Not an African Christmas
If the image of the starving black child has been deemed obsolete, then so has the Western “we” that claimed so much power for itself in the late 1980s.
In 2004, the British press reported that the album cover which Damien Hirst had designed for Band Aid 20’s re-recording of the 1984 single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” had been rejected by the organizers, for fear it would frighten small children. “The record, that’s the important part,” explained Midge Ure, who co-wrote the original song . “The cover doesn’t really matter. Throw the cover away. Buying it is the important thing.”
Hirst had depicted an emaciated black child perched on the Grim Reaper’s knee, while on the other side of the album a white child cradled in Santa’s lap clutched wads of banknotes. There was a sense that this particular juxtaposition could be considered distasteful, but the reason that got around was that the kids would be scared. An alternative cover arrived, in which an emaciated black-and-white black child walks naked through the snow into a full-color fairytale landscape, menaced on either side by a herd of outsized cartoon reindeer and a large family of hungry looking polar bears. Hirst’s excessively disturbing double image had been replaced by what was plainly a playful riff on “Vulture stalking a child,” the world-famous photograph of a Sudanese girl taken in 1993 by South African photographer Kevin Carter, who committed suicide months after the image was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
The child on the new album cover was copy-pasted from Live Aid’s 1985 promotional material, where it had been placed beneath the Africa-shaped guitar. On the concert program the child was positioned beside the words “Global Juke Box.” Much like Bono’s line, “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you,” the image had somehow survived the intervening nineteen years and journeyed for a thousand miles across the Ethiopia-Sudan border and due west into Darfur. Just as it had in 1985, the child on the 2004 cover faces away from the camera. What we see is a frame wasted to the proportions of a semi-silhouette, slim shoulder-blades jutting, fleshless legs knocking at the knees. We don’t know whether or not this is one of the two black-and-white black children that appear huddled near Alice in Wonderland and the Cheshire Cat in the foreground of the rosy-cheeked Edwardian nursery idyll Sir Peter Blake designed for the original cover of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984, but the question is nonetheless worth asking.
In her 1963 book On Revolution Hannah Arendt argued that compassion, “by its very nature cannot be touched off by the sufferings of a whole class or a people, or, least of all, mankind as a whole […] Because compassion abolishes the distance, the worldly space between men where politics matters, the whole realm of human affairs, are located, it remains, politically speaking, irrelevant and without consequence.” Arendt wrote compassion as a fantasy of intimacy, a response to clear delineations of personality. It was an imaginative remapping of the world in shrunken dimensions, with politics, distance, and perhaps difference too, wrung out. The previous year she had seen Adolf Eichmann defend himself as a dutiful Kantian, only to be found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced, by the state of Israel, to death. She had coined the much-quoted expression “banality of evil” to describe the practice of non-thinking, the failure of those such as Eichmann to reflect on their crimes as they performed them.
Of the many t-shirt wearing supergroups that dominated popular late twentieth-century expressions of global conscience in the West, the loudest were those organised around the problem of famine. (Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid and Steven Van Zandt’s Artists Against Apartheid, both founded in 1985, were the major exceptions.) Wildly grandiose projects, such as “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (very white, very male, very shouty), Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s retort “We Are the World,” and the Canadian anthem “Tears Are Not Enough,” were attempts to rewrite compassion as a totalising form of largely content-free politics, confident avowals of Euro-American messianism made just a few years before Francis Fukuyama would pronounce the end of History.
“We’re saving our own lives,” sung Bob Dylan. “It’s true we’ll make a better day / Just you and me.”
“We can bridge the distance, / Only we can make the difference,” replied Bryan Adams.
The widest possible constituencies were appealed to – “the world,” “Africa,” “the children,” “them,” “us,” “the other ones,” “people dying,” “God’s great big family,” and so on. The music videos did not show images of people suffering in East African famines, but rather musicians and their lustrous, screen-filling hairstyles crowded together in studios in Notting Hill and on Beverly Boulevard. Stevie Wonder dueted with Bruce Springsteen. These were objects of fascination, not sympathy. Still, Arendt’s “worldly space between men where politics matters” took a battering. “We,” it was claimed, were “the world,” a world obliged to “come together as one.” In the British version, the world was small enough that you could feasibly throw your arms around it (“at Christmas time”). Appropriate to a nation forever astounded by its own rather temperate meteorological conditions, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” offered a Pan-African weather forecast of the most severe pessimism: “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time / The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life / Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow / Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?” The Band Aid slogan “Feed the World” was accompanied by an illustration of a two dimensional globe placed like a dinner-plate between a knife and fork. This didn’t make sense. It confused giving with consuming, and implied that you should in fact eat the world, and particularly the T-bone steak continent of Africa. But who was to quibble over such details?
If these songs were an invitation to compassion, the surprise was that this invitation was made in the most abstract of idioms. If we were to reflect on suffering and inequality, we preferred to look at our rockstars while doing it. Everyone already knew what famine sufferers looked like, and nobody contested the gravity of the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, and so the appeal could provoke a compassionate response while remaining wonderfully impersonal. Except that, in the British case, back crept the icon of the starved black-and-white black infant, back from Biafra, and from the TV reports of the BBC’s Michael Buerk, and into abrupt conjunction with the sounds and symbols of Western pop. On album covers and concert posters, in other words at the point of sale, the image of the black-and-white black child still could not be dispensed with in 2004.
Disaster porn has been for many years the dominant style of humanitarian appeals for popular responses to famine. What kind of images can possibly fill in for the altogether enthralling scene of non-white bodies wracked with overwhelming pain, images which, however consistently raced and placed, claim to express nothing but pure need? The ad campaign launched by Action Against Hunger late last year, marked a significant shift in this regard.
As good students of Donald Draper, we all know that advertising is based on one thing: happiness. According to Don this entails at least three things: smelling the interior of a new car, freedom from fear, and a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. Which is all very well, provided an ad follows the underlying logic of advertising: lying to people to make us want something we don’t really need.
But with humanitarian advertising something strange happens. It would appear that when humanitarian groups solicit money from consumers of mass media an altogether different transaction is being proposed, namely one in which an advertiser tells the truth and compels people to hand over surplus cash so that the real and urgent needs of others can be met. At least, that’s something like how it should go. Trouble is, the old consumer mentality dies very hard, and the two modes of advertising are all jumbled up. There aren’t two different kinds of advertising space, one for commercial ads and another for humanitarian appeals: a billboard is a billboard. (This is one reason why self-evidently anti-humanitarian companies like BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Dow Chemical and others have lately gone to such conspicuous lengths to try to convince everybody that they’re actually much more like groups such as Greenpeace, or Medecins Sans Frontieres, or the Disasters Emergency Committee, than they are like the sort of oil-spilling, icecap-melting, Iraq-invasion-lobbying, Bhopal-poisoning, Saro-Wiwa-murdering transnational shysters that we might otherwise have quite innocently supposed them to be.)
In any case, the suspicion has long lurked that gawping at pictures of starving children in Africa might have somehow crossed over into the Don Draper realm of advertising, and become a source of happiness for the kindly Western reader. In fundraising campaigns from the Biafran war onwards it became clear that the most effective way of raising money for starving (almost always African) populations was also the way that luxuriated in the vulnerability of the hungry, that enjoyed not only Western power to save but Western power per se. Those who have come to the conclusion that weaving images of some of the world’s most vulnerable people into our ever brasher, crasser mediascape is not okay will have welcomed the recent move away from such shock tactics. But what is the face of hunger advertising that has at last decided not to show a face?
As you might expect, there’s nobody in Action Against Hunger’s 2011 ads. Nobody black, nobody brown, nobody at all. Instead there’s a tiny pepperoni pizza in a yawning pizza-box, and a string of seven (light brown) paper dolls, one of which is very thin. No jutting ribs or flies around the eyes, this is hunger imagined in a slimmed-down version of the universal symbol for the men’s bathroom, and “universal” is indeed the buzzword the ad company returned to when explaining the ad.
There’s no arid Horn of Africa background, no crumbling shacks or parched soil. We’re dealing with what Action Against Hunger describe as “abstract imagery,” and these days that can only mean a plain white background and some tasteful drop-shadows. How did the food crisis in the Sahel end up being represented by Western humanitarian organizations through the visual idiom of the MacBook Pro? It’s the aesthetics of absence, which Band Aid had flirted with, an aesthetics enabled, surely, by the knowledge that representations of the starving have for a long time been so utterly colloquialised as to make their repetition dull, superfluous, a kind of visual tautology. The “copy” on the ads is shorn of racial and national identifiers, and the emergency is conceived of as a norm graspable in steady annual figures, the bureaucratic vocabulary par excellence: “3.5 million children die each year from acute malnutrition. Take action. Save a child.”
There are at least two weird things about the ads. The first is the pizza: a miniscule aperitif drowning in a sea of cardboard packaging, the kind of meagre repast we’ll all have to make do with when Herman Cain is sworn in come 2016. The war on peckishness. The pizza was attacked by Paul Light, a politics professor at NYU, who wanted the ad “redesigned to focus on good food, not what many givers would see as a very unhealthy option.” Light was concerned that people may mistakenly suppose that Action Against Hunger is a lobbying group for more and bigger pizzas.
The second odd thing is that the whole appeal is sponsored by Ultimat Vodka (slogan: “Live Ultimately”), whose logo appears in the bottom corner of each ad and which professes to be “tired” of hunger. And it’s at this point, as we think about millions of acutely malnourished children, and then of a pizza the size of cookie, and then of a luxury Polish vodka made from both grains and potatoes, that we might feel compelled to wonder, like a character in a J.G. Ballard novel: “What sort of scenario is the mind quietly stitching together?”
There has been a shift since 1985. Then, the target was a mass TV audience and Bono’s job was to construct a collective ethical subject for primetime and then cajole it to respond in some way to famine in faraway places. Since then, that audience has been dispersed across multiple platforms and media, and a series of neoliberal governments have overseen a reallocation of wealth which means that nowadays the buying power of most philanthropic consumers has diminished significantly. If the image of the starving black child has been deemed obsolete, then so has the Western “we” that claimed so much power for itself in the late 1980s. Why bother singing to the proles today? Better to flatter with clean lines and smart-sounding data those high-end consumers who, for a long time, have been only too pleased to submerge intellectual or moral thinking beneath a managerial practice which welcomes the humanitarian appeal as one more opportunity to congratulate itself on having moved beyond the political.
Bono has been an exact bellwether for these changes. Plainly still desiring nothing more than to throw another huge concert, he rightly suspects that nobody could bear to watch such a thing, and so has contented himself with running a private company, the impossibly pretentious “(PRODUCT)RED,” which siphons off a meagre trickle of the profits generated by major corporations such as Gap, Apple, American Express, and Starbucks into the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. As always, Bono brings his own particular poetics of stupidity to his task. It was “Thank God it’s them instead of you,” in 1985. And now? “I’m Inspi(red).”
- A version of this post appeared in the recent “Feast and Famine” edition of The New Inquiry.