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June 21, 2005

Falling out of love with Bob Geldof

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - continues his series on G8 and Africa: G8 Gleneagles Fiasco: How Bob, Tony and Gordon didn't help Make Poverty History - and why that's good. Richard D. North argues that Bob Geldof has, probably by mistake, agreed to lead the anti-globalizers.

Falling out of love with Bob Geldof
Some of us have been uneasy about the populist involvement in Africa's troubles from the very start. Back then, with the Michael Buerk broadcasts on BBC TV news from Ethiopia in 1984 and on into the Geldof's founding of (the ironically-named) Band Aid and the 1985 Live Aid concerts there were all the elements we see now. Then as now, there was a horrible amount of African suffering, a poisonous weakness in African politics, and a tentative and not-ungenerous response by Western governments which did some good (and in the case of Ethiopia in 1985 - maybe a good deal of harm). St Bob's missionary exercises added a relatively small amount of newly-donated money and a tsunami of self-righteous indignation on the part of the media, pop's heroes, the aid campaigners and the public.

Twenty years ago, and often since, Bob Geldof mostly argued for the compassionate relief of suffering: "Give me your fucking money". Now he has spurned that sort of line and affects to understand how "justice" is to be done in Africa - as Geldof now puts it, "It seemed to me that we could gather together again - this time not for charity but for political justice." The first line was open to criticism for its naivety, but 20 years on, in the hands of a case-hardened man of the world, the new line amounts to a disingenuousness which may be quite dangerous and is certainly disquieting.

Leave aside the thoughts the lack of thought of many of the people who will join these protests, the most charitable thing that one can say about Bob Geldof is that he believes that every second's delay in sending more money to Africa means more dead babies (summed up by the "Click, click, click" mantra). This leaves very little room for the important fact that doing the wrong things even saving the "wrong" babies may detract from the policy which would have saved the lives of many more. That's the tough bit: we see Bob in common with charitable NGOs - as saving definite babies, and we say thank goodness for that. But all the babies and they may be far more numerous - which bad policy may harm are out of the frame.

Bob and his Mob
Geldof is loud and abusive, but is capable of a degree of subtlety. He has praised George Bush for his increases in US government "generosity". He early on saw that emergency aid was only necessary because of underlying failures, and that spending money on the former might exacerbate the latter.

If he agrees with the sort of analysis of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa on which he sat and which he ringingly (intemperately) endorsed at its launch, then he presumably sees a case for proceeding both firmly and cautiously. The report (see page 292) is confident that some aid can and does do good, but notes that African countries cannot absorb huge increases rapidly, and that good outcomes are the result of improved policy by donors and as important - by recipients. These take time.

But even as his private analysis has probably gained in nuance, Bob Geldof seems to want to apply mass pressure more crudely, and in areas which are far more tensely political. I mean that he is moving into controversies in which kindly people can hold opposed views: the kind of controversy in which thuggery is less useful than ever.

"The Street" is not a good place to find wisdom: from the Gordon riots of 1780 to Mosley's Black Shirts in the 1930s and on to the Poll Tax Riots of 1990 (let alone endless Vox Pops with misinformed and propagandised Muslims recently), we can wonder whether the pavement ever yields much insight.

Let's draw a distinction between Bob's One Million March planned (not planned) for 6th July and Make Poverty History's demo planned for 2nd July. I'm not mad about either, but the "official" march has at least a fairly clear agenda. It should, with luck, be "worthy" in the way of a CND march, or the marches against the Iraq war, or the Countryside Alliance marches. If it repeats the spirit of the Jubilee 2000 human chain (around Birmingham's G8 in 1998) it could capture the right balance between theatricality and seriousness. The point is that something that organised can claim to press decently a platform which can be analysed (and attacked) within the bounds of polite debate.

The problem with Geldof is that he seems to think he embodies rectitude and that debate is just backsliding ("Don't give me your realism", he has said.)

Now he has descended into activism for activism's sake. Bob's Mob has no platform. Bob's march is an open invitation for anyone with a beef against anything to invade Edinburgh and reproduce the anti-globalization Seattle, Prague and Milan chaos, or the May Day, 2001 nonsenses. So the most charismatic and one of the more subtle anti-poverty people has abandoned all hope of leading something interesting, and instead has declared open season on rationality.

By issuing an open invitation he risks becoming the unwitting spearhead of a generalised chaos-leftist assault on capitalism. He has, by mistake probably, agreed to lead the anti-globalizers.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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Geldof never actually said "Give me your fucking money" he said "Fuck the addresses, give them the phone numbers".

Posted by: Rob Geldof at June 22, 2005 02:42 AM

I sense that there is something horribly self-righteous about Bob Geldof, from the way he shouts down anyone who suggests that he might not have done everything right.

However, what put me off him more was seeing him on a trailer for "Grumpy Old Men", complaining about girls who dress enticingly but won't do what he would like them to do. To which I would like to say that he himself is one of the architects of that sort of culture, so there!

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 22, 2005 05:27 PM

Geldof never actually said "Give me your fucking money" he said "Fuck the addresses, give them the phone numbers".

Perhaps North is referring to Geldof's famous statement on TV during Band/Live Aid:
"There's people dying now so just send us the fockin money."

Posted by: Sam at June 24, 2005 11:42 AM

The first commentator is right - and sorry, Sam, you are wrong. The BBC documentary a few weekends ago marking the 20th anniversary of Live Aid made clear - indeed it showed the clip - that Bob never said "send us the fucking money". He did say"fuck the addresses, give them the phone numbers" when the BBC presenter was going to give the addresses to which the money should be sent - if one did not want to phone in. Thus an urban legend was born.

Posted by: Jonathan at July 3, 2005 11:20 AM

After yesterday's Live8 performance, I presume many more people must have fallen out of love. Not because of what Live8 was trying to do - no sane person could disagree with the idea of reducing poverty in Africa - but because of the disgustingly self-congratulatory tone of the whole event - everyone pronoucing on how "proud" they are of everyone else. The BBC even interviewed Geldof's daughter- Peaches Gledof - about how proud she was of her father. I am sure she is and a good thing too. But I mean please - not a subject for TV interviews. Pass the sick bucket.

Posted by: David at July 3, 2005 07:26 PM
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