Joseph Kony and the New York Times

March 16, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Joseph Kony

By Michael M'Gehee:

In George Orwell's classic dystopia novel 1984 the futuristic world of Oceania is ruled by an elite political force that uses propaganda to keep the masses dumbed down and distracted from their real problems. Living in a world of poverty, corruption and war there is never a shortage of boogeymen to facilitate this distraction. They even have a periodic event called "Two Minutes Hate" where they watch propaganda films designed to have them outraged at some foreigner while loving their dear leader, Big Brother.

Winston’s thoughts move on to a daily ritual, which was conducted in each office, the “two minute Hate.” During this process, the telescreens broadcast pictures of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Number One “Enemy of the People” according to the Party. [...] During the “Hate” people watched the speeches of Goldstein and reacted in violent anger. Winston himself often started out by dissembling his emotions, but the effect of the collective frenzy was such that after about thirty seconds, he found himself actually feeling the power of Hate.

The "telescreen" is a device used by "the Party" to spy on the people of Oceania. Government officials use it to keep an eye out for dissent and squash it as soon as anything suspicious arises.

It is with an unfortunate sense of irony that social media sites like Facebook are becoming increasingly notorious for serving this function. Government agencies use Facebook and internet search engines to keep tabs on their own citizens. The irony is only deepened by how social media sites helped the recent film Kony 2012 go viral. The film is a propaganda piece put out by the corporation Invisible Children. It focuses on one man who they want to make famous: Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The film portrays him as a proverbial Goldstein, and the film itself is little more than Two Minutes Hate where viewers are distracted from their problems, or even the much bigger problems in the region the film pretends to be concerned with. The solution offered is to buy t-shirts and bracelets and to get the Ugandan military to track down Kony and bring him to justice.

But there are a number of problems.

The film says absolutely nothing about the social context in which the LRA are situated. Writing in African Affairs back in 1999, scholars Ruddy Doom and Koen Vlassenrot noted:

In order to understand the current conflict in northern Uganda, two crucial characteristics of the recent political history of Uganda need some further explanation: the widening gap between north and south, and the militarization of politics. The roots of the gap between the north and south lie partly in the colonial period. During the period of British colonial administration a division between northern and southern Uganda was created both with respect to economic development and to systems of labour recruitment. Whereas the British reserved the introduction of industry and cash crop production to the south, the north became a reservoir of cheap labour to be employed in the south. As a result the country became divided into productive zones in the south and east, producing cotton, plantation rubber, cocoa and later coffee, and nonproductive zones in the north and west that mainly rendered unskilled labour. The most pronounced division, however, was in recruitment to the armed services. While northern Ugandans constituted the main pool of recruitment into the army, civil service employment was reserved mainly for the southerners. The Acholi, far from being `born warriors', were transformed into a `military ethnocracy', a decisive step towards the formation of a proto-nation. In fact, the annual report of the Northern Province for 1911-12 stated: `Experience, when circumstances recently necessitated us using Acholi as native levies, has proved that the Acholi is not a brave man ...'

British colonial rule thus effectively created a socio-economic division between north and south that consequently led to an economic marginalization of the north and a further development of the south. This division persisted into the postcolonial history of Uganda. When Milton Obote became the first prime minister of independent Uganda in 1962, he inherited armed forces dominated by Acholi, who saw the profession of arms as their natural vocation. This concept of a people, bound together by a common culture, defining itself as a nation or chosen to be the military backbone of the state, was created through colonial interference. This new Acholi identity is a key concept in deciphering the original tensions between the north and the rest of Uganda after independence. The asymmetric relationship between economic underdevelopment and dominance in the military sector (the key to the political kingdom) is a decisive antecedent of the current turmoil.

And probably the most disturbing thing about the film is not so much what they say—many Africans have noted their being disturbed at the paternalism, colonialism, and militarism throughout the film and what they see as a "white savior" solution—but what they don't say. Like the above, it's not just the social context of the conflict in Uganda or that the conflict is largely over since the LRA are defeated and dispersed in neighboring countries, and their force no more than 500. It's that the film says nothing about the bigger problems the region faces like the U.S.-imposed neoliberal order, or the considerably bigger human rights abusers like Uganda's own President Yoweri Museveni, who exasperated tensions in Uganda as well as housed the genocidal Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in the late 1980s and provided them assistance in their invasion of Rwanda in 1990 that lasted until the genocide that not only killed about one million people, but brought RPF leader Paul Kagame to power (where he continues to target any political dissent with imprisonment, torture and murder). After that Yoweri and Kagame invaded Congo where six million people perished.

A film that not only gives the impression that Kony is still active in Uganda, but also fails to make sense of the social conditions, how grassroots organizations are already dealing with the problem, and is silent on the crimes of the regions worst offenders is enough to sound alarms. That the film comes after the discovery of oil adds to the suspicions, as well as the recent U.S. deployment of soldiers to Uganda to help hunt down Kony, political moves at the International Criminal Court to convict Kony, and the revelation that some of the big financiers of Kony 2012 was Wall Street and Big Oil.

In other words, Jospeh Kony is our Emmanuel Goldstein and Kony 2012 is our Two Minutes Hate. Millions of viewers are being hypnotized by carefully crafted propaganda that distracts and misinforms them leaving them supportive of another U.S. imperial intervention falsely presented as humanitarianism.

With that being said, how has the "paper of record" covered the event? At the time of writing this there has been seven articles written and published on the New York Times (NYT) website:

  1. #StopKONY Now!!!
  2. Why Make Kony Famous? Video Rubs Raw Uganda Scars
  3. Seen by Millions, Will Uganda Kony Video Matter?
  4. A Video Campaign and the Power of Simplicity
  5. Online, a Distant Conflict Soars to Topic No. 1
  6. International Court to Deliver First Verdicts
  7. In Uganda, Few Can See Kony Video

More than 6,500 words are dedicated to Kony 2012. The name "Museveni" is not mentioned once, nor is there one word about "the two crucial characteristsics" the African Affairs article says we need "in order to understand the conflict." Not one article has any mention of the oil recently found in the country, or any link between the conflict and the neoliberal order imposed on the region via various institutions like the World Bank or IMF.

While not one article dared to mention the name Museveni whose crimes make him more deserving to be famous and to be stopped, there was one passage consisting of nineteen words that at least looked at the human rights record of the Ugandan government. In the article "Online, a Distant Conflict Soars to Topic No. 1" the journalist notes that, "Another complaint among critics is that the film fails to mention the human rights abuses by the Ugandan military." That is it. Of 6,500 words worth of articles less than twenty words are given to the human rights record of an army that makes the LRA pale in comparison.

Nearly all of the articles give space to some of the criticisms, but like Invisible Children's response to them, none of the articles delve too deeply, and every single criticism is followed by an apologetic retort.

In the article "Why Make Kony Famous? Video Rubs Raw Uganda Scars" it is reported how critics say the video "oversimplifies a long-standing human rights crisis," but the piece quickly notes that the film maker "Jason Russell has said, pointing out the video was not intended as an answer to the crisis, but as a catalyst for action." No "pointing out" that the film is not "a catalyst for action" against the regions biggest problems or human rights abusers, which happen to be the U.S.-imposed neoliberal order and their favored leaders.

The article "Seen by Millions, Will Uganda Kony Video Matter?" calls criticism of the film "savage," while it makes militaristic and warmongering comments like: "more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq - including thousands of special forces raids - have left the U.S. military hardened and much more used to operating in challenging environments." The assertion is that the manhunt would now be easier after ten years of aggression Afghanistan and Iraq. The article later notes another criticism where it is said that the film "is about making some people feel good. It does not reflect the reality ... or all of the effort that we Ugandans have put in ... you can even say it is a form of neocolonialism." Though it quickly closes with the counter-offensive as asserting that the "savage" critics are just "carping from the sidelines."

"A Video Campaign and the Power of Simplicity" deals mainly with the critics of the film, and while it mentions the factual errors and white-man's burden complaints it says the critics are "lecturing" and "missing the point."

The pattern continues to unfold.

Going back to the article by Roger Cohen, the journalist writes that Kony is "the International Criminal Court’s most-wanted list," but as my friend David Peterson (coauthor of The Politics of Genocide) told me last Halloween on the politics of the court:

The Court is seized of seven situations, of which the situation in Côte d’Ivoire is pending the Pre-Trial Chamber’s authorization for the opening of an investigation. The situations in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic were referred by the States in question, and the situations in Darfur, Sudan, and the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya were referred by the United Nations Security Council. In each case, the Prosecutor decided that there was a reasonable basis for the opening of investigations. The investigation into the situation in Kenya was authorized by Pre-Trial Chamber III following a request from the Prosecutor.

Let me repeat Judge Song’s list: Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, and Kenya.

That is to say: Africa, Africa, Africa, Africa, Africa, Africa, and Africa.

Even more dramatic, as best I can tell, every single one of the indictees and persons under investigation by the ICC are adversaries of the United States.

This is a stunning record.

When considering Cohen's comment about Kony being on the court's "most-wanted list" readers should take the above into consideration.

Overall, Cohen like all the rest, is very sympathetic towards the film, and quiet on the context and regions biggest problems and criminals, yet Cohen does note the propaganda of the film when he makes a comment on it as being similar to "Orewell's Ministry of Truth."

And that is what it amounts to. The NYT reinforces the same propaganda line as the film. It ignores the human rights record of the biggest offenders (minus nineteen vague words), the social and historical context of the conflict, and the regions woes. It acknowledges the criticisms but only superficially and defensively. And in some places it even advocates military solutions, and waxes over the ICC as an instrument of justice. In sum, the coverage provided by the Times is simply another "Two Minutes Hate" where all good people of Oceania are supposed to be distracted and internalize the mantra: Hate Goldstein, Love Big Brother.


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