Friday, March 16, 2012

The Matter at Hand

I swear I wrote the title before the news broke. Obviously, there's nothing to add at this point. Any fancy way of saying that Kony2012 is vaguely masturbatory is now officially a cheap shot. Except, really? They didn't nab him for tax fraud? For smoking a joint? For domestic disturbance? Surely there is some German or Korean or Xhosa word for this sort of thing: A spectacular public confirmation that the alleged weaknesses of a person or work are literally and not just metaphorically true. Had the accusation against Strauss-Kahn stuck, for example, you'd have had an astounding vindication of some of the more radical charges that have been leveled over the years against the IMF.

What follows is the start of a piece I was working on, which will now remain unfinished. Basically, my point was that a surprising number of Kony2012 critics misunderstood--or so it seemed to me--the nature of their own reaction to the campaign. The video's faults are primarily aesthetic. Kony2012 icked us out because of its intense narcissism, its unearned self-regard, its treatment of other people as means rather than ends. (Surely Russell's interaction with his son is the most unfortunate bit of parenting caught on film since Hasselhoff's attempted mastication of a hamburger.) Yet most of the criticism focused on its intellectual errors or debatable policy prescriptions, faults that however serious didn't merit the intensity of the criticism leveled against it. This not only allowed the campaign's defenders to come off as reasonable by contrast effect (see here and here and here), but mistook what was so awful about the film to begin with.  Using the plight of some of the world's most vulnerable people as an excuse to engage in a bit of auto-hagiography is repellent, regardless of whatever else can or can't be said about the video, the group, or the cause it claims to espouse.

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No one of taste or discernment can watch the Kony 2012 campaign without feeling that vague sensation of distaste that we feel in the presence of bad art--that is, of art that doesn't just fail on its own terms but which seems to deliberately and with ulterior motive falsify the experience it purports to convey. You know what I'm talking about: ghastly poetry slams, horrid "provocations" in which it is considered witty to spell America with a "K," the movie Titanic. The sort of thing we call adolescent and excuse adolescents from: If they are not producing bad art when they are 16, there is no hope for them at all.

So my first reaction to the video was mild disapprobation mixed with mild condescension. It didn't affect me strongly one way or the other and I doubted it would go anywhere. (This was when it had  only a couple of million hits.) In the history of those episodic

Ha, ha. The joke, it turned out, was on me. Not since I first saw MTV and thought, "I can't see this having a future," have my instincts proven so completely misguided. Eighty million hits?! Why stop there?

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