“Packaging” The Haiti Fundraising Telethon
It will be interesting to track how this Friday’s Haiti fundraising telethon “packages” this most horrifying tragedy. Major fundraisers featuring primarily rock-era music performances had a 30 year history at this point, which begins with 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh, a Madison Square Garden show (and later film) that George Harrison organized to call attention to that country’s war and famine-related devastation. Since then popular musicians have regulalry banded together in telethons (or consciousness-raising tours) in support of Amnesty International, American farmers, and victims of famine in Ethiopia, among many others.
The post-9/11 telethon, America: A Tribute to Heroes, was perhaps most notable for its careful scripting of national unity. Supporting Joel Gallen’s directorial work in Tribute to Heroes were a number of hugely influential writers, including key political figures, such as Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan (who claims credit for Tom Cruise’s and Julia Roberts’s lines) and Ann Lewis, a communications aide to Bill Clinton. The show not only acted as a summary of boomer style, affect, and political stance but also helped establish a grammar and vocabulary for the 9/11 art that would follow in its wake. Important post-Katrina discussions of race and belonging were very much shaped by Kanye West going offscript during that telethon and claiming that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
Who will speak for Haiti during this telethon? Will Wyclef Jean be framed as an authority? A victim? Hope for Haiti will likely go a long way to defining American visions of Haiti and its people.
Jeffrey Melnick, Associate Professor of American Studies