Jun 22, 2005

Geldof's Predicament [LINK]

It's useful to step back a moment and consider Bob Geldof's situation. Frontman for a lesser rock band that resulted in a handful of hits, he transformed his career into one devoted to helping the world's poor. The "Live Aid" charity concert he organized 20 years ago, with proceeds directed towards alleviating starvation in Africa, made the entertainment industry seem at least temporarily less narcissistic. The "Live 8" concerts he is now organizing is a bid to reproduce that success.

There is some debate about whether, even if such charity makes it to its intended recipients, it does much good. (The corresponding effort to relieve backwards nations of the debt they have incurred is particularly dubious.) But relief was never really the primary goal of these concerts; the intention was always to raise awareness. Either of these represents high virtue, at least superficially, and yet his efforts are being criticized.

Too many white bands, not enough African bands. Too much salt, could use some more pepper. Even if we did add Baaba Maal to a roster that already included Youssou N'Dour, one could then complain that there are too many Senegalese bands, and not enough Congolese ones. Too many acts from the Wolof tribe, and not enough Pulaars. At least those concerns can be rectified to an extent. But the one criticism that can't really be addressed with anything other than PR blather is the contention that launching such an effort entails depicting Africa as a place that needs help. How do you get around that one?

People often misuse the word tragic these days to mean simply unfortunate. After a missing boy scout is discovered alive in the woods, the sheriff says that "if it would have got much colder, this could have been a tragedy." No, what you mean is the kid would have died. Tragedy is more interesting than that. It's what happens when a heroic man of virtue, like Geldof, unwittingly gets himself into an awful, inescapable situation, typically through some fatal character flaw of his. For the audience, the high point always comes when the hero realizes how exquisitely he has managed to screw himself, like Oedipus when he discovered the woman he was sleeping with was his mother. Without commenting on Geldof's character, it's still true that contemplating his current predicament, and watching this whole dance of virtue and grievance unfold, makes you want to gouge your eyes out.

UPDATE: The criticism continues, as reported in The New York Times. Some see Geldof's effort as haphazard, and say it may do more harm than good by shifting attention away from African leaders and onto the good intentions of Western celebrities.

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