Poverty Porn, Dilettante Charity and a Holiday in Cambodia

Back in the day-oh yes it’s going to be one of those posts-Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys would have been as close to political gurus as they were musicians for a lot of young people involved in the early punk scene. I learned a lot about the world while slamming in front of the stage, reading zines, debating anarchist politics and listening to that music. Holiday in Cambodia was a particular favorite.

Which leads in nicely to something of a book review. Or more aptly a review of a certain genre of emerging writing (and documentary and feature film ) that I call Poverty Porn.  There are a lot of good books that deal with the issues of poverty in India and other developing nations. They are well researched, descriptive and encompass as much as possible the entire lives of those being portrayed.  (In the fictional realm Slumdog Millionaire comes to mind)  Often they also give some recommendations as to what can and is being done to assist in alleviating the situation of extreme poverty.  The authors sometimes contribute a portion of the proceeds to programs of assistance (as in the case of the movie mentioned),  use their platform to reach those in power to effect change or teach much needed skills to locals who have assisted them.  One person I have been acquainted with had directed a feature film some years ago and had taught local people film-making and photography skills as well as location skills. A few of those people have obtained work with other film-makers or have had their photography published in magazines and the like. It took a little extra time and money but it has opened doors that would otherwise have remained closed.

But then there are the other kind of books.  Sometimes in the travel, culture or biography sections they do appear occasionally in the “spirituality” section as well. Someone goes on a spiritual tour of India, Africa or South America and becomes an instant expert on all the cultures and problems of the region. They get the vibe man and bring back all the long lost wisdom of the ages to the benefit of all their readers and their own bank accounts.  They will tell you all about the first part of their acquisition but not too much about the second part.  They take a lot of photos of children, post them on their websites and go on at length (usually book-length) about what an effect the eyes of these “haunted” children had on them and their spiritual path. They applaud themselves generously for whatever token of altruism they might work up during this visit usually by referring to their own actions repeatedly with words like “I had to give her something but I only had 100 rupees in my pocket”   I’ve said,” If you care so much give her your fucking camera!” Response,  “Oh but I need that.”  I actually had an exchange something like that a few years ago.

Sometimes they overlook the surroundings and people completely in favor of lengthy narcissistic self-examination only making local references when in need of a backdrop for their whining or as foil for their feeble wit. And then they write the book, make the film or whatever, collect a few celebrity endorsements and accolades and move on to the next scene of exploitative tourism.  (Of course if they go to Iraq or Sudan that’s called disaster tourism and is becoming increasingly popular-Swat Valley hot air balloon rides anyone?)

Here’s an example.  In an interview for her book Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert says,

I would say that the three countries [Italy, India and Indonesia] I visited are becoming more similar to us than we are to them, and that’s sort of a pity. What I mean by that is that I think America’s most marked export these days is STRESS, which we seem to be spreading across the world … I still think that Americans produce the most amazing things out of their lives — but it just worries me to see how much teeth-grinding, soul-corroding pressure our country puts on itself and on the world, and the impact of that weighs mightily on everyone.

Then in the same interview she says

Madness will follow anyone who tries to keep up the schedule of an Indian ashram in their normal, American life, so I don’t bother trying to uphold all that ritual and discipline.

And on her own website one of the questions in the FAQ is:

What was it like returning to reality after all your travels?

Where to begin with this kind of stuff? The second statement clearly belies the first. The pressure of life in an ashram is more intense than the pressure back home. Hence the dispensing with most of what she might have learned there except for a few buzzwords that the book reviewers might be familiar with. The connotation of madness is certainly insulting both to the Indian hosts at the ashram where she stayed, who no doubt showed a great deal of patience in dealing with such a self-absorbed individual, and to her readers who may very well be equipped to implement such a schedule.

It is the arrogant belief of some Americans that their culture is so attractive that others would rabidly follow along. Sure people will take the goods and some of the services but it’s a culture that many outside of America actively reject. Hindu temple building in India is at an all time high. Socialism and Communism are common political preferences.  There are several Indian states run by elected Communist governments.  Bollywood movies gross far more at the box office than Hollywood movies, which often don’t even open outside of a few theaters in very large cities. Most people I know couldn’t even name more than the 2 Hollywood stars, Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  But everyone also knows Bruce Lee and Ben Kingsley-the latter because he is part Indian and played Gandhi.  Very few people of the middle class have a Play Station or the like and most would probably find it quite boring. And the cultural references in most of the games would be lost on many. Cricket is the preferred sport of all classes. Football (soccer) comes in second. There is censorship of all sexual topics and pornography is illegal, though marginally available. None of this is going to change any time soon.

People work and go to school 6 days a week and a good number of them 7 days and put in 12 hour or longer days. The  religious festivals (Hindu religion) are the only days off for a lot of people. So if you want to talk about pressure start with that. India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.  Stress is not an American invention. But the level of complaining about it and the dire need for “comfort” from so many petty travails certainly is. And the pharmaceutical industry thanks you.

There have been and are millions of people in the rest of the world who also “produce the most amazing things out of their lives” but most don’t have to pump up their egos about it by writing self-indulgent narratives of their own “suffering” while on pre-paid vacations for a year.

And as to the word pity-even in a “sort of” way,  she can’t even be generous enough to completely pity. The use of the word pity denotes that the speaker is in a somewhat better position than those about whom they speak. And it also gives no indication of any real concern for those upon whom this cultural tsunami is allegedly being dumped. (see also my post about The Compassion Confusion where compassion and pity are compared)

The porn I am talking about in the title of this piece is all about desire. It is the desire to distinguish one’s self, group or culture from another by means of pity and exploitation. It is the fervent desire to find self-satisfaction within one’s own seemingly unassailable  social position by browsing through impoverished cultures and using them to bolster one’s own sense of  personal or cultural power. It is the porn of snobbery. Only the wealthy can afford pity and only the most shallow of those broadcast it as an example of “self-discovery”.

Now about reality. If Italy, India and Indonesia are not real than what are they? Disneyland? Seems to be a popular state of mind among spiritual tourists. People living and working around the world outside of the United States are not doing so for the enjoyment of the spoiled American (and other Western) elite. Other people are not here to service you. The suffering of others is not to benefit your sense of comfort and satisfaction and self-serving charity.

Now we even have Angelina and Madonna running around the world collecting children of various hues like the ornaments on an anthropological charm bracelet. A trend started perhaps by actress Mia Farrow, although much to her credit she did not seek tabloid publicity for it even though she got it.  Maybe these children will have the material advantage of having everything but:  Who will they become? That is the most important question. And how much further is it going to go?

My point is not to give a spanking to the collective Western guilt complex though I did enjoy doing that.

The point is things are out of control. When these kinds of books (films) become best sellers for over a year and their authors are applauded as some kind of spiritual superheroes for this kind of indulgence it’s time to take a look at the content of both what we are spending our money on and of our characters.

Holiday in Cambodia-a nice long version from YouTube.

Here’s the general lyrics if you don’t know them.

So you been to school
For a year or two
And you know you’ve seen it all
In daddy’s car
Thinkin’ you’ll go far
Back east your type don’t crawl

Play ethnicky jazz
To parade your snazz
On your five grand stereo
Braggin’ that you know
How the niggers feel cold
And the slums got so much soul

It’s time to taste what you most fear
Right Guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear:

It’s a holiday in Cambodia
It’s tough, kid, but it’s life
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Don’t forget to pack a wife

You’re a star-belly sneech
You suck like a leach
You want everyone to act like you
Kiss ass while you bitch
So you can get rich
But your boss gets richer off you

Well you’ll work harder
With a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers
Till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need, my son:.

Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack

Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, [etc]

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll do what you’re told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul

3 comments on “Poverty Porn, Dilettante Charity and a Holiday in Cambodia

  1. I just found out that I have no Dead Kennedys on my iphone.
    Fitting I guess. But I do have a bunch of Fugazi, “you are not what you own,” which is maybe feeling a bit out of place. Still I used to have a bunch of DK on annalog. Remember casset tepes? Oh materialisim and nostalgia!

    Oh, this was a good rant.

  2. Pingback: Colonialists-R-Us Holidays | NellaLou

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