Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Two Young Men Took Down a Bigger Monster Than Joseph Kony Without the Internet

A documentary that has unleashed the Internet on a sub-Saharan African paramilitary murderer, Joseph Kony, has received 80 million page views in 15 days and created exhilaration and despair among people who follow how public life plays out on the Internet.

Produced by the San Diego non-profit Invisible Children, “Kony 2012” is the culmination of a youthful adventure to Uganda by three filmmakers nine years ago and it has collided with cultural politics across the globe and tribal politics in Uganda.   

Joseph Kony
The Sun
Kony is a paramilitary leader of the Lord’s Republican Army, a persistent malignancy of tribal politics, tyranny and violence in northern Uganda dating back most recently to the 1980s, but whose real roots lead directly to the greatest African monster of them all, the founder of the Congo Free State in the late 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium.  It was his concessionaires -- Leopold II was sole, personal owner of much of what makes up the Congo River basin -- who ravaged the country for thirty years and who developed the then innovative techniques used by Kony’s small band, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and others like them today – amputation of limbs, kidnapping, mutilation, rape, starvation, the use of child soldiers. 
Henry Morton Stanley
Royal Museum of Central Africa

Europe divided up the Congo Basin officially in Berlin, 1885, though Leopold, under the guises of scientific exploration and the eradication of the Arab slave trade, had been purchasing and acquiring land for at least ten years from tribal entities with the help of Henry Morton Stanley – “Doctor Livingston, I presume?” -- the explorer of the Congo, land agent for the Monster, collector of ivory and rubber and, with Leopold, the founder the ‘Comit√© d'√Čtudes du Haut Congo, an "international commercial, scientific and humanitarian committee."  All of the science and humanitarian rhetoric was bunk.  It was the cloak of western enlightenment that would cover the murder of 5-15 million people for the purpose of enriching King Leopold II. 

It’s a story that gives an African meaning to Chou En Lai’s comment after Henry Kissinger asks him, in 1974, what was the meaning of the French Revolution?  Chou responds:  “Too early to tell." 

It is into a part of this blood-soaked geography, Uganda, that three twenty-something film students, whose leader is Jason Russell, son of founders of a San Diego Christian Theater and graduate of the University of Southern California Film School, appear in 2003 and discover children running from Joseph Kony and why they are holed up in a school there. 

That these people were running from Kony is a part of the distressing violent tribal ironies so prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa -- they were running from Kony because they were simultaneously running from the troops of their own central government. 

The people of Gulu were the losers, in the late 1980s, of a struggle between their “Big Man,” Tito Okello, an Acholi tribal leader with national ambitions and another “Big Man” from the South, Yoweri Museveni who led another of Uganda’s 52 tribes.  Immediately after taking power Museveni began subjugating people in Gulu, resulting in the creation of several para-military groups who formed to fight Museveni, including Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.  In the decades long violence, most of these groups were quashed, save Kony’s.  Herded into concentration camps by Museveni’s soldiers, the Acholi were poorly protected by the central government and subject to the attacks of Kony’s LRA who was recruiting soldiers and sex slaves for his struggle against Museveni and for whatever madness then thrived in his heart.

By 2005, Kony was killing a 1,000 people a week and kidnapping many Acholi boys and girls.

In this extremely affecting atmosphere, in a film called “Invisible Children, Rough Cut,” the filmmakers personalize it all through one young man who they meet in a refugee camp whose brother is dead and who wishes he was dead too.  The filmmakers swear their allegeance to the boy and their lives head off in a new direction.

Jason Russell
Invisible Children
Returning to Southern California, the filmmakers enter the world of America’s own tribal politics.  They begin showing “Rough Cut” to the activist Southern California Christian youth ministries and begin to build relationships with such activist Christian foundations as the Caster Family Foundation which in turn lead to other connections in the christian foundation world like the National Christian Foundation.  Both were associated with creationist and anti-gay movements (Caster Family Foundation gave $400,000 to Prop 48, the anti-gay marriage initiative in California).  The National Christian Foundation is the largest giver to Christian causes in the country.

They also had a flair for special events that helped them appeal to Christian young people and expand beyond them to young people generally who wanted something beyond their own, consumerist lives.  

Invisible Children
In 2006, the ‘Global Night Commute’ brought together youngsters who walked to a venue in several downtowns where they camped out, mimicking what children were doing then in northern Uganda, commuting nightly to escape the depredations of Kony in the Museveni concentration camps.  Next, “Displace Me’ in 2007 had kids staying overnight with cardboard, candles and similar thin blankets to those used by the displaced young people in Uganda.

By 2011 they had moved to the non-Christian mainstream without the polarizing tint of Christian right/anti-gay points-of-view.  Oprah is in for two million and the three adventurers appear on her show.  Now Justin Bieber wants a piece of it and now Rihanna.   President Obama sends some 100 military advisers to northern Uganda to provide technical assistance to the 'catch Kony' movement, though Kony is essentially gone from Gulu and moving north out of Uganda, perhaps to Sudan. 

“Kony 2012,” the successor to “Rough Cut,” adds to general awareness a specific strategy to put pressure on the government to turn its full focus on Kony, just as it did on Osama Bin Laden.  Released March 5, it built upon an existing, sophisticated network of contacts, its years long recruitment of youth and its ‘nothing can stop us' message, it was an electronic comet.  Let’s add a little perspective.  YouTube’s weekly growth March 6-13, 2012 was 500,000 views.  Invisible Children’s website grew by 2,500,000.  In the time YouTube had 200,000,000 views, "Kony 2012" had 80,000,000.  That’s a rocket ship.

There is a lot to be disturbed about in the simplicity of the film’s message.  It begins with a discussion about Kony with Russell’s young, cinemagenic son, full of three year old sweetness, prompted by his charming father.  But the Africans I have known over the years would have been disgusted by the characterization of this problem by a lovely, comfortable white child from San Diego. 

Invisible Children
The branding also grates.  The Bracelet, the Action Kit, the Busby Berkeley choreography of rows of youngsters in ‘Kony 2012’ T-shirts pointing skyward, their hands in a ‘V’ salute.  The incredible arrogance -- over a picture of Adolph Hitler:  “They didn’t know what to do then, but now we do.”  And the bullying, single minded focus: “Stop at nothing!”  There is a low brow equation the film makes that political service is not about thinking or acting or governing, but really just a response to outside pressure, puppets dancing at the end of an E-mail string.  There is a celebrity obsession, capped by the idea that Kony had to be made a celebrity himself in order to stop him.  It urges the use of other celebrities to raise Kony’s profile in this country and across the world.   

An AP story from a town in Gulu Province where an NGO screened the film a few days ago had this story:

The head of a Ugandan charity that showed ‘Kony 2012’ said Thursday he will suspend further screenings after getting overwhelmingly negative feedback from viewers on Tuesday who failed to understand why there were so many white faces in the video, or why Kony needs to be made famous.”

Sensitive to the criticism, Invisible Children spent two days last week  adding African faces to the “Our Team” section of its website, even including its driver in Gulu.

Considering it all, I subjugated my concerns to Nicholas Kristof’s larger, more mature view.  Kristof is a man who has personally observed more evil than just about anyone on the planet and his take of Invisible Children and its “Kony 2012” film was this: 

"The bottom line is:  A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy visitors abroad -- and he's villified?"

The great monster Leopold II was brought down by a couple of young people who were shocked by what they saw at the turn of the 19th Century.  Taken down is a relative term.  He ruled, he was rich, had two children by his beautiful French mistress and was treated gently by several decades of history and, as well, was paid by his government for the land he murdered on.  But, he was taken down and history, after so many years, is finally getting the story right. 

Edmund Morel
It was a global human rights campaign with some similarities to the effort against Kony.  Two young men, one a clerk in an African commercial enterprise and the other a young British diplomat, shocked by the stories told them by missionaries carrying small, new technology cameras that could create images almost anywhere, organized a world human rights campaign.

They were further inspired by a great book, Joseph Conrad's novel about his shock at the genocide in the Congo, written in 1899, "Heart of Darkness.

In 1901, Edmund Morel, the clerk, writes that he has 'discovered a secret society of murderers with a king for a partner' and starts a publication called the West African Mail in which he details the atrocities reported to him by missionaries and disgusted businessmen.

Royal Museum of Central Africa
Here's how the cutting off of hands started.  The Force Publique, Leopold's private army, 400 or so European officers and 20,000 tribal conscripts, developed a rule requiring that only one bullet should be used to kill a resistor.  As proof that the bullet was used the proper way, the soldier had to bring back the hand of the dead man.  If the bullets and the hands did not tally, they'd take a hand from a live person.  It became a particularly popular repression technique within the Congo Free State. 

When the inflatable rubber tire was invented, rubber was extremely profitable and wild rubber existed in the Congo Free State. However, the rubber tree in the wild is a solitary tree, intermittent in the forest. The Force Publique, on behalf of concessionaires, would hold villages hostage and force the men to roam large distances to find trees, tap them and bring back a quota. In the meantime, they would rape the women and boys, pillage the area, and punish, frequently with death, those who did not find the amount required.

Royal Museum of Central Africa
All these stories in the West African Mail and Morel's touring in Great Britain provoked a British response in the form of a young British diplomat, Roger Casement, British Consul to the Congo Free State.  Casement prepared a report in 1903 that documented the mutilations, kidnappings, murders and rapes in the name of Leopold's company.  At the same time, Morel writes a book about the enslavement that characterizes the rubber trade, "Red Rubber."

By now, the Congo story has, in its own way, gone viral.  Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator, takes it up.  The two young men tour the United States and meet with President Theodore Roosevelt.  William Cadbury of the chocolate Cadburys, Anatole France, the poet Vachel Lindsay, Booker T. Washington, Samuel Clemons are all writing about it and giving money to a new organization formed in 1905 by Casement and Morel, the Congo Reform Association. 

That same year, the Parliament of Belgium sets up a commission of inquiry and, after two years of debate, prepares legislation that exerts state control over Leopold II's personal holdings in the Congo.  In 1908, compensation for his loss of property in hand, the King gives over his bloody land. 

Congo's population before the establishment of the Congo Free State was estimated to be 20-30 million people.  In 1910, a year after the monster dies in Brussels, its population is estimated at 9 million. 

After Leopold's death, the coming of the World War will obliterate the facts brought out by the Congo Reform Association and its allies across the world.  Belgium develops a national amnesia about Leopold II and his legacy at home is that of "The Great Builder. 

The 1999 publication of Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost revived the memories of Leopold's private genocide.  It resulted in Belgium's Royal Museum of Central Africa, built in 1897 by Leopold II as a monument to the Congo Free State, forming a panel of historians to investigate the claims of genocide.  They would start from zero.  Hochschild says that on his first visit to the museum he found no mention of the culture of death that was at the center of the Congo Free State genocide. 

Royal Museum of Central Africa
There is real doubt whether chasing down Joseph Kony will have any effect on human well-being and dignity in the region.  What created Kony is only partly his own violence, but is the legacy of violence that lives on unabated, the legacy of a Belgian king who travelled everywhere in the world except to the horrible place where he made his money. 

King Leopold's Ghost comes from a poem written by one of those touched by Morel's and Casement's zeal to stop what they saw happening in Congo Free State, Vachel Linsay.  It is a line in "The Congo," his most famous poem, written in 1914.  It speaks to Leopold and now, lives on, to speak to Joseph Kony. 

Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost,
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear the demons chuckle and yell,
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.

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