"I think I was terrified that if I untied these things that the work that I know is really good and tells a story that does these really great things for making people care...that it would come apart in the way where it would ruin everything." -- Mike Daisey to Ira Glass on This American Life
"We believe that Jesus Christ was the best story teller and we believe that he truly said go out and tell stories because that's the most powerful thing, that wins the heart and the mind and it will get people to follow what you're doing." -- Jason Russell
What does Mike Daisey's conversation with Ira Glass in which he admits to manipulating facts about his experiences visiting Apple factories in China have to do with Jason Russell and Invisible Children's Kony2012 movement? Including one crazy looking naked car-vandalizing breakdown, in which Russell apparently screams at Siri of iPhone fame, a lot actually. Both Daisey and Russell tried to use an artistic medium to convey information about something not widely recognized in the hopes of raising awareness and effecting positive change. They both let us think their work was true and we, their audience, took that to mean it was factual. Of course in both cases there was plenty that was factual, but unfortunately for their respective credibility enough was inaccurate, manipulated or omitted altogether that they now face a strong public backlash and everyone is forced to reconsider how they should ultimately feel about their subject matter. The question too many people are now asking themselves is: Can I go back to using my iPad without feeling guilty about the conditions in which it was made and can we stop worrying about child-mutilating genocidal warlords far away? The answer of course to both, is no.
Nine days ago after being one among the unprecedented more than 100 million viewers of the Kony 2012 viral video created by Russell and presented by Invisible Children I wrote a piece here which among other things sought to advocate on behalf of the power of social media to effect wide reaching change for good. What I responded to was what most of us di d-- the surface impact of Jason Russell's film. It was a story expertly rendered for a culture which likes its villains obvious, its heroes young and ordinary and its plot quickly and glossily told. The movie, wrenchingly painful to watch but also soaringly hopeful and ultimately urgent in message seemed to reach across every defining line to inspire action on behalf of suffering innocents in Uganda. Of course, we now know that the villain Joseph Kony is no longer even in Uganda and that he hasn't actually been seen at all since 2006, leading some to believe he may be dead. We also now know that while Invisible Children urged us to support the Ugandan government which is led by General Yoweri Museveni, in their efforts to deliver Kony to justice, Mr. Museveni is actually himself responsible for similarly brutal crimes against humanity. Indeed Museveni, who stole three elections, is thought to have been the man from whom Kony actually learned his barbaric techniques. Clearly the political picture, how it should be approached and resolved, is much more complex than what the majority of us took it to be initially. That Kony's whereabouts in relation to Uganda were not immediately obvious to the vast majority of people viewing Russell's movie points to the larger problem which cannot be dismissed -- these horrific crimes happened and most of the world had no idea. Despite our promise of never again, we have allowed genocides to happen over and over. Kony's crimes are still all too-real and he is generally believed to be continuing the LRA's reign of terror however sporadically in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kony still needs to be brought to justice and the fact that he is not operating in Uganda anymore should not mute the urgency of the call both to arrest him and to help the many thousands of victims and their affected families who have been left in his murderous wake. It's vitally important that we not use the inaccuracies of the film or the questions about Invisible Children as an entity as an excuse to return to the easy way of cynicism and apathy. Rather we must learn the lessons imparted by having responded so emotionally and immediately to the film. That lesson is to question all information we are presented with, to always think critically before acting in response to that information in whatever format including the news media, and we must harness what is good and worthy about both Russell's and Daisey's effort -- mainly the unquestionable power of a united and immediately connected populous to influence the world in which we live.
Russell's naked breakdown and subsequent arrest which currently has him on a 5150 psychiatric hold at a San Diego Hospital does not really surprise me. As of this writing, what is mostly in evidence with regard to the incident at this point only serves to illustrate, if perhaps in caricature, what happens when someone in our culture becomes incomprehensibly famous in the space of a day. Fame is dangerous. Extreme fame is often toxic. We know this. I'm not excusing what he did, nor am I dismissing the interpretation some have of certain deeply repressed feelings to have led to it, I am simply saying plenty of people have gone quite crazy in the face of less constant scrutiny and behaved far more destructively than this guy apparently did. I suspect that scrutiny; being lauded as both a global superhero and lambasted as a scamming duplicitous religious zealot almost simultaneously could put even the most stable of us in mental jeopardy. The latter accusation stems from the discovery that Invisible Children has clear financial ties to fundamentalist Christianity and there are those who believe it is an organization using the horrors wreaked by Kony as a means to secretly convert and evangelize the youth of the world. A video of Russell speaking at Liberty University shows him explaining that the way to connect with people and mobilize their support is to avoid trying to convert anyone and to appeal, as Jesus did, to their basic humanity. You can ascribe covert evil religious intentions to that or you can really listen to the whole 40 minutes and perceive that his encouraging them to avoid proselytizing shows he understands that orienting their work toward religious conversion will a) more likely distract from the ultimate goal of capturing Kony and helping those affected by his atrocities and b) that Jesus simply didn't play like that. I truly think it's the latter and that the evidence shows the people running IC had and have a sincere desire to change the world for the better by bringing widespread attention to the atrocities that occurred in Central Africa. Their knowing avoiding talk of religion would help them appeal to more people does not mean they secretly want to convert the world (although of course they might) but rather that to effect change one must circumvent areas which will necessarily create division. And it's worth pointing out that just because a charity has ties financial or otherwise to a particular religion does not obviate the organization's ability to do amazing good. I never heard anyone outraged over Feed The Children because it's an explicitly Christian charity or Habitat for Humanity or Covenant House. Invisible Children, like these and many other charities doesn't hide its faith based status (although it doesn't get mentioned in the Kony film itself), but nor is it the explicit subject of its work. All that being said, one so moved can easily choose to donate their money to one of the many non-profit organizations where the majority of it goes directly to the affected people as opposed to the roughly one third which is IC's relatively transparent percentage.
If invisible Children and Mike Daisey did nothing else, they woke the vast majority of the planet up to the fact that we need to pay attention to the human rights of everyone. And we need to protect our children from harm everywhere including in those countries which don't necessarily offer us financial incentive to do so. We need to harness the energy that we feel when we see or hear a story that tells us something is terribly wrong and thoughtfully take action.
Towards the end of the retraction interview on This American Life, Glass says: "... You're saying the only way you can get through emotionally to people is by messing with the facts. But that isn't true."
Is it? Did Russell and Daisey both use artistic license because they know what compels people to action in this day and age, people whose own government convinced them to go to war in Iraq by manipulating the facts and how the story of one man doing evil was told? Have we learned our lesson yet about how important it is to get all the necessary information before putting human lives at risk? I sure hope so.
Because the spirit of both Daisey's work and the Kony2012 film, that we can unite through shared humanity in calls to action to dismantle what's harmful and replace it with what's good, shouldn't be dismissed just because the nature of the call or even the character of the caller may be in question, nor because the execution of the action may be way more complicated than originally thought. Just the opposite. We have been shown in many instances recently -- the reversal of Komen for The Cure on defunding Planned Parenthood comes to mind -- the extent of our own great power when we mobilize in the face of injustice and now must commit to what the old adage cautions us comes along with it, great responsibility. Let us therefore all the more passionately use our collective resources and global connectivity to help and inform each other of the truth (which is rarely simple) about what is wrong and what is right and then take thoughtful united action to protect and advocate for each other. In so doing we may each tell our own true story, we may each be our own ordinary hero, the very ones we've all been waiting for.