Jason Russell is back in the news. He is the young filmmaker who created the YouTube sensation entitled Kony 2012, a nigh 30 minute piece designed to persuade the American public to accept an American military intervention in Uganda. The purpose of this intervention was explained to be “humanitarian,” a life-saving mission that would be accomplished by killing the one person that makes Uganda so dangerous for African children—Joseph Kony.
Russell’s latest public appearance was, unfortunately for him, caught on video and will be viewed by millions. The display was much less inspiring than Kony 2012. It seems that, at an ocean-side intersection, Russell pulled off his clothes and began beating the ground with his hands. Early reports from the scene have also accused Jason Russell of vandalizing cars and publicly masturbating. After being taken into custody, the young, impassioned filmmaker was taken to a “mental health” facility.
Russell’s boss, Ben Keesey of Invisible Children, has released a statement excusing Jason’s behavior as symptomatic of “exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition.” In light of this explanation, one cannot help but wonder if maybe these same three scourges had previously conflagrated to cause Joseph Kony’s antisocial behavior. Perhaps the entire Central African problem can be alleviated with regular airdrops of soda water, multivitamin tablets, and sleeping pills.
At this time, the only images of the wild events preceding Russell’s arrest is a short, grainy video byte, wherein a naked man can be seen spread legged and bent over on a street corner. The subject beats the ground with both hands before he rises upright, holds his arms manfully to his sides and seems to roar at the ocean that is little more than a stone’s throw from his spot on the curbside.
What struck me about the video was how fevered and primitive James Russell’s gesticulations were. As he beat the pavement, the sound of his limbs slapping the concrete could be heard from the distant vantage of the cameraman.
That there was something inside Jason Russell that he needed to give expression to is undeniable. The question is: What was it?
What affliction was Jason Russell trying to exorcise? And why wasn’t the pain and physical effort enough? Why did the subject’s anguish coerce him into sexual exhibitionism as well? Why would he need to publicly degrade himself?
Now, I’m not a medical professional, and I’m sure that some medical man could come forward and define Russell’s conduct as the symptom of so-and-so syndrome or such-and-such illness. But let’s forgo shrink talk for a moment and consider the strange case of Jason Russell from a lay perspective.
Let us start our investigation by traveling back to when we were both more vulnerable and more resilient. Let us remember childhood. When we were kids, we had parents who sheltered us to some degree. There were things we didn’t get to hear about, TV shows we couldn’t watch, and fairy tale truths we were encouraged to believe.
Our parents didn’t intend that we should never have an adult’s view of the world. They just had us on a schedule where we were supposed to learn the difficult things when we were ready, and presumably, we would be ready as we grew older.
Despite our parent’s vigilance, and despite our own trepidations, sooner or later we ended up getting a dose, usually via entertainment media, of something well beyond our ken. When such a revelatory moment occurred, it could cause distress. For me sex and violence were never a problem but, as a child, I found horror very disturbing.
Perhaps the reader might recollect a similar disturbing moment in their own formative years. The rush of anxiety, coupled with a recurring fixation upon some macabre fate that, beforehand, one had never even known was possible.
As a kid I didn’t know just what it was about horror that bothered me, but I do know now. It was, simply, the seeming incompatibility between joy and horror. In view of torture, murder, or forcible lobotomies (or whatever Hollywood concocted), life could never be happy. It seemed instead like a trap or a prison, a desperate existence requiring strength and constant vigilance.
Bad spells pass, of course. And children are often happy despite their circumstances and the occasional bad dream. And eventually, children become young adults who find new inspirations during adolescence. But despite the transience of bad dreams and emotions, a childlike vulnerability to horror always remains in civilized people. As does a perception, on balance, between good and bad in one’s personal experiences. Life is redeemed and madness interdicted when such a balance is bearable.
This sensitivity to horror is part of the covenant of civilization. Yet the moral code it inspires isn’t universal. The simple fact is that different societies, populated by different peoples, have differing moral mean sensibilities. And so, the respective thresholds that mark the sheer descent into madness are altogether different for different peoples.
The remarkable thing about West and Central Africa is that these thresholds don’t seem to exist at all. In these places, horror is a common phenomenon. It is part of the local milieu, a factor that adds risk, fear, and urgency to individual imperatives like nourishment and fecundity.
Sometimes, the impartial foreign viewer gets a nagging sense that African’s have a perilous imbalance between their cognitive faculties and their endocrine systems. It can seem as if masses of Central and West Africans habitually fall under the thrall of some terrible, ecstatic hormone rush that sets them upon the weak with a desire to rend and taste flesh.
But it is not the impartial viewers who struggle profoundly with African realities. It is the empathetic ones.
As people we learn to moderate our vulnerability to horror and madness by drawing boundaries around ourselves. The more prudently and conservatively we give our love and our faith, the more protected from madness we become. The more liberally we empathize or otherwise identify with strange peoples, the more heartrending their fates or their atrocities become. This is because our litmus for sanity is different than theirs. When we “go native” in Africa, we go mad, because we are not psychologically prepared for the horror that alien humanity manifests.
Jason Russell has, at least momentarily, gone mad. And he has probably been unstable for a long time. Russell’s problem is likely multifold, but central to any pathology the man has is his inability to reconcile reality to his conception of reality. For “Mister Russell,” Africans are Whites who don’t yet have coffee shops or grief counselors because of a few evil men (and, likely, White racism).
To Russell’s eye, Jacob is just one of thousands of ordinary children trapped in hell and tormented by a devil. It is an unbearable vision for the young filmmaker because he views Africans empathetically. But Russell’s is a view askew because Jacob is not White. Jacob is an organic part of a different world. A world that fits him even as it puts him at risk. A world he made before he was born.
It seems that not all White liberals are disingenuous after all. Some, the literally crazy ones, are entirely genuine.