Bring Back Our Girls
As the tragic spectacle of 276 kidnapped Nigerian girls receives international attention, I can’t help but feel sick to my stomach thinking about Nigerian Scams, and the context in which they arise, in the deepest Hunger Games kind of way. As celebrities stride red carpets in stunning pink, carrying bold posters for the cause, I want to root for “our girls” much the way I cheered for Katniss to save Rue in a mediated extravaganza, a spectacle the state designed to distract me from world poverty, hunger, slave labor, and mass slaughter.
Hollywood is filled with the scandalous objectification of little black girls: Rue Racism (from the Hunger Games); Quvenzhané Wallis insults; Willow Smith sex scandals, and now all the voluptuous Red Carpet pleas for those Nigerian girls’ rescue. Sure, the Hollywood spotlight on political issues is valuable, and the coalesced international public opinion is powerful. The girls and their plight should be made visible. My heart hurts for “our girls,” but that pain must be measured equally against the hurt for all the disappeared girls and boys just down the block from me.
But what about the stadium seating to the spectacle of hurting? What about how we ignore US political investment in the conditions that threaten the girls’ safety in the first place. We want international leaders to run to the rescue, but we cling to a daily fictional utopia built partially on orientalist fantasies of injured girl bodies that permit these politics in the first place.
But first, a parable
Ursula Le Guin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, shocked me as an adolescent. The story recounts the condition of a utopian city named Omelas that thrives because a lone child is kept imprisoned in a state of abominable misery in a basement. The city’s residents must confront this abjection. Most suck it up and go on with their lives. Some live with their guilt, their wounded attachment, and let the moral paradox of it burden their conscience while they leave the child to rot. Some folks walk away. They leave the utopia of Omelas behind, and where they go is unimaginable.
When I first read the story, I was also learning about Jungian archetypes, so I saw the abject child as a psychological drama as much as a cultural one. Le Guin is easy to read that way; she invites readers to be selfish and self-centered.
The terrible choice that Omelas asks its citizens bubbled up to me this morning because last night I watched a terrible movie, Prisoners. Could I torture someone to find my lost child? All the more painful, [SPOILER] the movie reveals that the young man who is tortured is himself a victim, not a predator, but his information nonetheless leads to the kidnapped girls. Am I willing to leave a child in a state of abjection? Am I willing to starve a child in a locked room and abuse it to free my own child? Am I willing to victimize a lone child in order to keep all the children in the world free of hunger, disease, and poverty? This possibility is the fantasy of Omelas.
When we beg for the Nigerian girls’ freedom from the comfort of our sofas or the red carpet, we fool ourselves into thinking we can simultaneously keep the paradise of Omelas and free the abominable child from the filthy basement. We turn off the Oscars, and our conscience is clean.
For many years, I blogged about 419 scams, the emails people receive from embassies, the cousins of deceased Nigerian generals who want to transport gold, and variations on Spanish Prisoner schemes. I learned about their history, how much money scammers have racked up over the years, and the more recent trend called “scam baiting,” where people make sport of tricking scammers.
419 scams are the underbelly of utopia.
They are the moment of confrontation between the abject child and the Omelas citizen in the filthy basement.
The child wants freedom and entry into Paradise, and the citizen sees and fears the loss of Utopia. The scammers simply want to leave the basement. We call them greedy, but most of us are far greedier. The scam victims – due to greed, loneliness, or naivety – and the scammers themselves all succumb to the same me-first thinking. For a long time, I was amused by scam baiters, but they are bullies. Nonetheless, feeling sorry for the scammers just because they are bullied is the wrong response, because that emotion keeps firmly in place the echo chamber of “feeling sorry for,” of guilt and othering.
In today’s othering – of “our girls” and of the 419 scammers – two dynamics that come to mind. The first was left intentionally absent in the Omelas story, though LeGuin hints at it. She never elaborates on the ones who walk away to a place unimaginable. Who can envision a way out of the paradox?
The second is the Hunger Games response, a hypermedia effect that results from Survivor television, viral YouTube videos, drone warfare, and tweeted Mothers’ day messages to “save our girls.” As a utopia, Omelas is surely a somewhat ethical city even though it contains the seeds of darkness in the citizens who reside there. The Hunger Games, a dystopia for the new millennium, turns abjection into a transmediated gladiatorial spectacle on an epic scale. And that means imagining walking away becomes more difficult as the spectacle of passive outrage grows more glamorous and comfortable.
This will be my last post on Nigerian Scams.
Note: I removed most of the pictures of Hollywood stars on the red carpet holding signs because I received a threatening letter from a lawyer regarding copyright infringement.You know the pictures I was referring to, though. However, this was the caption for one of the photos:
“With a fuchsia strapless dress that accentuated her voluptuous figure, Salma Hayek was already guaranteed to turn heads on the Cannes red carpet. So she used the opportunity to draw attention to a crisis…” (from Fox News)