Saturday, March 23, 2013

Helping and its Hindrances

To continue the discussion of Wednesday's post, I'd like to move on from discussing economic issues and their repercussions on class to talking about another sort of phenomenon involving celebrities and charity organizations. This post from Tumblr:

becomes even more complicated when compounded by the appeal by celebs for humanitarian causes.

But let me start even more broadly, with a trend in charity organizations that many in my field of studies rally against. Recently, it's become common for groups to sell merchandise or specialized products to provide aid for certain causes. Those wary of commercial culture, commodity fetishism, and conspicuous consumption (buying stuff to show off social status and economic power) dislike the use of products to promote causes, for a variety reasons.
One of these products are TOMS. TOMS are a trendy sort of shoe sold in various stores around the US (Urban Outfitters is where I've seen them) who are based on the idea that if you purchase a pair of their shoes, they will donate a pair of shoes to children in an underprivileged area. This is a sort of problem as this article points out:
the TOMS campaign...misses the fundamental point that not having a pair of shoes (or a shirt, christmas toy, etc.) is not a problem about not having shoes. It’s a problem of poverty. Shoelessness, such as it is, is a symptom of a much bigger and more complex problem. And while donating a pair of shoes helps shoelessness, it does not help poverty.... on a big-picture level, TOMS (and other buy-my-product-and-donate companies) are busy building the exploitative global structure that produces economic inequality, while on the other hand pretending that supporting them actually does something to fix it.
Ouch. But self-explanatory. TOMS doesn't really work to solve the cause, only treating the symptom, and continues to support a production system that likely continues this inequality. It also creates a badge or sort of logo of support, giving a visual symbol of caring and support about the cause, even though actually support can be pretty minimal. There are many examples of this (pretty much anything associated with breast cancer support - interesting that we glamorize products associated with cancer in organs that are sexualized in women, even though heart disease is far more common, the RED campaign, etc) and all have their own issues related to the issues they are trying to fix and the idea that buying stuff will help save the world, even though we as consumers really have no idea how much of the money spent on the products actually goes to aid and how much is just garnered as profit.

This stuff gets murkier. While rereading The Communist Manifesto for class, I came across this little gem from Marx and Engels: "Just as it [the bourgeoisie] has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West" (Marx and Engels 9). Considering that the issue with TOMS could be argued to precisely do this, this quote kind of bums me out. Which charity organizations do good and which just promote a vicious cycle? How do we know? Also, we're going to pretend that I never saw that episode of Wallander where Rupert Graves (*squee*) is a wealthy humanitarian with an organization that seemingly helps people in Africa, but (SPOILERS) actually steals their organs and sells them on the black market (yeah, I did not see that coming when I watched it. Thanks, BBC, for destroying my life once again). Being paranoid about aid groups... not helpful. Not at all.
While I'm destroying your faith in the world, I'd like to bring up a Tumblr post I came across, about a 15 year old boy from Zimbabwe who told Madonna to... well:
Dakarai Molokomme, a 15-year-old starving child from a small village in Zimbabwe, has just told Madonna, one of the most famous pop stars in the world, to go and f*** herself, the local media are reporting exclusively. “Yes, it’s true, I told Madonna to go f*** herself. Do you want to know why?” Dakarai asked. “It’s the same thing every time with these snobby rich Americans. Every once in a while they come to show us their support for the so-called eradication of poverty by adopting a child from a starving family, but they actually do more harm than good. Transracial international adoptions are part of the white savior industrial complex,” Dakarai explained. In further discussions with journalists from the media, the kid stated that “none of the children here actually want to be taken away from their family and friends so they can be displayed as some kind of trophy in the homes of self-righteous singers or actors who want to score some points with the media and Oprah.” “If they really want to help us, they should get Big Pharma to ship us some anti-retroviral drugs for the AIDS epidemic, or build schools and hospitals. If they don’t want to do that, then they can all go f** themselves!” the child told reporters. The 15-year-old also stated that he would say the same thing to any one of those American or European “faux humanitarian posers”, except for Bono, whom he said he would also kick in the groin. “Bono’s efforts to save the African savage from itself prove that the colonial imperative is alive and well,” Dakarai said as he walked with other village children collecting sticks to build a tree fort.

Point about transracial adoption? Heard loud and clear. This is a huge issue and one that is not discussed enough and often the glaring issues with it get overshadowed by the misguided humanitarian intent. Also, I like Bono and I'd like to believe he does good, but I don't really know a lot about what he does. He does seem to be one of the most controversial celebrity humanitarians and one of the first to be labeled a "faux humanitarian poser." This is an issue with fame and aid efforts intermingling. Celebrity status allows for a certain ease and elevation in message - people listen to celebrities because they're role models and very influential. However, if they misconceive a message or don't entirely practice what they preach, it can be quite a problem. There's a push-back against celebrity endorsement right now given the recession because some people don't like being told to donate money by people who have loads of money. Sometimes there is a bit of hypocrisy between the action and the message (I remember the example people gave of Al Gore supporting a minimization of our carbon footprints, and then traveling around the country in a giant private jet).

But I have to believe that most of the time, the message is sincere and well-intended and coming from a knowledgeable point of view. Celebrity spokespeople have the time and the money to give aid, one or both of which many people don't have. I also don't think most of them are doing it for acclaim or to look cool. Supporting a charity group is a big commitment and not something that is just casually done (not if you're really going to be committed about it and really talk about the issues). There does seem to be a difference in rhetoric between spokespeople - I feel like Bono's comments (the ones I heard at a U2 concert I went to) were perhaps more general than those of the celebs who work for groups like Unicef. Yes, I know, I keep going back to Unicef, and maybe my fangirling over Ewan McGregor and Tom Hiddleston is preventing me from being more critical. But Unicef doesn't have seem to have the connotation of posers or the conspicuous consumption affiliation, and they know that treating the symptom is not the best remedy, but treating the cause to begin with. And while they do ask for money, they also ask for people to volunteer, something I'd much rather do (as money isn't enough to solve a problem; action is necessary). And yes, the fact that Mr. McGregor and Mr. Hiddleston continue to say wonderful things about the organization gives me faith in their cause:
Also, The Yes Men is another interesting action group that I've recently been informed exists and one that sounds fascinating (anything that's described as the "Jonathan Swift of the Jackass generation" is bound to be interesting).
So despite all the issues and controversy with political and humanitarian efforts for change, I still believe that it's worthwhile. Doing something is generally better than doing nothing and while money alone won't solve anything... well, it's bound to help a little, I'd hope. If we go in with attitude that nothing we do will make a difference, it probably won't. Maybe what worries me most is that people are unwilling to give or volunteer, partly because they don't trust many organizations (especially with controversies surrounding many popular American ones, such as the Salvation Army) or they don't believe their money will really go to the causes and will just become profit for someone working in the organization. This lack of trust makes people unwilling to do anything at all and it's hard to keep believing when so many groups seem corrupt. But they can't all be that way - at least, I hope they aren't. I'm convinced that time is better than money anyhow and hope to eventually have the time to commit to volunteering with a group. Until then, I can only donate and keep looking for and learning about organizations that promote the change for the betterment of those that need the help, not those who are providing it. While there may be no such thing as absolute altruism (oh how psychologists love to battle over this question), I believe it's important to makes sure that one is aware of privileged and the effects of certain actions in order to be as altruistic as possible. Simply put, caring is an advantage.

Citation from: 
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  Penguin Books, 2006 edition.

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