This week’s New York Times Magazine left lots of readers thinking that controversial recording artist M.I.A. doesn’t always know what she’s talking about when it comes to politics. That happens to be true. What fewer people realize: neither does profile writer Lynn Hirschberg.
Hirschberg’s sloppy contextualizing of the politics of M.I.A.’s actions swings between flat-out wrong and incomplete. The profile also misses some of its meatiest material by not discussing the occasions on which the singer specifically chose to make statements about her native Sri Lanka—and sometimes seriously flubbed them.
Last spring, as the war in Sri Lanka hurtled toward a brutal finish after more than a quarter-century of violence, M.I.A. volunteered herself as its definitive Tamil spokesperson. In an appearance on Tavis Smiley’s PBS show (as quoted in an earlier Times article), she said, “Being the only Tamil in the Western media, I have a really great opportunity to sort of bring forward what’s going on in Sri Lanka.” So what kind of spokesperson is she? A profile of her could have been great explanatory journalism about both the conflict and the artist.
Instead the piece treats Sri Lankan politics as too complicated for readers to understand (and perhaps her last name is too; in a weird departure from Times style, M.I.A., whose full name is Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, is referred to as “Maya” throughout). Instead of dealing with anything hard, the article juxtaposes the musician’s wealth with her desire to be an outsider and promote social justice, as though those things were incompatible. I must have missed the part where we don’t want rich people to care about others. (Indeed, it’s so glib as to seem like a setup: M.I.A. Posts New York Times Interview Clip: Truffle-Fries Scandal Deepens.)
When Hirschberg does mention political background, she gets basics wrong. For example, Hirschberg says Sri Lanka was “torn by fighting between the Tamil Hindu minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.” The Times has had to correct that erroneous and problematic conflation before: the fighting was between Tamil Tigers rebels and government security forces, and the Tigers weren’t religiously motivated (or even all Hindu). What’s more, when the Tigers claimed sole representation of Tamil communities’ interests in Sri Lanka, they killed dissenting Tamils, including members of other militant groups. And Hirschberg makes no mention of successive Sri Lankan governments’ discrimination against minorities, including Tamils, or crackdown on dissent from all ethnicities. What’s the political significance of any of this? Don’t wait for Hirschberg to tell you.
The premise seems to be that it doesn’t matter if we understand what the singer is saying. Then why bother writing an article? Hirschberg quotes M.I.A. saying, “And my giving birth is nothing when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp.” Hirschberg gives us no context. To the reader who knows nothing about Sri Lanka, M.I.A. could be so outrageous in her rhetoric that she’s simply concocting those camps.
In fact, she’s not quite that outrageous. In the war’s aftermath, displaced Tamil civilians were detained in what the Sri Lankan government termed “welfare centres.” Organizations like Amnesty International criticized camp conditions and called residents’ detention illegal, as the vast majority of them had not been charged with any crimes. The government responded by saying these people’s homes were in mined areas, and furthermore, they needed to screen them to find Tiger collaborators. The government’s most vocal detractors—including M.I.A. and some other members of the Tamil diaspora—used language associated with genocide, like “concentration camps,” to make their criticisms. Others thought this inflammatory, inaccurate, counterproductive, and not actually helpful to those in the camps, who, critics allege, had already had to survive being used as human shields by the Tigers while the undaunted government shelled them.
Hirschberg also leaves out prime occasions on which M.I.A. attempted to exercise her spokesperson status—the aforementioned Tavis Smiley interview, for example, on which she used that same rhetoric of genocide (rhetoric which PBS ombudsman Michael Getler criticized Smiley for not challenging, since major human rights organizations haven’t adopted the term for Sri Lanka’s situation). As Getler noted, M.I.A. also argued against conflating the Tigers and Tamil civilians (the point Hirschberg got wrong). But she played fast and loose with details like the size of the Sri Lankan Army and the Tigers’ force.
Some would argue that such details are unimportant, and certainly, it’s hard to briefly and accurately characterize Sri Lanka. Still, in human rights reporting, detail and documentation are crucial; her inaccuracies were damaging, and also undermined her legitimate points. A couple of weeks after her appearance, the Sri Lankan official rebutting her on Smiley’s show defended the government by jabbing deftly at her inaccuracies, noting her failure to more clearly condemn the Tigers for crimes like child conscription, and suggesting that she stick to music. (Unlike Hirschberg, I don’t have nine pages: you can read Getler here.)
Instead of examples like these, which could shed light not only on M.I.A.’s effect on politics but also politics’ effect on M.I.A., the article focuses on (mis?)characterizing her lifestyle. She eats French fries? Likes olive bread? Lives in Brentwood? I don’t really care. I’m not compelled by the argument that her greatest political failure is claiming to care about people while being rich. And her monetizing artistic engagement of politics and violence is interesting, but without correctly situating that art in the context of Sri Lankan politics, the profile can’t talk substantively about that either. I’m interested in the material that shows her level of knowledge on the subject on which she claims to be a political authority. Relevant examples of her political statements abound, but Hirschberg gives us M.I.A. choosing to give birth in a hospital as an example of her not living up to a promise. Reading about Sri Lanka and talking about what she gets right and wrong would have been much harder work.
In the wake of publication, many people are talking about M.I.A’s series of reactions rather than whether the piece itself is good. She’s not always correct about Sri Lanka, but she’s absolutely right that the article is unfair. In the latest sally in the Hirschberg-M.I.A. back-and-forth, the musician scored some points by posting audio that runs counter to Hirschberg’s version of one of their meetings. But she also may be backing off being “the” voice of Tamils: her revenge track is called “I’m a Singer.” If M.I.A.’s letting go of her label, maybe Hirschberg should follow suit. This is a terrible piece of trivial journalism and not much more.V.V. Ganeshananthan , a journalist and fiction writer, teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan. She is a former vice president of the South Asian Journalists Association and a founding member of Lanka Solidarity. Her debut novel, Love Marriage (Random House, 2008), is set in Sri Lanka and its diaspora, and was named one of Washington Post Book World's Best of 2008.