July 2, 2005

Shooting Rhinos


(click here for larger version)

With the G-8 Summit coming up next week, Tony Blair has expended a lot of energy and political capital to make Africa a major focus of the meeting.  Of course, Bush has cobbled together enough token gestures (including a package of debt relief and malaria funding) to smooth-talk himself out of more serious scrutiny.  (Now we just have to see how he finesses the global warming issue.)

At the same time, Bob Geldorf (of Live Aid fame) is putting the finishing touches on a world-wide series of concerts this weekend to raise money consciousness for Africa, as well as ratchet up the pressure on the G-8 leaders to make a more lasting commitment. 

With all the politics and drama in mind, I was interested in this double page ad for Morgan Stanley that has been running widely for a few weeks now.  (The right half is above, and the left is below.)  It shows tourists on top of a jeep hunting rhinos with cameras. 

Here’s the copy:

“Current moral dilemma:  Spend it all?  Or leave it to the kids?  Yes, we love them.  Yes, they need the money.  No we can’t sit around and not have fun.  After all, giving them money will only keep them from learning how to earn it.  Right?  But everything costs so much more these days.  Maybe there’s a way to do both.”

Right now, it seems the text could apply as easily to the African policy debate as it does to trust fund kids. (I belief a remarkable percentage of the population in Africa is under the age of twenty.)  For all we know, these words (well, maybe not the three syllable ones) could have come straight from the mouth of Dubya — at least, before Cheney told him that ‘the more you give those heathens, the more it ends up lining some general’s pocket.’ 

Of course, there is the “tough-love” argument (much of it quite legitimate, I should add) that African countries need to learn how to run more honest, effective governments and economies.  At the same time, the Geldorf/Pitt/Jolie machine has generated controversy (Celebrities’ Embrace of Africa Has Critics – link) for the tendency to pity the Africans, and push these one-time, celebrity-laden “feel good” extravaganzas which may or may not have that substantive an effect on real, long term structural problems. 

Because the BAG’s focus in these matters is ultimately a semiotic one, I wonder how much this ad speaks both to Bush’s patronization of Africa as well as the more gratuitous side of the Geldorf effort.  I recently set up a new category called “Unnaturally Geographic” to keep an eye on the voyeuristic tendency in the West to reduce primitive life and profound neglect into art, eye candy, travelog or charity case.  With this ad, I can’t help thinking we’ve got some incriminating evidence. 

(Of course, the rhinos are stage left at the moment.  But, I’m sure those nomads, savages and refugees will be right back.)

To me, the separation of the ad into two halves is quite telling, setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them.”  With our technology and our metal beasts, we remain safely apart and distinct — although still casting the long shadows.  We can look as freely and as closely as we desire without being seen or asking for permission.  (In fact, with only animals to contend with, we really have free reign.)  We can access their space, while they remain contained.  And, we can operate in cleared space while they remain under the big trees, idyllically untouched by modernity. 

…Which reminds me, I still haven’t been to Madagascar.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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