Morning Report 12/19/05Guise of the Year


Addition by distraction: Conquering poverty, one celebrity at a time

Harkavy (World Bank)

The triumph of celebrity over substance is complete, with the anointing of Bono, a rock star who’s made his mark as a celeb who makes other celebs — even Jesse Helms — seem human.

Bono’s presumably well-intentioned crusade on behalf of the poor — some call it self-aggrandizing in the extreme — makes the villains of the poor seem like saviors, as commentators like George Monbiot have pointed out. More on that in a minute — in fact, Monbiot is a useful antidote to all the celebrity bull being tossed around about the world’s top rock star (Bono) and the world’s top banker (Paul Wolfowitz) — but first we’ve got some Hollywood squares to fill in.

Add to Bono a billionaire and his wife, and you’ve got Time‘s “persons of the year.”

Or the makings of a ’60s sitcom. After all, we’ve got a professor — Wolfowitz — and his gal pal, Shaha Ali Riza, who could pass for Mary Ann. The captain? In a squeeze, we’ll cast Dick Cheney, who even looks a little like Alan Hale Jr. Gilligan? How could we not cast George W. Bush, America’s bumbling “little buddy.”

The only difference is that the 6 billion other people on the planet are the ones who are castaways. These morons have marooned us.

Time wants us to believe in a feel-good movie. But the professor in this cast is in charge of the world’s most powerful bank. He’s the Mr. Potter controlling the destiny of 6 billion not-so-wonderful lives. (How fitting that Vincent Price, instead of Lionel Barrymore, was first considered for the role of cinema’s most evil banker.)

Wolfowitz, as I’ve noted, is assembling a nice little cabal of his own at the World Bank. His two key imported aides are Robin Cleveland, a figure in the Pentagon’s Boeing scandal, and Kevin Kellems, a former Cheney flack who’s contributed to key lies by the Bush regime at key moments in the past few years.

Many of the powerful bank’s many altruistic workers are outraged by Kellems’s presence, insiders tell me.

As well they should be. For now, the only spoor Kellems has left on the World Bank’s public website is his photography: backstage photos of Wolfie with Bono (see above) and, as a roadie on the World Bank president’s perpetual world tour, snapshots (not very good ones, compared with the bank’s pro photographers) of various native peoples.

But Kellems is good at putting a good face on an ugly situation.

On April 7, 2003, Kellems, who at the time was Wolfie’s “special advisor” at the Pentagon, delivered the keynote speech at a convention of public-relations students in Ohio (you can’t make this up). On the just-launched invasion of Iraq, he told the future flacks:

“Our mission, Operation Iraqi Freedom, is to defend the American people, eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass terror and liberate the Iraqi people. The United States did not seek this conflict. Indeed, for 12 patient but determined years, we pursued every possible means to avoid it.”

Yeah, right. Later, Kellems went to work for Cheney. Flackery will get you everywhere, it seems.

Remember the Halliburton contracts to “rebuild” Iraq? Refresh your memory by returning to CorpWatch’s May 30, 2004, story by Timothy J. Burger and Adam Zagorin. They recalled that when NBC’s Tim Russert asked Cheney in September 2003 whether he was “involved in any way in the awarding of those contracts” to the company that Cheney used to run and still gets a paycheck from, Cheney replied:

“Of course not, Tim. … And as Vice President, I have absolutely no influence of, involvement of, knowledge of in any way, shape or form of contracts led by the [Army] Corps of Engineers or anybody else in the Federal Government.”

Well, internal Pentagon e-mail confirmed that that wasn’t true — and it was Time that broke that particular part of the story. As the CorpWatch piece noted:

The e-mail says Douglas Feith, a high-ranking Pentagon hawk, got the “authority to execute RIO,” or Restore Iraqi Oil, from his boss, who is Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. RIO is one of several large contracts the U.S. awarded to Halliburton last year.

The e-mail says Feith approved arrangements for the contract “contingent on informing WH [White House] tomorrow. We anticipate no issues since action has been coordinated w VP’s [Vice President’s] office.” Three days later, the Army Corps of Engineers gave Halliburton the contract, without seeking other bids. Time located the e-mail among documents provided by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group.

How did Cheney react to this revelation? The CorpWatch story continued:

Cheney spokesman Kevin Kellems says the Vice President “has played no role whatsoever in government-contract decisions involving Halliburton” since 2000. A Pentagon spokesman says the e-mail means merely that “in anticipation of controversy over the award of a sole-source contract to Halliburton, we wanted to give the Vice President’s staff a heads-up.”

These days, we need a constant heads-up. Better that than a “duck-and-cover.”

For a heads-up on Bono, go to George Monbiot, a columnist for the Guardian (U.K.), who has pointed out Bono’s feats of clay, as I noted this past June. This passage from Monbiot’s June 21 column, “Bards of the Powerful,” bears repeating while the civilized world hoists a Pepsi to Bono and the Gateses:

[Bob] Geldof and Bono’s campaign for philanthropy portrays the enemies of the poor as their saviours. The good these two remarkable men have done is in danger of being outweighed by the harm. …

Listen to these men — Bush, [Tony] Blair and their two bards — and you could forget that the rich nations had played any role in Africa’s accumulation of debt, or accumulation of weapons, or loss of resources, or collapse in public services, or concentration of wealth and power by unaccountable leaders. Listen to them and you would imagine that the G8 was conceived as a project to help the world’s poor.

I have yet to read a statement by either rock star that suggests a critique of power. They appear to believe that a consensus can be achieved between the powerful and the powerless, that they can assemble a great global chorus of rich and poor to sing from the same sheet. They do not seem to understand that, while the G8 maintains its grip on the instruments of global governance, a shared anthem of peace and love is about as meaningful as the old Coca-Cola ad.

OK, then have a Coke instead of a Pepsi while you toast Bono. But keep in mind, as Monbiot does that, while it’s proper to give Geldof and Bono their due as “remarkable men,” there are questions of responsibility. After all, you have to understand a problem to solve it. Drinking a Pepsi or Coke won’t make the world a more beautiful place. More from Monbiot:

I understand the game [Geldof and Bono are] playing. They believe that praising the world’s most powerful men is more persuasive than criticising them. The problem is that in doing so they turn the political campaign developed by the global justice movement into a philanthropic one. They urge the G8 leaders to do more to help the poor. But they say nothing about ceasing to do harm.

It is true that Bono has criticised George Bush for failing to deliver the money he promised for AIDS victims in Africa. But he has never, as far as I can discover, said a word about the capture of that funding by “faith-based groups”: the code Bush uses for fundamentalist Christian missions which preach against the use of condoms. Indeed, Bono seems to be comfortable in the company of fundamentalists. Jesse Helms, the racist, homophobic former senator who helped engineer the switch to faith-based government, is, according to his aides “very much a fan of Bono.” This is testament to the singer’s remarkable powers of persuasion. But if people like Helms are friends, who are the enemies? Is exploitation something that just happens? Does it have no perpetrators?

At least we know who the butt-kissers are. Even Bono’s admirers know the rocker has a gift for that. A fawning bio of his career in the ’90s notes:

During this time, Bono also established himself as having a gift for lionizing others, as evidenced by his moving induction of both Bob Marley into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall Of Fame, and his lifetime achievement tribute to Frank Sinatra at the 1994 Grammy Awards. More recently, he gave Bruce Springsteen an equally-memorable induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall.

Time‘s own story notes the celebrity clusterfuck nature of Bono’s current career path:

The G-8 summit is an annual gathering of the world’s most powerful people at which two things are always accomplished: an awkward group photo is taken and no one has any fun.

Not fun? Doubt it. Not when you’re Iraq war architect Paul Wolfowitz and you get to schmooze with Bono backstage, or you’re Dick Cheney’s former flack Kevin Kellems and you get to hang out with these celebs (“I’m with the bund!”) and even snap a picture of them talking.

But while the celebs congratulate one another (and you congratulate them) here’s what’s going on in the real world:

The just-completed WTO talks in Hong Kong were a disaster. Don’t rely on the U.S. press to suss that out for you. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, reports this morning, in “Delegates Eke Out a Trade Deal”:

Members of the World Trade Organization reached agreement Sunday on several divisive issues, keeping alive hopes that a new global trade accord could be forged by the end of next year.

Bull. Here’s how Malcolm Moore and Richard Spencer of the Telegraph (U.K.) wrote about the exact same event, in “World Trade Deal ‘Fails’ the Poor”:

Britain last night attacked a world trade deal hammered out in Hong Kong as “one stage from failure” and as a disappointment for poor countries.

As EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson gave his verdict of the last-minute agreement, aid agencies called the lack of major concessions to the developing world a “fraud”.

World Trade Organisation negotiators agreed on minor changes to trade rules including an end to European Union export subsidies by 2013 and an aid package for the poorest nations.

But to prevent talks from collapsing like previous summits in Seattle and Cancun, Mexico, details were left vague. Prime Minister Tony Blair wants a new summit to reopen the major issues early in the new year.

Third-world countries said the deal means they will have to open their economies to competition from the rich nations and received only trivial concessions in return.

Poor people right here in the U.S. are about to be swamped by a cruel storm swirling out of budget negotiations on Capitol Hill. And you middle-class people, you’d better watch out, too.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities posted an analysis yesterday that makes for grim reading:

Taken as a whole, the provisions in the conference agreement would cause considerable hardship among low-income families and people who are elderly or have disabilities. This is due in no small part to action by the conferees to shield certain powerful special interests — principally pharmaceutical companies and the managed care industry — and to extract deeper savings from low-income families instead.

And of course, the GOP leaders are forcing the House members to vote on this blizzard of bullshit far too quickly, invoking what’s called “martial law.”

So it’s clear that while the trend in celebrity games may be to recognize philanthropists, the trend in real life is that the poor get poorer. Read Monbiot’s September 6 piece on Geldof, “The Man Who Betrayed the Poor,” for a rundown of the bad news on the world-trade front since last summer’s Live 8. Monbiot’s harsh view — which I would say applies also to Bono — is backed up by activists on the ground in the world’s poorest areas:

“We are very critical of what Bob Geldof did during the G8 Summit”, Demba Moussa Dembele of the African Forum on Alternatives tells me. “He did it for his self-promotion. This is why he marginalized African singers, putting the limelight on himself and Bono, rather than on the issues. … The objectives of the whole Live 8 campaign had little to do with poverty reduction in Africa. It was a scheme intended to project Geldof and Blair as humanitarian figures coming to the rescue of ‘poor and helpless’ Africans.”

“Right from the beginning,” says Kofi Mawuli Klu of the Forum of African Human Rights Defenders, “he has acted in his own selfish interests. It was all about self-promotion, about usurping the place of Africans. His message was “shut up and watch me”. Without even understanding the root causes of the problems, he used his role to drown the voices of the African people and replace them with his own. There are many knowledgeable people — African and non-African — who could have advised him, but he has been on his own, ego-tripping.”

I have heard similar sentiments from every African campaigner I have spoken to. Bob Geldof is beginning to look like Mother Teresa or Joy Adamson. To the corporate press, and therefore to most of the public, he is a saint. Among those who know something about the issues, he is detested. Those other tabloid saints appeared to recognise that if they rattled the cages of the powerful, the newspapers upon which their public regard depended would turn against them. When there was a conflict between their public image and their cause, the image won. It seems to me that Geldof has played the same game.

There’s a middle ground between being chummy with celeb politicians and being critical. If Bono and Geldof were trying to hold Western leaders’ feet to the fire, they wouldn’t be receiving invitations from the White House. The problem for the rest of us is that, while these celebrity rockers and celebrity pols play their little games, we’re distracted. You ask: From what? Monbiot hammers away at this point:

[Geldof] seized a campaign which commanded great public enthusiasm, which had the potential gravely to embarrass Tony Blair and George Bush. He asked us to focus not on the harm the G8 leaders were doing, but on the help they might give. When they failed to deliver, he praised them anyway. His endorsement and the public forgetfulness it prompted helped license them to start reversing their commitments. When they did so, he said nothing. This looks to me like more than just political naïveté. It looks as if he is working for the other side.

I don’t mean that this is what he intended — or intends — to do. I mean that he came to identify with the people he was supposed to be lobbying. By ensuring that the campaign was as much about him as about Africa, he ensured that if they failed, he failed. He needed a story with a happy ending.

There is just one thing that Geldof can now do for Africa. This is to announce that his optimism was misplaced, that the mission was not accomplished, that the struggle for justice is as urgent as ever. But while he holds his tongue, he will remain the man who betrayed the poor.

And the corporate welfare for rich countries and their industries continues. As Monbiot wrote on December 13:

Never underestimate the self-pity of the ruling classes.

He backs that up by recounting — and counting — some outrageous subsidies that the developed world maintains. And then he zooms in on the U.S., in a way that most U.S. journalists don’t. This is a lengthy passage, but he says it better than I could:

There is nothing unusual about these handouts for private companies. In his book Perverse Subsidies, published in 2001, Professor Norman Myers estimates that when you add the direct payments US corporations receive to the wider costs they oblige society to carry, you come up with a figure of $2.6 trillion, or roughly five times as much as the profits they make. As well as the $362 billion the OECD [European] countries were paying for farming when his book was published (or rather, as we have seen, for activities masquerading as farming), they were shelling out some $71 billion on fossil fuels and nuclear power and a staggering $1.1 trillion on road transport. Worldwide, governments pay companies $25bn a year to destroy the earth’s fisheries, and $14bn to wreck our forests.

The Energy Policy Bill the Bush administration drove through Congress this summer handed a further $2.9bn to the coal industry, $4.3bn to nuclear power and $1.5bn to oil and gas firms. According to the Democratic congressman Henry Waxman, the oil subsidy “was mysteriously inserted in the final energy legislation after the legislation was closed to further amendment … Obviously, it would be a serious abuse to secretly slip [in] such a costly and controversial provision”. Most of the money, he discovered, would be administered by “a private consortium located in the district of Majority Leader Tom DeLay — The leading contender for this contract appears to be the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America consortium” whose board members include Marathon Oil and our old friend Halliburton. “There is no conceivable rationale for this extraordinary largesse. The oil and gas industry is reporting record income and profits — the net income of the top oil companies will total $230 billion in 2005.”

It would be tempting to hold Bush responsible for this, but that would be only half right. The oil firms were scooping up taxpayers’ money long before they put their robot in the White House: Norman Myers reports that between 1993 and mid-1996, “American oil and gas companies gave $10.3 million to political campaigns and received tax breaks worth $4 billion.”

This week the rich countries gathering for the World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong will tell the poor ones to open their economies to the free market. But the free market does not exist. In every nation, the corporations hold out their begging bowls and tax-payers line up to fill them. We are the ragged-trousered philanthropists of the 21st century, the comparatively poor obliged to sponsor the rich.