Thumbs down for Hands Up

Birthdays, holidays, the end of exams, ethnic cleansing: Oxford
students will leap at any opportunity to throw a party. The Hands Up
for Darfur ‘fashion show’ in 1st Week can’t even keep our insularity
out of a good cause. Its goal of ‘using untried and untested
initiatives to engage students’ interest’ is thwarted by the same
blinkered attitudes it means to dispel.

The poster’s main attraction is an imposing pair of breasts. The
fine print bills the event as ‘one of the major events of Oxford
University’s annual calendar,’ with the usual purple prose – ‘delicious
days of dazzling decadence’ or whatever – and tales of Belshazzar-esque
feasting you’d expect from any old ball. Oh, and there’re links to the
charities at the end.

Untried and untested this sure ain’t. And let’s not forget the
‘models.’ I wonder what the in look is at the Abou Shouk refugee camp
this season. Bloodied rags? With the ‘endless flowing free drinks’ how
many people are even going to remember what the point of it was at all?

Surely something so horribly misjudged could only be done by
well-meaning folks who don’t see the problem with having an ‘exclusive
after party’ at a place called Thirst Lodge, in support of people who –
according to HUFD’s own website – risk rape or murder if they go too
far looking for water. Maybe not. Some committee members do boast
impressive activist resumes. Equal attention, however, is given to
qualifications such as having been college ball organisers, a gap year
English teacher for a couple months, and ‘Head of House,’ at school,
‘which meant organizing a lot of house events.’

I can’t help thinking how they’ll spend their summer; working for
humanitarian organizations in Darfur, or interning at KPMG? The whole
thing smacks of CV building. It gives an otherwise unremarkable
Brideshead Regurgitated party a moral veneer with one word – ‘Darfur.’
A hugely complicated incident that few people really understand is
reduced to a vehicle for selling ball tickets.

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And HUFD market all their events in the same way. The last ‘awareness
forum’ was ‘chaired by a high profile figure to match the quality of
last year’s chair’, and offered ‘the chance to win free pre-debate
dinner with the speakers at an exclusive Oxford restaurant.’ If Darfur
didn’t exist would the fashion show be going ahead anyway, for whatever
the charity cause celebre of the moment happened to be?

Maybe we’ve become so inured, either to faraway genocides that only
seem to exist on TV, or the absurd Oxford ball scene, that it doesn’t
even seem an anomaly. Only last term the EAS threw a bash sponsored by
the Chinese government. Yep, the same guys that block UN sanctions
against Khartoum, heavily invest in the Sudanese oil industry, and have
sold over $100m’s worth of weapons to government militias, who use them
against innocent Darfuris. Entirely unconnected to HUFD, no doubt. But
how many people bought tickets for both?

The charities in question – MSF and Kids for Kids – work on the
ground helping displaced civilians. They really do deserve your money.
The fashion show just isn’t the way to do it. Decadence for Darfur
reinforces the rich/poor divide. As the ‘glamour and sophistication of
Milan and Paris’ is (apparently) recreated, the inhumane conditions in
Darfur HUFD are supposed to be alleviating seem even farther away. This
is all the more extreme in a demi-monde where lavishing money on
champagne salvoes at the Bridge is part of the conventional path to
social advancement. HUFD’s very name evokes horrid, wasted evenings
there face-raping to Fedde Le Grand.

‘Awareness,’ then, isn’t an answer on its own. By missing this, HUFD is
ruining all the good work of its own swill-free events. Perhaps they
think that encouraging students’ bacchanalian side is the only way to
get them to care about people who live in squalid refugee camps. That
might well be true. Isn’t that disgusting? Are we really that
self-absorbed? As long as we’re stuck with the absurd and disgusting
notion that self-indulgence is an acceptable way to help the
underprivileged, we’ll never get anywhere.

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