KONY 2012’s Fame Problem

Between steady criticism from Africa experts and the very public meltdown of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, the KONY 2012 video campaign has attracted tons of negative publicity. In their effort to make Josephy Kony ‘famous,’ the filmmakers taught us something about the savage nature of fame.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 
– Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.”

STRAIN OF FAME: Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and director of the "Kony 2012" documentary, suffered a nervous breakdown after the video went viral. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Newscom)

If you haven’t already seen it, San Diego-based not-for-profit organization advocacy group Invisible Children recently launched a video campaign called KONY 2012, designed to raise public awareness and attention toward their goal of seeing U.S. forces capture abductor and child-soldier-exploitationist Joseph Kony .

Now that the KONY 2012 video has already reached over 80 million views in a really short time, the campaign has entered the national conversation. As such, there is a commonwealth of informed voices coming out of the woodwork to shoot it down offer informed rebuttals to their strategy. (Here are several such examples, including  two right here on UrbanFaith.)

Most of these criticisms are, rightfully, engaging the biggest questions concerning the issues of what is best for Uganda, the limits of awareness and advocacy work, and the role of NGOs in Central Africa in general, and how these interact with the larger economic and foreign policy interests of the U.S. government. These are some of the most important issues surrounding the KONY 2012 campaign, and should be debated fiercely.

But I have a much more fundamental issue with the campaign, and it’s with the word “famous.”

Taken from the YouTube page, here is IC’s own description of the KONY 2012 campaign:

KONY 2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.

Can you see the inherent contradiction there?

Fame can’t be tamed

Now, more than ever, perception is reality. And in today’s hyper-saturated world of media, I’m not sure how possible it is to make Joseph Kony famous without inadvertently celebrating him. When in the history of public activism have people ever rallied around a personified symbol of opposition without raising the profile of that person?

After all, there’s a reason why, if we go back to the obscenity controversies surrounding 2 Live Crew in the early ‘90s, Luke fans and anti-censorship activists never went around wearing T-shirts or putting posters with the images of former attorney and censorship zealot Jack Thompson. They never wanted to give him any more exposure than necessary. (And believe me, if there’s anything Jack Thompson wanted, it was more exposure.)

So even if, after painstaking research and deliberation, one were to decide that another military intervention to remove Joseph Kony would be in everyone’s best interests, it’s still a huge leap in logic to conclude that the best way to make that happen is by affixing posters and stickers to public structures with his name and/or image on them.

Because even if we ignore the potential social costs of such civil disobedience (going in at night and blanketing our cities with propaganda could be viewed as overly aggressive or even illegal depending on how and where you go about it), the question must be asked — is making Kony famous even a good idea?

Famous for being famous

It used to be that fame was desirable as a consequence of living a life of significance or achievement. You wanted to be famous for something. Curing cancer, winning the Super Bowl, writing the great American novel, et cetera. “Baby, remember my name,” right?

Over time it became clear that to be famous in the 21st century doesn’t require any particular skills or achievements. People like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have made whole careers out of being famous for being famous — in their cases, being born into famous families. But now, with the KONY 2012 campaign, what we’re seeing is the term “famous” being used in a totally opposite way, to be famous for something really bad.

If only there were other words in the English language that could express this idea — oh wait, there are. Words like “infamous” and “notorious” do the job quite well. To paraphrase a scene from a favorite Sports Night episode, there’s a big difference between famous and infamous. One’s famous, the other’s infamous. That’s why they have those words.

That’s why this whole “make Kony famous” thing doesn’t sit well with me.

Considering how much Twitter has been incorporated into today’s political process, part of me wonders if the biggest reason why the KONY 2012 went viral so fast was because the name “Kony” makes for a great Twitter hashtag. I know he’s a terrible man and has been brutalizing children for decades, but still. It’s no secret that they deliberately chose an election year for this campaign, because it should be the kind of thing that politicians across the aisle should be able to agree on.

But what happens after 2012, especially if he doesn’t get caught?

I suspect he’ll become the new Che Guevara — just another polarizing, countercultural figure whose actual life will become distorted in order to fit the dominant political or social agenda of the day.

And not to pull a Jesus Juke, but every time I see or hear “make KONY famous” I keep thinking about the Chris Tomlin tune “Famous One.” If Kony is our new standard for fame, then maybe Tomlin needs to record it again under the title, “Famous (For-All-The-Right-Reasons) One.”

Maybe that wouldn’t work on Twitter, but I’m a big guy — I could probably fit it on a XXL T-shirt.

Fame bites back

And just when it seemed this story couldn’t get any more controversial, news broke of the bizarre detaining and subsequent hospitalization of IC founder and filmmaker Jason Russell, who was reported to be wandering naked and yelling obscenities on a Los Angeles street. The latest reports say Russell is suffering from a brief reactive psychosis due to exhaustion and stress and that he’s expected to remain hospitalized for weeks. (I join others in offering up prayer for his recovery.)

In general, I’ve resisted the rather cynical argument that KONY 2012 is more about the filmmakers than the children for which they purport to be advocating. Because even though there is an air of White privilege about the whole thing, it’s undeniable that Invisible Children has been successful at bringing awareness of these complex issues to a generation of affluent teenagers who wouldn’t have known or cared otherwise. On balance, I consider that a good thing.

But given the public nature of this latest indiscretion, Jason Russell is flirting with this new oxymoronic definition of fame himself. And if he was only just an entertainer, you might just chalk it up to the axiom of there being no such thing as bad publicity. But that’s clearly not the case here. Even though Invisible Children is not an explicitly Christian organization, Russell has roots in the Christian establishment. So in the light of eternity, the stakes are a lot higher for how he conducts himself, and it’s clear that he has not been able to handle all of the pressure and attention. And despite Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey’s impassioned plea for folks to give his friend some space, I’m sure that privacy will be much harder to come by now that this has happened.

The good news for Jason Russell is that, whether through the buzz surrounding KONY 2012 or because of the TMZ coverage, he now has an even greater balance of attention currency — and after his recovery he gets to decide how to spend it. Hopefully, it will be used with an honesty and humility different from the slick, professional marketing that we’ve seen so far. Hopefully, we’ll witness an organization so humbled by circumstances that it’s willing to admit its missteps.

That, more than the viral video, would impress me greatly.

But if Invisible Children expects everyone to pretend that nothing has happened and go back to being inspired to stop Joseph Kony … well, it doesn’t understand how fame works these days.

About the author, Jelani Greenidge

Jelani Greenidge is an UrbanFaith columnist based in Portland, Oregon. A writer and musician, he blogs at JelaniGreenidge.com.
  1. Source: ‘Jason Russell’s public meltdown wasn’t so much precedented by his failure to own up to his sexuality or because he was sleep deprived (please give us a break) but the fact that the entity he is involved with, Invisible Children, is backed by anti gay christian groups which goes against direct intervention of what his consciousness could reasonably handle before imploding.’

    http://scallywagandvagabond.com/2012/03/jason-russell-meltdown-precipitated-by-a-conflict-of-consciousness-gay-rumors-fuel-fire/

  2. I had trouble following where you were going in this article. What IS the problem with fame? That it bites sometimes? Or that infamy is currency? Or that fame cant be controlled always? Or that fame is a sort of currency? Or that fame and infamy are two sides of the same coin?

    IMO, Jason wanted to leverage young affluent teens social network power to build fame for himself, self exaltation- so that he could be the ultimate knight in shining armour to the children of Uganda. This is just the way white people plug in to activism. What happened is simply, fame DID come for him – just not in the way he wanted. He didnt realize just how effective his propaganda video would be. He didnt realize the demonic power he was playing with. And: He never thought that something so noble as Saving the Children could turn on him in such a demonic way. EPIC NAIVETE!
    I like what one young black man on Youtube said – That Jason pulled a King David Fake pretending to be crazy to divert attention away from the legitimate questions about the money. He didnt slobber and scratch on doors, but stripped and pounded on sidewalks instead. As for his fame currency, it’s overinflated and as worthless as the currency in Uganda.
    In the ‘hood we would say Jason played himself. Dont sell your soul to the devil and expect that’s all he’ll want.

  3. Anna Renee,

    I guess my main point is threefold —

    1.) fame used to be a purely good thing, but now it isn’t anymore
    2.) because of that, the fame monster turned on Jason Russell
    3.) but it’s not too late for something really good to come out of this.