You all know the story. Warlord. Video. Earnest Ugandan Relief spokesman. 80 million hits. New possibilities for social media as a tool of good.

And then the second story.

This atypically mild take from the Melbourne Herald Sun:


“Mr Russell, 33, was taken to hospital last week after being spotted by passers-by ‘running in the street, interfering with traffic, screaming; one person said that he was naked and masturbating,’ a police spokeswoman said.

‘The preliminary diagnosis he received is called brief reactive psychosis, an acute state brought on by extreme exhaustion, stress and dehydration,’ she added.

The 33-year-old was suffering from exhaustion and stress brought on by the massive attention garnered by the online video, which was viewed by tens of millions of people within a few days earlier this month.”


A few years ago I was at a wedding reception with a friend. We were leaning against the bar. For some reason I didn’t feel like drinking that day. I can’t remember why. He kept giving me shit about it as I matched his beers with seltzer and lime.

After a while I went to the bathroom and when I came back there was a shot of Wild Turkey in front of me.

“Drink up,” he said.

“I don’t want it.”


“I told you already, I’m not in the mood.”

He wouldn’t let up. He used all the usual frat-boy tactics like “Be a man!” and “Don’t puss out!” He slapped me on the back and kept saying “Let’s celebrate!” I was almost persuaded, fingering the sticky glass, when something occurred to me.

“You didn’t buy it, did you?”

At first he tried to play it off, but then he laughingly confessed. Someone had probably ordered the shot hours ago then thought better of it. The glass had sat orphaned on the bar, in the sun, people sneezing over it, popcorn floating in the greasy swell at the lip.

I had no doubt at all, as I watched him laugh, that he wouldn’t have stopped me if I’d brought it to my mouth, ready to knock the liquor back.

I got up and walked away. I haven’t talked to that friend since.

I mention that story because that’s exactly how I felt watching the KONY video for the first time. Manipulated. Pushed to be outraged about something that deserves outrage, but also came in the form of a plea that seemed professionally spun under the guise of amateurism. The queasy realization that the video seemed to be as much about Jason Russell and his perception of himself as it was a tool for shining light on the ongoing horrors of Uganda. The vague sense that the whole thing might even be an elaborate joke, something put out by Will Ferrell or commissioned by Mountain Dew. And I still had more than twenty minutes of viewing to go. Perhaps twenty million other people felt the same way. But did they still order their KONY press kits? Or at least forward the video to all their  friends?

I didn’t forward the video to anyone. Mainly because the scene where Jason Russell tries to explain the concepts of genocide and murder and kidnapping to his five year-old son disturbed me. It seemed profoundly wrong, the kind of thing you would run by a child actor while his mom stood just off stage ready to cash in her SAG day rate, as opposed to something you would blithely expose your own son to.

And so, although it probably sounds like revisionism, I was completely unsurprised to see video of Jason Russell’s meltdown. Perhaps not naked and masturbating in traffic, but I had a feeling something just like it was coming all along, something that would strip away a vital chunk of the earnestness and positivity of the project and cause a major rethinking of the entire enterprise.

Least surprising of all, I guess, is that some asshole was there to record and then gleefully broadcast another man’s mental dissolution.

The jokes thundered in. Late night monologues wrote themselves. Yet another seemingly innocent and easily supported cause proved to be choked with nuance and contradiction.

The whole thing now feels like one of those too-easy (or maybe too difficult) metaphors for the rot in the system. YouTube less an anarchic force and suddenly more like 1962 CBS. Facebook as a supposedly cutting-edge medium that is mostly a vehicle for cat jokes, and has already been meta-within-meta outed by an establishment film about the randomness, disdain, and greed that spawned it. Mindlessly clicking “like.” Our ignorance of Uganda and its people, and a sudden surge of caring at the behest of a video instead of a moral or ethical imperative that transcends a particular warlord or well-edited clip.

But mostly our willingness (preference?) to engage in “selfless” acts that are convenient and unexamined, almost exactly like “supporting the troops” while being basically unaware that we’ve fought two ten-year wars with zero sacrifice from anyone except the troops themselves.

Nothing real has ever happened at the click of a mouse.

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SEAN BEAUDOIN's latest novel is Wise Young Fool. His stories and articles have appeared in numerous publications including the Onion, the San Francisco Chronicle and Spirit, the in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines. www.seanbeaudoin.com.

26 responses to “Why the KONY Guy Meltdown 
Wasn’t Funny”

  1. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Smart, interesting commentary. Thanks for sharing, Sean.

  2. Joe Daly says:

    Thank goodness for a smart, even-handed take on such an emotionally-charged issue.

    I saw thirty Facebook posts to the video before clicking play. The comments were all solemn and weighted with outrage that such a genocidal maniac were permitted to exist, even over there in Africa. Taken alone, you would have thought from the comments that all that shit just started going down last week.

    I thought the video was OK in substance, but wrought with too much frothy emotional appeal for me.

    But the guy’s breakdown really bothered me. This was no smug white guy riffing on his overnight celebrity and basking in the world’s sweet adoration. This was someone’s son, father and husband, breaking down in one of the most god-awful manners possible, right here in San Diego.

    When I lived in downtown Chicago, I was walking home one night and just in front of the Donnelly building, traffic on Dearborn street had stopped and a crowd circled a grey-haired man in a suit, swinging a briefcase and wailing loudly in the middle of the street. Thankfully because this was 1994, there weren’t a hundred cell phones pointing at the poor guy capturing on video what was unquestionably the lowest moment of his life. Who knows what happened to him. He ran off before anyone tried to help him. It shakes me up to this day and that was the first thing that entered my mind when Russell’s breakdown hit social media.

    • I used to think everything was fair game for jokes, no matter how purportedly serious or inappropriate the timing, as long as the joke was actually funny. I guess I still feel that way, but somehow the avalanche of snide irony that comprises the internet makes me not want to defend it that much.

    • A direct Quote From Jason Russell off his twitter Postings ” Never be afraid to film the Crazies. Epic” with that Being said, whats good for the goose is good for the gander..

  3. Greg Olear says:

    Bravo, Sean. Well said.

  4. Hank cherry says:

    I didnt ever feel bad for Russell. Mostly because he was operating on a level of public disdain already, and like you said, a meltdown seemed inevitable. That he was aligned with Liberty University spearheaded by Jerry Falwell, as a featured convocation speaker, and therefore a vehicle of the religious right, did not ahock me. Nor did the videos that surfaced of his musical numbers, or the reorts of Invisible Children’s monetary malfeasance while funding Russell’s artistic ego. And yet, what you say about our need to be scornful weights the issue with a respect that th digital age largely avoids. Why are we so fascinated by rubbernecking?

    Still, Russell being around other children in a role of teacher is as distasteful as the scorn surrounding his breakdown. Well written piece, Sean, but also deeply felt. All hail Scrofula!

  5. Erika Rae says:

    I don’t understand what he was going for with the explanation to his son. One’s own kids should be off limits for anything public. It was just…odd. I feel sorry for the man, though. My feeling is that he’s a product of the Facebook gen, where limits and boundaries are hazy and praise or “likes” go straight to the vein. Man OD’ed on it.

  6. Zara Potts says:

    Oh dear. Oh dear.
    I felt so bad when I read about his breakdown because I guffawed (Yes, I did. I GUFFAWED) when I read the headline.
    I was one of those who linked to his video on FB – not because I necessary liked the style of it (in fact I was a little uncomfortable with the shining , smiling, nicely turned out rallying youth, not to mention the lecture to the five year old) but because I felt that there was no harm in the broader message of getting the facts out to the world. Let’s face it – the majority of the western world are not going to know about situations like this unless it’s presented in an easily digestible, YouTube link. I may be naive, but there’s a large part of me that sees that as a good thing – no matter how flawed the message or the makers of the message.
    But thank you for this. It’s a great piece and you said everything that needed to be said.

  7. Don Mitchell says:

    Well done, Sean, especially “Our ignorance of Uganda and its people, and a sudden surge of caring at the behest of a video instead of a moral or ethical imperative that transcends a particular warlord or well-edited clip.”

    A couple of weeks ago I was casually with some young people (twenty-somethings) who had seen the film and were talking about it, before we got started doing what we were there to do. I said that I’d been around child soldiers a little bit (the ones I met were teens though) and thought they might want to know something about it from me. But they didn’t, not at all.

    I’ve been chewing on this. It’s not because I think everybody wants to talk to me. It’s that it was a hot topic, and here standing next to them was a guy who had met some very young irregulars and talked to them, but that didn’t interest them.

    I think you’re onto something with “convenient and unexamined,” which I think for my young acquaintances meant “topic all wrapped up into a neat whole . . . who needs more?” To them, I suspect, the Kony video laid it all out. Nothing more needed. “Like” it and get on with your life.

    It seems to be the way we’re doing things these days. Thanks for the reminder to think about it.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Don. It’s happened to me numerous times as well. “Hey, you guys dig_____? You want to know where it comes from or what it’s about? No? Oh, okay.”

  8. Well said, Sean. I enjoy FB for what it is but thinking too much about it makes me depressed. The click of a button thing is right. The world seems to change in an instant but doesn’t.

    • Thinking too much makes me depressed, too. There’s an old Kurt Vonnegut short story where people have cones strapped to their ears that other people shout into every once in a while to keep them from considering anything too deeply. Could find a niche market…

  9. Becky Palapala says:

    I want it to be performance art or something. Like, I want for it to all be premeditated–some grim commentary on the trage/comedy of social networking and internet virulence.

    Sadly, I think it is probably not performance art. At least not voluntary performance art.

    The internet and people’s relationship with it are so much caricatures of themselves that the reality is all but indistinguishable from satire.

    • The original video definitely felt that way as I watched it, especially out of context. Post-post modern. At least conceivably. An earnestness so pure it was either a truly rare thing or a premeditated display. Even after I saw it mentioned on the cover of the NY Times I still wasn’t convinced that there wasn’t a big Frey-style reveal coming.

  10. Because it didn’t get any play in European media from what I saw and because I deliberately overlook forwarded videos pertaining to causes (to a fault), I only heard about this original story after the second one hit. It took the headline “filmmaker publicly masturbating” for me to even read up on the Kony story.

    So I’m glad to see you addressing the whole ludicrous cycle with perspective and insight. I can’t help but think that my shuffling of the two news items is typical. The way current events are digested, as a smorgasbord of flavor-canceling snacks, I’m amazed any of us our informed of anything.

    • I think it’s actually much to your benefit to be exposed in reverse, Nat. Preferably three weeks after the fact, when everyone else has already moved on to the next feel good or outrage. Just another excellent reason to move to France.

  11. Thanks for this, Sean. Two things I will never laugh at: the death of another human being; and someone’s mental breakdown.

  12. Gloria says:

    I’m really glad you wrote this. I avoided the whole KONY thing, too, though it was in my feed plenty. And as far as public meltdowns go, no matter who it is, it always makes me uncomfortable when they get massive media attention. We are what is causing the breakdown. We’re an awful lot, humans.

  13. Well said, Sean. For the life of this story, I seem to keep hearing the backlash before the actual news. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch either of the videos.

    It’s nice to read something thoughtful and balanced on it.

  14. SAA says:

    This is why I literally hate everything.

  15. Volker Janssen says:

    We discussed the matter as part of the unit I am actually studying at Open University Australia: Internet Communities and Social Networks. I wrote this prior to Jason Russel’s Meltdown (11 March 2012). However, serious questions were already asked by the media, putting Russel under pressure.

    “As this is a US American video production, views are taken from a US American position. US American congress men are addressed and US American artists are asked to support the cause. But the video is expected to raise attention around the world, which it will with those who speak English in the rest of the earth’s nations.
    What makes the video so interesting is that it demonstrates the power of the people. It raises awareness and it also shows that you can sell stuff like “awareness boxes” that brand you as someone who stands behind a cause. But I am sceptical about the impact it will have in central Africa to make Joseph Kony famous in the English speaking western world.
    One thing that keeps bothering me is the list shown in the video that is claimed to be the top rankings of those who have been issued with arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in LeHague. While Kony is #1, #2 is Vincent Otti who is supposed to be dead since January 2008. Otti was also a member of the LRA.
    In a Reuters video, Jason Russell answers a couple of critic questions and Ugandan residents are interviewed about their perspective on the issue. One claims, “they’ve turned our problems into their business.”
    Also, it is revealed that Josef Kony has fled Uganda years ago and is now operating in Kongo.
    Another interesting opinion can be found in the Nashua Telegraph:
    Maria Burnett, a researcher on Uganda for Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press that the video helped bring notice to an issue the group has been working on for years. “We hope it will be helpful,” she said. “What it leads to remains to be seen, but the goal to bring pressure on key leaders, to protect civilians and to apprehend LRA leadership is important, absolutely.”
    Over all I think this is a great cause to work for. No matter how wrong or right Jason Russell got it. He made the effort to create awareness and the hits on youtube show that people are obviously interested in the cause. How else would it be possible to receive nearly 70,000,000 hits in just a week, fighting for attention with millions of other contributions.”

    I may add, that I also felt awkward about his son being put on display. It was more of a show-off than a contribution to the cause for me.

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