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 Bachmann, Rick 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.”