As the holiday season commences and the radio swells with carols we will be presented all manner of performers across the spectrum of fame, and talent. One ditty we will be subjected to has become a Yuletide standard: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” This musical rhetorical has entered into steady rotation for nearly 35 years now.
At the risk of coming off like a cynical Dickensian holiday villain this song, and the effort behind it, has long grated on me. Not that I oppose charity and selflessness, but this entire project defines the term “misbegotten”. When it came to addressing the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia the motivation, the execution, and the resulting aid were all mired in wrong-headed action. That the releasing of the song (and the resulting “Live Aid” concerts) was a success in hoovering up money from benevolent fans is not the argument.
The issue I take is the logic behind the cause was misguided, the resulting “art” was a ghastly pastiche of obtuse imagery, and the subsequent delivery of relief was actually put to evil use, providing only the slightest of successes and actually leading to further suffering. But first, that song.
The lyrics are courtesy of organizer Bob Geldof, of The Boomtown Rats fame, and they create an opaque paean of questionable logic and an affrontery to art. Imagine how much more money this charity could have earned had they given us some sensible wordsmithing! In the manner of my DVD Autopsies, where I dissect bad films, let me pick apart the issues with this anthem:
It’s Christmas time, and there’s no need to be afraid
- Right out of the gate we are lost; if fear a commonly felt emotion this time of year?!
At Christmas time, we let in light and banish shade
- “…Tore open the shutters, threw open the sash” — (er, except that took place at night, as I recall.)
And in our world of plenty, we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world…At Christmas time
- In case you missed the subtlety, let me notify you this is set in “Christmas time” here. I suppose we shouldn’t care for others the rest of the year.
But say a prayer and pray for the other ones / At Christmas time, it’s hard but while you’re having fun
- These words and lyrics are lyrically redundant words.
There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear
- So is this an agoraphobic’s carol?
Where a kiss of love can kill you, and there’s death in every tear
- Seriously, what happened to you during the holidays, Bob?? You can tell us…
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
- Oh, I get it now — this is the ballad from the “Krampus” soundtrack.
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime…
- A result of residing in an equatorial segment of the continent
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life / Where nothing ever grows
- Largely due to central-planning screwing up the crop rotational management.
No rain or rivers flow / Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
- Admittedly it would have been hard, given this song was cut during Communist rule.
Here’s to you Raise a glass to everyone / Here’s to them, And all their years to come
- Odd that after guilting us for our bounty you then encourage us to engage in a cocktail toast.
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
- Since you asked again, In an answer; NO. The communists outlawed all religious practice.
That last line perfectly illustrates the lapsed logic behind the sentiment driving the Band Aid project. While the British musical luminaries felt a swell of outreach they did not think their enterprise through all the way. In their rush to say “We can make a difference! little was applied to the “How?” question.
Right out of the gate they approached this incorrectly. Motivated by imagery of the starving Ethiopian populace seen on television documentaries and newscasts, the overriding sentiment was these people were suffering primarily through a drought, ergo an act of God. In perfect celebrity egotism they felt the solution would come via the acts of man.
Wrong-O. Turns out Man was the force behind famine in Ethiopia. 3 main influences were leading to that population suffering; Despotism, civil border conflicts, and the collapse of the Communist Bloc.
Since the mid-1970s Ethiopia fell under the Communist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, an inept leader who was adept at those Communist traditions of screwing up farming, and oppressing his people. Not long into his rule there was an incursion by Somalia forces. Mengistu reclaimed the area, and following he instituted food restrictions to control the populace. This became his common practice.
With the fall of Communism in the 1980s Mengistu met diminishing aid and support from Moscow, and numerous uprisings occurred to challenge him. Desperate to retain control Mengistu provoked the famine of the mid-1980s, beginning before the drought that affected the lands; the Ethiopian citizens became trapped in inhumane conditions to stem uprisings.
As various rebel factions rose to topple the dictatorship they instituted artificial borders which hemmed some of the nomadic people in arid lands they normally would have left for — literally — greener pastures. Meanwhile in those verdant sectors attacks were a tool, as napalm was frequently dropped on farmlands to further restrict nutrition.
Once the Band Aid supplies arrived at Ethiopian ports there was little help administering the aid. The government did not cooperate in the distribution, and in the rare instances when deliveries could be made they were halted from entering areas held by rebel forces.
In fact the deliveries from Live Aid became a lifeline for Mengistu. Frequently the emergency food was used instead to feed his troops. As ports overflowed with undelivered foodstuffs the dictator who was cut off from Soviet assistance confiscated supplies to trade for arms.
Worse than that, Live Aid effectively funded the dictatorship. SPIN Magazine in 1986 dug into the logistics and found that Bob Geldof handed over contribution funds to the despot Mengistu. He in turn went back to the Russians to now purchase weapons to help cement his place in power over the rebels, and further extend the starvation of his own people.
It was not doing good, but, horrifically, unimaginably, the exact opposite. The Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu, until then deadlocked in the war, was using the money the west gave him to buy sophisticated weapons from the Russians, and was now able to efficiently and viciously crush the opposition. Ethiopia, then the third poorest country in the world, suddenly had the largest, best equipped army on the African continent.
By this time we had all seen the pictures and TV footage of Bob Geldof, the figurehead of Live Aid, bear hugging and playfully punching Mengistu in the arm as he literally handed over the funding for this slaughter. It was on TV now alright, but as an endless, relentless reel of heroic Bob Geldof highlights. He drenched himself in the adulation and no one begrudged him it.
This kind of result can only come about through the earnest, forceful message of the emotionally excited celebrities declaring loudly, “We must do SOMETHING!” The lack of forward thought on that “something” is blatant, but don’t let that stop them from patting themselves on their collective backs.
Instead of feeding the world, in the end all they fed was their egos.