My thoughts on KONY 2012 (and a defense of Invisible Children?)

As if I could resist.

What you are about to get is a collection of hasty thoughts, and then I am going to return to my last day of vacation in Hanoi (ironically, the only place busier and more stressful than my Manhattan home).

For starters, my faith in humanity and the media has been partly restored today. The big story has shifted from viral video to the oversimplification of complicated issues, the accuracy of advocacy, and the white savior complex in aid. Really. Newspapers are taking a nuanced view of aid and advocacy. This is big.

Most of the discussion has been excellent. See Grant Oyston’s now famous site for a round-up of Western critiques, and (of all places) Boing Boing for African voices. I have said my piece before.

The essence of my critique: successful advocacy often tells a simple story; simple stories usually lead to simple solutions; and simple solutions can do more harm than help. If you want to help, your first duty is to make sure you don’t make things worse.

My discomfort with Invisible Children, as with many advocacy organizations, has been the worry they don’t take this duty seriously enough. There is a long-winded explanation behind this statement, with caveats and provisos and elaborations required. One day I’ll write that up, but not today.

To give credit where it is due, scratch beneath the surface, and Invisible Children take a more nuanced view than they get credit for (or showcase). Their self-defense is here, and it’s a reasonable one. Also, my (admittedly limited) experience with their programs on the ground is that they are better than the average non-profit in northern Uganda. The bracelets are silly, but you could do worse than to support their field programs.

But let’s suppose for a moment that, on balance, everyone conforms to their worst stereotypes: the badvocacy organization is simplistic, self-aggrandizing, and adolescent; and the academics are so busy being nuanced and obscure that they are useless. (These are not hard things to suppose.)

Could, in spite of it all, the KONY 2012 campaign still lead to the right solution? I think the answer might be yes.

Suppose you believe (as I do) that capturing or killing Kony is the best of a bunch of bad options. And suppose you also believe (as I do) that, to capture or kill the man, Central African governments will need advanced military, intelligence, and special forces support.

This viral video, whatever its weaknesses, may get you closer to that objective than any other action I can think of.

You may not share my two premises. Or you may share them but mistrust (as you should) the West’s ability to intervene intelligently and effectively in Central Africa. You may also worry (as you should) that an ineffective military response will result in a rash of LRA raping and killing. Or perhaps you pause (as you ought to) as you realize that getting Kony probably means going through a wall of children, guns a-blazing.

I would feel more comfortable with Invisible Children if I saw them, somewhere, expressing some of these risks and costs and concerns. If I’ve missed it, help me out.

In the end I don’t think it matters. Central African militaries are incapable of bringing Kony in, and the West is unlikely to give serious help. I would like to be wrong on this, but  I fear Seal Team Six is not gearing up to go.

Sadly, Kony will kill again and again, and in 2013 Invisible Children will have yet another over-sensational campaign. When the news organizations came calling this week, I flirted with the idea of just giving them a single quote: The two are like herpes: once you have them, you can never get rid of them.

That’s unduly cynical and trivializing. For all its weaknesses, Invisible Children has been more effective than any of us at raising awareness, and they may get us closest to the least worst action we can take. They can get better, and I hope this time they do.

What’s new and amazing is that, with the direction that coverage has taken, the average high school activist, donor and Congressman might just understand a little better what separates advocacy from badvocacy, and demand better in future. And that makes me hopeful.