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Expensive talk: the gracelessness of the rock-and-roll left

MRS. JELLYBY, in Dickens's Bleak House, was so concerned for the welfare of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger, that she quite neglected to look after her own children, who lived in squalor and misery as a result. How many Mrs. Jellybys, metaphorically speaking, were there among the two billion people who were said to have attended or watched Live 8's rock concerts?

No scientific research has been done into this question, but I suspect that the number is in the high hundreds of millions. The idea that you can simultaneously entertain yourself and do immense good by watching performances of the Peter Pans of pop music (who are stuck in permanent adolescence rather than permanent childhood) is a most agreeable one, though surely destructive of a truer, albeit less comfortable and undemanding, conception of virtue.

The expression of high-flown sentiment, or rather sentimentality, is thereby made the very model of human goodness; and the more vehement the expression, the more profound the goodness. In the process, the difference between sanctity and sanctimony disappears, and with it our ability to distinguish between the two.

Prima facie, the spectacle of superannuated rock stars setting themselves up as the moral instructors of the world is a rather odd one: only slightly less odd than that they should be taken at their own estimate. Their profession, after all, has not been a byword for restraint, good sense, or selflessness; nor have the practical effects of their artistic productions been always beneficial. Aprison officer in England, himself of Jamaican origin, once told me that if he played baroque music to the prisoners in his charge they became calm, mild-mannered, and reasonable, while if he allowed them to play rock music they became agitated, aggressive, and violent. Have not these same musicians therefore the inescapable moral duty to maintain their silence and do all in their power to prevent the further dissemination of their music, which has hitherto seeped into the atmosphere like a poison gas?

The kind of morality preached by the Mrs. Jellybys of the entertainment industry has, of course, many attractions for young people who are ever on the lookout for reasons to excuse, justify, or render morally unimportant their own frequently selfish behaviour. It allows them to think that their moral responsibility increases as the square of the distance between themselves and the moral problem; and as the world offers an inexhaustible supply of reasons for righteous indignation, which is one of the few human emotions apart from resentment that never lets you down, they will always be able to think well of themselves. Moreover, their indignation almost always demands sacrifices of others, not of themselves, and to demand sacrifices of others is a pleasure in itself. Shrillness is next to godliness.

But the Live 8 conception of virtue is now very widespread, and one of the reasons for this is that the vast expansion of tertiary education has increased by orders of magnitude the numbers of people who think in sociological abstractions rather than in concrete moral terms. Statistical generalizations are more real to them, and certainly more important, than the trifling moral dilemmas of their own lives. How, after all, can your own sexual conduct compete in significance with the infant-mortality rate or life expectancy of the inhabitants of Africa? Who could be so egotistical as to think that the details of his own conduct could be more important morally than the fate of millions? Robert Geldof is right, therefore: The state of Africa is the greatest ethical challenge of our time.

The problem is that, while our responsibility for our own conduct is strong and clear, at least most of the time, our personal responsibility for the state of Africa must be very slight, and at the very least much diluted. It is also possible that we have no responsibility for it at all, if it should be the case that we have no power to change it for the better. Power without responsibility is a well-recognized evil; but responsibility without power also has its hazards, among which is a tendency to divert energy from the correction of those evils for which we are personally responsible. This is so at both an individual and a collective level.

Geldof, the begetter of Live 8, has said that it is better to do something than nothing in the face of the African situation. This would be so if it were impossible to do no harm with good intentions, or for the harm to outweigh the good (it would indeed be surprising, and remarkable, if the expenditure of billions in aid did no good at all).

But in fact it is at least plausible, and requiring refutation, to say that it was foreign aid, and foreign aid alone, that paid for the removal of three-quarters of the Tanzanian peasantry by force from where it was living, to be herded into semi-collectivized villages, where they produced almost nothing but were placed under onerous and oppressive government surveillance: an experiment much lauded in the West, though its disastrous effects, from which the country has yet fully to recover, were entirely predictable. Intelligent observers have given as their opinion that humanitarian aid prolonged the agony of Somalia, for control of vital supplies in a complete dearth is something well worth fighting for.

This does not prove that outside assistance, however wisely or carefully administered, could never do more harm than good, but there is not a single case of a country that has been lifted from destitution to even the most moderate prosperity by such a means. And the most obvious explanation for this is surely that the principal reasons for the failure of Africa to develop economically are internal rather than external, as any reasonably perceptive observer might suspect after a five-minute stay at Kinshasa Airport.

It is true that obstacles have sometimes been put in the path of trade and that they should be removed, but this is no miracle solution, nor should great results necessarily be expected of such a removal. Nigeria has never experienced the slightest difficulty in placing its principal, indeed only, export (apart from fraud) on the market, but its oil revenues have been a curse rather than a boon to the country and its people, for purely internal reasons. The civil war over diamonds in Sierra Leone did not break out because of any difficulty in selling diamonds, and Botswana, which also mines diamonds, has fared much better. The difference between the two is not explicable by obvious external factors.

It is rather condescending to Africans to suggest that they are so poor and lacking in normal human agency that they are incapable even of making their own mess, and that the responsibility must therefore lie with those countries whose populations possess such agency. It is furthermore to treat the continent as if it were an undifferentiated sink of misery, one whose main function in the world is the provision of an object for compassion, so that many may feel good about themselves. If it hadn't been for the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, Mrs. Jellyby would have had to attend to the difficult and intractable matters closer to home.

In an interview published in the French left-wing daily, Liberation, Geldof, describing the kind of people who appeared on television screens to talk about Africa, suddenly interjected an expletive that is still mildly transgressive in such circumstances.

The rhetorical force of his expletive depended entirely upon the taboo against its use in public. What he was doing, among other things, was demonstrating the strength of his feelings, and therefore the purity of his purpose, by the foulness of his language. His purity is proved by his impurity: there is something Gnostic in all this. Furthermore, by forestalling all objection to the use of this language by the seriousness of the context in which he used it ("How can you object to the use of a mere word when I am talking of the starving millions?") he is doing for language in a small way what his type of music does for culture in general in a much larger way: debauch it.

Morality in the Live 8 sense involves the vehement expression of supposedly deep sentiment about abstractions, rather than the painful, difficult, and always partially unsuccessful discipline of one's own inclinations. This is why ostensible concern for the state of the world is compatible with, and perhaps even promotes, the most complete egotism, in which concern for the good of humanity is a mask for the absolute tyranny of whim.

Mr. Daniels is a doctor and writer in England. Among his books is Utopias Elsewhere.

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