As I recently noted in my controversial Forbes post, "Kony 2012 Filmmaker, Jason Russell, Becomes The Spectacle, Lessons In Atrocity Tourism," the genius of Atrocity Tourism is that it allows guilty westerners to safely shower compassion on faraway nonwhite victims. In this regard, Kony 2012 is straight outta Stuff White People Like, with a healthy dash of Brüno. In that hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen mockumentary, Bruno finds two gullible L.A. flacks, Nicole and Suzanne DeFosset, who specialize in finding causes for celebrities. Subsequent to his meeting with Nicole and Suzanne, Cohen, via Bruno, sticks the shiv in atrocity showboaters by adopting a black African baby he calls "O.J." in exchange for a U2 Product Red iPod.
As with most irony directed at Hollywood, and Atrocity Tourists in particular, Cohen's scathing indictment was lost on its target. Undaunted, Atrocity Tourist (AT) celebrities continue to spawn imitative behavior in AT celebrity wannabes. The seemingly well-intentioned, if dogmatically one-note, Jason Russell, is one of those rare AT copycats who broke through to Hollywood's progressive inner circle (his Kony 2012 campaign was just referenced last Sunday morningin a softball Meet the Press interview with George Clooney). Russell has ingeniously created a meme that just won't die, and a cadre of fanatical supporters that interpret any criticism of Russell's tactics and motives as "cynical," "apathetic," "cruel," "nativist," and as a viciously personal ad hominem attack on him and them. Strongly worded dissent is not tolerated in order that these saints of compassionate Christian groupthink need not deeply examine their methods and unconscious motives.
As I made clear in the Forbes piece and Comments area there, because of the rabidly enforced dialectical silence and the lockstep alignment of millions of followers behind a charismatic leader, The Talented Mr. Russell is allowed to continue working the sympathies of earnest, gullible, if passionate, activists through the financially questionable charity, Invisible Children (IC). And all of this with aid and comfort from the Atrocity Tourism elite, who populate the boards of organizations and companies likely to fund future atrocity exhibitions.
The Atrocity Tourist nexus of Hollywood filmmakers, film schools (Russell is a graduate of USC), funders, festivals, celebrities, awards shows, and nonprofits is hard for anyone outside of L.A. to fully comprehend. The need to document and "solve" global atrocities is an unspoken assumption here. Moreover, those who completely and rabidly drink the Atrocity Tourist Kool-Aid tend to get generous backing for their Atrocity Tourist projects.
Mr. Russell is not some rare and fragile bird who descended un-touched from some Pure Land of Bodhisattva Oneness, though that's the image he projects. Moreover, he's not free, merely by decree, of the Atrocity Tourist agenda. He did not arise out of whole cloth and magically decide to heroically "do something" (as Atrocity Tourists obnoxiously and obsessively intone) about Joseph Kony. He was already practicing Atrocity Tourism in Sudan back in 2004 when he came upon the Kony story, which provided a fresh angle to his preexisting Atrocity Tourist point of view. In other words, Russell was and is part and parcel of the Atrocity Tourist culture and mindset that permeates Southern California.
Look, I am enough of a libertarian to eschew telling anyone what they should do with their lives, where they should volunteer, let alone donate their time and money. If Brangelina, Madonna, and Emma want to adopt kids from Malawi, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, instead of Compton, good for them. If Oprah wants to open an uber deluxe boarding school for underprivileged girls in South Africa, instead of a series of more modest day schools in L.A.'s Crenshaw district, that's her right.
And, more to our point here, if Mr. Clooney wants to jet off to the Sudan/South Sudan border to call attention to the interminable conflict there, bully for him. Done the right way, raising awareness can be useful. Unfortunately, Invisible Children s not merely about raising awareness of the International Criminal Court's number one ranked bad guy. The IC also aggressively calls for direct U.S. military intervention in another country to kill or capture that bad guy.
AS a result, I believe it is my constitutionally protected right to question anytime U.S. forces are sent to a foreign country, even under the pretext of a "goodwill" or "humanitarian" mission, especially when they are dispatched under the vague rubric of "advisors" (where no official public debate or declaration of war is required). Yes, we sent in Seal Team 6, under the cover of night, to take out Bin Laden inside Pakistan. And, yes, we did so without Pakistan's overt permission for that specific raid.
However, the differences between Kony and Bin Laden are significant. Osama Bin Laden, through his henchmen, attacked the U.S. homeland on 9/11, and U.S. embassies and service personnel abroad before that. In addition, he admitted to these attacks, rejoiced in these attacks, and publicly admitted he was planning future attacks on the U.S. homeland and U.S. personnel around the globe. Moreover, we had military agreements with Pakistan that enabled us to take out terror suspects inside their borders. And, finally, we had open and robust public debate about Bin Laden, how and why we should capture him, what is the right way to capture or kill him, if we should try him, and more. Nothing even close to that happened with the decision to send 100 U.S. military advisors into Uganda to capture or kill Joseph Kony, who posed no threat to the U.S. homeland or U.S. service personnel until we unilaterally sent those personnel into Uganda.
How short our memories are. How quickly we forget that humanitarian pretexts for intervention morph into broader geopolitical mandates that have only tangential relationship to the original raison d'etre. President John F. Kennedy's few hundred initial "advisors" became the first step in a full-scale military invasion of Vietnam. President Reagan's handful of El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan "advisors" morphed into thousands more that were used to quash dissent, plot assassinations, murder, or enable the murder, of civilians under the guise of fighting "Communists" throughout Central America and the Caribbean. And, of course, President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and Don Rumsfeld blatantly used false pretexts and deliberately trumped up dis-information to justify their War On Iraq, ostensibly to take out bogeyman Saddam Hussein and his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
Colin Powell's infamous U.N. speech eliciting support for the Iraq War remains one of the more egregious examples of deceitful propaganda in U.S. diplomatic history. That Mr. Powell, like Mr. Russell, is a well-meaning good guy has nothing to do with how his words engendered an international "coalition of the willing" behind a bogus, costly war. Those costs include the deaths of over one hundred thousand innocent Iraqi women and children (far more children than ever died at Joseph Kony's hands) and tens of thousands of dead or permanently wounded American military personnel, thousands of whom have traumatic brain injury and/or PTSD that make them a long-term danger to themselves and possibly others.
This World Without Borders leitmotif in IC circles that justifies the U.S. army unilaterally taking out bad guys in foreign lands under the pretext that "I Am My Brother's Keeper" is precisely the philosophy that undergirded the Bush Doctrine justifying preemptive war in Iraq. The irony of this seems lost on the many Kony 2012 and IC supporters who probably protested against the Iraq War. These folks naively think that because the Kony situation is different in degree, it is somehow different in kind. But, stop for a moment and consider this: what if the Ugandan government, goaded into action by a Uganda charity, sent 100 "advisors" to "help" with the killing or capture of viciously violent meth dealers in the backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks? Hmmm. That wouldn't go over too well, now would it.
All that said, maybe the IC-stoked U.S. military intervention into Uganda will go swimmingly. Maybe we will get lucky, as we were with the killing of Bin Laden. Maybe our U.S. "advisors" in Uganda will deftly move into LRA strongholds and surgically take out Joseph Kony with no collateral damage.
Alternatively, maybe the reverse will occur, as brilliantly documented in the movie Black Hawk Down, when 123 elite U.S. soldiers failed to take out lieutenants of another African warlord (that time in Somalia). Moreover, maybe there will be a Son of Kony, who will simply take over where Joseph Kony left off.
Kony 2012 supporters need a bright line to distinguish between the Bush Doctrine and the Invisible Children Doctrine. As far as I can see, there isn't one. And that should worry all of us.
Baby steps quickly become big steps. With the disastrous imbroglios I have listed as a reminder, we as Americans need to step back from our emotions, and think long and hard before we call for another U.S. intervention in a foreign land, especially the foreign land of Africa, which has experienced centuries of bloody western interventionism under the pretext of stamping out "evil" and "barbarism." We will not be any less "compassionate," any less "passionate," any less effective, if we keep our heart wedded to our head.
As for other good deeds that Invisible Children claims to engender (schools, emergency alert systems, other development aid), I am not only unsure how much of its budget actually goes to this work (most IC money seems to go to filmmaking and social outreach), but I am unsure whether it makes any positive long-term difference. In fact, based on comments from Ugandans made at my Forbes post, such "aid" might actually make the situation in Uganda worse.
While I believe that helping even one person is sufficient justification for any philanthropic act (it certainly is my mantra in coaching inner city kids), when it comes to philanthropy in foreign lands, especially on the historically and culturally complicated continent of Africa, we need to be extra mindful that our generosity is not used to prop up those whose motives are not aligned with our own.
You see, as long as African oligarchs can use well-meaning nonprofits to stoke the idea that Africa is a pathetic hellhole filled with countless victims in need of western aid, they remain in power. This is because most "humanitarian" and military aid will naturally flow through their corrupt infrastructure, propping up their regimes and the brutal armies that buttress them. By encouraging such aid, naïve organizations like Invisible Children make emerging Africa's transition to a civil, global market economy all the more strenuous.
By contrast, lowering both trade barriers and U.S. domestic subsidies, so that African small businesses can develop quality products and services that the world demands (I'm talking to you, U.S. cotton producers), is a better long-term way to end the cycle of African poverty and violence that Atrocity Tourists decry.
Indeed, if you ask wise working Africans what they need, it's not another paternalistic handout. It's not infantilizing media attention to their sundry disasters. It is also not the initiative-sapping narrative, widely circulating in western academia, that puts the blame for Africa's current troubles on white "financial, racial, social and geopolitical privilege." It's, rather, attention to Africa's robust, entrepreneurial, locally owned and self-generated economic success stories, especially now that Africa is the purported new "frontier" for global economic growth.
Africans want capital investment, access to global markets, and to be treated as self-sufficient players, not victims in need of continual rescue by their former colonizers. That is the respectful, tough-love attitude that will raise all boats on the African continent, including those of at-risk children.
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