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Beyond Good And Evil

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Azmi Bishara

Allowing ourselves a little empirical leeway it is possible to divide summer society into two classes. One is constantly on the move. Its members have not a moment’s rest as they flit from an outing to the beach to an outdoor festival, rush to their summer homes then fly off for an excursion abroad. London may be off the list of vacation stops this year but the consumerist thirst for other venues remains insatiable. The other class remains at home. Summer alters nothing of its members’ schedules with the exception, perhaps, that they desperately fan themselves as they curse the heat, waiting for the evening to approach as they stoically endure the ruckus of children at play and tend to their problems and demands during two long months without school.

Whether or not one accepts this sociological taxonomy there is no denying the proliferation of summer festivals. Virtually every tourist destination has its own art or music festival and has long since made the preparations necessary to receive hordes of holiday makers eager to flock together in the evenings for a concert beneath the stars. As for areas populated by those destined to remain at home during the summer, brides and grooms and their entourages tour local fêtes in which the loudspeakers are strategically placed to ensure no one is deprived of their blast. Summer is the season of noise.

In Europe, Japan, the US and Canada the touring class has given rise to a sub-species, one that refuses to party without a cause. The fad this year reached its zenith with the Live 8 concerts, sponsored by Irish rock singer Bob Geldof, famed for organising the Live Aid charity concerts 20 years ago that raised $150 million for the relief of victims of famine.

Of course there are certain differences between the two mega-events. Conditions in Africa are far worse than they were 20 years ago. It appears that Geldof, who has since knelt before the Queen and become Sir Bob, felt he had to furnish critics and sceptics proof of the worthiness of his project. This year he paraded across the stage a beautiful woman—you have to be beautiful if you’re going to stand the remotest chance of appearing on stage at such an event—photographs of whom had flashed across screens 20 years ago when she was a toddler suffering the pains of starvation. Also, this year, the Live 8 organisers joined hands with Tony Blair to urge his G8 partners to write off African debt and double their aid to the continent by 2010.

In Gleneagles the G8 nations remained mostly silent on the question of debt cancellation, though they did issue a pledge to increase aid. Tony Blair used all his moral force, as conference host and as a leader returning from the British capital which had been “rocked” by explosions (such was the unfortunate term used by the British and American media to describe events in London, consciously or unconsciously echoing pop culture jingo) to get his G8 partners to commit their pledges to paper, but to no avail. They all know only too well that a huge portion of aid never reaches its target, not just because of the pervasive corruption of African regimes, against which the corruption of other Third World countries pales, but also because whatever figures they announce are certain to shrink once parliamentary and government committees apply themselves to the task, and because a large portion of aid goes to subsidising food and drug companies, to covering the administrative and personnel costs of their own aid organisations and to funding the administrative expenses of NGOs and other intermediary agencies.

President Bush had preempted the G8 summit and the need to talk new figures when, on 30 June, he announced his government would give $1.7 billion more to Africa over the next five years, of which $1.2 billion would go to the fight against malaria. Malaria is a disease that could theoretically be cured at the cost of a dollar per dose of vaccine. Yet the disease claims at least a million lives annually, 90 per cent of them in Africa. This is a modest estimate, with some placing the annual death toll as high as three million. Bush’s announcement was lauded by the press the following day and hailed by the organisers of the mega concerts. Then it was revealed that the figure Bush so magnanimously pledged barely makes up for the cutbacks his administration made this year in its aid allocations for combating epidemic disease. In Africa a child dies of malaria every 12 seconds. Factor in the other epidemics ravaging the continent and a child dies every three seconds.

The Live 8 concerts did little to improve on the media’s tasteless if unwitting pun on the word “rocked”. In Philadelphia actor Will Smith cried out, “Hey you in Circus Maximus! Do you hear Brandenburg Gate?” He was referring to the concerts taking place simultaneously in Rome and Berlin and the exhortations from the stage to the audiences to snap their fingers at three-second intervals as a reminder of how many children are dying in Africa.

I found it difficult to understand this symbolic gesture. Does finger snapping in time with the African child mortality rate make people sleep better at night? Do they remember why they were snapping their fingers when the music blares out after those three-second intervals? It is truly mind-boggling. Spectacle, celebrity fanfare and dance blend to the rhythm of death, not for any evil purpose but for the sake of excitement. As Bono of U2, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Neil Young, REM, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and others strutted on the stage the huge screens behind them flashed images that have become a synonym for Africa in Western mass culture, children with distended bellies carried by mothers with desiccated breasts, using their last remaining strength to flick flies off their babies. Only in Western consumerist culture can one conceive of people grooving against this backdrop.

Which, of course, raises questions regarding the “politically correct”, the scarcity of Africans on the stage and what exactly drew the audiences, the cause or the music? It seemed that every newspaper conducted its own opinion poll, quoting this or that young man or woman saying that they came only for the music, or mainly for the cause or, as some respondents put it, for a little of this and a little of that. What difference does it make as long as the result is the same?

Starvation, poverty and disease formed the backdrop for Live Aid, Live 8 and, this year, the G8 summit. Music celebrities rubbed shoulders with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates and Kofi Annan (who, perhaps rightfully, hailed the Live 8 concerts as the real United Nations). Between the self-promotion and consumerist hype of the greatest-show-on- earth sort it is possible to discern some of the features of an albeit unwritten and unsystematically thought out ideology. This ideology places itself at the centre of, rather than against, current global policies. “If you show people the problems and you show people the solutions they will be moved to act,” Bill Gates told the crowds and worldwide television audiences. Otherwise put, what global politics lacks today is not the values of justice and fairness but someone like him to tell the politicians what they have to do.

Speaking from the same script Geldof declared that the eight leaders sitting together in a room could change the world. All that is needed, it appears, is someone to open their eyes to the truth—or a crowd of people snapping their fingers persistently enough to get those G8 leaders dancing—and then they’ll do what is right.

This new ideology informed an article by John Major, whose conservative government ruled the UK for seven years before Blair came to power. Beneath the headline “I did care, but I didn’t do enough”, in The Guardian of 6 July, he declares his support for increased government aid to Africa and his fear of abandoning poverty there to the laws of the free market. In a display of self-flagellation he confesses to having seen the ravages of poverty in Africa but failing to do enough to end it when he was in power. Then came the excuses: “the recession I inherited; the slender majority in parliament; the squabbles over Europe; the internecine warfare that distracted my attention; the fact that the issue was lower profile then.” None of these, however, convinced his conscience. “I should have done more,” he concludes. One cannot help but be impressed by this seasoned politician’s adeptness at the art of coming clean without coming clean. I would not rule out the possibility that someone spotted John Major at the Hyde Park concert but didn’t recognise him, or else did not believe what they had seen.

One of the strictures of the new ideology, it appears, is that there are no longer evil forces in the world, not even in the context of African poverty, with the exception, of course, of fundamentalist Islamic movements. As if to prove this fundamentalists disrupted the joining of hands between the greatest concerts in the world and the greatest nations in the world over the plight of poverty by carrying out four coordinated bombings in London. Afterwards President Bush, self- appointed champion of the fight against malaria and terrorism, proclaimed: “The contrast couldn’t be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill, those who have got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks.”

The bombings furnished an opportunity to affirm the sense of harmony and complacency within a culture that has rallied to display its solidarity on behalf of the absolutely abstract victim, poor and defenceless Africa, which cannot, in contrast to the culture of terrorism, play anything but the victim. On the one hand we have the victim par excellence, who can arouse only pity, who can be easily sold to the millions who need a cause to which they can rhythmically snap their fingers. On the other we have the cult of terrorism and murder (and we all know who that stands for, regardless of Blair’s insistence that ordinary Muslims are not to blame) barging into the middle of this harmonious gathering of the “real United Nations” which in its peace-loving rationality would do the right thing if only pointed in the right direction.

Instead of an ideology that divides the world into good and bad we have a new ideology in which evil has disappeared from society unless it breaks in from the outside. Gone, too, is the need to assess evil policies, or policies with evil results, and the arguments of those who oppose them. In the fever of summit fanfare and summer concerts the world has become one big stadium in which mega concerts merge with mega summits and coordinated mega-bombings and the public, tired of the tedious complexities of political analysis and criticism find it is far more satisfying to watch Bill Gates take the stage and propose buying a mosquito net for every bed in Africa as a ready-made remedy for malaria. It is important, too, that our demonstrations of universal solidarity in the fight against poverty and disease be heavily spiced with celebrity appearances and performances lest solidarity becomes boring.

But let us leave the exciting Live 8/G8 world for a moment and turn to some simple facts and figures. The Economist ‘s Global Agenda Web site of 7 July 2005 discloses that 2.8 billion people, or half the developing world, lives on less than two dollars a day and that half of these live on less than a dollar a day. If every dollar donated by the great powers to recipient countries reached its intended destination, this would cover 50 days of expenses for the billions who live on a dollar a day and 12.5 days for those who live on two dollars a day.

Now, to “rock” the reader’s mind a bit, let us also consider that against the $50 billion G8 countries allocate as overseas aid, the countries of Europe and North America allocate $350 billion to their own farmers in subsidies intended to protect them from competition from the developing world. These enormous subsidies fly in the face of the market-led policies the IMF so assiduously hawks to the developing world. That the developed world exempts itself from the policies it forces on the poorest countries sabotages agriculture in the developing world. If Western nations stopped paying out that $350 billion and did not pay a dollar more in aid the economies of a great many Third World countries, including the countries of Africa, would improve dramatically.

There are no more good guys or bad guys. That’s a relief. But who’s going to deal critically with evil policies or policies with evil results?


Published Friday, July 22nd, 2005 - 03:43pm GMT
Azmi Bishara is former head of Philosophy at Bir Zeit University and Senior Researcher in the Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem.

Article courtesy of Al-Ahram Weekly
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Who’s going to deal critically with evil policies or policies with evil results? Nobody, that’s who. The corporations have been using third world countries for outsourcing their production, for example Coca cola, Nike, Nestle and many others. The consequences have been disastrous for those countries yet nobody seems to care.

Posted by Ameriboy on Monday, 7th December, 2009 - 11:04am GMT
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