Sat 18 Dec 2010
I’ve had a post or two referencing the role of celebrity in development recently, triggered by Bill Easterly’s recent Washington Post op-ed. I was surprised to see Easterly take such heat for pointing out that celebrity engagement with development can be problematic – most of the folks I know largely agree with the op-ed. My only intervention was to suggest that Easterly (and others who raise issues with celebrity and development) focus more on the people who feed the celebs their ideas and talking points. Sometimes really well-meaning people can be led astray by one loud voice . . .
Having watched/been part of this conversation for a few days, though, I see the need for an intervention. On his twitter feed, Bill Easterly has promoted a commenter who felt s/he had to remove a post critical of Bono because “Bono gives big money to my organization, and they thought that pissing off Bono could cause another Sunday Bloody Sunday.” At first glance, this paints Bono as terribly thin-skinned, and suggests that he is unwilling to take on criticism of his efforts. Perhaps this is true, but I see little evidence for it here – basically, you have an overly-cautious organization afraid of pissing off a celebrity, but no suggestion that Bono demanded its removal.
More telling, though, is the URL the “censored” poster left at the end of their comment - http://bonowithafricans.wordpress.com/ Oh look, let’s take a bunch of random pictures of Bono in Africa, divorce them from all context, and then stick snarky comments after them. How clever! And juvenile, boring, etc. All this does is suggest to me that the commenter has a larger issue with Bono, and has used Easterly’s blog as a platform to promote them.
I pride myself on taking my work very seriously, without taking myself very seriously. I have my foibles (too numerous to list here), and I am well aware that at least some of my grad students can do a credible impression of me (which I actually take as something of a warped complement) – but I find this sort of thing funny. Hell, we can play the snark game with any number of pictures of me:
“Community meetings would be easier without the community”
“This garland is way outside of my color wheel”
“They told me there would be bourbon. This . . . is not bourbon”
See, now wasn’t that fun?
The point here is that criticism really needs to be constructive, and anchored in something. I’ve been known to lose my temper – for example at the end of the post here – but even my rants are anchored in solid analysis. My extended frustration with Sachs is well-documented, even in the peer-reviewed literature. I have substantive issues with his theories, and how they lead to inappropriate interventions. I sat through what I can best describe as a horribly embarrassing lecture by Sachs at the 2008 Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Boston, where he evoked a total lack of awareness of geography, the fact anyone else in the world addresses development issues, and revived the long-buried corpse of environmental determinism – all around me there were hundreds of geographers staring at him in open-mouthed shock. The man is a disaster for development. However, I can train a monkey to rip something down – as I tell my students, if you want to impress me, put it back together in an interesting way. In my writing on the Millennium Village Project I have offered alternatives and suggestions. I do the same in my forthcoming book. Snark does nothing constructive, and makes it hard for the criticized to see through the personal attack to the useful ideas that might lead to more productive engagement.
Focus on substance, and being constructive, people. To modify the old adage about teaching . . . Those who can’t, snark.