I didn’t know that poverty could be turned into a game show. That’s what seemed to happen on last night’s "American Idol." While the causes of poverty in the U.S. and in Africa were worthy to be addressed, I found the whole broadcast a bit disturbing. It was hard to pinpoint exactly why I was so frustrated with this telethon/reality show/celebrity fest, but after a good night’s sleep I think I have a few reasons.
The Game Show. It was hard for me to view the needs of New Orleans’ flood victims and children in Africa and then have Ryan Seacrest, Ellen Degeneres and others crack jokes. There was such compartmentalization and discontinuity between the seriousness of the topic (poverty) and the purpose of the show (entertainment). I’m not sure it’s possible to put those two things together. I’ve never thought of poverty as “sexy” but this was close.
I was thinking, “If we are going to have a game show theme, why not really blow it out?”
- We could measure the tears of the contestants after viewing Simon in Africa and only those contestants who produced a certain volume could advance to the next round
- We could require only sad, guilt-driven, humanitarian songs in a designated episode
- At the beginning of the season we could eliminate one contestant every time a child dies of hunger in Africa
- Other game/reality shows this could transfer to:
- (shout with me) WHEEL – OF – misFORTUNE!
- The Apprentice; Donald could bring in Katrina victims, give them jobs and then....
- Extreme Makeover: African Slum Edition
- Dr. 70117 (Google it…)
- Who Wants to be a Millionaire (no explanation needed)
- And NBC’s best shot: Meal or No Meal
Forgive my cynicism; I certainly don’t want to make light of poverty. But I’m wondering if a game show can treat the topic with the depth and dignity that it deserves.
Narcissistic Humanitarianism. Another frustration comes from a kind of selfish benevolence that permeates our culture. Can making charitable contributions be self-centered? Yes. We tend to feel good when we help others – and that’s the new problem in a spirited age of voluntarism and philanthropy. We are motivated by our own good feelings, not by a sense of responsibility to a larger cause. Narcissism is defined as a preoccupation with the self and one’s own self-importance, along with the desire for admiration. There certainly was a lot of that happening on “Idol.” Is it possible that what we do in the name of humanitarianism is simply a cover to congratulate ourselves and a chance to slap one another on the back, thus alleviating our guilty conscience?
The church plays this game as well. I have seen and been a part of many mission trips that have a stated purpose of helping the people they are going to minister to. Churches raise $50,000 to visit an exotic country or flock across the border into Mexico. Team members feel good when they return home because they have served, but missionaries often report that the groups they host are loud, arrogant, culturally insensitive and often more trouble (to the missionary or national pastor) than they are worth. I wonder if the best thing that happens in Mexico over spring break is that American churches stimulate the Mexicali valley economy by buying tacos and Pepsis. Our spirit of outreach is a veil for self-absorbed religious tourism. But we feel good about ourselves when we come home.
Justice. The most troubling thing about the recent episode of “Idol” is that it focused entirely on charity. I kept asking myself why the program seemed empty and shallow. Even the short spot with Bono felt thin. The reason: Bono didn’t deliver his nearly trademark message (and none of the other personalities even came close). Either by his own choice or because it got edited out or because the Fox network asked him not to, he didn’t get to say it:
“This is not about charity, it’s about justice.”
That’s it! That’s why I felt so hollow. The entire evening was a pitch for charity. It was a call for money. Ellen Degeneres could throw $100,000 into the pot and challenge her “rich friends” because they, along with most Americans, believe that will solve the problems. Is this just a new form of colonialism, a new version of “the white man’s burden,” another example of how Americans think they can fix the world with power and money? Justice requires so much more: a change of lifestyle, a holistic worldview, a belief system that might be counter to the status quo. What is needed is a partnership with Africans, not charity for Africans. The issues that the ONE Campaign addresses (debt relief, fair trade, AIDS) were completely ignored, I suspect because they might seem too political.
I’m almost surprised that Bono and the ONE Campaign aligned with this event so closely. Their mantra all along has been, “We don’t want your money, we want your voice.” This is why Bono’s understanding of African poverty is so much deeper than the typical celebrity championing a good cause. He learned an important lesson after Live Aid in 1985. He knows that what is required is not more money, but a change in the system and in the way people think about poverty. He knows that his voice is only one of a larger movement, a generation of people who want to influence elections, shape foreign policy and live as global neighbors. Justice, particularly biblical justice, requires that we act justly, love mercy and walk in humility (Micah 6:8).
In the end "American Idol" generated more than $60 million dollars for charity and over 70,000 people signed up for the ONE Campaign. Those are more than impressive numbers, so it's important to recognize the success of this special show. But it's only a partial success because a celebrity game show has inherent limits that do not allow for a presentation of the underlying issues of poverty and justice. That's the problem with Bono on "American Idol."
And finally, it’s not about charity after all, is it? It’s about justice.
Let me repeat that: It’s not about charity, it’s about justice.
And that’s too bad. Because you’re good at charity. Americans, like the Irish, are good at it. We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can’t afford it.
But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.