A charity single? Haven’t the refugees suffered enough?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Last year, the Pan-Arabia Enquirer, a satirical website hailed as ‘The Onion of the Middle East’, published a piece titled ‘Syria only “weeks away” from Bono charity single, warns UN’. As with all the best online satire, the headline was enough to make you chortle. The punchline was instant, and stinging, making you nod in vigorous agreement that the last thing the people of this wartorn nation need is warbling Westerners coming to save them with songs. ‘We desperately urge all parties to lay down their arms and work towards a viable peace plan to ensure whatever Bono’s recording never sees the light of today’, Ban Ki-moon says in the report.

In the event it took a year, not weeks, for preening Westerners to inflict a charity single on Syrians, and it wasn’t Bono leading the charge but Caitlin Moran, Times columnist, sit‘com’ writer, and a square person’s idea of a cool person. In cahoots with Benedict Cumberbatch, who never turns down an opportunity to pout his pain for the cameras on behalf of the benighted people of the Earth, Moran is bringing about the re-release of Crowded House’s 20-year-old tune ‘Help Is Coming’ – which on the plus side has exactly the right title for this white-saviour initiative – ‘we’re on our way, fear not!’ – but on the downside is Crowded House’s most boring song.

There has always been something grating about the White Pop Star’s Burden, the idea that switched-on, well-off Westerners who once saw something horrible on Newsnight have a responsibility to fix the situation and save its victims. From Bob Geldof and Co’s singing over images of black children on the cusp of starvation (‘Thank God it’s them instead of you!’ – nice) to Madonna’s various ventures to Africa to shake her head in sorrow over the poverty and pluck a couple of the kids to live a better life in her garish New York pad (the White Madonna’s Burden, if you like), pop people have positioned themselves as the new saviours of the destitute, as celebrity colonialists who must speak for what they view as an amorphous swarm of victims Over There. As Bono once said: ‘I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all… They haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.’ Cheeky’s one word for it.

The problem with such sixth-former-style posturing over global problems is that it always, but always, airbrushes into oblivion the political complexities behind global crises, instead repackaging them as bovinely simple issues that a few quid from each of our piggy banks might fix. Just as Geldof and Co reduced the Ethiopian famine to a simple natural disaster featuring skinny black people and good-hearted white singers, so Moran’s video for her single presents the refugee crisis as a problem that came out of nowhere, and which mainly features lonely, lost kids in need of saving. The video is packed with children, their wide eyes appealing to us in the West to mother them. Their parents are nowhere to be seen. Are they dead, or just being ignored? They’re inconvenient figures who would only pollute the cheap emotion the video is designed to elicit: the warm glow of a satisfied Western urge to hug-a-kid and feel parental, good, nice.

That is fundamentally what charity singles are about: not raising awareness about global crisis but raising awareness about the decency of Western luvvies and celebs. ‘Last Thursday my husband Pete and I were watching the news in floods of tears… and we decided we had to do something’, says Moran, advertising her emotional literacy, her sensitivity to suffering. The problem is that the ‘something’ she is doing, just like Geldof’s ‘something’, is likely to have a bad rather than good impact: it will contribute to the already pretty pronounced infantilisation of the refugees as pathetic people that we lucky ones must rescue, and it will push further the virtue signalling, which is the opposite of solidarity, that has been a central, cloying feature of the West’s response to this crisis.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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