Leanpub Podcast Interview #6: Amanda Taub
published May 17, 2012
This interview was recorded on May 7, 2012.
Peter Armstrong: I’m here with Amanda Taub who is a lawyer who teaches International Law and Human Rights and Fordham University. She blogs at wrongingrights.com. She’s also the editor of the Leanpub book Beyond Kony2012, which has been recently excerpted in The Atlantic. We’re going to talk today about Amanda’s blogging, about Kony2012, and about her book Beyond Kony2012, about her experiences as a writer, and about her experiences using the Lean Publishing approach on Leanpub.
So, Amanda, thank you again for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.
Amanda Taub: Thank you for having me, I’m happy to be here.
A: First of all, I’d like to say that I really like the titles of your writing. I think one of my favourites is “Solving War Crimes With Wristbands”. Do you have a favourite title out of everything you’ve ever written?
T: You know, I’m honestly not sure if I have a favourite title. Choosing titles is one of the hardest aspects of writing for me. I never have managed to do all of the things that you’re supposed to do with blog post titles, in terms of key words and SEO, so I usually end up with really esoteric things. But the “Solving War Crimes With Wristbands” one was actually not something I can take credit for. Max Fisher, who is the international editor at The Atlantic came up with that one, and I think he did a great job.
A: Let’s talk about your blog. So you started your blog “Wronging Rights” at wrongingrights.com with Kate Cronin-Furman in 2008. How did that come about?
T: So, Kate and I have been best friends since we were very young; we met in high school. And she and I were both working at big law firms in New York City and, as you’ve probably heard, the life of a junior law firm associate can be difficult at times, and both of us had a real interest in human rights work. So, we started this blog as a way to have an outlet for our interests, and a way to kind of stay involved in that field, even though we were both doing more general litigation work. And it’s been a wonderful experience, it really grew from there.
A: Cool. The tagline for it is “Very Serious Commentary on Very Important Issues”. Obviously rights issues are very important, but I take it from the Winnie the Pooh-style capitalization and the content that you’re not too impressed with the role in the media and its typical level of commentary.
T: I think that’s probably fair to say. The very “Very Serious Commentary on Very Important Issues” was definitely tongue in cheek. We tend to take a fairly kind of humorous, sarcastic approach to the mass atrocities and other terrible things that we write about, as a way to try to avoid getting involved, getting bogged down in the sentimentality that is really easy to get lost in when you’re writing about things that are that terrible and that serious.
A: Right. You’ve also recently written a few blog posts about Kony2012, including my favourite, ‘The Definitive Kony2012 Drinking Game”, as well as a couple articles for The Atlantic, and then the Boyond Kony2012 Leanpub book. Can you take me through that series of events?
T: Sure. We had actually been writing about Invisible Children for several years. The Kony2012 video that they put out was not the first thing that they’ve done on this, they’ve been working on this issue for many years. And they’ve always taken a kind of simplified, almost pop culture-based approach to the awareness-raising and the advocacy campaigns that they’ve done, and Kate, my co-blogger and I, have always had some pretty significant concerns about that. So, when the Kony2012 video came out and became so viral so quickly, the critique of Invisible Children also went viral. So the first thing that happened was that a really old post of ours from, I think, early 2009, suddenly got more hits than almost the entire rest of the blog combined in the last year, and it happened to have gotten picked up by a couple of the sites that were doing kind of ground zero for the critique of the video, and just kind of spread from there.
A: Was that the one with the picture, with the people…?
T: Exactly. So that was a photograph taken by our friend Glenna Gordon, who’s a very talented photojournalist, and it just shows how this kind of thing is driven by media and events. She took this photo of the three Invisible Children founders posing with guns they had borrowed from South Sudanese rebels at the Juba peace talks, and no news organizations were interested in it at all, because Invisible Children wasn’t really in the news at the time, and so she ended up letting us publish it on our blog. And then, years later, the post went viral, the photo went viral, and it all of a sudden was everywhere. So, that happened, then we followed that up with our drinking game post, because you know, God forbid we be substantive, but we tried to use the drinking game as a sort of humorous way to point out some of the issues that we had with this video, in terms of who was allowed to speak, who was treated as having agency, namely the kind of young, attractive white people from San Diego. And then contrast that with the portrayal of Africans, particularly Ugandans, who… the only Africans portrayed in the video were of course the rebels themselves who were demonized, and pretty rightly so, and then this young boy, Jacob, in some footage from many years ago, when he was still a chiid, discussing his own experiences as a former child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army, and what had happened to his brother. But even that conversation didn’t put his experiences at the center, it was really about Jason Russell, the Invisible Children founder who made the video, and his sort of heroism. So he, it was about him making this promise to this child, and you know promising that they were going to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army and save the children, and he was literally interrupting this child as he was trying to tell his story. So, the drinking game was designed to draw attention to some of those things in a somewhat fun way. We definitely didn’t intend it to be an acual drinking game! I don’t think a human being could survive all of the things that we suggested.
A: So then, from there, what led you to the Beyond Kony2012 book and also the articles in The Atlantic, how did that come about?
T: So, the Atlantic articles developed pretty organically, we had been in touch with Max Fisher in the past, he’d kind of emailed us in the past for our perspective on some other things, but we’d never written anything for him, and he emailed us and said he’d seen the drinking game post, and would we like to write something for The Atlantic that didn’t involve quite so many swear words and dangerous activities. And we said of course, because we think that’s a great publication. And so we did that, and then we were also getting at the same time a lot of media requests, a lot of people were asking us to go on radio shows, podcasts, TV shows, and we realized that we were over and over saying the problem here is a lack of context, a lack of nuance, this is giving an oversimplified version of this conflict in a way that’s actually harmful to policy and the attempts to achieve a resolution to the conflict. But there wasn’t a resource out there to improve that situation. The information wasn’t really available in a packaged way that was accessible to people who didn’t have a background in African Studies or Political Science or something of that nature. And so I just decided to put one together. I reached out to some of the other people who were commentating on the video, and asked each of them to submit a brief essay grounded in their own kind of experience and expertise, and we put it together in about a month and then released it to coincide with Invisible Children’s “Cover the Night” poster day on April 20th.
A: And what made you choose Leanpub for the book, and how did you discover Leanpub?
T: So, you guys had been on my radar for a while, I’d actually bought a couple of your books I think. And I think the first place I saw you was through the Venture Hacks website, although that wasn’t actually a book I ended up buying, and I just thought your model was really great and it seemed like it would be a really good fit for the book that I was putting together. Because we were putting it together so quickly, I knew there was a chance that not everyone would have their essay done by the time that I was going to release it, so I really liked that you had the option of kind of adding and changing the content over time, even after the book had been published. I also really liked your flexible pricing option.
T: I wanted this book to be accessible to as many people as possible. Obviously there were some costs in putting it together, both in terms of things like time and licensing photographs. And so I wanted to be able to charge for it, but I didn’t want the cost to be a barrier to anyone who wasn’t in a position to pay, and so I liked that I could make it donation-only by setting the minimum price to zero.
A: Right, so your book has a free minimum price, and it’s suggested price is $2.99, and it’s been out for a few weeks, you’ve got hundreds of readers and earned some money, some people are paying more than the suggested price - are you happy with the results so far?
T: I’m really happy. You know, I had set myself a pretty modest goal for this because I wasn’t sure what the readership would be like, I wasn’t sure how popular a topic this would be, it wasn’t clear whether people would still be interested in the Lord’s Resistance Army and this conflict after the hubbub around Invisible Children died down - especially because the narrative there started to spin off in a different direction once Jason Russell had his nervous breakdown. Which was very sad, but also not in any way related to what the book was about. And so I wasn’t sure how much of a readerhip there would be, and it’s really exceeded my expectations. We’ve just been marketing it through my blog and some of the other authors’ blogs and Twitter, and I think that as of today we have something like 750 downloads, which I’m really happy about, that’s really kind of exceeded my expectations for only a couple of weeks. My hope is that we can make this more of a classroom tool. I’m still expecting a couple more chapters to come in, but once that’s done, I’m going to put together a teacher’s guide, and hopefully that’s something that teachers can use in their classroom if they want to cover this topic.
A: Excellent. So, you’ve already gotten a lot of feedback about your blog posts. Have you gotten much feedback from readers of the Beyond Kony2012 book?
T: Not as much as I expected. I have gotten some. It’s mostly been very positive. A couple of more critical responses, but those have been made in person, from activists who I already knew, who read the book and felt that we hadn’t fully seen their perspective, or something along those lines. But it’s been really great to have it open up that kind of dialogue. And yeah, I think that so far people seem to be enjoying it. It was the first ebook I’d ever written, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
A: …In terms of the community aspect, would you want us to try to do more to enable community around your book, or do you think that the blog fills that role adequately for you?
T: I think that the blog and Twitter fill that role pretty well. I feel like I already have that platorm available to people, and I’ve made sure to put up a couple of posts on the blog so that people could comment in the comment section of those posts if they had something that they wanted to say. And same with Twitter, I’ve been happy to engage with people on Twitter, and definitely some of the other authors have as well.
T: And so I honestly think that you guys would have a difficult time matching that, especially for a book with multiple authors.
A: Yeah, we’re not trying to be Twitter. Twitter does a pretty good job of being Twitter. In terms of how we could make Leanpub better for you as an author, is there anything that you wish we could improve or fix to improve your experince getting started as a writer on Leanpub? I know it’s kind of rough sometimes.
T: You know, honestly you guys really exceeded my expectations. I had set aside an entire day to do the formatting on these posts, and I think it only ended up taking me like an hour and a half.
T: So, you know, that was great. I always assumed that, you know, especially doing something for the first time, I always assumed that things would go wrong and it would be really complicated and difficult, and it was fine, I think I encountered one minor technical problem, and I emailed you guys, and I got a response in I think five minutes, and it was three in the morning, so that was amazing, that was great. And, yeah, it was very easy. I had used Markdown before, so that probably helped, but it’s very easy.
A: Did the other authors, did you import… did they write in Markdown, or did they write in HTML and you converted it, or how did it work?
T: They just sent me text files and I did the formatting myself. People were submitting things from all over the world via various word processing and rich text formats, and so it seemed like it was going to be easiest for me to just say, I’ll deal with it, rather than them dealing with the process of them formatting and me checking it.
A: That makes sense.
T: Yeah, you guys made it so easy that that was fine. I think there are maybe a couple of small things that maybe would make it a little, you know could be fun, like I used the heading format, I put the authors’ names as a second-level heading so that they would show up in the table of contents…
T: …which I think you know if you’d had some way to make that slightly more automatic for multiple-authored books, that would be great.
A: That makes sense. I never thought about that. This is nice for us, because other than, we did a project, the Uncensored project, ourselves, about a month or so, more than a month ago now, but other than that we haven’t had many books following your model of one editor and multiple contributors, so we haven’t really put much thought into the formatting, but I know what you mean. I ended up making a cover page with a whole bunch of author names, like a cover image, so we should actually think about that, you’re right.
Um, are you still fine with time? I know we got started late.
T: This is fine.
A: So, let’s talk about more about the Kony2012 and Beyond Kony2012. Who should read Beyond Kony2012? Who’s your ideal reader?
T: This book was written for people who had watched the video and wanted to learn more, and didn’t know where to start. So it’s designed for lay readers, you don’t have to have any background in anything to do with the conflict or political science, anything like that to be able to get a lot our of this book. The authors all consciously avoided things like jargon and acronyms and made sure to explain everything pretty clearly. I think it would be great for the casual reader who’s seen the video and wants to learn more about it. Also I’d love it if it was used in classrooms. I’ve been contacted by a few different teachers to ask if I think it would be appropriate for high school students, and I think the answer is yes. Especially given that they were essentially the initial targets of the Invisible Children marketing campaign, I think they’re exactly who should be learning more about it. And yeah I think it’s just a kind of great background tool for people who are interested in learning more about this specfically, or interested in thinking more about advocacy, and how we can ethically put together good advocacy campaigns, ethically use awareness campaigns to approach the issue of massive human rights violations that are happening outside of our own countries - which I think is something that we need to pay attention to more, now that that kind of activism is becoming so much easier.
A: Yeah, with the Internet. One reaction I had, in terms of the video and then the book, and the commentary, from my perspective, I think there are many flaws with Invisible Children, and the video, and people’s reactions to it, I’ve kind of seen it as kind of the Twilight or the Hunger Games of advocacy. Well, it’s terrible to reference The Hunger Games, but -
T: I loved The Hunger Games, I have to say. Maybe it’s the Twilight.
A: OK, maybe it’s the Twilight of advocacy. So, my question though is, despite all that, do you think the world is better off for the video having been done, the way that it was done, even given the way it was done etc., do you think the world’s better off for the video having been done and gone viral the way it did? With everything that was involved with it?
T: You know, honestly, I don’t think so. I think that, I would love to be able to say yes, and I think that there’s a real urge to say, “Well, people got this small amount of informaiton and it’s better than nothing.” But I actually disagree with that. I think that this wasn’t just information; this was a very specifically targeted campaign designed to provoke a political response, and to do so in what I think was a pretty irresponsible way. They were putting out this narrative which had a very, to say the least extremely narrow view of what was actually going on there. I think you could make an argument that it was actively misleading. And it’s designed to provoke a US government response. I think that you have to have a responsible attitude towards using power in that way. They’re asking for military intervention in a long-running regional conflict in a very unstable part of the world, and I don’t think they were really that honest about the potential consequences of that. Who we would be working with, what that type of military intervention necessarily looks like. When you say, Kony needs to be apprehended, what you’re really saying is you need to send an army to surround him and his army of people who were unwilling combatants, who have been forced into combat, and have a battle with them. And frankly that is in many ways the best-case scenario, because it’s not clear that you’ll even be able to track them in the area of the world where they operate. It’s very likely that that kind of military operation will provoke serious reprisals against civilians; in the past that’s exactly what has happened. And I think that the video doesn’t take responsibility for any of those outcomes. It doesn’t even hint that they’re a possibility. And I’m not really sure that that is ethical or fair, either to the people who will suffer the consequences, if that indeed does happen, or to the supporters who watch the video and are told only about the potential positive outcomes of their actions, and not about the potential negative ones. I’m not really sure that it’s fair to kind of include people in something like that, without really giving them an understanding of what you’re asking them to do.
A: Hmm. So, another idea I’d like to talk about is the idea of standing, because that’s an interesting idea, and the idea of armchair critics. So you’ve discussed the notion that people who criticize the video have been unfairly attacked as armchair critics, which is an ad hominem attack, and then the flip side though is that people for the video are also in their armchairs. And so you’re saying that’s hypocritical, right?
T: I think I had two concerns with the “armchair critic” criticism that was bandied about here. The first one was that the vast majority of people who are criticizing this video were not armchair anything. They were people who have been working in this region of the world, in many cases actually working on peace negotiations with the Lord’s Resistance Army, people had devoted significant portions of their career to trying to end this conflict, and to call them armchair critics, as compared to the people from Invisible Children, who have also been actively working to end this conflict - I think, to me, that indicated that by “armchair critic” they didn’t really mean, “We don’t think you’re doing anything,” they meant, “We want to listen to the person who is most like us and has made a heroic sacrifice.” So, these kind of young kids from Invisible Children who went off to Africa and promised to be heroes, and made this film, it’s a great heroic narrative, especially because they did have the option of just staying in the US, and leading a comfortable life, and just going to law school, like me. And instead they decided to found this NGO and devote their careers to ending this conflict. And, I think that if we focus too much on those people, and say that only people who have made those types of heroic sacrifices get to speak about an issue, then you end up really narrowing the field of who is allowed to talk, because that means you don’t listen to people who are from the region, who didn’t make the heroic sacrifices because they’re just living it, that’s just they’re lives, you don’t listen to the people who work in a quieter way, who are academics or government negotiators working on peace agreements or things like that, people who don’t place themselves at the center of the narrative, and don’t kind of trumpet their own experience in that way. And I think that that’s really unfortunate. So that was one big concern with the “armchair critics” narrative, is whose voice are you shutting down by making that criticism. And then, my second one, was just to say, look, this whole campaign is about getting people who are not professionals involved in this activism. You know, people call it clicktivism or slacktivism, and I actually don’t buy into that. I have no problem with Internet-based advocacy, I think it’s tremendously powerful, and very democratic, and I think that’s wonderful. But I think that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that we want to have this democratic movement, of people who watch the video and tweet at celebrities and sign online letters to Congress, but don’t need to have any specific professional expertise, but then insist that they’re only allowed to do that if they follow this specfic expert who’s been designated on the basis of their heroic experiences. You either get to have a democratic dialogue where everyone can legitimately speak, or not.
A: Right. But, regarding that, you wouldn’t say that we should reflexively dismiss things just because the protagonist of it is, say, a blonde-haired person from San Diego, also - they have standing as well, they just don’t have any extra standing?
T: I think that’s right. I have talked with many of the people that work with Invisible Children; their hearts ar efirmly in the right place, many of them have made very signifcant personal sacrifices, including one of their staff members who was actually killed in a terrorist attack several years ago, while in Uganda working on their program. And so I don’t doubt their commitment to this, and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to be reflexively dismissed for any reason…
T: …but I think that it’s important to have that attitude, rather than the flip side, which is, because of their dedication, because of their sacrifice, they get more standing to speak. That’s not something I buy into. I think that all the experience in the world won’t make you right if you’re wrong.
A: Do you think, not in terms of your reacion, but in terms of some of the critical reaction - I think, some of the critical reaction, to me, reminds me of, when I learned that the most highlighted Kindle passage of all time, was “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them”. Which is from a Hunger Games book. I was like, really? This is the most popular thing every highlighted on a Kindle, ever? So do you think that some of the backlash is kind of about, maybe either jealousy, or like, kind of thinking about, of all the causes and all the videos in the whole world, that could have ever blown up this way, that this is the one that did? Do you think that there’s an aspect of sort of resentment or jealousy toward, the, not the overnight success because they’ve been at it a long time, but about of how this came about?
T: You know, I honestly don’t think so. Because most of the people who have been making this critique are in the same position as my blog was in, which is, they’ve been making it for years, and the critique didn’t get any attention until the video got this much attention.
T: But that’s the only thing that has changed.
A: Oh, OK.
T: I think it’s just that both things suddenly became more high profile. And in that sense, I think that it’s been a really good thing, I think it has opened up the debate about this kind of advocacy from being something that happened only inside a certain sub-section of the aid and human rights community, and opened it up to being something that included more people, included more mainstream commentators, included more people who were sharing critiques on Facebook and Tumblr, and I think that is wonderful.
A: But for something to get mainstream it’s got to get dumbed-down though, right? Like everything mainstream gets dumbed down.
T: And that’s true. And there are a lot of people, I think Nick Kristof is probably the most notable champion of the idea that making something mainstream is itself important enough to make it worth dumbing down. And I don’t agree. Because I think that you can simplify things in a responsible way, but past a point it becomes irresonsible. You’re leaving out important information, and if you’re asking people to make a decision based on that information, especially a decision about something as important as the use of military force, which is, you know, a super big deal, there’s a minimum amount of information that I think people need to have to make a responsible decision about that. And if you are the person who is putting out the narrative, asking them to make that decision, and actively dumbing it down, actively simplifying it beyond the point where they can make an informed decision, then I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do. And that’s a losing battle for me to fight…
A: You’re an amazing optimist.
T: I am an amazing optimist.
A: So you think that I can make a viral video that wasn’t oversimplified?
T: No, I’m saying that if you have a choice to make between your video going viral in an oversimplified way, and a video that doesn’t go viral and maybe doesn’t have the policy impact that you would hope it would, but is more responsible, I’m saying I think the right thing to do is choose the second one.
A: Ah, OK. So it’s like a Utilitarianism versus Kant kind of thing. That’s interesting.
T: Yeah, you know I think there’s this idea out there that awareness is in and of itself so powerful, and has some sort of magical ability to end mass atrocities, that making a viral video is in and of itself a legitimate goal, no matter, kind of, what needs to be sacrificed along the way - and I just really question that. You know, I think that it is - no, frankly nobody is totally clear on how that’s supposed to work! But really the general theory is that you build up enough pressure among people in America and other Western countries to put pressure on our own governments to then put pressure on the governments of the places where this is happening, or do things like send troops to assist in a military intervention, or something like that. And I just really question whether that’s the right thing to do. You know, by placing ourselves at the center of the narrative, especially in the policy decision, it really changes the incentives for what types of policies are suggested and pursued. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a video like that gets a lot of traction for something like, capture him and send him to be put on trial at the ICC, whereas the people from the region of Central Africa where this army actually operates, there is dramatically less support for a military intervention; partly because they don’t trust the militaries in question, for good reason. They themselves have committed really terrible human rights abuses. And partly because it’s their own brothers and sons and daughters who have been kidnapped by this rebel organization, and they know that a military solution means that a lot of those kids are going to get killed. And so there’s much more support for a negotiated peace that would allow the lower-level soldiers to return home to their families, and that’s completely missing from this type of narrative. And I think a big reason why is that if you want something to go viral, you need your single call to action. It’s true whether you’re running an advertising campaign or a viral video advocacy campaign, and it’s hard to shape a call to action for high schoolers sitting in the United States that centers around a negotiated peace in a different country involving several different nations in the region. I’m not even sure what that would say.
A: Right, yeah, well that makes sense. Well, Amanda, this was very interesting for me!
A: I think that given this, and then the couple attempts we had getting started, I think I’ve probably taken up enough of your Monday. So thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast and for being a Leanpub author.
T: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great to talk to you.