As soon as David Lammy used the term ‘White Saviour Syndrome’ with regard to certain Comic Relief celebrities, I just knew what the reaction would be – and sadly, I’ve been proven right, as, on TV and radio phone ins and across social media, all the usual ignorant bigotry has come tumbling out. All the usual stuff about ‘ungrateful’ recipients of our aid, how those bloody Africans won’t help themselves and just sit around waiting for us nice white people to turn up with the money and last, but not least, the tired old allegation that Lammy is being racist for condemning white people trying to capitalise on their charity ‘work’. The latter nonsense, of course, demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of how racism actually works: it is based on power relationships. Historically, white Europeans have had the power – be it political, economic or legal – to discriminate against non-whites who, because of their lack of power, couldn’t possibly reciprocate. Clearly, David Lammy, even though an MP, doesn’t have the power to discriminate against anyone, white or otherwise. (His words might, I suppose, be considered prejudicial against white people, but that’s completely different). The fact is, though, that he wasn’t attacking anyone for simply being white, or saying that they shouldn’t contribute to charities, just that they shouldn’t exploit their charity work in order to boost their public profiles and egos.
Which, I’m afraid, is what a lot of this celebrity charity stuff is about. All charity is, to an extent, about salving one’s conscience: by making that contribution you convince yourself that you don’t have to feel guilty about the fact that you are doing relatively OK while poverty, inequality, violence, famine and all those other old favourites are still at large in the world. By giving some money, you can feel that you’ve ‘done’ something, without having to think about why the world is the way it is, without having to contemplate that the system might need fundamental change. As an added bonus, you get to feel good for yourself because you’ve done something good. (Arguably, of course, you shouldn’t be giving to charity, or indeed doing any good work, just to feel good about yourself. As Jesus would tell you, doing the right thing is its own reward: you should do good because it is the right thing to do, regardless of how it makes you feel, or whether it makes you popular).
It’s the same for celebrities, but more so – for them charity work is also a way of justifying their existences and high salaries. Plus, there’s always the matter of how it enhances one’s public profile to be associated with worthy causes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that there are plenty of people, celebrity or otherwise, who are perfectly sincere in their charity work. Although, by and large, I suspect that they are the ones who don’t seek publicity over it. The specific problem Lammy was trying to highlight was just this – it is the way in which this charity work is framed which is the problem. It portrays the recipients as passive victims and focuses on those providing the charity as ‘saviours’, coming to the rescue of these poor, helpless people, who become mere props for celebrity photo opportunities. Obviously, his biggest ‘mistake’ has been in targeting a ‘national institution’ like Comic Relief . Speaking personally, Comic Relief and the way it presents its work has always made me uneasy: it comes over as hopelessly patronising toward its recipients and all too often seems a vehicle to promote the public images of preening celebrities in search of photo opportunities.
Worst of all, it never seems to address the fact that most of the problems experienced by modern African states have their roots in European imperialism. Yeah, I know that people here in the UK hate to be reminded of our role in the imperialist exploitation of large tracts of the globe, (‘We can’t be held responsible for the crimes of our ancestors’, they cry, while simultaneously still going on about what the ‘bloody Krauts’ or ‘bloody Japs’ did in the war), but, nonetheless, we can’t evade responsibility. It’s the same with refugees: the public – and, to be fair, not just the British public – just won’t accept that we in the developed world are, to a large degree, responsible for them. The reason those guys are so desperate to get across the Mediterranean is because their own countries are so shot to shit by war, famine and poverty. Wars, let’s not forget, that we in the West either strarted oe, at the very least stoked up and encouraged. As for the famine and poverty, well, as already noted, these are generally a legacy of the age of imperialism when these countries were effectively asset-stripped by the western powers.
Charity drives can, in no way, address these situations adequately. Especially those fronted by bloody celebrities. The elephant in the room with all of these big charity campaigns, be it Comic Relief, Children in Need or Sport Relief, is the question of why, if these celebrities are so concerned by the issues they are campaigning for, they don’t use their own, usually very considerable, personal wealth to do something about it, rather than urging us poor plebs to give our hard earned cash instead? Ah, but they are giving their time we are told. Which, apparently, is far more valuable than mere money. Like buggery it is – some of these bastards’ wealth is greater than the GDP of a small country, so why don’t they put it to good use, rather than just accumulate it? But, I’ve ranted enough. The fact is that I simply don’t like the very concept of charity, that the needy and disadvantaged should be subject to the whims of the better off when it comes to assistance. I seem to recall that Clement Attlee once said something along the lines that if a rich man truly wanted to help the poor, he should pay his taxes. Indeed, far more effective than releasing crappy charity singles, I’d say..