In Empire of Illusion: the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle, Chris Hedges makes a convincing, cogent case that American culture has been bankrupted and reduced to six-grade level meaningless fluff, obsessed with celebrity culture, coddled by the simplistic imagery and messaging of the entertainment industry, and having neither the taste nor the stomach for the nuanced complexity of the real world.
I’m glossing over. Hedges excoriates.
I don’t see myself particularly as a critic of American culture. I consume. I watch prime-time television. But Hedges touches nerves with me. What he says rings true. And it especially rings true after my own years of trying unsuccessfully to put into words what disturbs me about the way the aid industry talks about what it does. It rings true as I try to describe the deep chasm the separates aid marketing from aid action.
On page 26 of Empire of Illusion, He writes:
“The veterans saw their wartime experience transformed into an illusion. It became part of the mythic narrative of heroism and patriotic glory sold to the public by the Pentagon’s public relations machine and Hollywood. The reality of war could not compete against the power of the illusion. The truth did not feed the fantasy of war as a ticket to glory, honor, and manhood. The truth did not promote collective self-exaltation. The illusion of war peddled in The Sands of Iwo Jima, like hundreds of other Hollywood war films, worked because it was what the public want to believe about themselves.”
He might as well be talking about aid. He is talking about aid. Myself as a veteran of the aid enterprise, I react viscerally to what Hedges says here. I know it’s true.
There is the real world of international humanitarian aid and development. Then there is the world that the public consumes. And here let us be very clear: “consumes” is precisely the right word.
Because aid is entertainment.
Regardless of what we might or might not do in “the field”, in the context of the modern culture that constitutes our donor public aid is entertainment. It is scripted, produced and sold to a consuming public who consumes it precisely because it is entertaining. They consume entertainment aid because the produced, marketed product delivers an illusion which corresponds to what they want to believe about themselves. Like a visit to Disney World, the interaction between a household charity and an individual donor is increasingly scripted and “produced” to maximize the donor’s “experience.” This is not only what I like to call “the cult of the donor.” Whether they’re receiving a letter of thanks (signed by the CEO), “buying a well” from the gift catalogue, or going on a guided tour of a project they’ve supported in a foreign country, ordinary citizens who support relief and development charities are increasingly purchasing a product, specifically and experience.
The perception of international aid and development in popular culture, too, is carefully scripted as entertainment, as prime-time reality drama that anyone can be part of. Like American Idol or The Fear Factor, “helping the poor” and “making a difference” are just new arenas where anyone can have a shot at 15 minutes of fame. You can collect T-shirts or shoes to send to Africa, you can start a #socent cause that goes viral, you can invent a new widget that will make poverty history, you can start a 501(c)3 with it’s own website and mission statement. In the entertainment world of aid, you, too can be remarkable. You can change the world! Or so the script goes.
Aid is entertainment.
When President Barak Obama wanted a humanitarian perspective on such matters as, say, how to prevent mass atrocities or reduce the amount of sexual violence against women, he didn’t go to the community of professional humanitarian organizations and practitioners. There are surely plenty of real aid workers with significant expertise and experience, not to mention organizations who implement US-grant funded programs to address these exact issues within easy walking distance of the White House. No – in order to get the inside scoop on what’s really going with violence against women in other countries, the leader of the Free World held a private audience with a couple of actors.
Aid is entertainment.
Hedges continues: “Faith in ourselves, in a world of make-believe, is more important than reality. Reality, in fact, is dismissed and shunned as an impediment to success, a form of negativity.”
The real world of international aid and development is not a perfect world. There’s a lot that goes wrong in there, a lot that needs to change and get better. But at least it’s real.
And as unpleasant as it might be we have to make the public understand the reality.