"Keep donating, please!" said Mariah Carey, after
finishing her song. "The lines will remain open," said the host of American
Idol, Ryan Seacrest, as he signed off.
You must have seen it aired last week, or maybe you heard it
reported on FOX 'News,' or may have even been IMed or texted about it. Yes, the
topic at hand is that most moving event of the century, the all-special edition
of American Idol Gives Back.
The enthusiasm was high. So high that you would have been
excused if you fell into the mental abyss of forgetfulness and stopped thinking
about all the war making, the looting, the pillage and the rape going on, both
here at home and right through the other side of the planet.
It was a night of enormous delight for the producers, the
technical and artistic staff and all the celebrities who donated their time and
talent to persuade the public to 'give back.' The proceeds came from the
members of the generous public, from rich individuals and modestly well-off
alike, as well as from neighborhood-friendly corporations such as Exxon-Mobil,
and even the government of Gordon Brown (those across-the-Atlantic repressed,
lesser imperialist cousins), who announced, with marble-in-mouth kind of
delivery, that his government would donate to the tune of $200 million.
So, yes, American Idol was giving back. But, of
course, they weren't.
First and least of all, American Idol was not giving
back anything, besides the enormously heavy air of self-congratulations. The
people giving back were the public --
manipulated by on-location clips and pictures of tearful, pitiful-rendered
looking black and brown children, women and men.
Second, this giving public will be reaching into their
pockets to give to some organization, whose overhead budget (the portion not
reaching the children) is unknown. The portion that will reach the actually
existing tearful kids paraded on TV is, for all we know, mostly still
hypothetical; you can bet the bookkeepers will get their share before any of
those barefoot kids will theirs.
But all of that is at best, in my opinion, insignificant
compared to the main point.
The main point is that
the problem with such self-entertainment of the most manipulative type is how
it decontextualizes a very complex problem, which, in truth, must be phrased
as, How Africa and Asia were looted and how the First World must pay
Instead, in the world existing in the overlap between the
culture industry and the NGO industry, the issue is packaged as 'poverty' in
the abstract; poverty that has happened as a result of some inexplicable
misfortune, amplified by irrational violence and of course local corruption;
and, hey, anyway . . . since we can't change anything over there, let's at
least reach out with a helping hand to those we can.
Now, it must be said that I have never had, nor will I ever
have, any delusional expectations that American Idol Gives Back (or any
other organization with similar inclinations, such as One, or Bono's gig) would
provide us with a deep-structure critique of the roots of the issue of poverty
within a philosophical perspective, enumerating the mediations separating
surface appearances from the essence or the notion of the phenomenon. The only
thing I expectantly dream about, however, is at least a little less hypocrisy
and more respect; but I should know better of course. When watching TV,
expecting respect is, to paraphrase from Mr. Z, a sucker's hope.
Posing the topic in the frames available to
NGO-culture-industry is, of course, very convenient, since it puts the lion's
share of the problem 'over there,' and diverts the attention from where the
real responsibility and source of the problem lies, which is right here.
In repeated pleas packaged in on-location 'reports' from
different African countries during the program, as the good-at-heart, mostly
white people were acting patronizingly with the 'locals,' doling out pity by
the bucketfuls (queue in Chuck D: "Suckers, liars; get me a shovel!"),
the audience was begged to do something that mattered, do something that could
make a real change: give! Give back what you can!
'Giving' is of course a decent size industry in the First
World, keeping herds of grazing NGO functionaries happily employed, we are to
be sure. But, for the most part, it is a self-serving industry. Those better
informed can furnish exact figures, but I remember reading that a good 60
percent of NGOs/charitable organizations' income (the donations gathered) is
spent paying for the overhead; higher figures can be found for specific
organizations. (At some point in my life, I hope to find the time to write a
history of how a beautiful and lush country, Cambodia, was first destroyed by
bombs, a second time by fanatics, and a third time by NGOs.)
The detailed history of the moral corruption of NGO and
charitable organizations has yet to be written, but one can chip at it. I have
lived in and traveled through plenty of places where NGO functionaries may
roam. In numerous conversations with such good folk, I have noticed universally
that none would even think of going
to New Orleans to rebuild, for example, or to any of the thousands of equally
deserving communities in the U.S. to help out or organize any form of
collectivity that could give a hand with providing food, building schools,
mobile or stationary clinics, irrigation, or help with environmental clean-up,
or anything else. Could it be that it doesn't look as good on the resume?
One cannot always correctly guess these kinds of motives,
and any such judgments should definitely not be applied universally, but since
most such gentle folk are also adept busy bodies in networking, ever in search
of that 'good' NGO that they've heard 'can lead to better jobs,' and since all the
foreign adventure and giving a helping hand amount to a resume-building
endeavor mostly, one would have to deduce that professional development (wink)
is the motive.
Whatever the case, such professional development clearly
affects the consciousness of the said professionals and the related celebrities
lined up for the cause; and affect it in a way that must render the work-life
narrative cohesive. Not without contradictions; simply cohesive. This cohesion
dictated by the intended plan of the narrative requires immense omissions.
Therefore, such narrative borrows wisdom from the old adage, "Best
resolution is dissolution," and simply presents the issue of poverty as
inexplicable, bereft of any history.
The simplification and reduction of a complex social
relationship of domination spanning six centuries to a still-frame picture of
misfortune-induced poverty, abstracted out of the historical context, has an
unambiguous politico-rhetorical purpose: denial. Denial of the fact that Africa
and Asia are not poor, have never been poor, and will not be any time soon; and
are in fact very rich in all kinds of resources. And that is exactly their
problem. It is because Africa and
Asia are very rich that the Western empire builders have always been after
As social historians such as Wallerstein and Arrighi have
shown, the empires of the Genoese,
the Dutch, the British (I would also add the late-arriving Japanese) have all been fed on the riches of Asia and
Africa. The Spanish and the Portuguese came across the Americas on their way to
Asia, to partake of her riches. And today, the U.S. is continuing in that
tradition of sucking all life out of the resources of Asia (the 'Middle East'
is a part of Asia; not that the U.S. and her multinationals have not been
looting Asia for over a hundred years, starting with the rape of Philippines).
The most fundamental problems faced by the Africans and the
Asians are historically rooted in the six centuries of pillage visited on them
by the Western imperialists as well as more than a century's worth of it from
So, if the good-hearted people living in the First World
agree that they would like to do something, don't just let it be, don't just
'give back'; take back!
Take back your governments and stop them from raping the
people all around the world. Take back your taxes and build useful things for
yourself, as well as pay reparations to the people whose communities you have
pillaged. Take back your armies and keep them at home. And finally, take back your
pity and show respect!
Reza Fiyouzat can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.