Madonna’s choice

KAREN STABINER is the editor of the anthology "The Empty Nest," to be published in May.

MADONNA has managed to polarize fans and critics again, with her plan to adopt a 13-month-old boy from Malawi, in Africa; she hasn’t been front and center like this since the Gaultier cone-bra era.

Her supporters say she would save a young life if she is allowed to adopt David Banda, and they point to her charity, Raising Malawi, as proof of her pure intentions. Her detractors see the adoption as celebrity grandstanding: “Honey, the Hummer needs gas, I’ve got a fitting for the Dior at 1, and, oh, while you’re out, can you pick me up a destitute orphan and alert the press corps?” Or worse, a bit of flesh-peddling. In return for raising $3 million for Malawi and establishing a new orphanage for 4,000 children, the pop singer got to pick out a new addition to her family.

If that seems harsh, do not forget that the orphanage was instructed to pre-select a group of tykes for Madonna’s consideration. One can only speculate -- and who would want to? -- on the criteria that made David Banda the successful candidate.

A levelheaded friend reminds me that other people adopt orphans from foreign countries, and that a life spared suffering is a life spared suffering. But Madonna is not other people, and, for that matter, David Banda is not an orphan. His father, a widower whose two other children died of malaria, insists that he is happy that the only surviving member of his family is going to live with a woman whom he had never heard of until she offered to adopt his son. Nobody has asked him the follow-up question: Would he be even happier if someone had enabled him to keep his remaining family intact?

That’s not a random inquiry. Madonna’s Malawi orphanage will be based on the teachings of Kabbalah, the mystical Jewish sect that rivals Scientology as Hollywood’s favorite boutique religion. And Judaism has very strict ideas about charity. Eight centuries back, the rabbi and scholar Moses Maimonides defined eight levels of giving, and the highest form is giving that helps the poor to become independent, followed by anonymous giving to an anonymous beneficiary. Madonna’s actions over the last few weeks? Down around Rung No. 4.


The best thing she could have done for Yohame Banda, according to her own religion, would have been to provide what he needed so he could support himself and his son. She opted instead for a high-profile alternative that permanently decreased his monthly nut and bought her a week of photo-ops.

It required a bit of philanthropic prestidigitation: Hold $3 million in your hand and, poof, watch adoption laws and residency requirements vanish. If this is how it works, regular people would have to wait for the adoption equivalent of overstock sales, even though they’ve spent more time and a larger percentage of their income on the process than Madonna has. They learn a new language and bone up on a culture to build a bridge to the child they may someday adopt, and then Madonna cuts in line because she can.

As for building bridges, stories from Malawi quote David’s father saying, “Madonna promised me that as the child grows, she will bring him back to visit,” a concept that carries enough psychological baggage to fill a Russian novel. A longtime advisor on open adoptions -- in which biological and adoptive parents stay in touch -- once observed that even the most well-intentioned adoptive parents can’t anticipate the difficult issues a child will raise when he or she is old enough to wonder how and why he was transferred from one family to another. She was speaking of same-race children in the United States; the drama ratchets up for David Banda.

The issue of David’s needs, in the long run, seems to have gotten lost behind the celebrity salvation scenario. Of course he’ll be better off with a grand roof over his head, plenty of food and a good school, and we haven’t even gotten to the perks that come with being a pop star’s kid. But any child would be best off if he could thrive with his relatives, in his community, within his culture.

Celebrities have been doing good since the war bond era, but they have to be able to distinguish between doing good for others and doing good for themselves. Altruism is undoubtedly more difficult for people whose every haircut and latte purchase is grist for the media mill; still, the Material Girl falls far short of selflessness on this one.