Third World Kids, First World Problemsby Brandon Edmonds / 10.02.2012
South Africa is the number one choice of “structured gap year programs” for foreign students looking to give something back before they start racking up debt and herpes at university. Year Out, an association of gap year organisations, has a yearly poll of popular destinations and we’ve won it four times in a row. “South Africa’s enduring popularity stems from the diverse nature of the country,” a spokesperson said, “and the availability of a wide range of suitable and worthwhile projects.” There’s good poverty here in other words and enough infrastructure in place to Skype home.
The admirable well-meaning do-gooder liberal impulse of global teens is nicely undercut by this week’s meme, the Third World Success Kid. It perfectly parallels the mindset of the gap year sojourner. Get a taste of the third world, bump up against horrors the media puts at arms length, build a little character along with the roof of a crèche, hold some babies, fuck some black guys (it’s called ‘snowboarding’), take some pictures, get drunk, and go home.
Just as a meme probably isn’t the right cultural format to address the unequal terms of trade that keeps Africa underdeveloped or the predatory African elites in bed with global capital who enrich themselves at the expense of the people, so the gap year experience can’t fully enlighten committed travelers about the life and death struggle of the poor. Concerned, empathetic young visitors can always leave.
The meme reaches lift-off, the perfect functional marriage of image and caption, with the line “Ate”. Everything is there. All the garbled perceptions of the continent. All the ignorance, prejudice and genuine concern. The last thirty years of Live Aid Bono charity stuff which, again, hasn’t altered the structural fundamentals of rigged terms of trade, so famines keep happening and UN-alert “humanitarian disasters” still define Africa. The meme exposes the default mode of social media: a jokey equivalence of issues and response, a benumbed flippancy so used to staring into the abyss (execution footage, animal culling, real time violence uploaded by smart phone) the abyss is normal. And, hey, it’s just a joke right? Lighten up.
The Third World Success kid evolved out of the delightful First World Problems meme. It’s a meme scriptwriters and artists need to examine very closely. Too many films, TV shows, books and games have laughably low stakes. Julia Roberts goes around the world to eat pasta and find herself. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark can afford anything so they get to work out daddy issues geopolitically. The Cullens’ glassy woodland mansion is worth millions. They’re about the upper middle class, if not the mega rich, mildly challenging themselves to engage with the world and be better people. It’s boring not “aspirational”. The strangulating monopoly of a few media conglomerates generating popular culture pretend all problems are First World Problems to distract us from social reality.