A brief Christmas scold


The last thing I want to be is a scolding wowser who agitates for the banning of things.  I'm pretty much a free speech absolutist, drawing the line just under shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre. 

But this morning, I was sitting in the Porirua Bakery and Cafe and heard, for the first time this season, the 1984 dirge, "Do They Know it's Christmas?" and it triggered a reaction strong enough to surprise even me. 

I tweeted to the effect that the song should be retired.  It is one of the worst examples of white man's burden ideology applied to Africa you could ever imagine.  Some smart-alecs retorted by pointing out that other Christmas songs ought not to be taken literally either. Specifically, Snoopy's Christmas and The Little Drummer Boy were named as examples where the lyrics should not be taken at face value; the suggestion being, I gather, that nor should Band Aid's execrable effort.

But the thing is: there is no song on planet earth, in all its history, across all its myriad civilisations, that takes itself as literally, or as seriously, as Do They Know it's Christmas?. 

If you read this blog, you probably know, I lived for three years in Rwanda.  I did not live in Africa then anymore than I live in Oceania now.  Africa comprises 54 countries, each with their unique cultures, languages, religions and customs.  And yet the not uncommon treatment of the continent as a monolith is possibly the least problematic element of this almost alarmingly racist song. 

Try this on for size:

And the Christmas bells that ring there

Are the clanging chimes of doomWell tonight thank God it's them instead of youAnd there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime

The greatest gift they'll get this year is lifeOh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow

Do they know it's Christmastime at all?

Where to start?

The clanging chimes of doom

Try as I might, in an overwhelmingly Catholic country over three years, I heard plenty of church bells on Sunday mornings in Kigali, but none of them sounded anything like clanging chimes of doom, even if I had the first idea what they sound like. 

Well tonight thank god it's them instead of you. 

This is a remarkable lyric in a song designed to appear altruistic.  As Hitchens used to point out, the Christian canard "there but for the grace of God" is actually a profoundly misanthropic sentiment -- and it's no more obnoxiously expressed than here. 

There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime. 

Well, no. There won't be.  It rarely snows in Africa, which has a generally warm climate.

The greatest gift they'll get this year is life. 

Oh, sod off.  At one level, the greatest gift we all get at any given time is the luxury of not being dead, and I guess the same goes for the citizens of the 54 countries that comprise the African continent.  But, believe me, my experience of Rwandans was that most of them live congenial, well-populated lives, bound by strong family and community connections and a deep appreciation for the many wonderful aspects of the country in which they live, especially in light of what happened there 22 years ago.  Also, I'm guessing a lot of them -- the Christians at least -- will be getting mobile phones for Christmas.  

Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow

This may be true of famine-ravaged parts of the continent from time to time, but rain and rivers flow quite adequately as a rule.  In fact, hydroelectric power is a key source of an historically energy-deprived continent.  Rwanda alone has 333 hydropower stations. And Africa is producing more crops than ever, thanks to fantastic advances in agritech and the adoption of modern farming practices. 

Sure, Band Aid was attempting to "raise awareness" of a particularly hideous drought and famine in Ethiopia at the time, but that brings me back to my central beef with he song: it paints the entire continent with the same brush. 

Do they know it's Christmastime at all?

I can answer definitively: yes.  Even the Muslims.  They're not morons. 

Overall, the song feeds the pernicious narrative that Africa writ large is a basket case; that it is a problem continent requiring the intervention of well-meaning white saviours to rescue them from their ignorance and despair. It is designed not to address the deep structural causes of extreme poverty and deprivation in parts of Africa (the international community only got serious about that in 2000 with the Millenium Development Goals), but for middle class white people, and overpaid pop stars, to broadcast their low-stakes compassion for people whom they consider completely absent of agency, incapable of finding joy in their lives, and unable to take care of themselves without the head-tilting charity of doctor's wives in Melbourne.  

Did Band Aid raise money for Africa?  Yes.  Between that and Live Aid, it amounted to about $150 million.  But the evidence is that barely any of it got to people in need.  While Bob Geldof was parading himself as the Great White Hope, virtually none of the food got to where it was intended to go.  In fact, their efforts became entangled in a  conflict between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan.  Most of the food was traded by the Ethiopian government at the time for Russian arms. 

So, yeah. A shit song with an even more antiquated worldview than The Little Drummer Boy -- and not nearly as cute as Snoopy's Christmas.