Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Spot the Africa

Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel’s as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.
Robert Burns (1759–1796)

A modern rendering of the words of poet Burns might be -- 
Oh, what a powerful gift it would be for us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would free us from many a blunder
and foolish notion.

I think of these lines whenever I notice a bit of wisdom about my own country, offered from the fresh perspective of someone from another. In Spot the Africa, Trevor Noah does just that, on many levels.

Find Africa in these images.
Noah ends with a song that is a send-up of Bob Geldof's recent reprise of "Do they Know It's Christmas?" When I watched the original Band Aid 1984 version with students recently, we found it be incredibly dated. Sadly, the Band Aid 2014 version is even worse. Not only is all the original condescension included, but the reprise (which I do not recommend watching) opens with a jarring, voyeuristic contrast: from the removal of a nearly nude ebola victim from her bed, the scene cuts to the media spectacle of Geldof and his costars arriving at the studio for a red-carpet moment.

My students and I are not the only ones who have objected to the video's objectification of ebola victims in particular and Africans in general. Rather than building much-needed empathy, it actually increases social distance; rather than reducing geographic ignorance, it perpetuates errant stereotypes. Geldof and crew are no better than the chocolate industry, whose first concern was its supply chain, and which responded with highly publicized token donations.

Geldof has not taken the criticism well, cutting one interview short with colorful language and later insisting that his song was not intended to be a dissertation. Also with colorful language. Since Geldof wants acclaim but not serious engagement, mockery seems an appropriate response. Trever Noah delivers it artfully above, and calls to mind an even more elaborate parody by Radi-Aid.

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