes there was an odd ambivalence, too: Olaudah Equiano’s Quaker owner, Robert King, purchased him as a slave but allowed him to keep a peculium (the wage paid to slaves in Roman times, and in this case deliberately copied from what was — horrifying to say as it is – a more humane system). King had Equiano educated, and Equiano used his saved peculium to purchase his freedom (very common in the Roman world, but in the early modern and enlightenment period only common among Quakers who, at that stage, were still in the process of transitioning to a full-throated abolitionist position). It is difficult to say what is ‘right’ in this sort of moral calculus.

    I should also point out that — as horrifying as it is to modern ears — Britain compensated its slave-owners for their ‘property’ losses (£20 million, a staggering sum in today’s money), thereby avoiding further conflict. The US did not (and as far as I am aware compensation was never mooted). We may find the moral calculus of Westminster in 1807 shocking now, but the million Americans who died in the Civil War, if given voice, may big to differ.


    Ugandan response: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ye5X9Xdg2CE&feature=player_embedded

    Top fact: Uganda was voted Lonely Planet’s top destination for 2012. Whoopsie.

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  1. By Skepticlawyer » A chicken in the sex class on August 3, 2012 at 6:01 am

    […] is odd how much of this Western posturing involves Uganda; what did Uganda do, one wonders, to invite such prurient attention from Western […]

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