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To catch a Kony, cash won't cut it

March 12, 2012 |  2:36 pm

Kony-2012The Kony video: You love it or you hate it. Or, if you're a truly world-weary Web troll who mocks memes rather than makes them, you're way, way above it. Meanwhile, if you're an opinionator for the dead-tree media, you wait until most of the fuss is well and truly over before getting around to blogging about it.

Actually, the fuss isn't quite over. Invisible Children, the advocacy group behind the Web video "Kony 2012," announced Monday that its next project will be a video defending itself from all the criticism generated by its last one. That's a good idea because powerful filmmaking is the one thing this group does extremely well (as opposed to, say, benefiting Ugandan children or actually achieving results).

Oops. To all of my Facebook friends under 25: Just kidding about that last sentence. I'm changing my profile photo to a red "Kony 2012" banner. Please don't hack my account and post embarrassing status updates under my name.

The almost evangelical zeal with which many college-ish-age people are embracing the Kony campaign is at once inspiring and distressing -- inspiring because it shows that with a little nudge, America's youth can be driven to care about more than midterms and Internet porn; distressing because it shows how easily public opinion on an obscure topic can be manipulated by savvy new-media marketers. The video, a recitation of the many crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, has attracted more than 74 million viewers on YouTube alone, not to mention the millions more who have seen it elsewhere.

If you're familiar with the video (and if you're not, check out this Times story), chances are you're also familiar with the criticisms of its makers, which are many: Invisible Children holds itself out as a charity to benefit Ugandan kids whose lives have been torn apart by violence, yet examinations of its tax returns show that it spends most of its funds on making films; "Kony 2012" urges people to send the charity more money in the name of preventing Congress from withdrawing the small contingent of U.S. military advisors who are helping African troops track down and catch Kony, which is odd considering there was never any sign that Congress was considering any such thing; and the video glosses over the fact that Kony is actually no longer in Uganda and is hiding elsewhere, so his reign of terror is largely over.

What bothers me about the group isn't its financing, strategy or even documentary technique but its focus on a marginalized figure who, while certainly among the world's most wanted criminals, is only one of many international villains, and not the most dangerous. A list of better topics might include the genocide in Darfur, the tragic failed state that is Somalia and the deadly scourges of malaria and AIDS in Africa, any of which would be more worthy of public notice and more amenable to public influence. The fact is that all the money and advocacy in the world can't catch Joseph Kony; about the best Americans can do is to support their government's current work to help with the policing effort. That's hardly a great topic for activism. A few million calls to Congress about providing more funds to the Global Fund to Fight AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria, though, could really make a difference.

But that's a quibble. The filmmakers behind "Kony 2012" made the documentary because their lives were touched by Ugandan children and the devastation wrought by Kony's forces; somebody else can worry about AIDs. And it seems odd for the Western media to blame Invisible Children for being late to the game of raising awareness about Kony, when they largely neglected to tell Kony's story in the midst of his worst depredations. If Invisible Children spends its money making movies, that's because its mission is to raise awareness, and that's not a bad thing. American high school kids might not be able to find Uganda on a map, but at least they now know who Joseph Kony is.

So it's a mixed bag. But if you're itching to right Africa's wrongs with a little cash, there are better places to send it than Invisible Children. Here's one of the better ones.

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--Dan Turner

Photo: Image from the Kony 2012 action kit. Credit: www.invisiblechildren.com

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