This weekend after watching this surreal clip on CNN of a hyped-up Jason Russell addressing Joseph Kony directly through the screen (on Piers Morgan’s “interview” show on CNN), we asked Swedish anthropologist Sverker Finnström if we could share his thoughts on #Kony2012:
The machinations of the Invisible Children lobby, in its ability to lure the youth of the west, reveal that it has far greater magical powers than the ruthless Lord’s Resistance Army. Their lobby reminds me of Bronislaw Malinowski’s old thesis that “magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control, and yet has to continue in his pursuit.” But let’s update the Malinowskian legacy; a more contemporary understanding magic can be postulated as that which we do not yet understand, or a measure of our incomprehension of local explanations for any given situation. Whatever we describe as “magic” even involves an active decision not to understand. So, with the film “Kony 2012”, Invisible Children has now fully become part of the magical terror of global war, produced not primarily by any Africanness, but in the emplacement of global forces on the African scene.
A most prominent feature of the Invisible Children lobby is the making and constant remaking of a master narrative; it reduces, depoliticizes and dehistoricizes a murky reality of globalized war into a completely black-and-white story pitting the modern Ugandan government and its international partners in development who defend the noncombatant citizenry against the barbarian Lord’s Resistance Army. And this is the magic of it: the good guys are not good because they are good, but by default, and because they are recruited to the allegedly good side. For example, the rebel commander carrying out the 2008 “Christmas Day massacre” in Faradje in the Congo, with 143 people brutally murdered and globally reported on, has since defected, been granted amnesty, and is silently working with the Ugandan and American forces.
The pragmatics of such cooperation and the American military intervention itself has been described by a US officer on the ground: “These ex-L.R.A. guys don’t have many skills, and it’s going to be hard for them to reintegrate”, he said to New York Times. “But one thing they are very good at, is hunting human beings in the woods.” So they are welcomed to the assumed good side… My question: Is this the bandwagon we want to jump on? “Don’t study history, make history,” say the Invisible Children lobbyists in one of their videos. Yes, you should study history.
It is somehow a paradox that the DVD cover to the original “Invisible Children Rough Cut”-film had a quote from Margaret Mead. When I received the Margaret Mead Award for my book on the war in northern Uganda, in my award speech I secretly referenced the problematic Invisible Children lobby, by referring to the same Mead quote. Here is again the reference:
As the conflict that I write about has dangerously evolved and expanded in time and space, over ever widening stretches of Africa and with a most violent logic of its own, so increases the relevance of my book and also the works of my colleagues, which just as mine build on in-depth and long-term fieldwork engagements. There are some important books out there now that take us beyond the many stereotypical journalist accounts. It is my hope that these books can find a wider readership, and that they inspire people to reflect critically upon what is going on in Africa today, and not least our role in it. Here I see dialogue as the only hope in our contemporary global times of militant and military thinking. If we join the dialogue we can work for good and peaceful surroundings, in Uganda and beyond. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” as the legendary quote attributed to Margaret Mead has it. “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
* Sverker Finnström is associate professor of cultural anthropology, based at Uppsala University, Sweden. He has authored “Living with Bad Surroundings: War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda” (Duke University Press, 2008), for which he was honored with the 2009 Margaret Mead Award, offered jointly by the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology. He is also a contributing author to “The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality” (Zed Books, 2010). He has done anthropological research on northern Uganda since 1997.