Archive for politics
I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing elsewhere this month, so in case you missed them:
- I have a blog post for ProHacker that discusses a strategy that I developed to create and post podcasts for my online course. I’ve been using the same workflow for several weeks now, and it’s continuing to work well for me.
- I have an article in the upcoming (Winter 2013) print issue of Filmmaker Magazine that addresses some of the issues in my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture. the new issue isn’t up yet on the Filmmaker Magazine website, but it looks fantastic, and I’m delighted to be included in some incredibly good company. In the article, I tried to unpack some of the complicated issues that are shaping movie distribution, while also discussing how independent filmmakers have been incredibly resourceful in creating their own tools–Kickstarter, etc–to find an audience (and funding) for their work.
- I recently wrote a blog post for Antenna on the politics of representing torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. My ultimate conclusion is that even if it never directly states that torture led to the intelligence that allowed us to find bin Laden, the film feels as if torture helped. That being said, I also think the film leaves us with some ambivalence about how that search was conducted, making Zero Dark Thirty a much more subtle film than its many critics have suggested.
I’m reposting a diary I wrote for Daily Kos (the first one I’ve written there) where I discussed a petition that my wife and I wrote asking the White House to respond to our concerns about the ban on funding for the CDC to do gun research. I’ve never started a petition before, although I consider myself to be relatively active politically and have long espoused the power of social media in mobilizing political action. I’m not sure why this particular issue drove me to try writing a petition, but it’s probably a combination of my belief in supporting research and my hope that this research will lead to a significant reduction in violence. For those who might think that this petition is simply a cover for reducing access to guns, please note that I’m open to supporting whatever conclusions the CDC might reach. I’ll try to keep track of how the proces works and discuss that here. So far, in about two hours, we’ve collected 61 signatures, and the post has moved up the Daily Kos recommended diaries list. I suspect that hitting the critical threshold of 150 signatures–if we get there–will make a big difference because at that point the petition will be “visible” on the White House petitions page. No matter what, I’ve been moved by the comments on Kos and the shared solidarity over this issue. The text of the Daily Kos diary is below the fold.
Read the rest of this entry »
Read the rest of this entry »
In my previous post, I discussed legislation that would allow Netflix to create a Facebook app that would (with your permission) publish your viewing history in your news feed. The legislation was responding to the Video Privacy Protection Act, which was passed in the wake of Robert Bork’s contentious Supreme Court nomination fight, prohibited video rental companies from publishing this information without the written permission of the customer.
But in a new wrinkle, the House version of this bill, sponsored by Virginia Republican, Bob Goodlatte, not only allows Netflix users to automatically share what they watch but also enables law enforcement officials to read individuals’ emails (or any other information based in the computing cloud, such as private social media postings) without obtaining a search warrant. There are some aspects of the bill that seem quite positive–Netflix and other services would be required to provide “clear and conspicuous” ways for users to opt out of sharing–but the loss of protections against private online communication is a big concern.
The Senate version of this bill includes those protections, but the ACLU (among other groups) has expressed concern about the risks to individual privacy when it comes to electronic communication. The Senate bill would already create tremendous value for Netflix and Facebook, who could obtain even more personal data about their customers (and I would likely opt out of any automated sharing, if only to avoid spamming my friends’ news feeds), but the House version of the bill erodes privacy rights considerably further.
I have been turning over some ideas about the move to christen 2012 as the “Meme Election.” To some extent, this desire to revisit the 2012 campaign was driven by an Atlantic article by Megan Garber, which places emphasis on the Obama campaign’s deft ability to navigate various social media, an interpretation grounded in Obama’s own willingness to participate in various election-year memes, as well as the lively Obama Tumblr, which allowed the campaign to use a more playful tone. This playfulness is typified by Obama posing with McKayla Maroney, the “Not Impressed” gymnast from the U.S. Olympic team, whose scowl launched one of the more popular memes of the 2012 election.
Garber’s article seems to take for granted that Obama’s campaign was far more successful at using memes than Mitt Romney’s election team, and there is probably some truth to that, although to some extent at least, Obama’s team built upon an existing community of creative class workers who were more likely to support him than Obama. Many of the more popular memes (as Garber defines them), such as Eastwooding and Binders Full of Women (here’s my response), came from outside the campaign itself, as everyday people sought to participate by demonstrating their cleverness or by sharing the creativity of others, often to make a political point. As my somewhat infrequent blog posts show, I’ve been consistently amused by many of these memes and find them to be a fascinating expression of political culture, one that fits neatly with my enjoyment of (almost) all things snarky and satirical. Popular culture (as Henry Jenkins reminded us in his discussions of “fan activism“) can be a powerful tool for conveying a political idea.
But I think this focus on image macros and other forms of visual cleverness may contribute to an incomplete depiction of how the 2012 election functioned. First, in the final days before the election–and even in the immediate aftermath–much of the debate was focused on the practice of interpreting polls. During the days leading up to the election, there were (for example) countless attempts to discredit polling expert Nate Silver, whose predictions turned out to be more or less spot on. There was the “unskewed polls” guy, whose predictions were briefly shared, and certainly conservative fears about Obamacare, gun rights, and Benghazi, among other issues are shared in a viral (or meme-like) fashion. If we take the idea of the meme more broadly to include any “concept” that spreads via the internet, we have to take account for these attempts to circulate ideas, even if many of them are later proven false by fact-checkers (and of course, the critique of fact-checkers itself arguably became a meme). By talking about these issues as “memes,” I’m not ignoring other effects of calculating polling results or other aspects of the campaign, including the use of email and social media to fundraise and target voters (and I would argue that one of the under-reported stories of this year’s election is the intensification of campaigns using “Big Data” to identify and reach out to likely voters). Instead, I think we might benefit from a more nuanced perception of how memes function in the spaces of political and popular culture.
Garber is absolutely right about a number of points. Much of this communication is, as she puts it, “niche [and] networked.” To be sure, I disagree politically with many of my Facebook friends and often encountered image macros that didn’t reflect my political views, but the Obama Tumblr and other social media tools tended to attract participants who shared political views. She also points out the idea that we have reached the era of the “permanent campaign” (if we weren’t there already), one that involves an active, ongoing participatory political culture, one that isn’t necessarily tied to a specific political candidate, even if Obama benefited tremendously from social media. Much of that material will be frustrating, and memes can spread false information almost as quickly as it can spread truthful information. It can be profoundly clever and can dramatically change our perception of public figures (or at least reinforce emergent views of those figures). Perhaps rather than thinking about memes in terms of campaigns, we should understand them as part of an ongoing–often fraught–political conversation.
Last night’s debate left us with two or three comments that will endure throughout the election season and beyond, but none will likely have the staying power of Mitt Romney’s remark that when he was seeking out job female applicants his staff brought him “binders full of women.” On one level, it’s easy to read Romney’s remarks as a slip of the tongue, but on another the comment seemed to confirm the viewpoint that Romney is a jerk who is oblivious to women’s needs. In her debate post, Amy Sullivan details the ways in which Romney (“Mitt the Man”) came across as insensitive to women, and the binders comment–which only came out when Romney was trying to avoid answering whether he supported the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act–has provided a shorthand for expressing that sentiment. Within minutes of of the comment (as CBS News reports), there were Twitter feeds (@RomneyBinders had 33,000 followers by Wednesday afternoon) and Tumblr accounts where many of the Romney binders images were posted, suggesting that the comments provoked a fair amount of outrage.
In keeping with the current election-year rhetoric, many of the Romney binders relied upon existing internet memes in order to make their political points, ranging from The Most Interesting Man in the World to a revival of the “texts from Hillary” meme (via That Wren Girl) and even a riff on the Ryan Gosling meme (borrowed from MoveOn’s Facebook page). Many other posts from the Binders Full of Women Tumblr use images of recognizable celebrities in order to mock Romney or tie his comments to misogynistic aspects of contemporary culture. In one image, Romney’s comments are aligned with Hugh Hefner and in another with John Cusack, and in probably my favorite, with the movie Dirty Dancing. Although these posts may not constitute an entirely politically coherent response to Romney’s remarks, they do help to make visible Romney’s lack of concern for a number of women’s issues (including his non-answer on the Lily Ledbetter question). Further, because of the popular culture associations–with TV, film, and other internet memes–many of these political expressions are instantly accessible.
In addition, these images help to reinforce the idea that the 2012 election’s media format is that of the image macro, a picture superimposed with text, usually with humorous intentions. If 2008 was the “YouTube election,” then it might seem odd that static images would make such a comeback, but I think there are a few reasons that this is happening. First, the role of Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook in this election eclipses what was happening in 2008. More people are sharing political information than before, and thanks to Twitter’s associations with micro-celebrity, more people are attempting to create clever responses to debates and other political events in order to achieve (very) temporary fame–a tendency that The Onion beautifully satirtized in a post anticipating the second debate. Second, image macros are more instantly accessible than video mashups, even while using some of the same principles of montage and associative editing that Richard Edwards and I discussed in our article on some of the more popular mashups from 2008, including “Vote Different.” Image macros are fleeting; they can be viewed more easily than videos. Richard and I argued that mashups created meaning through the clash (or meshing) of popular and political culture imagery, and most image macros follow this same logic. More crucially, they have a much lower barrier to entry in terms of their production in that virtually anyone can go to a Meme Generator site, post or (more likely) borrow an image, and then add the necessary text to create their contribution to a meme. Video editing, on the other hand, requires a much more significant investment of time on the part of the creator. Thus, rather than taking several hours to painstakingly piece together multiple clips from a movie with a political speech, meme participants can get something posted literally within minutes, shaping the response to a debate even before it has finished.
This might produce some anxiety about critical distance or a fear that we may be relying too much on snap judgements about who “won” a debate. But I would argue that these fleeting political comments actually open up the debates to greater scrutiny than ever before. And the “Romney binder” meme has, in fact, opened up Romney’s record for hiring women, and it turns out that his record isn’t that great. It’s difficult to predict whether a political meme will endure. Eastwooding seems to have faded relatively quickly even though it was able–briefly at least–to integrate itself with older, more established memes. Still, as a moment of crystallizing a political truth, these populist forms offer a fascinating, lightning-quick mode of expression.
Update: Tama Leaver gave a talk at this year’s Internet Research Conference that mentions this post–talk about up-to-the-minute research–and makes a useful distinction between “trolling,” which he defines as disruption for the sake of disruption, and “image macro politics,” which can work as a form of online activism or engagement. But even as I review Tama’s presentation, I find myself wondering whether “meme election” might be better, especially given elements such as the Paul Ryan Gosling Twitter account, which borrows heavily from the logic of “remix politics” but also makes only limited use of images or image macros.
Given my interests in the intersections between politics, humor, popular culture, and social media, I found the responses to Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, ad-libbed campaign performance art at the Republican National Convention to be completely irresistible. In case you missed it, the Hollywood icon (whose movies I admire) gave a 10-minute speech supporting Mitt Romney in which he lectured an empty chair meant to represent current president, Barack Obama, asking “him” questions about why he has failed to deliver on his campaign promises. From a conservative perspective, there’s probably a valid point embedded in the speech–Obama as empty suit or whatever–but the impromptu nature of the talk has made it the subject of widespread mockery on the political web.
To some extent, the mockery derives from the fact that Eastwood’s performance before the RNC departs so radically from his star persona as a tough-talking Dirty Harry-type. Instead, the bit accentuated his age, a perception that was probably reinforced by his slightly disheveled hair and by the fact that he was ad-libbing and often seemed to be searching for the right words. The performance also departed radically from the rest of the RNC, which appeared to be tightly scripted, a perception that is mocked in this Photoshopped image from The Simpsons showing an altered headline in which Abe Simpson “yells at a chair” (the original if I recall says “cloud” instead of chair).
But as Chris Becker documented in an indispensable post on her News for TV Majors site, there were literally hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts that showed up within seconds of Eastwood’s appearance. One of the most notable was the appearance of the Invisible Obama Twitter feed, which was created during Eastwood’s speech and which now has 45,000 followers less than a day after the speech (one of “his” best tweets: “Someone should tell Marco Rubio he’s standing on my foot right now”). Eastwood’s speech also provided an excuse for celebrities to weigh in with both supportive and humorous content, all of it documented by Entertainment Weekly. Among the best remarks was Seth Myers’ “props” to Eastwood for bringing down Twitter. Even the Obama campaign got in on the act with an amusing, if slightly smug, tweet showing Obama seated in the Oval Office, saying “this seat’s taken.”
But one of the more common responses has been the practice of having a picture taken of a person pointing to an empty chair and acting as if the subject is lecturing it–a practice that has quickly become known as “Eastwooding,” although many of them feature pets and even children. Ana Marie Cox has identified this picture as the “original” Eastwooding image, but in any case, the empty chair has now become a key signifier in the political blogosphere, one whose meanings will probably take some time to settle into place (although I think the Abe Simpson image probably tells us the direction this is heading).
Finally, there is another Invisible Obama meme, one that features a photograph of Eastwood gesturing toward the empty chair with a red, white, and blue background. The Meme Generator allows people to enter their own text to create captions that comment on Eastwood or use his performance to make a commentary on politics. On a brief glance at most of the images that have been generated, they are generally anti-Romney or anti-Republican. My favorite so far actually makes reference to another popular meme, the “Most Interesting Man in the World” images that mock or make use of the character from the Dos Equis advertisements. The Meme Generator is especially interesting to me in that it readily invites the participation of others who may have limited coding or video editing skills. It also fascinated in that, like Twitter, it benefits heavily from verbal dexterity, even while participants have the ability to riff of a specific image, creating an incredibly low barrier to participation (although, in an odd sort of way, it doesn’t seem that remote from the longtime New Yorker contests inviting readers to provide captions for its cartoons). Facebook and Twitter users can also share and comment on many of these images without having to create new ones themselves, so that provides another important layer of participation.
I’ve been fascinated by political memes for a long time, in part because they invite citizen participation, but also because they allow untapped political meanings to gain expression, often through coded language associated with popular culture. Most of these Eastwood memes show a fluency with popular culture that invites sharing–they’ve also attracted the attention of George Takei, which never hurts–so it’ll be interesting to see how the Eastwood meme plays out over the next several months.
Steven Zeitchik and Jonathan Landreth have a fascinating must-read article that explores how the Chinese market is affecting creative decisions made by Hollywood studios (also Check out Zeitchik’s blog post on the topic). Because of China’s growing middle class (and the further opening up of their movie quota system), studios are working harder to produce content that will satisfy the relatively strict censors at China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television while also working to court Chinese businesses for production funds.
Some of these changes are relatively minimal: The movie Battleship was tweaked to give Chinese scientists credit for first identifying the alien invaders. Others are more substantial. The remake of Red Dawn (which seems to have been in process for ages) was re-edited to change the U.S. invaders from Chinese to North Korean, while Chinese bioelectric engineers were added as “experts” to the movie Salmon Fishing in Yemen, when there were no similar characters in the original novel. In all cases, narrative and character decisions are being made with some awareness about how (and even whether) the film will play legally in the Chinese market.
Zeitchik and Landreth characterize these decisions as a form of “censorship” in a couple of places, but I’m not quite sure that’s the right way of describing what is happening (or I would at least like to qualify the concept of censorship here). Yes, undesirable images may be censored, and in some cases literally cut, from movies, as happened when Chow Yun Fat’s scenes were removed from one of the Pirates of Caribbean movies. And these decisions may shape the kinds of projects that get funded. I’d imagine, for example, that a studio might now be much more reluctant to finance a project like Seven Years in Tibet. But “economic censorship” is quite a bit different than state censorship, and filmmakers theoretically could reject working with Chinese companies, as Relatively Media did when it was threatened with a boycott by human rights groups angered that they planned to film in a location close to wehere activist Chen Guangcheng was being held under house arrest. And if this means that we will get fewer racist caricatures of Chinese people and cultures, then I think there is some value in respecting these markets. This doesn’t mean that state censorship isn’t functioning here–China’s censorship practices are well-documented–but it is still the case that most of the motivations for Hollywood for altring content are economic.
Still, I think the article is an important read if only because it illustrates the degree to which these forms of economic censorship function in shaping cinematic storytelling, and more significantly, how these changed storytelling practices are being driven not necessarily (or even primarily in some cases) by American sensibilities but by those of a wider, globalized audience and by the state and economic interests that seek to shape the content of Hollywood entertainment.
The “Texts from Hillary” Tumblr exploded on the web several days ago–Rachel Maddow mentioned it on her show several days ago–and I’ve gone back to the site several times when friends mentioned it on Facebook, but I think it’s worth discussing in detail because it seems to illustrate some of the ongoing changes in political parody.
First, like the Downfall Meme, I think the Texts from Hillary meme is extraordinarily flexible. It can be used to riff on any number of current events and celebrity personas. Recent posts have parodied Jon Stewart, Maddow (possibly a shout-out after Maddow praised the site), and Mitt Romney. More crucially, it illustrates how Clinton’s political persona has been redefined after her epic primary battle with Barack Obama during the 2008 election. While Clinton was depicted as out-of-touch and harsh, the meme redefines her as embodying what Benjy Sarlin of TPM calls a new form of “badass cool.” The image of Clinton on a military jet, wearing dark sunglasses, and examining her Blackberry can now be re-read to suggest her political authority, at a moment when Clinton now maintains high popularity with both Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps the best illustration of this badass cool is the following text exchange:
What this post also illustrates is the degree to which these political parodies continue to rely upon intertextual references. The 3 AM reference recalls an advertisement in which Clinton attacked Obama’s lack of experience by imagining a 3 AM phone call and asking whether voters trusted Obama to handle the situation. The ad was widely parodied as being too harsh and threatening, but now, it has been reworked to fit within Clinton’s jet-setting, confident style. I’ll be interested to see if (and how) the meme endures because it seems to be a powerful illustration of how political meanings can shift over time. Oh, and because it’s really fun.
Update: FYI, now Clinton is submitting her own contributions to the Texts from Hillary Tumblr. Very cool.
Because I haven’t been posting in a while, here are some more things I’ve been following lately. In other news, I somehow completely forgot to mention my ninth anniversary of blogging last month (I started a Blogger blog way back in March 2003) until I noticed how Atrios was commemorating his tenth (!) anniversary. This gives me about ten or eleven months to come up with a creative way of marking ten years of blogging by March of next year. Suggestions are always welcome. By the way, here’s another bulleted list for your weekend entertainment:
- A longtime blog friend, Craig Lindsey, will be teaching a course on film criticism and column writing on May 5. The course is open to the public and will be held here in Raleigh.
- One of the early inspirations for my blogging habit was Robert Greenwald, whose anti-iraq War documentaries showed me how social media could be used to promote political activism. Now he’s back (yet again), this time with a documentary, Koch Brothers Exposed, which is meant to document the poster boys of SuperPACs.
- The cinetrix has posted another fantastic collection of links, but I’m highlighting this one because I’ll probably borrow at least half of these links when I teach Introduction to Film next fall (scroll down a bit for some terrific Welles and Kubrick links).
- Hugh Atkin has posted what is, without doubt, the best political remix video of the 2012 election so far: Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?
- Michael Newman offers a compelling reading of advertisements for TVs, mobile devices, and 3D imagery.
- For the 10th edition of Film Art, their introductory film textbook, Bordwell and Thompson are linking up with Criterion to create a series of videos for teaching many of the formal techniques of cinematic storytelling. Very cool.
- Meanwhile Kristin Thompson warns against identifying trends based on a single year of box office numbers.
Hoping to have some more substantial blog posts soon, including reviews from this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, scheduled for next week (I believe this will be my fifth or sixth year of attending, another milestone that I find particularly unsettling).
A few weeks ago, I expressed some fascination with the Stop Kony phenomenon. My reaction was oddly timed in that Jason Russell, the “star” of the first video was detained while I was composing my blog post, but it was impossible to deny that the original video had made what appeared to be a profound impact on an international youth culture using a combination of social media tools, celebrity “attention philanthropy (to use danah boyd’s phrase),” and a persuasive narrative structure. At the time, my post was torn between addressing the political simplifications within the video and the colonialist and evangelical ideologies. Unlike the Alternet article I cited, I didn’t see the video as a means of promoting evangelical Christianity. Instead, I saw it as multiplying the powers of social media with the (widely under-discussed) communication networks of Christianity. But the power of the original video was, without doubt, short-circuited by the circumstances of Russell’s detention, which allowed media commentators to place both Russell and the Invisible Children organization under greater scrutiny.
Still, I think it is worth unpacking how and why the original “Stop Kony” video worked and to see how the organization has responded to these complaints while maintaining their appeal to an international youth culture that might be responsive to using participatory media in order to support some form of service or activism. Boyd offers one of the more compelling maps of how the Stop Kony phenomenon circulated, pointing out how existing religious networks played such a vital role in circulating the video. Henry Jenkins and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik also point out that the video should not be reduced to simplistic accusations of “Slakctivism,” in which youth are depicted as participating in “one-click” activism. Although many people no doubt simply “shared” or “liked” the video on Facebook, thousands of others have mobilized for the day of action on April 20, and one of the reasons is that Invisible Children provides a structured format through which youth feel as if they can make a difference. Jenkins and Kligler-Vilenchik (like boyd) are also quick to point out that Invisible Children has been active for a decade, building these networks and fostering a climate in which a single video can make a significant impact.
These questions re-emerged for me when, yesterday, one of my students alerted me to the fact that there is a new video from Invisible Children, Kony 2012: Beyond Famous. Unlike the previous Stop Kony video, this one has had a slightly slower roll-out, reaching just over 750,000 viewers in its first two days, but it is notable in at least three respects. First, Jason Russell is almost invisible here. As a result, although we see things through the narrative point of view of Ben Keesey, the video is careful to expand its POV to place emphasis on local Ugandan activists who are campaigning for Kony’s arrest. Finally, it also offers a much broader picture of Kony’s activity, pointing out that he is now currently involved in three other neighboring countries, while acknowledging that Kony is not currently active in Uganda. This approach offers a somewhat more effective image of the conflict, which shows Ugandans themselves to be involved in the process. It’s also worth noting that Invisible Children sought to emphasize the multi-ethnic and cross-class alliances of groups involved in the Stop Kony movement. As I’ve suggested, I think it’s way too easy to categorize this as a movement that merely plays on the naivete of celebrities and youth. We should follow the practices of Invisible Children closely in order to understand how social media is affecting the way we communicate and the ways in which activism is being defined.
Update: Here are some more comments by Henry Jenkins, linking the Stop Kony phenomenon to his concept of “spreadable media.”
Just a quick pointer to Jeffrey P. Jones’ insightful op-ed on the HBO movie, Game Change, which depicts the behind-the-scenes activities of the McCain-Palin presidential campaign. I haven’t had a chance to watch Game Change yet, in part because I dropped HBO a couple of years ago, but Jeffrey’s reading of the movie makes me really want to see it. Namely, he points out that politics has increasingly come to resemble reality television, while shows that are often designated as entertainment seem to be taking up the mantle of offering critical perspectives often ignored in the news media.
Jeffrey also points to a prominent interview by Rachel Maddow of Nicolle Wallace and Steve Schmidt, two of McCain’s key advisers, on MSNBC. As Rachel Maddow astutely observes, the book on which Game Change was based was widely seen as settling scores and casting blame on others for the failures of the McCain campaign, but the movie has helped to reframe the short history of Palin’s role as vice president, dramatizing the risks taken by the campaign when she was tapped as vice president.
Jeffrey’s discussion of Game Change is also making me want to go back to one of my long-term interests of writing about the politics of media. I’ve kind of put that on the back-burner for the last couple of years, but the current political campaign is reminding me of why movies like Game Change and articles like Jeffrey’s are vital, politically-important work.
For a variety of reasons, I feel like the last person on the planet (or at least on Facebook) to have learned about the Stop Kony phenomenon. I had just landed in England on March 3, when the video launched, and by the time I was back in the United States ten days later, the video had been viewed an astounding 78 million times, making it one of the most viewed videos in YouTube’s history. But although the video has generated almost unprecedented attention, I’ve been watching the reception of it with a great deal of ambivalence, in part because it reveals some of the potential risks of the power of social media. But despite these risks, I think that critics who dismiss the video outright also miss out on what the Stop Kony phenomenon actually means about a nascent desire to be involved, active, and potentially, transformative.
Stop Kony, if you haven’t heard, is a 30-minute video that seeks to mobilize young social media users in an awareness campaign to get the United States government to take action to arrest Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony’s military group has brutalized villagers in Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic, and southern Sudan, deploying child soldiers who have, in some cases, been instructed to kill their parents. Kony has been operating in this region for years and has, as the video asserts, benefitted from being “invisible” to the rest of the world due to a lack of interest in the (U.S.?) news media and due to the fact that Kony doesn’t really threaten American interests (the video seems to have no particular concern about whether or how non-U.S. activists should get involved). The video, directed by Jason Russell, is up-front about its desire to affect and reach out to policy makers and to affect public opinion, gleefully acknowledging its efforts to leverage the stardom of people like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhianna to promote intervention in Uganda.
But what makes “Stop Kony” so troubling is the video’s underlying narrative structure, which seems to have more to do with celebrating the possibilities of viral activism than it does with genuinely educating the social mediasphere about Kony’s criminal activity and what should be done to stop him. In fact, the video opens with the oft-quoted statistic that there are 750 million people on Facebook and then goes on to attribute the uprisings in Iran and Egypt to social media, a somewhat dubious claim (although media journalist Sharon Waxman accepts it uncritically), before suggesting that an “older generation” is “very concerned” about losing control to a younger social media collective. From there, Russell, who narrates the video, describes and depicts the birth and childhood of his son, using his own (white, middle class) child’s innocence as a stand-in for that of a Ugandan child’s. Only about 4-5 minutes into a 30-minute video are we introduced to Jacob, a survivor of Kony’s attacks, but Russell’s promise to help Jacob, we are told isn’t about the Ugandans, but it’s “about you,” about the ability of social media activists to change the world. Russell imposes some artificial forms of urgency here, telling viewers that “time is running out” and that the movie will “expire” (be taken down? it’s not clear) on December 31, 2012. Russell underscores this activist public by showing cheering, mostly middle class crowds of young adults and teens.
From here, the video offers only the most basic overview of Kony’s tactics and activities, noting only in passing that Kony is no longer active in Uganda, while also establishing the (somewhat tenuous) thesis that if we “all” knew about Kony, then the U.S. government (again, no mention is made of non-U.S. governments, although the International Criminal Court is briefly cited) would be forced to act. In response, Russell suggests, using an interview with Shepherd Fairey, that social media allows us to “redefine propaganda,” so that people who feel powerless can make an impact. The desired actions fall into this new form of social media activism: users can sign a pledge and post their support on social media platforms, which they, in turn, are able to track. They are encouraged to donate to Tri, a non-profit involved in the anti-Kony efforts, and donors receive the “action kit” that allows them to create posters that will be disseminated all over every major city on April 20, 2012, an action that now seems redundant given the attention the cause has already received.
It’s worth noting–as Waxman observes–that the video clearly targets younger users of social media. The messaging seems designed to reach college students and teenagers and appeals to and through social media expertise. Similarly, Nicholas Kristof argues that although the video has a number of distortions and inaccuracies, it serves an educational purpose, making viewers more aware of Kony’s crimes, while adding that we “shouldn’t let nuance get in the way of action.” That being said, these simplifications and distortions reinforce a patronizing view of international politics, one that is based in colonialist discourses of a “white man’s burden” (or what the LA Times aptly describes as the “White Industrial Savior Complex”) regarding Africa. A related complaint has been that Invisible Children has an underlying (and mostly unstated) goal of promoting evangelical Christianity, a claim related by Alternet’s Bruce Wilson. That being said, Wilson’s primary bit of evidence was a talk that Russell gave at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, encouraging the Baptist student body to get more involved in the fight against Kony, so rather than viewing the video as a deliberate attempt to proselytize, I would argue that the video appropriates the evangelical language of reaching out and converting others, language that fits rather neatly into some of the more utopian accounts of using social media to effect change.
The video’s inflated sense of self-importance becomes all the more evident when we consider the fact that Russell so prominently features himself and his son as the moral centers by which we view Kony and the conflict in Uganda (a position that has become even more compromised given that as I was writing this entry a report surfaced that Russell was arrested in San Diego for a variety of crimes including public indecency, drunkenness, and vandalizing cars). The focus on Russell and on a network of middle-class social media users proved especially puzzling to the Ugandan people who were supposed to benefit from Stop Kony’s campaign of networked visibility. In an Al Jazeera report linked by Xeni Jardin, we learn that Ugandans were puzzled by the video’s emphasis on Russell and by the calls to create t-shirts bearing Kony’s image, even while the video states that its intended purpose is to make Kony “famous” in order to see him captured. Ugandans complained that the video depicts events from nearly a decade ago, out of context, and some felt it was a cynical attempt to raise money. The outdoor screening was eventually stopped when viewers began throwing rocks, and future showings of the film in Uganda were postponed.
But the biggest concern I have about the video is one that was articulated by Engage Media, which observes that the Stop Kony rhetoric frames activism in ways that are cause for concern. The Twitter hashtag #stopatnothing is most significant here. This kind of viral social media activism can often lead to some of the same forms of uncritical acceptance that we have seen in other media, and in some cases, it potentially amplifies some potentially violent rhetoric. Engage is also attentive to the fact that the videomakers should have taken into account the local groups who were affected by Kony, providing them with the tools and the platform to share their message with the world (assuming that is what they want). Russell–and others, including Nicholas Kristof, who should know better–make a number of assumptions about the desires of a potentially disparate group of people, with Kristof concluding his op-ed with the phrase “If I were a Congolese villager…” Which, of course, reduces a diverse grouping into a homogeneous whole.
So, yes, I am disturbed by the Stop Kony phenomenon, and in fact, as I wrote, I found myself becoming even less sympathetic with the tactics Russell is using, even if I recognize that Kony is a cruel individual. I don’t like that the video positions me as an impediment to justice when I ask for more nuance and subtlety and question the video’s uncritical embrace of the Ugandan military. And, yes, I am skeptical about Russell’s self-importance. But despite the video’s numerous flaws, I still find myself trying to make sense of how the video is using and mobilizing the good intentions of an international and socially-networked youth culture to try to make a difference in the wider world. To be sure, condemning a child-killing mass murderer in Africa is a relatively easy target, and the project’s militant rhetoric (#stopatnothing) is concerning, but the questions about empowerment, activism, and collectivity should not be easily or quickly dismissed.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of under-the-radar work for the last month or so, which means I haven’t had a lot of extra time for blogging. Add to that my recent trip to England and Ireland, which Andrea and I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’m somewhat shocked to see the semester (and the academic year) quickly slipping away. But I just wanted to drop in quickly to say that I’m hoping to write a couple of blog posts soon, including one on the Stop Kony phenomenon. As Nicholas Kristof explains, Stop Kony, a short YouTube documentary is one of the most watched videos in the history of that website. It has been viewed 79 million times in less than a month and has inspired widespread forms of activism. And yet, as a number of people have pointed out, the movement has been widely criticized. I’m still in the process of formulating a response to the video(and all of the framing materials that have accompanied it), but as a case study in viral distribution it is well worth investigating.
One day after hosting a half dozen neighbors for a screening of Charles Ferguson’s powerful documentary, Inside Job, I’m still reflecting on the experience and what it says about the role of documentary in contributing to forms of political activism. These questions matter to me for a number of reasons, most notably the fact that, like millions of others, I see an economic system marked by increasing instability and inequality and want to see a more just, balanced system. But I am also trying to make sense of the role of MoveOn and other online groups in using documentaries as organizing tools, both in some of my recent scholarship and in a course that I am teaching. After hosting the MoveOn screening and listening to (and participating in) the incredibly informed post-movie discussion, I continue to find myself evolving on the relationship between documentary and activism.
Upon watching Inside Job for a second time, I found myself reacting a little differently than I did when I first saw the movie about a year ago, before Occupy Wall Street began to, well, occupy public spaces and news media attention. If you care about your money, it’s almost impossible not to feel a sense of betrayal or outrage at the behavior of the large banking, loan, and insurance firms that created elaborate financial schemes to line the pockets of a small number of very wealthy people. This mirrors Ferguson’s own outrage, particularly when Frederic Mishkin bumbles through a half-hearted defense of the lack of financial regulation. But, much like last time, I found that the movie ended without offering any clear alternatives for political action. It’s clear, from the movie’s pointed critique of Obama’s economic appointments (which include Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, among others), that Ferguson is skeptical about the power of voting alone to enact political change, a position that now seems even more deeply entrenched after the Citizens United decision. Inside Job still has an oddly sterile feel to me, given that it operates almost entirely within the sites of power. We hear from critics of deregulation, including Eliot Spitzer, but rarely do we see the actual effects of sub-prime mortgages (other than some stock footage of houses with for-sale signs out front). This may or may not increase our levels of outrage, but it makes it difficult to identify a single point of identification within the film. That being said, Ferguson’s film hammers home its arguments with tremendous authority, using visuals well to track changes in our economic system. Seeing bankers and regulatory officials squirming in their seats also offers a form of enjoyment.
But after Ferguson’s powerful Oscar acceptance speech, in which he reminded us that not a single financial executive had gone to jail for his or her responsibility in the financial meltdown, the film seemed to disappear. For that reason alone, I was glad that MoveOn picked it up as a part of its house party series. It’s worth noting that the current home video ecosystem likely contributes to that. The documentary was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and through Sony’s Home Entertainment division, and (because of that?) it is currently unavailable for streaming on Netflix. None of the Blockbuster Video stores in the area had the movie available for rental. And when I called one local video store to ask for Inside Job, the clerk stepped briefly away from the phone, came back and gruffly asked, “do you want the adult version?” The movie was also unavailable through Redbox kiosks, which ultimately meant that we had to purchase a copy for our house party. I don’t think this is a specific “conspiracy,” just that our current distribution model provides much greater potential for independent and low-budget films to “disappear” from public consciousness and even easy (or at least inexpensive) access. As a result, even hosting a screening now seems like a valuable contribution to the wider political discussion.
But of course it’s worth asking about how to translate Inside Job’s outrage into meaningful political action (whatever that might look like). There is a degree to which everyone in the room was already not only predisposed to agree with Ferguson’s arguments but also prepared to anticipate many of them, with some of our guests calling out terms before the narrator (Matt Damon) could say them. Although this might seem like a version of “preaching to the choir,” I think it’s much more complex than that. The narrative behind the banking crisis is incredibly complicated, and even if we grant the fact that most MoveOn viewers already agree with many of Ferguson’s positions, putting them together into a coherent narrative is helpful. More crucially, it provides house party attendees with something tangible to structure our deliberations about both localized and national forms of political action. In fact, the credits were barely rolling when the first guest spoke up to create an argument for how to put an end to economic injustices depicted in the film.
And this is where I think some of our most crucial questions about documentary, online media, and activism come into play. Our reception of Inside Job was framed not only by our unique house party situation but also by the framing materials that accompanied the event. MoveOn sent out several emails and promoted the film on its website. For hosts, they provided us with a short script and fliers that would guide attendees into specific forms of action. There is a long history of this sort of political organizing, so it’s hardly new, but in some ways I found the responses to be relatively tepid, given the politics of most MoveOn members. Most notably, they encouraged attendees to “Move Your Money,” something most of us had already done. A more promising activity was the MoveOn Council idea, which would leverage the energy of localized teams to enact change on both the local and national levels. It’s difficult to judge what kind of impact a house party screening has in its immediate aftermath. There was no moment of crystallization when a light shined down from the progressive heavens and convinced me that we had (or that we would) make a difference, whatever that might mean. That being said, I think the critique of consumerism in this particular house party event runs much deeper than some of MoveOn’s most trenchant critics might suggest. Micah White, rather famously, attacked MoveOn for turning activist energy into a muted form he called “clicktivism.” These house party forums are not necessarily going to produce identical results across the board. On the one hand, it is certainly possible to walk away from a house party event and to feel some degree of cynicism and powerlessness about the possibility of effecting change, especially when MoveOn only offers relatively loose structures for directing forms of activist response. And yet, I would be reluctant to embrace a more top-down model. We need room for the critical thought of the thousands of people who attended screenings and know their local communities and the actions that are possible within them.
There are no easy answers when it comes to documentary activism. But I am energized by the fact that the house party model could help to revive the outrage, energy, and passion of Ferguson’s Inside Job, allowing it to gain new life in the era of Occupy Wall Street and the We are the 99% movements.