Saturday, January 30, 2010

Celebrity, heal thyself!

The world can barely contain its excitement!  Just when life was getting boring, along comes a disaster in a country populated by black people!  Bring out the chosen ones, with the most finely honed rescue instincts: The Celebrity.

Haiti's earthquake has brought out the tweeting, singing, dancing, cheque signing, hand-delivering aid celebrities from around the world.  The George Clooney-led Hope for Haiti Now telethon is estimated to have raised $95m in just two hours. Oh, the lure of celebrity endorsement!

It is tempting (and I admit that this analysis is based on snippets caught on the news) to be cynical about heartstring-tugging fundraisers, especially when they include Alicia Keys performing "Prelude to a Kiss" to a backdrop of weeping Haitian babies , and Beyoncé changing the lyrics of some song called "Halo" to include the words "Haiti, we can see your halo, you know you're my saving grace."

It is easy to mock pop star celebrities' earnest remarks, and to snigger at their heo antics, when the likes of John Travolta (at least I've heard of him) showed up in Port-au-Prince in a private jet packed with ready-to-eat-without-a-microwave military rations, and medicines, and accompanied by the most important emergency rescue resource of them all: a herd of Scientology ministers.

"But, OM," you might say, "so what if it's all a bit cheesy?  At least these celebrities are Doing Something.  Isn't that the important thing now to get aid over to Haiti, where hundreds of thousands are reported to have died and one million are now homeless, as quickly as possible?"

Yes, I agree it is important that we try to help if we can, and it is heartening that people around the world have been moved to donate millions to help Haitians rebuild their lives.  But it is also worth taking a hard look at just why Haiti has rocked up to the position of The Top Cause For Celebrities, and what consequences this might have.

Is the road to hell paved with crooning celebrities?  Past experiences show that fundraising frenzies inspired by emergency situations tend to to little to improve the lives of people "over there", but these earnest initiatives do a lot to lend some meaning to life over here.

Just like with past causes célèbres, such as Ethiopia and Darfur, the earthquake in Haiti has quickly become more to do with about well-to-do Westerners than catastrophe-struck Caribbeans.  It is news that allows celebrities and politicians to keep a flattering spotlight on themselves (always making sure they wear casual clothes and no (or little) make up), and chance for celebrity reporters, such as Mike McRoberts to take a little girl to a hospital shelter in time for the evening news bulletin.  For politicians who are desperate to score some easy points with their electorates, Haiti is the place to be.  Who can disagree with a statement that the earthquake was tragic and was a devastating event and that Haitians deserve help?

Over the past week, the celebrities have elevated themselves into selfless heroes, and turned themselves into intermediaries for our sympathy, as if we can only really care about Haitians if we know that movie stars and pop singers are personally affected and touched by their fates.  We are encouraged to follow and interpret what is going on in Haiti through the concerns and emotions of the stars.  Haitian-born singer, Wyclef Jean, wraps the flag of his native country around his neck, sings a Creole tune, and tells telethon viewers that he has just returned from Haiti, where he pulled his countrymen out of the rubble, carried the bodies of mothers, fathers, children to the cemeteries.  We are encouraged to feel for the former Fugees member as much as for his Haitian friends.

Admit occasional good news stories of people being pulled out alive from beneath the rubble, we have also learned that the disaster is helping to bring some of our most popular celebrities back together, with some selfless stars leaving old quarrels aside in the name of helping Haitians.  The juiciest gossip of all is that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were spotted chatting backstage at Clooney's telethon.  And this just as news spread that Pitt is separating from Angelina Jolie, whom he left Aniston for five years ago.  Will Brad and Jen become an item again? Will Haiti bring them together?

Once the televised pitythons are over, and the realities of delivering emergency relief set in, who will really benefit from all this feelgoodness?  Who will really get the money?

In the world of celebrity humanitarianism, the Live Aid concerts of the 1980s, initiated by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, are seen as the hallmark for bombastic fundraisers.  The charity they created raised over $300m over the next 20 years and caused a wave of sympathy for emaciated Ethiopians who dominated the television screens and front pages of the newspapers in the mid-1980s.

But not only did it imprint an image in Westerners minds of Africans as fly-stalked, wide-eyed, helpless and childlike creatures, it also did very little, if anything, to help.  Few of the suffering Ethiopians saw the cash, which instead helped to boost the coffers of the Mengistu-regime and prolong the war and suffering in Ethiopia.

Now it is the turn of Haiti to attract the mass descent of aid workers, diplomats, journalists and celebrities.  Self-important, sanctimonious aid agencies might claim to have the best of intentions, but they are actually contributing to the tragedy and catastrophe with an obsession with box ticking procedures and distrust of the Haitian people.  A UN peacekeeper nicely summed up the disdain and loathing among the rescue workers when he said of the fellow human beings he is meant to help: "Whatever we do, it doesn't matter - they are animals."

Reports from the earthquake aftermath have oscillated between portraying Haitiains as desperate, helpless victims and desperate, marauding savages who can only be saved and tamed by caring Westerners.  Because Haiti is poor, lacking in infrastructure, and has a political regime widely regarded as illegitimate, Western figures can easily portray themselves as a new hope for the country, and can justify placing themselves in loco parentis.  In this sense, Haiti is well suited as a place where celebrities and politicians can come together or reunite their romance.

Of course, as with the 2004 tsunami, the suddenness, force and scale of the destruction in Haiti has meant the earthquake has become a global concern, as it should be, and no doubt many celebrities, politicians and aid workers are sincere in their desire to help.  But while celebrities have helped raise impressive sums of money in a short time, the message being sent out here is that those black, pitiful savages over there should be grateful that a who's who list of global celebrities are getting together to rescue them, not just from the rubble, but also from their ineptness.

The last thing Haiti needs is to be turned into a stage for attention-deprived celebrities.

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