Well, At Least It’s Over

I’ve got an op-ed circulating out there now looking for a home that combines my critique of the new African-American history course in Philadelphia with some politely negative comments on Live 8. My critique of the course really is a modest and ambivalent one, so I didn’t want my remarks on Live 8 to drag that too far off the mark.

But. Live 8 was a great concert and all that, but anybody who thinks it did any good besides entertaining people (which is a fine thing in its own right, and all the better when you don’t dress it up as something other than what it is) needs to think again. I can tell you one thing: I don’t think too many of the artists performing had more than a vague idea what the cause was.

Bob Geldof responds that at least he’s doing something, and that doing something is better than doing nothing.

No. It’s not. Not when your concert is designed to create awareness of something that the audience is already screamingly aware of, the poverty of many African societies, without trying to make them aware of what they don’t know: about how aid is dispersed, about the actual processes of globalization, about the specific humanity of specific African societies. Hell, anything beyond, “Africa’s really poor”. That’s the one thing the rest of the world already knows.

No. It’s not. Not when the entire event and most of the language surrounding it just encourages the ghostly recurrence of the white man’s burden view of world affairs, that everything bad out there is somehow the fault of privileged white Euro-Americans and is somehow theirs and theirs alone to rectify. Not only were African artists almost entirely missing from the concert–a few pencilled in hastily at the end–but so were Africans as actors in their own ongoing drama. They’re welcome as former victims thanking their saviors, but otherwise, it’s not about them. That entire attitude is as much as–indeed, far bigger–a problem than the underfunding of development. It’s the liberal mirror image of neoconservative interventionism, a refusal to face the world in its moral and political complexity, instead trying to make it something that people with good intentions and an exaggerated sense of their own power can remake.

No. It’s not. Not when your concert is flogging two generic remedies for African poverty, neither of which has any real specific promise of changing the status quo. More money from the G8 or debt relief in and of themselves will do nothing. In fact, there’s good reason to think that both remedies proposed at that level of generality will aggravate the poverty of some African societies. Now if Geldof wanted to get up and flog something like reform of property rights a la Hernando de Soto, or Jeffrey Sachs-style targeted community development, or dropping agricultural subsidies in the US and Europe–anything–he’d at least be worth a listen. But he’s got no right to scream righteously at anybody given the flabby, content-less nature of his demands. I’m no fan of the current G8 leadership but in this case I hope they’re laughing at him in private while they pretend to be concerned and attentive in public.

No. It’s not. Not when events like this give most people justification for casual, shallow cynicism about big benefit events and prospects for reform and development in African societies. Ten years from now, most of the people who attended the concerts or watched them are going to barely remember what it was ostensibly about (I think that’s a fair characterization of ten minutes later, let alone ten years) but if they do, they’re going to ask, “And did anything come of it?” The answer’s going to be no, just as it usually is when rock stars get up and sing to benefit a cause that’s suited to the level of superficiality that most of them operate at.

(P.S. Bob Geldof at least isn’t responsible for the embarassing local TV news coverage of the event. I watched one local journalist this morning who I thought was going to pee in her pants while squealing in excitement about being in the physical proximity of network TV correspondents, BBC reporters and various rock stars. Philadelphia’s inferiority complex shines clearly through at these kinds of moments…)

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8 Responses to Well, At Least It’s Over

  1. Gabriel says:

    To be fair, they do have a trade angle as well as debt-relief and aid.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, as generic and formless as the debt-relief one.

  3. rethabile says:

    Live 8 was a great concert and all that, but anybody who thinks it did any good besides entertaining people (which is a fine thing in its own right, and all the better when you don’t dress it up as something other than what it is) needs to think again. I can tell you one thing: I don’t think too many of the artists performing had more than a vague idea what the cause was.
    Half-agreed. It did do some good, though not the good we’d have wanted. If it opened one person’s eyes, if it got G8 leaders thinking hard ahead of their summit, if it got the rich to contribute money to their favourite charities (even if that wasn’t the intention), then it did do some good.

    But then, yes, the rest of what you say is dead on target.

  4. joeo says:

    The idea that we should be focusing aid on the poorest people and countries is not a trivial one. Remember “farm aid”. Now that was stupid.

    Plus, sometimes good things happen. I thought the people trying to get their colleges to divest from companies that invested in Apartheid South Africa in the eighties were just fooling themselves. On what posssible mechanism could that really help things, rather than just make the protestors feel better? Turns out I was wrong.

  5. Endie says:

    There’s been a lot more focus on the free-trade element here in the UK, but then that fits rather neatly with our domestic and European agenda. That agenda is based around defending the substantial UK rebate from the EU by putting pressure on the French over the Common Agricultural Policy (which defends the unreformed French agricultural sector from African and South American imports).

    As regards the concerts themselves, it’s by now a cliche to suggest that a smattering of African acts might have leavened the mix a little (N’Dour, after all, had to play 3 concerts that day to help up the quota). But I would find it hard to pick out half a dozen acts worldwide that I found exciting: Velvet Revolver; the shambolic Pete Doherty; Snoop; umm…

    In the main they were the most MOR and AOR of acts imaginable. I mean, I am sure that there is a place for Annie Lennox and Chris de Bleurgh, but this isn’t it. Not to mention that Geldof and Ure really need to ask themselves if they would be performing if they were not also organising.

    [substantial ongoing rant about both popular motivations and music self-censored on re-reading…]

  6. There was a counter-concert occurring simultaneously in Cornwall, with a much better representation of African artists. It was called “Africa Calling,” and had people like Youssou N’Dour on the bill.

    The BBC World Service (I was listening in on XM Radio) covered that concert as well, and did a decent job pointing out the omission of African artists from the main Live8 bill at Hyde Park.

    There was also a Live8 concert happening in Johannesburg, which obviously had a decent quotient of African (including black African) musicians. I heard a snippet from the performance of a group called Orchestra Baobab that I thought was dynamite.

    But yes, while it would have been fun to see these groups perform (in any of the settings) I don’t see this thing doing much actual good either.

  7. joeo says:

    The guitar player for Orchestra Baobab rules. This CD is very good.

    I took my kids to see both Youssou N’Dour and Orchestra Baobab within the last year, which is pretty funny because I could probably name maybe two other african bands. The Orchestra Baobab concert was during their normal naptime, and the dim lights and the band’s relatively slow tempo made them pretty tired.

  8. joeo says:

    The calvery has arrived .

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