A few days ago, Venice was swamped, not by the unruly waters of its acqua alta but a wedding that cost, according to one estimate £8 million (or maybe it was the lower but still incredible sum of $1.6 million claimed by People – which might be tailored to the socially-conscious image of the happy pair). Public space, like the footpath along the Grand Canal and the surrounds of the Cavalli Palace, was cordoned off to keep the gawking multitudes at bay and vaporetti had to give way to the wedding flotilla when their canals weren’t totally closed off so the VIPs could zip around unimpeded by Venice’s citizens. The wedding was supposed to be low-key and private according to the groom’s publicists, but they were certainly fibbing. This was the big chance to take real-life Hollywood to the set of what some call the world’s most romantic city. It’s also one of the most expensive. And what’s a little lie here and there when pockets need a plusher lining?
Then there was a bride who unbachelored George Clooney, the world’s most eligible bachelor, as they kept saying. Her name is Amal Alamuddin and she’s touted as a “human rights lawyer”. So George Cloney (not sic) has married a brilliant, virtuous woman. Of course she’s beautiful too. “Stunning” is the media’s favourite word. Some of the marginally more politically correct publications have observed that it’s not about the human rights lawyer being lucky enough to grab George, but he’s the lucky one because he’s snared this amazing woman. The human rights lawyer had all the fashionistas drooling as one extremely costly designer outfit after another draped the lean, leggy frame. The show was so elegant that they even had a monogram (slender A leans into chunky G) designed to be flown on pennants decorating water taxis, or to adorn hat boxes and other useful things. The guests were all “A-list”. If you want to be A-list you need to have enough cash and arrogance to swoop into places like Venice on your private jet (leaving your massive carbon footprint) and cordon off locals who might get in your way.
As if it’s not bad enough that we are supposed to admire (envy?) a man and a woman who are so vain that they can spend $13 (or $1.6) million on themselves at an event that makes them legally recognised bed-mates and fortune sharers, there are even more dismaying aspects to all this. With such awful ostentation of the wealth and sense of entitlement of the carefree rich, it’s hard to pinpoint where the rot of moral sleaze sets in. Maybe a few people saw that something was out of whack when the immaculate couple, beaming bliss with scarily white, straight rows of flashing fangs went to seal their contract at the Town Hall. A few dozen disgruntled council workers were there protesting against budget cuts in the social services, police and cultural heritage. It was a jarring note, but the city’s resources were poured into protection for the lovebirds.
Then there are gender issues. Lucky Amal. George is so dashing, charming, and gallant, and she has the most fab wardrobe to go with her Armani clad man(nequin). She’s going to have to teeter round on vertiginous heels and wear ridiculous heavily embroidered mushroom-skirted dresses for the rest of her wifely life just to stay with the image (photo-shopped in ageing George’s case). George could never have a homely wife. So what’s he got? He’s got the “Hottest Barrister in London”, the world’s sexiest human rights lawyer. Looks like the perfect match. They are both “humanitarians”, so much so that they donated the proceeds of the wedding exclusive (sold Kardashian-style to Hello! and People) to charity.
George is big on charity. Everyone knows that. His publicists make sure of it. He founded the NGO “Not on Our Watch” with his Hollywood pals Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and producer Jerry Weintraub, ostensibly to call attention to human rights violations in Darfur and provide resources to put an end to other mass atrocities. It also calls attention to George. Much of his funding to the region goes through the United Nations World Food Programme and he was also named United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2008, in support of the UN’s peace-keeping efforts around the world. These efforts are, in fact, less than glorious with debacles like the Srebrenica massacre, child sex abuse scandals, failure to prevent the massacres in Darfur, Rwanda, and the Nepalese strain of cholera the peacekeepers imported into Haiti with tragic consequences for the already battered people of the country, and for which the UN still pleads “immunity” (read impunity). But anyway it’s all A-list and well publicised.
What’s wrong with charity? Plenty. Charity is antithetical to human rights. Human dignity is trampled on by charity and its postmodern form of humanitarianism whereby alms are selectively offered or imposed from outside on a temporary basis and usually to benefit the giver, almost always in some kind of self-serving public act. It insults the humanity of those on the receiving end. Their human dignity is offended by enforced dependence on people who can splurge millions on a wedding. Charity is all about image. It’s easy enough to believe that shadow-lurking greedy bankers or overtly destructive multinationals are bad guys. But the humanitarian super-rich have to be good guys because they’re beautiful (depends on your definition of beauty) and they smile a lot. Sometimes they even adopt little babies from poor countries. They are the made-up, benevolent face of the same system in which obscene wealth coexists with the facts that more than 50% of the world’s population lives in dire poverty and, according to Forbes, the world’s richest 67 inhabitants own assets of the same value as those of that 50%, some 3.5 billion people.
In this vile system, which the charitable rich are shoring up, humanitarianism is a weapon. The uses of human rights, now travestied as humanitarianism in the globalised world, show how they are twisted into their perverse opposite. Few people have put it clearer than the former US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld: one of the Pentagon’s “8 objectives of war” in Iraq was “to immediately deliver humanitarian relief, food and medicine to the displaced and to the many needy Iraqi citizens” (i.e. first bomb and displace them, then roll in your humanitarian effort). The humanitarian intervention is an instant bonanza for United States construction and weapons companies, while humanitarian missions from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, to Aceh, Thailand, and Sri Lanka after the tsunami, to Cambodia and the more recent post-humanitarian disaster, East Timor, all show the dismantling of local systems, dispossession of the people, and the dire consequences of that as these economies are pulled into the neoliberal system and reshaped to pave the way for the plunder to follow, although the word employed is the euphemistic “reconstruction”.
Partly thanks to their charitable activities and all the money they spend on promoting themselves, we know the names of a lot of the rich and can see their mansions, fleets of cars, private jets and other appurtenances of an empty existence in glossy magazines, but the poor, the excluded, the masses are nameless. Their status as a largely undifferentiated multitude is hard to associate with human features, values and rights. Indeed, many of these masses of people are deemed to be “surplus” populations, and the racist skew here speaks volumes. The list includes West Papuans, all the immigrants and refugees who die trying to enter the US, or reach Europe’s or Australia’s shores, Palestinians, Chagos Islanders, the Rohingya, the San people of Botswana, and all the others who are being dispossessed of their ancestral lands by western multinationals…. They are not even granted the most basic right of all: that of existence.
So, whose human rights is Amal Alamuddin defending? Her clients have included Enron and Arthur Andersen, Julian Assange, Yulia Tymonshenko and the King of Bahrain who, if he is known for any relationship with human rights, it is for riding roughshod over them. Her clients are definitely A-list. Perhaps Amal has confused privilege with rights. Perhaps she hasn’t understood the word “universal” which is implied with the adjective “human”. Or maybe she understands it all too well because fully understanding its connection with human rights would demand a major change in lifestyle. A right, Amal, is not an arbitrary or unfounded pretension but a reasoned expectation that is considered to be ‘well-founded’, ‘legitimate’ and, in particular, ‘just’. And the generalised nature of a human right clearly distinguishes it from any privilege confined to a group, class or caste.
The word “universal” may be a commonplace in human rights talk but when it is mindlessly or cynically mouthed, its ordinariness doesn’t stop it from being an obscene affront to the billions of people who, without the basic means of existence, can’t exercise their human rights. A person living in extreme poverty can’t enjoy conditions of freedom and dignity. Justice can only be perceived – suffered – in the cruelty of its absence. The ever-growing gap between rich and poor is an abominable injustice. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Isn’t this the principle that any human rights lawyer should be defending?
In 1759, Adam Smith observed that, the “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” And long before Smith, half a millennium before the Common Era, Confucius was warning of China’s silver-tongued orators, glib men of empty words, image artists. Their successors, today’s spin doctors, also use words, cynically detached from their context, as instruments of persuasion, weapons pressed into service for the most nefarious purposes. There can be no social contracts if the words used to formulate them – and especially crucial words like “human rights” – are suspect because we can be sure then that society is not what it is claimed to be. If the words representing the values and ethics of a society are stripped of their real meaning, we should be alarmed for the health of the reality they are supposed to convey. The reality is that Adam Smith’s “masters of mankind” (“All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been [their] vile maxim…”) need the designer clothes and made-up faces of charitable celebrities. They spend, smile, pose, duck in and out of trouble spots and provide a lustrous cover-up for atrocities. In the four days Amal and George and their A-list friends were strutting around Venice over 120,000 children under the age of five died of preventable diseases. The truly dreadful preventable disease, the gaping wound caused by the corruption of our moral sentiments, is called poverty. The bottom line is that the A-listers bear a lot of responsibility for that.
Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso
Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).