Sunday, September 06, 2009

Catching Up: Ethics of Aid and Mr. Mentality on Monumentality

Not much time for blogging, twitting, or status updating lately, but I did come across two "must blog" media events last week.

1. "The Ethics of Aid" on NPR's Speaking of Faith challenges all of us who think we might be doing good in Africa to think again. This caution, however, feels like a cliche at this point: of course everyone doing aid work in Africa needs to think carefully and ethically about the work they are doing, and of course mistakes will be made. I do cringe a little bit about tenor and approach of some aid projects (a new one about children and Uganda seemed to be more about concerts and t-shirts than politics and aid), so this reminder and response is understandable, but why do we not hear more handwriting about the billions wasted on the corrupt and collapsing western economy? Why do we not hear more about all sorts of corporate aid wasted on economic development in the west? Those concerns circulate, too, but I'd much rather western governments "waste" a billion dollars in Sudan than waste it in Texas.

2. Greg Ulmer posted the pilot episode of Mr. Mentality in which he explains to his sons the function of monumentality and mourning by explaining that in the US, we value pets so much that every year millions of them are put to sleep because we need an oversupply to ensure we meet the demand. Their deaths are a sacrifice this nation is willing to make. His kids are horrified when they learn this fact, but seeing Mr. Mentality explain this point to his kids, and seeing their visceral reaction, probably helped me understand this point better than I have in the past couple of years while working on electronic monumentality. The mourning has been elusive to me. Side note: there are twice as many dogs in America as there are people in Canada.

These two points must be related in many ways. Millions of African lives have been sacrificed to western progress, and yet we culturally do very little to mourn these losses. We have no monuments to the loss (that I am aware of), only monuments to imperialism (see Brussels). Perhaps one challenge of monumentalism is that it tends to celebrate / mourn the local and the national, but seldom the global. Where do global monuments get built? Everywhere? On the Internet? in Second Life? And is Binyavanga Wainaina saying in his interview on Speaking of Faith that "We don't want your aid or your mourning?" Rwandans have been actively trying to figure out how to properly reconcile themselves to their neighbors; I wonder if the gacacas (the public hearings) have been more effective than the monuments?

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