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Celebrity Philanthropists: hard times for the super-rich idealists

 Surprise (Switzerland) 21 January 2019

At the Millennium Assembly in New York heads of state turned up alongside the rock star Bob Geldof: He’s had enough of empty promises in the war against poverty, he’s had it up to here. And Bono Vox, singer for U2, recently called once more for altruism at the Zurich Letzigrund stadium. It falls flat: love and hope are awkward swear words when they come from the mouth of a rock star. An essay about cynicism, idealistic initiatives and stinking rich do-gooders. (1336 Words) - By Yvonne Kunz

Surprise_ Celeb philanthropists

A fan of U2 lead singer Bono attends the National Constitution Center's 2007 Liberty Medal ceremony in Philadelphia September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

"Sunday, Bloody Sunday' bellows the sausage seller behind his stall outside the Zurich Letzigrund Stadium during the U2 concert this September. "How long must we sing this song?" asks the band in their song from 1983 about the Northern Ireland conflict. At this line the sausage seller is no longer behind his stall. He jumps on to the street, his fist in the air "How long, how long must we sing this song?" He's a Serb, he tells me later, "escaped from Kosovo."

Today the band puts the 27-year old song in the context of the national uprising in Iran and lets words by an Iranian poet flicker across the screen, around the stadium and the globe. This is stadium activism in the churches of mass entertainment. Awareness-raising as a show. Better than nothing, perhaps - what is certain though, is that a visually pleasing one-minute montage, pregnant with emotion, represents the trivialisation of an extraordinarily complicated issue. But it's also the secret of the art of good pop.

It is no secret that, for U2, the excessive fame of singer Bono Vox is a menace. A charity appeal at a U2 concert is just as certain as the "amen" in church, and just as certain are the critics' objections. It is no longer a secret that the band's respectable repertoire of songs is partly destroyed by their megalomaniacal ambitions for shaping the world and being its best rock band. But of course it's not about music alone. "The music and the political programme" the Tages Anzeiger states, with the deadly seriousness, "are locked in career management" of these "extremely talented capitalists." This evening human rights are just a garnish for self-righteousness.

In this analysis the daily newspaper critics belong to the restrained wing of the U2-phobic. After the band published their million-strong song catalogue in Holland in 2006, to reduce the tax burden, the headline in Boulevard read: "St. Bono, the sanctimonious" and an Irish author called the music of his four fellow countrymen a "toxic cloud of fluffy rhetoric" and a "soundtrack for the incurably self-satisfied." The travel writer and Africa expert, Paul Theroux, coined the term "Mythomanic - someone who wants to convince the world of their own worth" specifically for the multi-Nobel Prize-nominee, singer from U2, Bono Vox.

Angelina Jolie, Shakira and Britney Spears belong to this species - and more recently Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the investment banker and multimillionaire Warren Buffet. The two became celebrity philanthropists by bringing 40 super-rich Americans together to discuss giving over at least half of their wealth to charitable causes, particularly the eradication of malaria. Among the mega-donors are New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and CNN founder Ted Turner. As with the solo-flying freestyle diplomat Bono, whose fortune stands at estimated 400 million Swiss francs (€310 million), there are obvious objections to this do-gooder parade. Ellison, for instance, distinguishes himself with the self-indulgent extravagance of a property built in the style of a 19th century Japanese village. However, he allows himself to do this illustrious bout of good - and to talk about it a lot too.

Knee-jerk assumptions followed their announcement closely. By choosing "donation" as a legal form the real goal was already clear: tax optimisation. A PR stunt in its own right, and a way of exculpating themselves from the modern sin of wealth. Thus their media critics concluded: the higher the income, the lower the possibility of serious engagement.

But by presuming such low motives critics misplace their duty. By taking joy in their wordy objections, do they deal with the truly interesting questions of the time? They do something even stragner: they draw a boundary around the credible do-gooders - those who want to help the world must be spotless moral authorities, 100% selfless and absolutely humble. Whoever doesn't fulfil this holy requirement is a lying, self-satisfied arse and is certainly no use as a healer of the world. It makes altruism a very superior and exclusive circle.

The small gesture seems to be deemed greater in current discourse than the grandiose: big ideas like the UNO Millennium Development Goals or the climate agreement are more often laughed at than awed. The RED campaign, which wants to put a mark-up on consumer products for financial help in the fight against AIDS, is not a just attempt but is suspect in the first instance - if not counterproductive. In considering such idealistic initiatives it seems one makes a lot of effort to not be naive but cynical. It's not wrong, cynicism helps us to consider things as they really are - and not how they should be. And they are capitalistic; they are globalised and glaringly unfair.

Is cynicism the most intelligent answer to all of that and above all to our powerlessness? Is it better to point out the inconsistencies and objections to the ever hopeful? Is it smarter, in the words of writer H.G. Wells, to look out for a coffin when one sees flowers? Shaken mass cynicism is certainly not perverse - sure, tasteless PR gags in the marketing of donations, do-gooding as self-advertisement, moralism as a marketing tool, mistaken help: it's all true. But to open up to the possibility of change doesn't also mean that one must embrace an impossible ideal - it is just so: one man's objection is another's sanctimony. The absurd abstractness of global inequality is not just evident generally speaking; one experiences it regularly in front of the coffee shelves at the supermarket. Fairtrade or not? Does some farmer in Eritrea - to whom I am immensely rich - really have a better life if I believe in a label? Does it make me a better person, and above all: isn't it enough, if I show engagement by taking responsibility in my everyday life?

It doesn't. Any engagement first becomes political, if it is public, and then it can be - must be - criticised. But what is made public, how and when is not determined by mass media. In the mainstream however, the subject is rarely the fundamental problems of the excessive debt facing the Third World. AIDS in Africa is only a topic if a Swiss woman is honoured for her selfless contribution; the climate usually when, with the help of a catastrophe, there are discussions over whether or not there is a man-made element to the disaster. Big media houses function on capitalist lines, just like U2 Ltd. Within this logic dying children in Africa are 'old news', which is synonymous with 'no news' (exect that they are dying at an alarming rate). Rock stars who have the right to make fools of themselves with the belief that music has great significance as it can make the number of dying children known, are clearly 'bad news'. And they sell themselves as 'good news'.

"Every generation has the chance to change the world!" shouts Bono to his audience in Zurich. "That's not true!" calls out a teenager defiantly from under his hood, standing near the sausage stand. "Oh yes!" replies the sausage seller energetically. "You too!"

Translated into English from German by Nastassja Thomas

Originally published by Surprise ©

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