Haven’t really talked much about the whole Kony 2012 flapdoodle here, because up until now, it didn’t seem to be much of a religious issue. But looking over the curious case of Jason Russell, self-appointed savior of Ugandan children and flamboyant public-naked-meltdown-haver, it is necessary for me to prologue this post in order to give you an idea where I’m going with it.
A question Christians often have for atheists is why we bother being decent, moral human beings, if there isn’t a God up there keeping a running tally of our awesomeness and preparing a sweet reward for us behind door number three when we get to Heaven. We all know the answer to that, so I won’t derail my own post by going into that part of it. Suffice it to say that there are those in the evangelical community who see morality in the context of their public image. They do good deeds to be seen doing good deeds, and praised for it. This was the shocking charge laid against Mother Theresa, a woman acclaimed universally as an unassailable paragon of faultless, selfless Lawful Good, by the late Christopher Hitchens. People simply couldn’t believe it…and yet, the facts were troubling. Here was this very public saint, basking in the adoration of heads of state and taking in millions upon millions in donations, and yet her hospitals were run-down wrecks lacking in anything but the most rudimentary medical care. Curious.
Was Mother Theresa deliberately dishonest in how she went about her affairs? Or was she wholly and sincerely convinced that what she was doing was all for the poor and downtrodden, and that her way was the proper and most Godly way? I tend to think that the most flagrantly dishonest charitable behaviors, the most overt and flamboyant expressions of moral superiority, are in fact done by painfully sincere, un-self-aware egoists convinced of their humility. Following from Kazim’s earlier post about The Amazing Atheist, in the same way horrible people don’t realize they’re horrible — because they’ve constructed an I-totally-rock! narrative around themselves and then shored up a personal environment that supports and protects it — egoists don’t realize they’re egoists. The more giving and self-sacrificing they think they are toward others, the more they’re actually trying to feather their heavenly nest. So to speak.
It becomes necessary to point out that it isn’t everyone, or even necessarily a majority of people (religious or not) who devote themselves to charitable work who hide such cynical, selfish motives. But when you encounter someone who does, the truth of it becomes clear in very creepy and distressing ways. It starts with a vague feeling that there’s something here that just isn’t ringing true, that feels a little off. Then as more details are revealed, it’s as if floodgates have opened. And then you see a very different and bizarre side of the person everyone was being asked to hold in such esteem.
Like this, for instance.
That was Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children, an organization founded to raise awareness of the exploitation of children as soldiers in Uganda, and director of the Kony 2012 film, standing on a street corner, stark naked and totally losing his shit. He does not appear to be publicly masturbating, but that hasn’t stopped a million photo-memes from sprouting like mushrooms. (Perhaps the camera mercifully cut away.) In all, it’s a rather facepalmy position for someone intending to lead a global philanthropic movement to find himself in.
Russell’s colleague, Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey, offered this interesting explanation of Russell’s street-corner shit-losing. “The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue.”
Personal health issue? Mental health, does he mean? I’ll grant that making a video that garners 81 freaking million YouTube views in 12 days, turning you into a literal overnight celebrity, can stress a guy out. But to result in a collapse so intensely bizarre and potentially destructive to what your whole movement was set up to accomplish from the outset? Was it that the growing criticisms — that the film plays fast and loose with facts and rather rashly advocates American military intervention, which hasn’t exactly worked out so well for us in the past decade; that Invisible Children accepts funding from vehemently anti-gay Christian hate groups, a touchy matter considering that Uganda has been pushing for laws to make being gay at all a capital crime, laws known to have been drafted by American evangelical Christians; that Russell and his buddies have cozied up to Ugandan military leaders themselves accused of ghastly atrocities; that the film focuses on dated events while ignoring real present-day plights suffered by Ugandan children and adults alike — were starting to crack the shell of Russell’s carefully cultivated self-image?
Let’s have a look at that self-image.
The first thing that occurs to you when checking out anything Jason Russell has to say about himself is that the concept of modesty appears to have been surgically chiseled from his brain in early childhood. Seriously, giving yourself the nickname “Radical” is extra-douchey and mad cheesy all on its own, but this…?
Russell’s superhero complex is further shored up by his bio at the Invisible Children website, where we learn he has given his children middle names like Danger and Darling, and hopes to breed nine more. Presumably he has consulted with his wife about this. Perhaps he means to grow his own moppet army to fight off Kony’s. In any event, wherever you find Jason Russell, you find a man reveling without shame in his sense of personal grandeur.
And his evangelism. Russell spoke last fall at Liberty University, where he pretty much laid bare the fact that what he and his organization are doing is motivated, to at least an equal degree as their desire to save the kids, by “stealth evangelism.”
Russell has been criticized most heavily for playing the “white savior” role, which is what happens when privileged white Westerners decide they have some duty to impose their presence upon struggling developing nations and underprivileged peoples and Fix Everything with their magical Whiteness rays. “White savior” behavior is usually marked by not-entirely-honest motives, and an oafish refusal to make sure you have all your facts in order and a sensible game plan in mind before donning your cape and flying in. It is, as noted before, all about doing good in order to be seen doing good. (Which again requires the disclaimer that not all charitable white Westerners working to fix problems in developing nations are guilty of “white savior” syndrome.)
That Russell is operating under a full-fledged case of “white savior” is evident simply from watching the half-hour film. If you’re not one of the 81 million people who’ve yet seen it, the first thing you’ll notice is that, in a manner more in keeping with narrative (fiction) rather than documentary film, Kony 2012 establishes a storyline with a protagonist. And that protagonist is Jason Russell. Slickly shot and edited, with highly professional use of digital graphics, the movie’s first five minutes detail the birth of Russell’s son and Russell’s own background in political activism. (No religious angle is presented here, so as to appeal to the broadest possible audience.) Then Russell shifts focus to the time he spent in Uganda, acquainting himself with “another little boy,” Jacob. The movie’s first genuinely affecting moment comes six minutes in, when Jacob, very matter-of-factly, talks about his dead brother, and that he’d really be better off dead himself. He says this as calmly as if he’s telling you he prefers Battlefield 3 to Halo Reach. And then all the grief he’s had bottled up inside bursts forth, and he breaks into truly pitiable tears.
Obviously Russell wants to offer comfort and succor. And he goes about it in the douchiest fucking way possible. He reaches out to Jacob and says — I shit you not — “It’s okay, Jacob, it’s okay…we’re going to stop him [Kony].”
And what immediately follows this? We cut to uplifting rock music, and the whole thing turns into a “Get involved, people!” infomercial!
The narrative of Jason Russell, White Savior of Poor Black Children, is thrust to the forefront. That there are Invisible Children employees and volunteers on the ground in Uganda doing meaningful work is pushed to the back burner by a film that frames the plight of child soldiers in the context of how it’s changed Jason Russell’s life. And if certain facts have to be downplayed (that Kony — a truly loathsome piece of shit, no question — and his Lord’s Resistance Army have actually been scattered and out of Uganda for about six years now, and that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has himself used child soldiers) to sell this self-aggrandizing narrative, so be it.
Which brings us full circle to Russell’s evangelism, and his breakdown. No, I don’t know the inside of the guy’s mind, but I look at his talk at Liberty, advising Christians to “get in the fight,” and I see his film, with himself very much at the forefront as the hero. And I see an evangelical narcissist. Is he insincere? No, that’s the problem. He’s exceedingly freaking sincere, and this has blinded him to his faults: that he’s affiliating with an army that has itself been guilty of looting and rape, that he paints a complex and evolving array of political turmoil in simplistic good-vs-evil terms. And so on. God will smile on Jason Russell for all of these things. I’m sure Jason is sure of that.
And yet, when the man who swears to a crying boy that he’s going to stop the ferocious warlord who killed his brother and so many other children is faced with media attention, criticism, scrutiny and backlash, he’s so undone that he strips off his clothes and throws a fit on a street corner in broad daylight?
That’s the tragedy of the narcissist. Occasionally, reality breaks through that shell of fantasy you’ve built around yourself. And for a brief moment, you must face the horror that your life is not, in fact, a movie.