The Blog

Follow the Leader: Jason Russell, Brian, and the Perils of Being the Frontman

From 'The Life of Brian':

Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!

Crowd: [in unison] Yes! We're all individuals!

Brian: You're all different!

Crowd: [in unison] Yes, we are all different!

Man in crowd: I'm not...

Crowd: Shhh!

Invisible Children, the organisation behind the hit video Kony 2012, is set to release a sequel. Kony 2012 Part 2 is due to be released on 3 April, according to a blog posted by the California-based organisation.

Was Brian right to avoid being a frontman?

Even though Invisible Children, the social action group, present themselves as a collective, their video Kony:2012 Part 1 (which gained 100 million YouTube hits and calls for the arrest of LRA leader in Uganda, Joseph Kony) placed a charismatic young man right at the front. The 29 minute video features (you could say 'stars') Jason Russell (33) and his small adorable son. It made them extraordinarily famous.

Ten days later, on March 15th - Jason was hospitalised, diagnosed with brief reactive psychosis after being found naked on a highway in San Diego beating his fists on the ground, 'under suspicion of masturbating', and cursing the devil. A character journey of Biblical proportion.

In the light of this recent, so public, breakdown is there a strong case for saying that one person to be the 'face' of a movement, is likely to end at best in disappointment, and worst tragedy?

Established organisations such as Amnesty, and Marc Dubois, UK Director of Medecins Sans Frontieres, writing on his personal blog, admitted they would love to attract this sort of attention, whilst also pointing out the fallibility of the campaign:

"So why, really, are we aid insiders so bothered? It's the big green monster. Is there another charity whose message has captivated so many so fast?... They don't have any shame, and they don't have doubts. They don't have any hang ups about dreaming. When was the last time any of us from inside the aid cartel conveyed a dream? "- Marc DuBois, UK director of Medecines Sans Frontieres

There is a reason why not many of us can recognise Barbara Stocking, CEO of Oxfam or Marc DuBois, above. Most Aid organisations are wary of putting one person in the front, it makes it about them and it's obviously not supposed to be. Just as it's not supposed to be about George Clooney or Rihanna. However, groups have always done better with a front man. A seven piece instrumental ensemble just doesn't sell as many T-shirts.

Jason Russell's dream is about reaching out to help and save, also - although not made explicit in the Kony film - to redeem through his personal evangelizing Christianity. His confidence, super hero stance and father-like compassion have a Messianic feel, and worked in a miraculous way.

People signed up in droves, full of emotion, donating time, money and moral allegiance. But as is the nature of 'dream', Jason's call to action was not very well researched, and his words started to come under intense international scrutiny. Although online he light heartedly refuted 'the haters', his wife later issued a statement about what led to his unfortunate breakdown:

"We thought a few thousand people would see the film, but in less than a week, millions of people around the world saw it. While that attention was great for raising awareness about Joseph Kony, it also brought a lot of attention to Jason ... and, because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard."

The perils of leadership were demonstrated - the very elements that led to Jason's downfall were also crucial to his success: over-simplification of a message. Just as Brian found, the less he said, the more people wanted to listen. Ultimately Jason couldn't have it both ways - to be the charismatic leader also meant facing questions, and no one had to look far to find Invisible Children's definite 'Life of Brian' qualities:

Charlie Brooker's excellent indictment focuses on the 250 other films made by IC including this one about their movement 'The Fourth Estate', which seems like Monty Python and involves a re-enactment of the French Revolution narrated in a cod English accent.

Jason Russell has a background in Christian Musical Theatre. This alarming video shows him in a boy band singing, dancing and ripping open his T-shirt to reveal the face of a haunted Ugandan child.

We might ask what better background could he have to appeal to teenage children of Republican families in middle America? IC tweeted on March 23rd : "We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. - Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire."

Jason is at the heart of just so many mixed messages, such as this image of the three Zoolander-esque IC executives holding guns, which they claim they cannot abide.

Some feel Russell has faced a great injustice, and the lack of compassion the world has shown him has made him a victim of serious stress:

"Events like this -- spells of altered mental status accompanied by odd, violent, or lewd behaviors and incoherent or illogical speech -- occur with startling frequency in the general population, though rarely to a public figure while in the midst of navigating one of the most successful publicity campaigns ever seen while simultaneously defending himself and his organization from an onslaught of armchair criticism." - Ford Vox, The Atlantic, brain injury physician

"This is the other lesson of Kony 2012. Invisible Children have shown us the almost limitless, instant -- and by that I mean wondrous -- potential for engaging the world that our new media tools allow. But Invisible Children has also shown us the price we have to expect to pay for that: an almost limitless, instant -- and by that I mean thoughtless -- response. It's been enough, apparently, to break Russell, someone whose intent, whatever you thought of his methods, was merely to shine a light on one of the world's more forgotten, and nastiest, conflicts. Will anyone be brave enough to try to do the same again?" Time Blog

But - Is Jason Russell 'merely trying to shine a light...' ? Aspects of his campaign, are undeniably about him. He made it about him. His wife's quote is telling; he made it personal.

The question is: Was making it personal 1) ONLY to convey the message more urgently or 2) ALSO to make sure we all know how much Jason Russell cares and how committed he is?

Of course you could argue that 2 reinforces 1 - putting personal pressure on each one of us, giving us someone to follow, so we can emulate them and they can make us feel guilty and then offer us ways of assuaging our guilt. If so are we back to a very Christian message? Or is it just Religious full stop?

An Interview with JASON RUSSELL, March 2011

1: Who am I?

I am a rebel soul: dream evangelist. I am obsessed with people. I tell stories by making inspiring movies that move people's emotions, and then I take those emotions and transform them into action. My middle name is Radical.

3: Where are you from and where are you going?

I am from San Diego California with an upbringing in musical theater. I am going to help end the longest running war in Africa, get Joseph Kony arrested & redefine international justice. Then I am going to direct a Hollywood musical. Then I am going to study theology & literature in Oxford, England, and then move to New York to start "The Academy" - which will be a school where the best creative young minds in the world attend.

4: Who is your biggest hero?

If Oprah, Steven Spielberg and Bono had a baby, I would be that baby.

Jason still has a devout following, glorifying and cherishing him:

Emma Conyngham on the IC Blog writes:

March 16, 2012 at 5:33 pm

I am not surprised this incident happened after all the criticism and vitriol you guys have had to shoulder. It is heartbreaking... so much so that from 3am-6am last night (New Zealand time) I was totally unable to sleep and felt burdened to pray for you all; I had a sense the cracks may be beginning to rage open. I am the last person get all spiritual; I'm cynical to the bitter end but I truly believe you guys have taken on the powers of hell in Joseph Kony and they are fighting back. This is bigger than you. Go and rest and get better.

It is the film going viral on the internet that created this "charismatic leader". In the case of leaders of the people in the past such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King, they had to work for years and interact personally, argue in depth, practise what they preached in the places and to the people where the changes needed to happen. Like them, their followers had to attend meetings in person, take personal risks. Is it easy, and risking being meaningless, to just click 'like' when your emotions are tugged over a faraway cause and there is no danger of having to put your body even romotely on the line? Or is it ideal that people can express how they feel about issues without having to give up huge tracts of their lives - their views can be taken into account even though they're just ordinary people who don't have time/opportunity to give themselves to a cause. That's the nature of internet activism - is it a good or a bad thing? The online petitions, 38 degrees, Avaaz - leave difficulty in judging the strength of people's feelings, their actual commitment. In terms of leadership it is more weighted because it is more dangerous to be able to become the 'leader' of literally millions of people over the course of literally a few days (but loyalty may wane quicker too).

Perhaps one of the best outcomes of the saga has been the focus on so many small leaders and experts in their field, the interviews with Medecins sans Frontieres, Ugandan politicians, experts on children involved in violence. Not 'stars' or 'leaders' but academics, researchers, aid workers and anthropologists. A middle ground with new visibility, not a worshipped star but a net of opinion - far more enduring and useful.

We may wonder when Jason's resurrection will come? Or, If not Invisible Children then the next social media sensation, and what their strike of lightning will bring. But for Brian, he just wants the quiet life:

Brian: I am NOT the Messiah!

Arthur: I say you are Lord, and I should know. I've followed a few.

Brian: ...Will you please listen? I'm not the Messiah! Do you understand? Honestly!

Woman: Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!

Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right, I am the Messiah!

Crowd: He is! He is the Messiah!

Brian: Now, fuck off!


Arthur: How shall we fuck off, oh Lord?

Brian: Oh, just go away! Leave me alone!

Quotes on leadership:

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

Nelson Mandela

A leader is one who, out of madness or goodness, volunteers to take upon himself the woe of the people. There are few men so foolish, hence the erratic quality of leadership in the world.

John Updike

People want to listen to a message, word from Jah. This could be passed through me or anybody. I am not a leader. Messenger. The words of the songs, not the person, is what attracts people.

Bob Marley

The real leader has no need to lead - he is content to point the way.

Henry Miller

If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.

Mahatma Gandhi

I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

But for my faith in God, I should have been a raving maniac.

Mahatma Gandhi