Why you should care

The inescapable Christmas hit from the ’80s doesn’t hold up so well 30 years on, and neither does its brand of activism. 

Almost 30 years ago came a song that launched 10,000 white saviors onto the world’s benighted places: Bob Geldof’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” You know this song. You cannot escape this song. From Black Friday to January 2, it wafts relentlessly through malls and over the radio, and by next year, it will take more than a juice fast to get its cloying “Feed the wor-or-orld/Let them know it’s Christmastime” out of your system.

It was born of good intentions, of course. Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, encountered reports on the famine striking Ethiopia and “decided he could not sit back and just watch the suffering.” He wrote the song with Midge Ure — in a flash, he says — and then went about wrangling pop stars to sing it. He got Sting, Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Boy George, George Michael, Simon Le Bon and a bunch of flashers-in-the-pan. Don’t forget Bono! The celebs in the original video all look startlingly young and earnest, even a bit pious.

Almost 30 years ago came a song that launched 10,000 white saviors onto the world’s benighted places…

The lyrics likely would have sounded bizarre to Ethiopians, had they gotten a chance to hear them:

There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is a bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom

Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life

Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow

Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

The single sold about 12 million copies, and the Live Aid concerts that followed raised millions of dollars for famine in Ethiopia. Some 20 million Britons turned out for them, including Princess Diana. The endeavor got Geldof an honorary knighthood (he’s Irish, so he’s not eligible for a regular one) and engraved his name forever in the annals of white saviorhood.

Bob outdoors surrounded by Ethiopians outdoors

Bob Geldof talks to children at a feeding center in Lalibela, 700 km from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Source Antony Njuguna/Reuters/Corbis

Is our view of the Good Knight uncharitable? We don’t think so. Consider: In 2005, Geldof aimed for a reprise, but somehow invited only African groups to participate — arguing that others weren’t popular enough to bring in the crowds.

The song and series of events that followed point to the most harmful fallacies in aid:

  • It’s better to do something than nothing.
  • If we are aware of and concerned about suffering, we can end it.
  • Reducing famine/poverty/suffering has nothing to do with politics.

Morrissey called Band Aid “the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.” More important, critics have since argued that the Live Aid money did at least as much harm as good in Ethiopia, and that Geldof-style activism, which emphasizes NGOs and incapacitates local democracies, will get the world’s poor nowhere. Thirty years after Live Aid, it’s time for a new celebrity activism. And a new Christmas tune.

Comment

OZYFlashback

Tales from the past to titillate and educate while giving you a lens on the present and future.