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.