The Guardian’s thoughtless interview with Kony2012 creator Jason Russell

Jason Russell
The Guardian’s Sunday edition, The Observer, have run the puff-piece nobody else wanted, a lengthy tête-à-tête with Jason Russell of Invisible Children infamy. “Jason Russell: Kony 2012 and the fight for truth” (illustrated by the photograph above) is a dreadful, half-assed piece of reporting that seeks to help resuscitate Russell’s broken credibility. 

Russell found an unexpected ally in a newspaper that is usually noisily secularist, publishing all sorts of guff by Richard Dawkins and joining in the HuffPo-style liberal guffawing at America’s Christian right with great gusto every election season. Memo to reporter Carole Cadwalladr: Invisible Children are an evangelical organisation who are just the most publicity-hungry of the many right-wing American evangelical groups to have fixated on Uganda (and particularly Ugandan children) in recent years.

Here’s what we wrote last year on “The Invisible Christians of Kony2012”:

“We view ourselves as the Pixar of human rights stories”, Jason Russell told the New York Times last week. But when he spoke last year at convocation at Liberty University (founder: Reverend Jerry Falwell, current chancellor: Jerry Falwell Jr.) he offered a wholly different model: “We believe that Jesus Christ was the best storyteller”, he said. (Other luminaries on the Liberty convocation roster last year included Michele BachmannRick Perry and Rick Warren, who obediently tweeted his support for Kony2012 having been picked out as one of IC’s key “Culture-Makers”.)

In a terrific report, B.E. Wilson at Alternet looked at IC’s tax filings and found that the group has been funded by a host of hard right Christian groups, including the National Christian Foundation and the Caster Family Foundation, one of the biggest backers of the campaign for the anti-gay Proposition 8 in California. (Although it is not straightforward: Wilson might also have pointed out that Rich McCullen, who sits on the IC’s all-white-male board of directors, is an openly gay pastor at Mission Gathering Christian Church in San Diego.)

… Jason Russell knows that presenting Invisible Children as an evangelical group will be bad for business. Like New Labour during the Blair years, Invisible Children have decided that for the purposes of their mass branding they “don’t do God.” During his address at Liberty University Russell explained:

“A lot of people fear Christians, they fear Liberty University, they fear Invisible Children – because they feel like we have an agenda. They see us and they go, ‘You want me to sign up for something, you want my money. You want, you want me to believe in your God.’ And it freaks them out.”

Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams recently put out a brilliant documentary, “God Loves Uganda,” which captures in detail the way in which American “missionaries” to Uganda and their obsession with homosexuality have brought deep and lasting harm to the country (the film has received significant press attention — for a taster see Williams’s “op-doc” for the New York Times here).

Kony2012 was plainly part of the same project, and continues to rely on the same constituency for its base support. The fact that Russell’s professed good intentions and trendy San Diego setting blind Cadwalladr to the deeper cultural implications of his organisation is pretty pathetic:

The sun is shining, the Pacific ocean is sparkling, there is fine artisanal fair-trade organic coffee to drink just steps away, and yet all these fresh-faced shiny people are spending their days worrying about a conflict so far removed from their own lives that it seems farcical. Or at the very least heroic. They not only care, they have achieved what is supposed to be impossible: they have made other people, ordinary Americans, care.

All very luvvy. Seduced by Southern California, by new media, by Americans who “care”, Cadwalladr gloriously misses the point.

There is nothing heroic about running a cushy, big-spending non-profit that works hand-in-glove with the CIA and the US military. Russell’s central proposition — parroted by Cadwalladr — that he has succeeded in making Joseph Kony famous, is completely absurd. The man has been the ICC’s most-wanted since 2005, and was globally notorious many years before that. As usual, there’s no mention of the fact that the US, alone among Western nations, still won’t ratify the Rome statute — why would that be relevant?

Critics of Kony2012 are caricatured and dismissed. Vicious online bullies of the well-intentioned chap who tried to organize America’s teenagers to take part in the world’s biggest manhunt. Cadwalladr hasn’t done a whole lot of thinking about Kony2012 and race, and she is clearly absolutely ignorant about Uganda. Teju Cole’s piece for The Atlantic, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex”, gets an unknowing shout-out by Russell himself (he seems to have been baffled by it and he preferred when Bono said he should get an Oscar), but Cole is dismissed by fellow-novelist Cadwalladr as “one Twitter commentator”.

There are no hard questions. Nothing, for example about why Invisible Children’s wonderfully hubristic “Move:DC” campaign was such a bust (for a media campaign, nobody reported on it and so it passed by unnoticed), just like their “Global Summit” of world leaders such as Harry Shum from Glee, and “Cover the Night” before that.

We’re used to the Guardian’s big weekend interviews not being great. Remember the last time Decca Aitkenhead met up with Christine Lagarde? If they’re serious about getting American readers, they have to stop with the puffy, single-sourced interviews and start carrying properly reported profiles.

Selected excerpts from the Jason Russell interview:

“On the one hand, there was Bono saying Jason Russell deserves an Oscar, and Oprah wants to fill stadiums for me, and Ryan Seacrest wants me on American Idol,” he says. “And on the other, there were people saying, ‘These people think they’re white saviours trying to save Africa’, and ‘the money goes to corrupt places’, and ‘there is a special place in hell for you’. They were so polar opposite. So extreme. And in my head, I wanted to reconcile them and I just couldn’t.”

“I opened up my laptop and the first article I read was all these terrible things. ‘Jason Russell … white saviour complex…military intervention … dubious finances … blond … yadda yadda yadda!’ And suddenly it was, wham, and I was right back in junior high.”

When I visited Invisible Children’s San Diego office last week, there were 60 staff members and 35 fresh-faced interns answering phones and plugged into computers in a cool, calm space. A year ago, says Chris Carver, the chief operations officer, it was another story.

“We had one PR person, Monica, who was an intern, a volunteer. She estimated there were never less than 4,000 emails in her inbox. In any one second, our website had 37,000 unique users. And we were taking hundreds of thousands of dollars of orders in our shop for the Kony2012 kits.”

“I hadn’t slept,” [Russell] tells me. “My mind was racing. I tried to relax and calm down. They said, ‘Take two days off’, so we [his family] went to Palm Springs. But we went to the pool and people recognised us and wanted to take photographs so we went and shut ourselves in the hotel room, closed all the windows and the doors, and just felt we were under attack.

“The next day was a bit better, we went out to see a movie, The Lorax, a Dr Seuss film. And I thought it was talking directly to me. I thought it was all about me. The character is wearing a stripy top like the one [his son] Gavin is wearing in the film and I was like, ‘That’s so weird!’ And the character is trying to protect these trees, and I thought it was me, and the trees were Rwandans.”

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33 thoughts on “The Guardian’s thoughtless interview with Kony2012 creator Jason Russell

  1. The Guardian and Observer are different papers with different editorial staff. They’re both shit, but if you’re going to criticise them it behoves you to make the distinction.

  2. I have no problem with the author’s concern and criticism about IC and their tactics. However, to say that they are “big-spending non-profit that works hand-in-glove with the CIA and the US military” is a pretty big statement to make especially since the author failed to provide any further details to substantiate this claim. Yes, maybe USAID gave IC money… yes, they pushed for US military involvement in Uganda but does that constitute “hand in glove”?

    • AIAC has never really been concerned with impartiality or facts when it comes to Invisible Children. They just like to make fun. It’s rather childish and embarrassing, if you ask me.

  3. “Rwandans are trees” is a great example of de facto objectification of Blacks.

    And it was inspired by a cartoon.

    Awesome.

    I smell a meme.

  4. Apparently, Jason’s schizophrenia is a non event; he just pops a pill and abracadabra, he’s back to being his born again self, and his organization has a very large blind eye to that matter, as well.

    Amazing. As if they’re the Jedi knights, and we’re the lumpen proletariats who are all under 100 IQ. That manipulation is blatant.

    Jason imo is missing the greatest opportunity of his life. He is the posterboy for schizophrenia. He could impact positively on millions of human beings, alive now, not just the few he is trying to save in Uganda, but stepping forward and speaking frankly about this mental condition.

    That would be too threatening, obviously, to his psychosocial construct. His world would collapse, again. Instead, he’ll pop the pills and pretend it didn’t exist. Jesus~ should save that boy’s soul and give nurturance and understanding to the many, many who would benefit so greatly by his shining his happy countenance, his being Jason’s, on the profoundly confusing, deeply embarrassing, life stability disruptive experience of a schizophrenic episode. Denial is not just a river.

    What a horrid man; What a failed non profit. His staff are morally bankrupt to ignore what is so shocking and so desperately needful of a kind and responsible light being shown onto the darkness of mental “illness”.

    One can hope.

    • Let me preface this by stating that I’m not a supporter of IC or Jason Russell. And I am definitely an advocate for destigmatizing mental illness. But to diagnose the man as having schizophrenia seems rather presumptuous. He had a psychotic episode, but that can happen to anyone, and is not just associated with schizophrenia. It could be from brief psychotic disorder, schizoaffective disorder, a psychotic disorder related to a medical condition, etc. I try to avoid watching any clips of this man speaking, but from what I know, he hasn’t displayed many of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia (flat emotion, withdrawing from friends and family). And I’m unsure of how positive a role model he would be, as he’s a polarizing figure. Finally, even if he has schizophrenia, criticizing him for not speaking out about it is similar to criticizing gay people who are in the closet or HIV positive people who are not public with their status. It’s one thing if those people are discriminating against those who are public, but for Mr. Russell, let him have his privacy (on this matter at least) and stop speculating on it.

      • As an fyi, the Guardian article is where the word, “schizophrenia” appears multiply.

        As to to the issue of privacy, this man is in the public’s eye. He is not a private citizen; he is self-servingly a public figure.

        As to his mental condition, this illness is like a faultline. It slips and it will probably slip again. He is under huge stress, again. IC has launched another video, of course unheard of this time. HIs quite strange utterance associating humans with trees is fascinating. I suggest you read the Guardian article which was written per the author as one which attempts to be balanced. Jason is a risk. I wouldn’t hire him for the position he holds. That would be playing with a loaded gun. I’ve suggested in my posting that he take a lower stress position.

        They could move their Director of indoctrination to the front. Then we’d quickly learn the intentions of IC. I am speculating the intelligent public will at last get a person who is facile but I sense is a sophist; that will be proven or disproven in the first interview by an informed press.

        Again, as to Jason, the fact that you think this is not a golden opportunity to remove the taint of ignorance equating to fear from psychosis or schizophrenia validates my point that a fair, open, honest sharing of experience with the public will, not just can, impact on thousands of people and their familiest. Schizophrenia and psychotic episodes are to the public what AIDS was in the early 80’s. Someone involved needs to step forward. Mr. Russell could be that man as he is passionate and as a committed Christian he can be known by his acts in this area. That he wishes to dismiss this serious episode is not something that I, as one interested in broadcasting and heightening public awareness and acceptance of these otherwise very bizarre actions, Jason’s being one which was harmless, save to other committed Christians who would see his nudity as an afront to God, etc, etc, all for the good of each and every memboer of our 21st Century, reasonably rational American society.

        Heck, in Iran, how would Jason’s behavior gone over? Maybe he’d like a trip to the Holyland. Syria’s beckoning him as is Lebanon. He has a full documentary video crew ready to go. Bye Jason. Heck, he could go to Egypt and to Sudan and maybe meet his chosen nemesis along the Nile as he traces his Judeo-Christian past. That would be just delightful, Western psychotic meets pagan or maybe “Christian” Kony and his now uncountable numbers of child soldiers; they’ll give him a tour, and his close friends, the two guys, could be along to capture the moment.

        Your desire to mask, to suppress, to closet intense physiological, biological, maybe in Jason’s world, a God-dictated event, is frankly saddening to me. But thank goodness on the internet and in the USA, you’re welcome to speak your mind. I do think you’re knowledgeable, probably more so than am I, but I have been exposed many times to mental conditions which are severe, maybe because I’m older or because of my prior occupation or maybe most around me are more than average in their mental challenges, and Jason’s behavior, as I viewed it, again, harmless, though for his family and friends and in his hopes and minds of the hundreds of thousands of honest, kind, Christians who embraced his exceptional sense of caring for those who were injured, albeit by far mostly in the then past, deserves a full airing.

        In conclusion, my personal opinion is that Jason is so bound into the fabric of his religious community, everyone around him including those he has depended on for guidance, that he cannot take the psychological risk of individuating as he’d be at loggerheads with nearly every prior philosophical base of his weltanshaung. That would be ruinous to him; he would again split. So he has embraced yet again and tragically even more exclusively the values which were existent at the time of his psychotic episode and which gave him no support then and won’t yet again. We as society lose a valiant, handsome, personable man who wishes to do nothing but good, irrespective of whether or not objectively it is such..

  5. I stopped reading this at the first factual inaccuracy.

    Invisible Children is affiliated with no religion. I have worked for the organization for three years. As an atheist, I do not support religiously-affiliated organizations, and thus would not support IC if it was indeed this evangelical effort you baselessly claim.

    If you plan on crafting a discussion to counter what you call “a dreadful, half-assed piece of reporting,” perhaps providing information with factual backing is important.

    Thanks.

    • http://www.alternet.org/story/154477/invisible_children_%22kony_2012%22_leader_suggests_it%27s_about_jesus_and_evangelizing

      To quote:

      “The evangelical magazine Christianity Today has covered the growing controversy over the Invisible Children publicity campaign, and Invisible Children has issued a response to the gathering criticism.

      So far few have noticed the decidedly evangelical ties of Invisible Children. But that’s not surprising: Judging from the organization’s website and promotional material, Invisible Children would seem to be non-religious, purely devoted to the health and well-being of children in Northern Uganda and the surrounding region, to “ending genocide”, and to capturing Joseph Kony.

      On its face, the effort appears secular, and evangelizing is not mentioned as an objective.

      But in a November 7, 2011 appearance at Liberty University, as part of Liberty’s Fall Convocation speaker series, Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell hinted that Invisible Children was also an evangelizing effort, and during his talk Russell coached Liberty University students on what could be characterized as extremely low-key, or stealth, evangelism. “

      • Can you find a reference or a quote to this:
        “But in a November 7, 2011 appearance at Liberty University, as part of Liberty’s Fall Convocation speaker series, Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell hinted that Invisible Children was also an evangelizing effort, and during his talk Russell coached Liberty University students on what could be characterized as extremely low-key, or stealth, evangelism. “

      • An obvious question is why the 3 founders of IC travelled to Uganda of all the gin joints in the world. My educated guess from reading the blogs is because there are many evangelistic Christian organizations doing “work” there.

        We know Jason Russell is born into a very committed protestant Christian family, and is raised totally in that environment; postings by his wife prior to the psychotic event are rather sweet and typical for one raised in that setting, very sweet and innocent and niavely presumptuous that the world turns around her view of reality.

        Does anyone know anything about the religious backgrounds of the additional two, and the Director of “indoctrination”, a strange and self-anointed title to bestow on oneself. I think that the Director attended Stanford. Nobody’s saying these folks are not intelligent or in the case of the Director, very intelligent.

        There is no question that they are willing to lie by omission as they termed Jason’s psychotic, now termed by the author of this article, and thus by Jason, schizophrenic experience, “exhaustion.” That was a lie and is a lie. At the time, psychiatric experts posted it was a psychotic event. Schizophrenia is not a “take this pill and see you in the morning”. Schizophrenia is a lifelong challenge for one in that condition. This outlandish lie by individuals representing IC, that it was exhaustion, was not stated one time; it was the official position of IC. Frauds occur in bizarre ways. This is more smoke that one can swallow; so there’s a fire under this, and that fire is a menace to the mental health of American society, and deserves forthright focus.

    • Eugenics. Wow.

      I didn’t realize this website attracted the crazy conspiracy theorists found in the YouTube comments section. I suppose you reap what you sow with petty articles like this one.

    • Wait, why? IC sets my teeth on edge, but I haven’t seen any evidence of eugenics. And evangelicals are not high on the list people I’d think of as having eugenic aspirations these days. No family planning, you know?

  6. The many inaccurate claims contained here are beneath a mind and a platform that deserve better applications. Toxic. This needs to be called out for being so intellectually dishonest.

    • IC needs to be called out for being intellectually dishonest, not this page. The IC documentary was misleading, as was its use of funding. If IC is so concerned about helping those people, why not help a local activist and empower them? Because it’s the typical White Saviour complex: why do that when you can take the credit and media attention for yourself? As well as make a bit of money along the way?

      If you want some more positive fluff about IC, perhaps you should follow another white saviour: Nicholas Kristof.

      • IC deserves an Internet video Oscar award. They did a great job in fulfillment of their mission which has nothing to do with Kony directly, I don’t think. Their game is to raise consciousness. They did so. They can raise consciousness on any topic they wish so long as it’s not in violation of their IRS 501(c)3 status.

        They’re fervent, analogous to evangelistic. They’re biased. They misrepresent facts. None of this really matters; they’re a consciousness raising group, equivalent to Femen, the Ukrainian women exposing their breasts and shouting slogans as a way to gain media attention.

        If we look at content, we’ve been duped by their Director of propaganda as well as his 3 leaders, one now certifiably psychotic-prone, and the other two, yet a mystery.

  7. “And the caharacter is trying to protect these tress and I thought it was me and the trees were Rwandans .”
    May God save Africa from those trying to save them.

    • Shades of another, milder episode of a psychotic break from reality.

      But don’t look. It’s only Jason’s “exhaustion”.

      It is shocking that IC did not black Jason from returning to his same leadership position. He is a proven psychotic. The article says he is schizophrenic. It is reckless, not just negligent, to allow a psychotic (on meds) to manage this non-profit organization, especially when it is an advocacy organization. The chief advocate has proven he is delusional.

      It must be a joke.

      Where is the oversight by the State of California, Department of Corporations?
      Why has there been no criminal action taken against a man who exposed himself in public? If no criminal action, not even a misdemeanor, has been initiated because he was psychotic or schizophrenic, then IC, if it were rationally managed, would not permit Jason to return to a leadership managerial role. He clearly was psychotic. That does not automatically grant Jason a Get Out of Jail, Free card. If he was not capable of understanding rational from irrational, which we are being told, his taking a drug does not at all preclude a repeating episode, and if he is schizophrenic, no drug that I know of will make him symptom free so he can manage or lead a multi-million dollar advocacy focused non-profit entity.

      Again, where is the oversight here? Is the public to be blindfolded? The non-profit is a operated in the public’s best interests. The fact that the additional two “friends from USC” allowed Jason to resume his activities should immediately call into question whether these men are negligent or reckless. If so, the public authorities have an obligation to protect the public against that negligence or recklessness.

  8. no one in this debate can see or hear the other, which is ultimately what turns writing on all of this into angry rants. each side – and there are just 2 sides, for or against the brand of advocacy IC undertakes – is blind to the other. there’s no answer to this because neither sees or hears any similarity to the other yet so much exists. so, we can prepare for another 50 years of this kind of talking past each other. they cannot and they will not engage.

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  10. invisible children’s reputation is what it is. they will continue to be supported by people whose engagement with Africa is almost entirely on the basis of moralistic, self aggrandizing hero fantasies, and serious observers, professionals, and cultural participants who engage in thoughtful reflection on the problems and successes of modern-day Africa, will continue to dismiss them as a naive, dangerous, irrelevant joke more suited to being the butt of satire than people who deserve respectful engagement.

    they’ll raise tons of money, expend lots of energy for meaningless and ineffective programs, and continue to fail spectacularly at being taken seriously by those whose respect they desire. if I worked at invisible children and i wanted something more than a steady paycheck, i’d find other opportunities. thats the future of IC, it’s been written, they embarrassed themselves publicly and are not serious or thoughtful people. the end.

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