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.