Don’t Give Back: Take Back!

“Keep donating, please!” said Mariah Carey, after finishing her song. “The lines will remain open,” said the host of the 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 IM’d or text’d 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, the American Idol was giving back. But, of course, they weren’t.

First and least of all, the 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 bare-foot 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 de-contextualizes a very complex problem, which in truth must be phrased as, How Africa and Asia were looted and how the First World must pay back reparations.

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% 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 their riches.

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 the Japanese.

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 back 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!

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rich Griffin said on April 16th, 2008 at 7:29am #

    I’m glad that American Idol did this actually. It reached many millions of americans with the very worthwhile idea of caring about the poor – all of the intellectual posturing in the world is not going to reach the millions this show did. Is it too little?? Yes. But again: culture matters! This intellectual assault constantly aimed at what they perceive to be “low brow” culture is not helpful!! I would much rather people be reached somewhere than nowhere with this particular message!

    Can you prove that the overhead is really high? I can’t prove that it isn’t – I can only say that they have said that it isn’t all that high. (all charities have SOME overhead, we all know that much).

    Again, it’s the same issue: intellectuals don’t get it. Obama’s choice of VENUE for his elitist comments was a larger problem than what he said; intellectuals constant superiority over those less fortunate is a huge problem.

  2. sk said on April 16th, 2008 at 8:09am #

    Paul Theroux has a nice phrase for NGO do-gooders in the Third World: agents of virtue. Here’s an excerpt from Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown:

    The whites, teachers, diplomats, and agents of virtue I met at dinner parties had pretty much the same things on their minds as their counterparts had in the 1960s. They discussed relief projects and scholarships and agricultural schemes, refugee camps, emergency food programs, technical assistance. They were newcomers. They did not realize that for forty years people had been saying the same things, and the result after four decades was a lower standard of living, a higher rate of illiteracy, overpopulation, and much more disease.

    A few more passages from the same book.

  3. Mickey Z. said on April 16th, 2008 at 8:55am #

    Thanks for the mention, Reza. I’m with you, re: “giving back.” Charity is a textbook capitalist response to inequality. Rather than addressing the predictable, correctable conditions that created such dire need, we instead buy guilt relief with our donations and let the experts (sic) figure out how to solve (sic) the problem.

  4. cjm said on April 16th, 2008 at 9:31am #

    Is there too much overhead? Prove it you say? Look at the salaries of the charity heads. The head of the Red Cross or United Way or virtually any other charity is making mid six figures. If they made a salary twice what I make it would still be a reduction of several times. And no they are not worth that. I am an experienced, educated professional with a significant level of responsibility in private industry. If what I am doing is not worth six figures then no charity professional at any level from top to bottom should be making that much money. They can live like a normal human not a prince or king. And no I will not donate till that garbage changes.

  5. evie said on April 16th, 2008 at 11:05am #

    For some it’s more profitable to give a man a new pair of shoes than change the system that keeps him barefoot.

  6. Arch Stanton said on April 16th, 2008 at 11:26am #

    “Yes, we shall set them to work, but in their leisure hours we shall make their life like a child’s game, with children’s songs, choruses and innocent dances.”


    from “The Grand Inquisitor”

  7. John Wilkinson said on April 16th, 2008 at 9:50pm #

    “If what I am doing is not worth six figures then no charity professional at any level from top to bottom should be making that much money. They can live like a normal human not a prince or king.”

    Exactly, but I would add all those executives in the private industry, too, running their respective companies into the ground, as well as the jobs, pensions, and the whole economy, too, only to be rewarded with 8 or 9 figure salaries by their buddies on the boards. None of them are doing anything more special or important or more complicated than the rest of us doing responsible work with some significant level of consequence, they just hype it that way. And skim off the top what the millions have paid, because they’re on top and they can do it and noone dare say anything.

    The whole system of everything is greed driven and corrupt to the core. It’s grab what you can, steal, steal, steal, pad your resume, do whatever it takes, and then you’re a “winner”.

    With “winners” like these to look up to, that’s how we became a nation of losers.

  8. John Wilkinson said on April 16th, 2008 at 9:58pm #

    And, by the way, I do believe the 60% overehead rate and higher, for these NGOs. That’s the “normal” overhead rate in the greed-driven private (should I say pirate?) industry after which these NGOs (and their salary structure) are modeled. And i’ve seen much higher overhead rates for some charities (80%, even 90%+ for some vet charities — the more they tug at your heart, the more slimy and sleazy and shameless they are). In other words, most resources go toward reinforcing dead wood, not producing. that is the result of the predatory system of greed and tax policies favoring such waste and greed and wealth concentration at the top.

  9. John Wilkinson said on April 16th, 2008 at 10:06pm #

    “intellectuals constant superiority over those less fortunate is a huge problem.”

    That is true, too, I must say.

  10. John Wilkinson said on April 16th, 2008 at 10:16pm #

    ….though I fail to see why Obama’s comments were “elitist” or a “problem”, if what he said was true, which IMHO it was, at least to a significant degree.

  11. Sunil Sharma said on April 17th, 2008 at 10:10am #

    Thanks for the Dostoyevsky quote, Arch! I’ve been trying to remember its exact wording and which book it came from for a book review I’m writing.

  12. TS Draegeth said on April 18th, 2008 at 12:28pm #

    John: perhaps Rich’s explanation did not make it clear to you. Let me help him out a bit.

    It is not the words Obama spoke that people are viewing as elitist. Rather, it is the fact that Obama said what he said at a gathering of the rich, whereas he would deliberately not say something like that at a different campaign stop. His deception shows that he is willing to speak a certain kind of truth to one group of people (in this case, a certain kind of truth about people in the Rust Belt), but that when he is faced with the subjects of his observation (said poorer voters in the Rust Belt), he presents himself differently. It is political, and his assessment is probably accurate.

    Do you see the perception? When people say that his words were elitist, they are misspeaking. Rather, they probably mean that his choice to only speak those words in a certain place is elitist.

  13. hp said on April 18th, 2008 at 3:47pm #

    He’s, he’s, he’s, a,a,a…….gasp…. POLITICIAN!