Lynn Hirschberg’s article “M.I.A.’s Agitprop Pop” in the New York Times has created a firestorm of controversy after its author’s journalistic integrity was called into question by a furious M.I.A. Hirschberg’s article does indeed bend and distort reality to paint M.I.A. (Maya Arulpragasam) as a one-dimensional caricature; a naïve, unintelligent, hypocritical manipulator using radical politics for personal gain. In reality, it is Hirschberg that has manipulated quotes from her interview with M.I.A. to create this false portrait, as well as ridiculing opposition to the Sri Lankan government’s recent massacre of Tamils. Hirschberg attempts to achieve this by attacking M.I.A.’s personal integrity, oscillating between calling M.I.A.’s political positions naïve or deliberately manipulative.
While many responses to Hirschberg’s slander have focused on the dimension of personal integrity, what is more important than truffle fries is Hirschberg’s attempt to discredit M.I.A.’s radical politics. M.I.A.’s upbringing as a Sri Lankan Tamil with personal connections to the Tamil national liberation struggle (her father was a leader of Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students) has made speaking out against the Sri Lankan government’s persecution of the Tamil people central to her music and art. In the midst of the Sri Lankan government’s recent military campaign to crush the Tamil Tigers (after a civil war that has lasted 26 years), M.I.A. rightly used her public platform to speak out against the Sri Lankan government’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians that resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents and forced 260,000 Tamils into government detention centers.
Hirschberg’s attempts to discredit M.I.A. relies on quotes from the biased Ahilan Kadirgamar (a liberal apologist for the Sri Lankan government) while ignoring reports from numerous prominent human rights organizations and journalists. Kadirgamar is quoted as saying “What happened in Sri Lanka was not a genocide. To not be honest about that or the Tigers does more damage than good. It doesn’t help the cause of justice.” Hirschberg places emphasis on atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers and fails to roundly condemn the Sri Lankan government, let alone look into what caused the conflict in the first place.
The Tamil people have long been subjected to oppression by the Sri Lankan government and dominant Sinhalese nationality. The Tamil Tigers, despite their tactics, were one of the last secular groups fighting for national liberation. When Hirschberg writes that “Unity holds no allure for Maya – she thrives on conflict, real or imagined,” she is mocking what makes M.I.A.’s message radically different than most political music today. M.I.A.’s music embraces the antagonism between the world’s slum population and the dominant power structure. In the case of the Tamil people, the only answer to this is to struggle against the Sri Lankan government for national liberation. Moreover, to call this conflict “real or imagined” is a disgusting insult to the thousands who have lost their lives in it. In Hirschberg’s article, M.I.A. rightly criticizes Bono, saying “I’m tired of pop stars who say, ‘Give peace a chance.’ I’d rather say, ‘Give war a chance.’” For Hirschberg and the New York Times, the meaningless and ineffectual charity of Bono is acceptable, while the resistance embraced by M.I.A. is out of the acceptable bounds of public discourse.
Hirschberg also takes aim at M.I.A.’s recent video of her new song “Born Free”, directed by Romain Gavras. The video shows masked military men whose only insignia is an American flag on their uniforms barging into housing project apartments, beating residents, rounding up red-haired white youth, taking them into a desert, and shooting them. Hirschberg calls it “exploitative and hollow”, “designed to be banned on YouTube”, and “at best, politically naïve.” Given the recent passage of a law in Arizona legalizing racial profiling of Mexicans, Obama’s ordering of the National Guard to the US-Mexico border, and the recent US Border Patrol killing of a 15-year-old Mexican boy, one has to ask Hirschberg how the “Born Free” video is anything but a dramatic depiction of the present reality for immigrants in Western democracies?
Besides mocking M.I.A.’s politics as naïve and unintelligent, Hirschberg also calls them knowingly manipulative (this internal contradiction to her argument is, in itself, further evidence of Hirschberg’s brand of manipulative journalism). Hirschberg uses phrases such as “while you’re under the sway of the beat, she’s rapping ‘You wanna win a war / Like P.L.O. I don’t surrender.’” and “Like a trained politician, she stays on message.” to paint this picture of manipulation, as though M.I.A. were enticing listeners with her music and sneaking in her radical politics. Yet M.I.A. has always been upfront about her radical politics, from her album art depicting tigers (a symbol of the Tamil struggle) and third world guerrillas, to her transparent lyrics, to her statements in the media (when they are reported accurately). Far from a hidden agenda, M.I.A. has struggled to get people to listen, explaining in Hirschberg’s article, “The whole point of going to the Grammys was to say, ‘Hey, 50,000 people are gonna die next month, and here’s your opportunity to help.’ And no one did.”
Hirschberg takes these claims of manipulation further in painting M.I.A. as using radical statements and provocative actions for personal gain. Hirschberg treats all of M.I.A.’s bold acts, from performing at the Grammy’s while nine months pregnant, to a photo shoot in a housing project wearing Givenchy gold jewelry to point out the obscene differences in wealth, to her fashion style of using radical political imagery as mere publicity stunts to garner attention rather than substantive artistry. Hirschberg concludes that “It’s hard to know if she believes everything she says or if she knows that a loud noise will always attract a crowd.” This belittling of M.I.A.’s words and actions allows Hirschberg to make sweeping refutations of M.I.A.’s politics without any substantive argument.
While failing to substantively deal with M.I.A.’s radical politics, Hirschberg portrays her as hypocritical for having a “luxe lifestyle” while standing with the world’s oppressed. Hirschberg consistently juxtaposes M.I.A.’s serious statements with her own commentary about the expensive truffle fries, olive bread, and wine M.I.A. was having during the interview in Beverly Hills. M.I.A. has since released her own recording of the interview, in which Hirschberg can be clearly heard telling M.I.A. to get whatever she wants since the NY Times is paying, and even suggesting the fancy fries she criticizes M.I.A. for eating.
Besides this outright journalistic entrapment, Hirschberg also mocks M.I.A.’s claims of political repression (which include death threats against her baby because of her support for the Tamil struggle, government tapping of her phones, and her US visa being denied), and ridicules her move to a nice house in Brentwood, California. First, it must be pointed out that there is a lengthy history of government repression of artists in the United States for their political views, and Hirschberg completely ignores this history as well as the implications of speaking out on behalf of the Tamil people (many who have done so in Sri Lanka have disappeared). Second, what defines whether a radical artist has sold out is not their choice of where to live or their (necessary) functioning within the wealthy world of the entertainment industry, but whether they continue to speak out against injustice, including at personal risk.
M.I.A. has continued to espouse her radical politics after her success, with the consequences of public attacks, censorship, and government repression. Perhaps what is most hypocritical about Hirschberg’s personal attacks on M.I.A. is the fact that without her success and fame there would be no one speaking out about the Sri Lankan government’s massacre of Tamils in a way that reaches a mainstream audience. This is in large part due to the fact that media such as the New York Times have refused to run any substantive coverage of the Sri Lankan government’s actions or fulfilled their journalistic obligation to send reporters into the conflict zone. Without M.I.A., there are little avenues for the voices and stories of the Tamil people to reach outside of Sri Lankan government detention centers.
Hirschberg has written a manipulative slander against M.I.A. and has failed to address what has made M.I.A.’s music innovative and her politics truly radical in a postmodern culture that deflates antagonism and absorbs original creative efforts. M.I.A.’s music stands out as a successful fusion of various rhythms from different parts of the world into a coherent and distinct form of dance music with a raw energy derived from its do-it-yourself production process and the influence of rebellious American hip-hop. M.I.A.’s politics stand out as embracing the oppressed people residing in the shantytowns of the third world and ghettos of Western nations, their antagonism with the dominant power relations in the world, and the violent resistance this gives rise to, in contrast to the relativism, identity politics, and liberal multi-culturalism that dominate progressive politics today. It is this radical stand that Hirschberg and the New York Times find unacceptable.