Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Celebrity Colonialism

In a recent article for the Mail and Guardian, Brendan O'Neill suggests that adoptions of African children by the likes of Madonna and Brangelina may show us that "having a black baby is the new black." O'Neill calls this phenomenon the "White Madonna's Burden" (in not-so-thinly-veiled reference to the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, "The White Man's Burden"). In his 2006 criticism of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's decision to effectively shut down the entire country of Namibia so that the birth of their baby could be a "special experience," O'Neill coined the term "celebrity colonialism" to describe it. And it only takes a cursury scan of Madonna's interview with Vanity Fair to see that the colonialist undertones that O'Neill emphasizes are not entirely invented by him. (The Vanity Fair article compares David, Madonna's Namibian son, to Pocahantas, who represents "a kind of purity and righteous connection to the land.") Even still, are adoptions something that we really want to criticize?

Consider this a reprise of some of the issues in the last post, where we investigated the manner in which the link between the what (human rights) and the why (humanism) can be very, very complicated. I will assume that very few of us oppose in principle the adoption of children who need homes, even children from Africa, perhaps even and especially when these children are being adopted by very wealthy people with the means to give them very comfortable lives. But reading the Vanity Fair article about Madonna shows that there is a fine line between philanthropy and paternalism, one that we ought to make bolder and more obvious when the opportunity arises to do so.

I don't think I want to go completely Kantian on this issue, since I do believe that certain acts have moral worth even if they aren't necessarily grounded in a good will. But I also don't want to take the other (reductively consequentialist) extreme, because I know that the "goodness" of an act can be undermined by the dubiousness of its motivation. So, the problem with this so-called "celebrity colonialism", I think, is not so much the adoptions themselves, but the larger discourse about Africa and Africans to which the celebrities seem to be (consciously or not) contributing. If people like Madonna et al really want to help bring relief to some of the pain and suffering of the peoples of Africa, they must begin first with some recognition that the entire continent is not a place without history and without its own very complicated politics. (For an excellent analysis of the way that the crisis in Dafur has been "depoliticized" in the mainstream American press, partly as a result of sloppy celebrity interventions, see Mahmood Mamdani's "The Politics of Naming.") Or, as Wandia Njoya noted recently (and I said a while ago on this blog), they/we must stop believing that Hollywood films--like Hotel Rwanda, Last King of Scotland, To Catch A Fire, or Blood Diamond-- give us an accurate or comprehensive understanding of what's really going on--and why--in Africa.

To borrow Dr. Trott's formulation of the human rights question, I guess the question here is: "African adoptions even when they're wrong?" And I suppose I would answer that question in the same way that I answered the previous one, though perhaps a bit more reservedly this time. Of course adoptions themselves are not wrong... but they can be, and often are, framed in a discourse that poisons the well, so to speak.

ADDENDUM (5/31): Fellow blogger Booga Face posted his poem on this same topic on his blog., which interestingly questions why American "cosmopolitan consumption" is o.k. when it comes to "wine, cheese and hip-hop" but not when it comes to adoptions. Very provocative, Booga Face!


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Dr. J,

Couldn't agree with you more. I had a lot of similarly conflicted emotions when Madonna's adoption story first broke. And I'm happy to see that pop culture and politics are getting simultaneous deconstruction...

Dr. Trott said...

So yeah it's really flipping weird when foreign, specifically African, adoptions become trendy! There are three families on my block who adopted Guatamalan children to the point where it seemed excessive. Surely these children will have a better material existence with Madonna or Brangelina, but especially the Madonna case, suggested that imperialism extended to just complete disregard for the family arrangements in the home country (didn't Madonna's child's father visit him regularly in the orphanage?).

Can we see the same tension here between saying that the Mad-brangelina life might be better at the most basic level and the imperialism of judging what makes a better life as is at work between saying that tracing Aristotle to Africa makes Africa only worthy on Western standards?

But even further, maybe it's good that people are not breeding but just raising children -- and it provides interesting challenges to those who say that children need fathers and blah blah blah when Sheryl Crow (and rumor has it Jennifer Aniston) adopt. (Of course, fathers are good, but we can think of all kinds of configurations of families that could work and adoption might be a good way to set that to work).

Booga Face said...

A student of mine did an excellent research paper on the effect of the adoption market. She was, herself, adopted under those circumstances. As you pointed out, one has to consider history and context and not simply whether the act in and of itself is moral.

So, considering those things, the first obvious question is why do most Americans adopt third-world babies? (And John Sayles' movie Casa de los Babys is excellent on this.) Often parents adopt from the third-world because they would not be allowed to adopt in the U.S. Other parents adopt because they have a rather blatant colonialist attitude far worse than Madonna's more subtle one. There is no governing body in place to ensure that parents aren't adopting for the wrong reasons.

Second question, what are the conditions under which babies are adopted in country X as opposed to country Y? For instance, in some countries (e.g., India), the process is well policed and regulated. But in many countries (e.g., Ethiopia, Guatemala), how a baby got to the adoption agency is suspect. Hence, in effect, when it becomes fashionable for Americans to adopt from third-world countries, what is produced is an underground, criminal baby market, which includes kidnappings, etc.

Third question, what happens to the babies after they are adopted? Psychological studies have demonstrated that the move is traumatic for the child, who inevitably experiences an identity crisis. These children are statistically more likely to have drug problems, etc. What can or should be done to help the adoptive parents and child cope with this trauma?

Fourth and most important question, if "helping" these third-world people is the supposed goal of adoption, is adoption really the best way to go about it? Let's do the math. If I raise a child in the United States, the total cost of raising that child for 18 years (not including college) will be at the very least $18,000 just for food and clothing. More likely, we're talking somewhere around $100,000. And if you pay for the college, then we could be talking a total of $200,000 or more. That's a lot. Okay, now let's continue doing the math. With $100,000, an NGO in Ethiopia could build and finance a school that would benefit a hundred students. For instance, Oxfam works closely with the farmers collectives in Ethiopia to enable them to do exactly this, so donating money directly to Oxfam or having one's own institution (school or church) buy product (coffee, for instance) directly from farmers collectives instead of through American corporations would help hundreds of people, not just the one adopted child. So clearly, adoption is less about helping third-world countries and more about making the parent feel good.

So, personally, I am ethically opposed to these kinds of adoptions. And I suspect if you talk to members of African, Latin American, and Asian diasporic communities living in the U.S., you will discover that they are also opposed to wealthy white people adopting kids from their home countries. (At least, the Oromo people I've talked to feel that way.)

That said, one should not criticize Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Rather, one should criticize all the white middle class people who naively believe they are "doing right." Jolie and Pitt have been very explicit in public about what they do and why. And here is what they have said: the stupid magazines such as People and Us are going to follow Jolie and Pitt around all the time anyway, and since the stupid magazines are taking pictures of them every single f---ing week instead of doing research on real issues, Jolie and Pitt decided to physically take the stupid magazines to those places. In other words, Jolie and Pitt are forcing magazines to include stories about places such as Ethiopia and Vietnam simply by going there and doing things there. In other words, Vanity Fair wouldn't be even talking about those places if Madonna hadn't gone there herself and suggested the idea to the editors of Vanity Fair in her interview. It's brilliant, and in my mind, brillitanly ethical, because it goes beyond the insipid question of "is my action right according to the categorial imperative" and recognizes the uniqueness of their own rhetorical position -- Jolie and Madonna are not us.

In other words, as Slavoj Zizek points out in his recent work on ethics, real ethics doesn't just make the right decision based on what's possible. Real ethics changes what's possible. I think Jolie does that.

Interestingly, I've actually written a poem about this very topic, which I'll post on my next blog.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I think it's problematic to get into the heads of people to discover why people adopt (just as it is to get into the heads of people to discover why they decide to have biological children).

In particular, I don't think it's fair to say that people primarilly adopt overseas because they can't adopt in the U.S. (as though domestic adoption were the norm and foreign adoption its bastard child) or because they have covertly or overtly colonialist attitudes.

Which is why I would disagree with booga face, at least in the following regard: I have far more concerns about the phenomenon of celebrity adoption than plain old foreign adoption. And even there, my objections are more political than ethical.

kgrady said...

I do believe that certain acts have moral worth even if they aren't necessarily grounded in a good will.

OK, I'm taking the bait. Now I don't want to insist on letting Kant define all the terms, but I (even the non-Kantian parts of me) would say that an action that isn't grounded in a good will might have worth, but by definition that worth would be extra-moral. An act is only moral insofar as it is deliberate, and is only morally good insofar as it deliberately aims at the good. I say this only as a way of prompting you to say more about what you mean.

DOCTOR J said...

Yeah, you're right, Kyle. I should be called out on that one.

I'm not sure I have a prefab answer to this... it's more of an intuition... but I guess what I would say (tentatively) is that I want to leave some room between (moral) actors and their actions. That is, it seems to me that when we say we can only assign moral worth to a who and not a what, then it seems to leave out the possibility of morally good collective action, where there would be too many wills to calculate.

Let me think more about what I meant here and I'll come back to this...

kgrady said...

Well, I'm happy with that answer. But that doesn't mean I would mind if you developed into a post at some point. :)