[Note: Will Pooley is a British aid worker who, while fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone, contracted the virus himself. He survived and has returned to the field, but not before bravely and admirably lashing out at the false politics of the Band Aid 30 single recorded to raise money for the crisis.]
It’s good to see that Will Pooley has courageously spoken up. Charity isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it seems. Nor is courage, even with cred like Mr Pooley’s. Bob Geldof, whom Pooley more or less specifically derided in the Guardian piece linked above, struck back a little later that day, venom squirting from between the long teeth.
I’m sorry to say it, Sir Bob, but your adversary is right. Sentimentalizing a people, or a calamity, or a people and a calamity, is a form of subjugation, and it masks — therefore perpetuating — much of the hegemonic larceny at play in the first place.
It looked bad enough when Aphra Behn did it in 1688. Her excuse was to have lived in an age in which few Europeans had ever seen non-whites except in stylized engravings, the greeting cards of her day. (That she could run circles round an English subordinate clause earns her additional slack.) To Ms Behn’s readers, Africans might as well have been — I defer to Pooley’s scathing sarcasm — aliens from another planet. Now, however, in 2014, greeting-card racism can’t be winked away. Often, as in the case of Geldof’s Band Aid thing, projects like this are scarcely more than workarounds for sheer ignorance. Any college freshman with a bit of Lacan and Husserl in the backpack can mumble a working diagnosis: repressed fear of and hostility toward the Other. (How repressed is that hostility? Hard to say. Within a single paragraph Geldof implores us to at once “Relax” and “Fuck off.”)
Bringing us to the kindly face of post-Colonial Colonialism: Noblesse oblige. This, then, is Geldof’s gift, by which I do not mean his talent. (I couldn’t speak to his talent; presumably that OBE was awarded for something.) No, I mean the other kind of gift, as in: Beware of Boomtown Rats bearing gifts.
Of course I’m riffing, as Sir Bob would say, on a popular adage extracted from its original source, a tag of cautionary advice (about Greeks bearing gifts) from Virgil’s defrocked priest Laocoön in The Aeneid.
Equo ne credite, Teucri … *
To my ear, whereas our new-minted version sounds merely xenophobic, Virgil’s original sentiment, with a little more spin on the rhetoric, hints at real nervousness about what any gift, whether arriving on our shores from the Aegean Sea or from Battersea, may portend beyond its apparent generosity. Perhaps all gifts are Trojan Horses.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that everyone involved in such a project (part of me thinks I should be using the word “projection” here) is cynical or behaving shamefully. It’s just that good people, people of sound morals, are often easiest to beguile and therefore first to be suborned for cynical purposes. But I’d have a hard time — and I am not alone — avoiding the conclusion that this particular kind of project smacks of propitiation, easing the guilty consciences of the empowered.
Keep the enemy closer — so goes the coda to another popular adage. It’s a policy that is evident everywhere in our media-addled and commodified lives. We make a pretense of, a show of, embracing what in fact we deeply fear. It’s a way of neutralizing threat. Marginalized sub-cultures as well as stricken members of our own social niche are thus subsumed into the general amnesia. Frightened of people of color? Strike back with euphemisms like people of color. (But also, have the children pin up photos of Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass — for one week out of the year — in the elementary schools of your white, I mean multicultural, suburban enclave.) Worried that transgendered freaks might approach your adenoidal son in the public johns? Hold a parade, by gosh, celebrating LGBT emancipation. March ’em — boas and stilettos, lipstick outside the lines — right down the center of Main Street. That’s where we can control them.
And it’s close, too, to the worst kind of jingoism. Just as with strident First World platitudes like “Never Forget,” which really means “Forget now, so that we can launch BGM-109s at children in rural villages without really dwelling on abnegation of morality,” there’s a shifty pretense operating here: the notion that snapping our fingers to a pop song, let’s say, or forking over a ducat’s worth of mawkish communal pathos (and probably the ducat itself), is the same thing as giving a fuck, let alone doing something about it. An additional worry, and a potentially much graver one, is that such public — or ceremonial — forms of “concern” (it’s not for no reason that I’ve placed the word in ironic quotation marks) have the unfortunate effect of desensitizing us to real urgency and any need for prompt, dedicated action. That ball gets dropped.
For the sick and crippled, needless to say, this amnesia simply gets refigured in the form of something called “awareness.” “Awareness” is the sort of term about which Derrida was so illuminating in L’écriture et la différence and La Voix et le Phénomène. Its meaning is a kind of collusion of manifold forces, a defying of its static “definition” in favor of an unending postponement of, in the jargon of Deconstruction, “signifiers.” Such that: inextricably — unavoidably — bundled in with the idea of awareness is its diametrical obverse, lack of awareness. The former sneakily effaces the latter. But even if this were not the case, even if “awareness” were not a deception, expressing insidious oppositions and contradictions, we’d still have a big problem, because as a method, as a procedure, “awareness” simply isn’t particularly useful. It doesn’t actually do anything. It just sounds as if it must. By proposing an illusion of momentum, it lets every one off the hook.
It would be cruel of me then, given his personal tragedies of late, to remind Mr Geldof that charity — like song-writing — begins at home. And so I shan’t remind him. Not about the charity, not about the song-writing. Litotes must do it for me.
* “Don’t trust the horse, Trojans!”