American Idol has been a remarkable success. The show revives the old myth of Pygmalion to chronicle the transformation of ordinary Americans into pop-stars and instant celebrities, a plot-line familiar from a thousand Broadway plays and Hollywood musical comedies. Not content with earning billions of dollars, however, the show’s producers now must assert their social consciences. Like a medieval knight buying masses for his soul after a life of plunder and pillage, the show is now compensating for it riches by raising money for the poor.
Doing something about the starving children of Africa, of course, is now all the fashion with celebrities. It’s no surprise that American Idol is jumping on the media-powered bandwagon that Angela and Oprah and Bono have ridden, picking up free good publicity along the way. So now we are seeing Simon Cowell, the show’s acid-tongued Brit judge, and the metrosexual host Ryan Seacrest journeying to Africa to gawk at the suffering and prick our overfed American consciences. The goal is to get us to contribute money so that “something can be done.”
The first point to make is that the problems of Africa are not about money. According to William Easterly––whose White Man’s Burden all wannabe do-gooders should be forced to read––the West has transferred to the Third World $2.3 trillion in aid over the last fifty years. Yet here we are, being told once again that more money is the solution to the problem. But let’s face it, alleviating the suffering of poor little Africans isn’t really the issue.
For celebrities, waxing moralistic about African suffering is a way to grab some gravitas and compensate for having made fortunes out of the pop-cultural equivalent of Big Macs and Slurpees. It’s also good for asserting moral superiority and putting on display one’s compassion and sensitivity. But there’s a deeper pathology at work here: the way the global media thrives on human suffering, one of its most lucrative commodities. There’s a creepy voyeurism at work here as we watch all this footage of cute hungry children. There’s also the cheap guilt that provides us transient emotional pleasure, one that rarely leads to anything more than dropping another few bucks into the bottomless pit of African cultural, political, and economic dysfunction. And there’s the pleasurable sensation of contemplating our own superior sensitivity. We must be good if we feel so bad.
All this has been said before, most trenchantly by French philosopher Pascal Bruckner. His 1983 Tears of the White Man thoroughly dissected this Western pathology. One of the best chapters, called “Pity, or, The Gushing of the Ghoulish West,” is filled with devastating insights into the moral and intellectual offenses of sentimental Thirld-Worldism. One important point he makes is how the media-stoked obsession with African suffering is dehumanizing, reducing these complex humans to nothing but their misery: “The image we see, therefore, is both a copy and a model of reality. It reflects real events that are presented as the prototypes of all events. This is a double deception, because the camera denies that life ‘over there’ is anything but a long cry of the oppressed. With regard to our far-off brothers, it means that happiness is a pathological symptom. . . . Man in the Third World is either a victim or a warrior, is caught in a logic of martyrdom or warfare, and has no right to exist except as a rebel or as one repressed” (from the translation of William R. Beer, The Free Press, 1986, 78).
The result is that suffering Africans are flattened, diminished, reduced to animal-like suffering, mere objects for our pleasurable pity and compassion––and our own superiority. “Because they are obliged to live off our gifts––what we have thrown away¬¬––they themselves assume the status of trash. . . . Our disdain for the Southern hemisphere is increased as soon as it is encapsulated and summed up in terms of its poverty. The people of these countries will forever be the targets of our generosity, and will not be revealed to us except by their abasement.” Thus the peoples of the Third World “are nothing but an immense army of subhumans, the emanation of an abstract and reassuring idea: Indigenous people are indigent people. In other words, pity becomes a form of hatred when it is the only basis for the image we have of the far-off ‘other’” (79-80, emphases in original).
Bruckner also shrewdly identifies the way that our consumption of Third World suffering reinforces our sense of our privilege and power: “The horror of the Third World, which is confirmed as bestial in nature to us, becomes the shadowy foil we need to feel good about ourselves. Free men need martyrs like this. The movement that designates them as poor is precisely the same one that prevents us from seeing them as human . . . . They are the dregs of the Third World, and they are all the same. We lament their fate in order to detach ourselves from it a little, and the depths are described in order to make us feel more comfortable in our cozy lives. Blaming ourselves serves two ends; it makes life more pleasant and, in the end, does not touch us . . . . We dress in our finery and berate ourselves in a welter of guilt, enjoying our peace while we contemplate those poor souls ground down in the heat and the filth. The shame they inspire makes the boredom of everyday life attractive again” (81-82).
Bruckner’s analysis makes sense of the celebrity- and media-driven spectacle of African suffering. So what should be done? One thing we can do is not give money to any organization until we have investigated what sorts of programs it funds and whether it merely offers stop-gap solutions or has as a goal giving the poor the tools that will help them feed themselves. Organizations that perpetuate the same mistakes of the past fifty years––what Easterly calls “planners”––should be avoided, while those Easterly calls “searchers” should be supported: “In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward. Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints, searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; Searchers find out if the customer is satisfied. . . . A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors.”
In short, those who sincerely desire to improve the lot of the poor should recognize the full humanity of those in need, and not reduce them to suffering mascots of Western sensitivity. They should not see the poor as passive victims waiting for handouts, but rather as people capable of taking responsibility and initiative, and of actively participating in their own improvement. And they should avoid turning Third World suffering into a grotesque spectacle, a sentimental melodrama of Western guilt whose only purpose is to advertise the moral superiority of our pop-culture mayflies.
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