Peace Signs and Power Fists
On March 5, IC launched the 27-minute film KONY 2012 on YouTube. It's a slick infomercial, designed and edited for social-network marketing - to sell young people on the message. And at first glance, the message could appeal to anyone, even adults, no matter what they believe.
Not once does the film mention God or Jesus or the Bible. No credits are rolled - no names that might give away any identities of its financial support network. It solicits donations of $3 a week from young people to its program called Tri, whose logo features the old Sixties peace sign associated with Vietnam War protest. IC's excited youth activists celebrate the cause with their right arms raised in power fists - just the way those white hippies and Black Power radicals of yore used to do in the peace marches. No wonder KONY 2012 now has 78 million hits and counting.
But behind the woodwork, this Invisible Children movement is anything but leftist and liberal. Just three days after the film premiered, on March 8, independent media broke the first story about IC's links to evangelical extremism.
Talk2Action investigative reporter Bruce Wilson was telling the story. In November 2011, IC co-founder/filmmaker Jason Russell spoke at a Liberty University conference whose lineup included Michelle Bachmann and others connected with the Republican presidential campaign. Anybody who watches the video of Russell's talk will see its context of hard-core hard-right church activism. Russell characterized the Invisible Children team as believing in Jesus. He coached the LU students on how to get people "into the fight" by doing "as Jesus did."
A few days later, Wilson posted more revelations on AlterNet. He aired the IRS figures on major donations to invisible Children by major dominionist anti-democracy church organizations. Example: IC reports credit the Caster Family Foundation, one of the biggest bankrollers of Prop 8. Another example: big donation from the National Christian Foundation, which gives to Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, The Fellowship Foundation, and Lou Engle's TheCall. Wilson pointed out that the National Christian Foundation is the "biggest funder of the hard, anti-gay, creationist Christian right."
But mainstream media have been curiously reluctant to shine a spotlight on IC's coziness with the church/corporate far right.
Example: on March 11, CNN did a super-soft interview with the IC leaders, giving them a platform to respond to criticisms of their alleged lack of financial transparency. IC CEO Ben Keesey and Jason Russell were the only faces on camera. Not a single critic was there in person to debate the IC leadership directly. And no question was lobbed about the way IC is riding on donations from powerful church orgs.
Hawks in Anti-War Clothing
Despite its appropriation of the old peace symbol, and its mantra that it wants to "end war and genocide," Invisible Children is also far from being a peacenik redux.
Even the grassroots conservative Free Republic characterizes them as "pro war." Free Republic adds, "While KONY 2012 attempts to portray itself as an indigenous activist movement bent on bringing justice to African children, its parent organization is affiliated with the upper echelon of the US corporate media and a network of foundation-funded pro-war civil society groups."
Does IC's campaign to capture Joseph Kony have anything to do with the U.S. government's growing military involvement in Africa? Yes, it does. And here's the story of how it happened.
In 2005, IC first started its work in Uganda, which included development of Rough Cut, the first of its series of films on the children. During that first year, they connected with Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla).
Inhofe is a member of the far-right church lobby group known as the Fellowship Foundation. part of a shadowy DC lobby group called The Family. Like Invisible Children, the Family is a recipient of National Christian Foundation funding. In turn, The Family is part of a larger extremist movement called the New Apostolic Reformation, that aims to establish dominionist Christian governments around the globe, with a special focus on Africa. The Family sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. and openly works to push U.S. policy in directions that favor NAR goals.
Inhofe uses his seat in Congress to help open the way for the brand of religion to which he personally adheres. He has made many taxpayer-funded trips to Africa, and says he does it on behalf of what he calls "the political philosophy of Jesus....It's all scripturally based."
So Inhofe started helping IC with their fundraising, which is possibly how the IC hit paydirt with the National Christian Foundation.
George Bush, then President, had already taken some off-the-record shots at Kony and his LRA, working through our new Africa Command (AFRICOM). The operations utilized Ugandan troops trained by American advisers - the old MO that we used in the early stages of the Vietnam War. But the U.S. had not publicized the fact that it was targeting the LRA.
By 2009, the IC young people were lobbying fiercely in Washington. In May of that year, Senator Inhofe sponsored a bill that finally put U.S. military aid to Uganda on the public record. This bill, S. 1067, the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, required the United States to support the Uganda government and neighboring governments in efforts to disarm the LRA and protect civilians.
Even as the bill was still in Congress, the U.S. was already taking a last off-the-record shot at Kony. It planned and paid for another raid by Ugandan troops trained by American advisers. Target: a region in neighboring Congo where the LRA were hiding out, having left Uganda. In spite of the operation's ringing name, Lightning Thunder, it was a complete failure. The LRA actually escaped. On their way out, they massacred nearly 1000 civilians in retaliation. Kony was nowhere to be found.
Despite this debacle, the bill was signed into law by President Obama in 2010. On their website, IC gave themselves credit. "We have lobbied Congress on multiple occasions, but especially in 2009 and 2010 which led to the passage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act."
Senator Inhofe still helps IC with fundraising and events. It got him a major speaking part in the film on Youtube.
Targeting Other Religions
As a result of all this religious lobbying by Kony, in October 2011, President Obama sent 100 more U.S. military advisers to Africa to help the Museveni government with the LRA. Most of these troops are Special Forces personnel. Let's hope they have better luck this time. KONY 2010 credits the IC movement for the President's move.
Critics of KONY 2012 include Africans who have been aghast at U.S. interference in volatile African situations involving civilians. They point to what they call "naivete" and "inaccuracies" in the KONY 2012 film. They say that IC's mission will not solve the problem - that it could even make it worse. Kony is not the only leader who has savagely exploited child soldiers - it's a widespread practice.
The problem is - by helping Uganda, we are jumping into the fray on the side of a corrupt right-wing regime, as the U.S. has done so often in Central and South America.
President Museveni and his wife Janet, along with powerful supporters in their government, are committed followers of the NAR. They became converts as a result of years of stealthy work by American far-right missionaries. One of the first things they did was accept massive U.S. government "faith-based" aid for Uganda's HIV prevention program. But Museveni's policies have failed to deal with inflation, unemployment and government corruption. As social problems boil up more fiercely, the country's human-rights activists fear that Uganda is becoming a police state. Free speech is disappearing. Draconian crack-downs are being launched. We've heard a lot about Uganda's persecution of homosexuals. But we've heard less about the violent crushing of a populist "walk to work" campaign where people boycott public transportation as a protest against the country's problems. Imagine being arrested for walking to work. And the walk-to-work arrestees are being charged with treason!
On the ideology front - when Kony (a former Catholic) and his cultish LRA army challenged Museveni's rule from Uganda's north in the 1980s, Museveni responded with his own brand of Protestant brutality. His government is also more and more harshly at odds with the 12% Muslim minority in the country, making civil war a possibility. And he wars on traditional African non-Christian practices like witchcraft. In short, U.S. support of the Uganda government makes us party to a targeting of any religion not acceptable to the NAR.
Bruce Wilson puts it this way: "Invisible Children appears selectively concerned about crimes committed by Joseph Kony but indifferent to crimes, perhaps on a bigger scale, committed by their provisional partner, the government of Uganda - whose president shot his way into power using child soldiers, before Joseph Kony began using child soldiers. Like Kony, the government of Uganda was also indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005, for human rights abuses and looting in the DRC Congo. Like Kony, the Ugandan army preys upon civilians and is currently accused, by Western human rights groups, with raping and looting in the DRC Congo, where it is hunting for Kony."
U.S. anti-Kony operations happen against a bigger radar screen of growing American military involvement all across Africa. While American voters obsessed about our being mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, our Africa Command (AFRICOM) was growing to two dozen bases and a spiking budget. AFRICOM is supposedly aimed at Islamic terrorism, though some Africans believe that the real target is control of African resources like oil. Meanwhile, the NAR hopes to ride into more African countries on the coat tails of our government, the way they did into Uganda. They're already working to take over Nigeria, Rwanda and several others.
But I digress. Back to IC and its funding streams.
How Much Money Towards the Children?
Invisible Children, Inc. is a 501c3 based in San Diego, California. Its 990 reveals the interesting fact that IC banks offshore, in the Cayman Islands.
And the money is rolling in. Last year, 2011, the IC reported over $10 million in 2010 contributions. $2 million of that came from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. But that tidy sum is dwarfed by the $15 million that reportedly cascaded into their coffers after the film launched on YouTube.
So ...given IC's dishonesty about who it really is, how is this money being spent? What percentage of these deep-pocket donations and Tri donations is actually being put directly on the rescue and rehabilitation of individual children? And how much goes to evangelical proselytizing that may have little to do with the "invisible children?"
As I write this, IC has put up a new video in which CEO Ben Keesey addresses the criticisms. He adopts a posture of "our feelings are hurt at the criticism because we're such nice people," and lays out his picture of an organization that is part film studio, part advocate and part boots-on-the-ground program. Twice a month, according to their financial reports, they wire money to their Uganda arm, Invisible Children Ltd., which is headed by Okot Jolly, a former child soldier in the LRA.
But Keesey's response has done little to answer that nagging question about where the dividing line is - between what's spent on the children and what's spent on evangelizing. And is there a point where ideological strings might be attached to the help that the children get?
Surely the hard-core orgs who gave piles of money - like the National Christian Foundation - are going to expect some bang for their buck.
Despite the growing criticism, IC lobbying in Washington goes on. The other day, House Democrats and Republicans got together to put forth a resolution supporting Invisible Children. It seems that many Democrats in Congress haven't thought too hard about all the questions raging around IC. And the marketing goes on. Right now, some of the older children are touring the U.S. with Invisible Children, all expenses paid, telling their stories at KONY 2012 screenings. The venues tend to be campuses and churches.
Yes, the atrocities committed against these African children were real and horrible. But when does IC take down that fake peace sign, and come clean about what their real mission is? And how will they explain away the colossal violation of "truth in advertising" that they've committed?
Meanwhile, if we LGBT people want to help these children, let's look for ways that don't lead to bullets aimed at our own heads.
Further reading: Foreign Affairs on "KONY 2012 and the Prospects for Change"