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Monday, January 08, 2007

Exoticism. Sanctimonious charity. Narcissism.



       I must confess to being incensed whenever I encounter maudlin drivel from fucking hippies tourists encountering the poor for the first time in the Third World. They would wax lyrical about the awful conditions the people live under; how it tugs at their heart strings; how the experience has forever altered their perspective on life; so much so that they become reformed citizens of the world upon returning to their nine-to-five, "get me a double latte, non-fat, with caramel and a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg, while I'm texting on my Blackberry" world — for about, oh... two weeks. The hypochondriacs among them would even tout a trip to their general practitioners for sleep aids, so traumatized were they by their bowel-shaking awakening to the realities of an unequal world.

       I am not advocating a position of jadedness or insensitivity to the sufferings of others here, but rather, through the exposure of thinly-veiled, self-congratulatory and narcissistic indulgence masqueraded as compassion, I hope to reveal the dearth of sincerity in these apparent acts of sympathy. Cobbling together a few pages of kitsch; a couple paragraphs of saccharine slobber; tormenting your colleagues (or recipients on your address book) with a handful of photographs — its subjects stripped of their dignity for your own show and tell session; or, perhaps even sending $18 a month to some poor hole in the ground village which you have deigned to grace with your presence on vacation; hardly qualifies as a sincere act of charity, or even empathy.

       Robbing the poor of their dignity, fashioning their plight as a stool to clamber upon their high horse, they romanticize the downtrodden, the deprived, and the poor; and, in the process, gorge on a buffet of self-righteous indignation. In The Middle Passage, V. S. Naipaul dissects one such example:


“I will tell you about the poor people in Bombay,” she insisted. “They are more beautiful than the people in this room.” But now she was beginning to lie. She spoke with passion, but she didn’t even believe what she said. The poor of Bombay are not beautiful, even with their picturesque costumes in low-caste colors. In complexion, features, and physique the poor are distinct from the well-to-do; they are like a race apart, a dwarf race, stunted and slow-witted and made ugly by generations of undernourishment; it will take generations to rehabilitate them. The idea that the poor are beautiful was, with this girl, a borrowed idea. She had converted it into a political attitude, which she was prepared to defend. But it had not sharpened her perception.


These are not some band of Merry Men; out in the streets, they lie; they cheat; they steal, rob, rape, pimp, murder, etc — sometimes from opportunity, more often from necessity. The Nobel laureate, V. S. Naipaul, repeatedly cautions against falling for the myth of the gracious poor and deprived; that, more often than not, it is "a society without standards, without noble aspirations, nourished by greed and cruelty." In short, the idea is a re-manifestation of the noble savage, in the age of globalization.

       The sentimentality over the sordid conditions in which the poor toil under are matched only by the gushing of how different their lifestyles and cultures are — the politically correct child for "quaint" being "unique." This fascination with the exotic is tempered by a detachment no different from observing wildebeest lumber from vanishing waterhole to vanishing waterhole in a drought, all from the comfort of an air-conditioned Range Rover on safari — or a living room sofa with Discovery channel. Poverty existed in these countries before your arrival. Poverty will continue to exist long after you leave. Neither the pathos of their situation nor the nobility of their struggle increases just because they have the dubious fortune to pass under your gaze.

       At the end of the day, what is being practised in these vapid dribblings amount to nothing more than an infatuated encounter with the Other — exoticism — and indulgence with pastoralism, leading to a sanctimonious charity of the worst kind: self-serving, narcissistic compassion:


"Oh, look what I saw on my travels! Poor wretched people living in slums and eating from the streets! My heart bleeds for them! Their plight have really changed me! I will be sure to tell my latte-sipping crowd of the sea change in my world view. Meanwhile check out my 10-mega-pixel pictures of these poor SOBs on my Flickr account!"


The subtext here being that the existence of the wretched bears no other significance apart from serving as an abject lesson on being grateful for one's more fortunate position. I.e. "Look at them poor devils! Boy, am I glad I'm not them."

       These people may be poor, they may be struggling, but their struggles are for survival. There is dignity in that. There is, however, none in exploiting a spectacle of toil and suffering as a prop for narcissistic epiphany and self-righteous indignation; the currency may have changed, but it is robbery all the same.

       The next time you pretend to be some reincarnation of Che Guevara, spare the rest of us from your masturbatory fantasies.

3 Comments:

Anonymous samantha said...

oh, vicious! vicious! the 1st rant of the year! good old excoriating n mercilessly critical ben! glad to know you haven't lost your touch :) we really miss you on sunday nights here! when are you coming back?

January 07, 2007 6:15 PM  
Blogger -ben said...

OMG! Sam, sam, sam! Yes, I miss all of you too! How are the darlings? Send them my love!

when are you coming back?

Not for a while, but I'll be back :-)

Email me! Tell me all about what you've been doing!

January 07, 2007 10:40 PM  
Blogger d r e w said...

Ehh. Nice try.

May 11, 2007 11:04 AM  

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