Skepticism and Activism and Colonialism and...

The Kony 2012 campaign by Invisible Children has been one of the most interesting spectacles and teachable moments of activism in a long time. We don't often get this opportunity to talk about the many questions this campaign raises: How should you go about making a difference? Is intent sacrosanct? How can it all go wrong, and why are people licking their chops waiting for it to happen?

I'm not writing this as some kind of activist expert or entrenched community organizer. I had my brush with doing the big work in college, as a lot of us did, when the privilege to do so was more plentiful. These days, due to time constraints and lack of independency, I can only manage to donate a few dollars to some cause when the liberal guilt strikes me. But back then I had seen a wide sampling of different types of activism: different organizations, movements, causes, even styles. I'm not positioning myself as the ideal activist archetype, but just as someone who had spent a few years in that world. There's a culture that pervades every rally, conference, workshop and protest, and for a while it was home.

When the Kony 2012 video came out, I recognized it immediately as coming from that world. I had never been a part of Invisible Children, but they had always seemed well-meaning and dependably inclined toward the causes I was involved in. It was the trendiest of the organizations, sure, but they were nice enough folk and I understood how using every tool available, even trendiness, was important to growing a community.

But when I think about Invisible Children, I also think about this old post secret card. It's a sentiment that's totally unaware of privilege in activism, the dangers of generalizations and the weakness of anecdotal evidence. It's a constant reminder that even in anti-racist movements there are oblivious racists.

The Kony 2012 video went viral, and why wouldn't it? It was stylish, young, and appealing to a generation of people that grew up taking pictures of themselves. That thing where the guy explains to his kid about Kony? Classic internet generation vanity. Not Michael Moore vanity, where he insists on showing himself consoling crying people. The kind of GPOY vanity that's an integral part of our online identities.

Then there was the big word that I have been struggling to properly convey for much of my adult life: colonialism. Colonialism is out in full strength in IC's western military intervention hopes. It's something that is always difficult to properly get people to understand because it runs against the grain of common sense: if something fixes a country, then who cares if it comes from an outside source, right?

But colonialism, especially in its newest neo- forms, can never be a dependable, ethical answer to the ills of the world. Ben Affleck gets it. Solutions can only come from a local level in political climates that have been so thoroughly ravaged by a history of outside intruders that took it upon themselves to right things. Will local solutions produce the right answer? Not always. But they'll provide their answer -- something they can control and change if it goes awry. If it comes from a benevolent, powerful hand, then an outcome that becomes a mistake will be much costlier: it becomes a target for hatred and undoes any benevolence.

Anti-colonialism doesn't mean hands off, though. This is where it's hard to get people on board: there has to be support for people coming to their own solutions, but we can't be so arrogant and assuming as to give them those answers. Intent isn't always king, and over time, intent will be lost.

The greatest appeal of the Kony 2012 campaign was that it was easy. Click a share button, retweet, and you're already doing your part. It was tailor made for so-called "online slacktivism." It required merely that you care enough to put it in your internet feed of choice, and you were already doing your part. If you were mega serious about feeling good, you could buy a trendy, hip bracelet that would go well with your outfit. It was more than easy, it was tailor made to meld seamlessly into the worldview you've built for yourself.

And what's wrong with that? As we saw from the pushback, a lot of things: reductive solutions, questionable practices and beliefs, a whole lot of disdain for bandwagon jumpers. If activism is not hard work, then it becomes fragile and draws fire. It was only easier to write off when the guy was found in San Diego having a public nervous breakdown in his underwear.

But at the same time, this was no good, and echoed the problem that all activism faces, even the trendy, one dimensional kind: people don't want to care. Give them a reason to write you off and they will take to it, whatever preserves the status quo of the mind, which, really, only has so much space to give a shit before it collapses into itself in a storm of hopeless misery. It's nothing to be ashamed of, just a simple fact of how much time, energy and privilege we realistically have.

It is appropriate though to be ashamed of how cathartic people found the character assassination of Jason Russel. As if to say, "Oh, good, now I'm totally justified in being against this trendy campaign." Make no mistake: they were never the bad guys in this story. They were just sloppy and had their values coming from a weird angle. Russel's quote about being "the pixar of human rights" showed that. He was catapulted to both fame and villainy, something that can easily break a man down, and when it does it's never an "I told you so" moment.

Skepticism is important and keeps people honest. Reactionary anti-bandwagon anti-hipster counterculture, though, is a drain on activism, political discourse and everyone that hopes to make a small difference. The whole campaign is likely dead in the water now that the news is trying to portray Russel as a drugged out public masturbator. That doesn't have to be a big tragedy, because it's not as if there was only one shot at agitating change in Uganda. It was a flawed campaign, and although I have empathy for him, it's hard to feel like we lost something truly important. The shame is in what we gained: another victory for smug, naysayer apathy.