Last month’s Liberty Medal ceremony was a rare chance for the philanthropic community to celebrate its accomplishments before a large captive audience. Undoubtedly the award’s honoree, U2’s Bono, was the big draw, attracting music fans, activists, donors and casual observers alike to the lawn at the National Constitution Center.
It was an odd event, with the crowd divided into two distinct groups carefully separated by a fence: wealthy Constitution Center patrons invited to the private gala and everyone else, many of whom spent several hours waiting on the lawn, like I did.
“So, you got the cheap seats?” joked a woman in an evening gown who spotted her friends in the standing room only section.
She paused to chat, but she and her tuxedoed companion soon hurried off to the other side of the fence, anxious to share cocktails and hors d’oeuvres with a similarly dressed set.
If simply having a seat was a mark of privilege, then the whole ceremony, catering to a wealthy audience, was merely another self-serving status symbol under the guise of humanitarianism.
This was most apparent in the fact that many of the seats reserved for the gala attendees were empty as the ceremony began. Organizers asked already-seated audience members to move forward to fill in the front rows, interrupting the musical performance of African percussionist Mogauwane Mahloele.
Meanwhile, the intended occupiers remained up on the balcony of the Constitution Center, enjoying their drinks as the traditional African music set a worldly backdrop for their conversation. No one in the standing room section was asked to sit down.
Principal sponsors Ira Lubert and Brian O’Neill opened the ceremony soon after the performance, speaking to a crowd eagerly waiting for Bono to take the microphone.
The response to their introductory remarks was chilling: the distinct sound of an applause track being broadcast over the speakers. This may have sounded natural on television, but was obvious to the members of the crowd off-camera who had looked at each other for the source of the applause and saw only a sea of arms resting at their sides.
Bono received the medal on behalf of his Debt AIDS Trade Africa organization with an endearing combination of swagger, humility and self-deprecation appropriate for a musician turned activist. DATA has achieved much over the past few years, in part due to its most vocal spokesman. None of its accomplishments, however, came from the handouts of the wealthy.
Instead, DATA and other similar organizations have succeeded to varying degrees by lobbying the world’s most powerful governments to donate their money, drop foreign debt and reconsider unfair trade laws in order to help countries most in need. Their goals are legion, complex and not easily achieved.
In other words, the changes they seek extend far beyond the realm of silent auctions, white tie fundraisers and $1,000-plate dinners.
“I’m not going to stand here, a rock star who just stepped off a private plane, and tell you to put your lives on the line for people you’ve never met, or your fortunes,”Bono said. “I haven’t. But our sacred honor might be at stake here. So what, then, are we willing to pledge?”
Donations to the National Constitution Center, perhaps. Or maybe just a toast.
Standing in the glow of the spotlight, the gala attendees remained on the balcony throughout the ceremony, dressed ever so carefully, and yet appearing so completely naked.
Brian Krier can be reached at email@example.com.