Teens Take Up the Kony Cause
My 14-year-old son, Jake, frequently pleads, "Mom, you have to watch this video." Consequently, I have sat through a litany of YouTube clips featuring skateboarding dogs, cats that play piano, babies with infectious laughs, car crashes, ridiculous stunts and, of course, the granddaddy of viral videos, "Charlie Bit My Finger." (If you are the only one in America who hasn’t yet watched the reaction of a little English boy when his infant brother bites his finger, it’s time you joined the nearly half-billion people who have watched it on youtube.com.)
Recently, Jake corralled me into watching a "hilarious" video of a kid pulling a condom over his head until it covered his nose. This teenager then put a cap over the condom and exhaled through his nose until the cap hovered about a foot over his head. Needless to say, my son could barely breathe he was laughing so hard. I could only think of Condom Boy’s poor mother, who probably went to great lengths to make sure her precious infant wasn’t within 10 feet of a plastic bag only to have that same child later risk suffocation by choice, for a laugh.
So in March, when my son said, "Mom, you have to watch this video," let’s just say my expectations were extremely low. But because my ultimate goal in life is to give my kids as little material as possible to share with a future therapist —Wow, from what you have told me so far, you must have screwed yourself up because your mom sounds amazing — I acquiesced to watching the video even though my eighth-grader warned me soberly in advance that it is 27 minutes long.
It turned out that watching the entire video, titled "Kony 2012," was an easy promise to keep. The short film, expertly crafted by American documentary filmmaker and founder of the organization Invisible Children, Jason Russell, is about a Ugandan war criminal I had never heard of named Joseph Kony. Jake and I were not the only ones to be mesmerized by this mini documentary; it is so compelling that it spread through social networking sites like wildfire, getting more than 83 million views in the first week alone.
The video starts as a conversation between Russell and his young son, during which Russell explains the vast difference between good guys and bad guys and makes it clear that Kony, the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan guerilla group that has ripped children from their families and turned them into child soldiers or sex slaves, is the baddest of the bad. Apparently, the rebel leader is no longer in Uganda, but the message of the film is that if the public would put pressure on the American government, Kony would be caught and brought to justice.
The strategy seems simple: bad guy + public awareness = no more bad guy. But this time the tactic did not rely on celebrity endorsements or donations from big philanthropists (though the movement attracted plenty of that, too). It called on the masses to purchase Kony 2012 posters and plaster them everywhere on the night of April 20. Jake showed me a local Facebook group he joined titled "Cover the Night Calabasas," which already had dozens of local teens as members. And because I was thrilled that Jake was finally showing an interest in a humanitarian cause, I happily agreed to split the cost of the posters with him so he could do his part to help raise awareness.
For a few short days, I fantasized that Jake’s involvement in the Kony campaign would ultimately lead to a lifetime commitment to the notion that good people, acting together, can change the world. Sure, I realized that the situation in Uganda was not as simplistic as Russell portrays it in the video, but I agreed with Forbes columnist Erika Andersen’s position summarized in her column, "Kony 2012: Good but Flawed Is Better Than Horrible."
Andersen explained, "Yes, I’m sure Invisible Children is not a perfect organization. I bet they use some of their money badly. They’re probably looking at this whole situation too simplistically. I’m absolutely certain that many of the people who support them are self-righteous dilettantes.
"But still. How is it a bad thing that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are now motivated to help neutralize a horrible man who is responsible for countless heinous crimes against people throughout Central Africa?"
Unfortunately, the very man who ignited Jake’s interest in humanitarian causes may also end up being the man to extinguish it. Shortly after we purchased the posters from the Invisible Children organization, a new video went viral. This video also starred Jason Russell, but this time Russell was rambling incomprehensibly as he walked down a street completely naked (doing something that people do sometimes when they are naked, but usually not on the hood of a car) and evidently having a colossal meltdown.
It was like watching Gandhi beating up a kid, or Mother Teresa shoplifting at Barneys. Russell’s family’s spin on the event was that Russell, a normally sane, sober individual, couldn’t handle the stress caused by some media criticism of his viral video. Since then, he has reportedly been diagnosed with some sort of psychosis and is expected to be in the hospital for weeks.
I assumed my son would be crushed by Russell’s behavior and would go back to his old life of trying to decide whether he should drive a Lamborghini or a Ferrari when he grew up, forgetting all about children thousands of miles away who were abducted from their families. So when I asked him if he thought kids would still turn out on April 20 and paper the world with Kony 2012 posters, I was surprised to hear him say that he thought they still would. Why? He couldn’t say. But it made me wonder if today’s generation of teens is not as apathetic as I had long suspected, but simply needed to be directed on how they could change the world in the language that they speak: YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Or maybe it just comes down to the fact that the image of an emotionally scarred boy is even more compelling than that of an emotionally disturbed man.