Addition by distraction: Conquering poverty, one celebrity at a time
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.
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:
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:
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 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:
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:
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:
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:
Time‘s own story notes the celebrity clusterfuck nature of Bono’s current career path:
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”:
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”:
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:
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:
“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:
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:
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:
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.