Verbal Gladiators

by Geoffrey Clarfield (September 2011)

A specter is stalking America. It is not some foreign ideology that wants to destroy capitalism, nor is it yet a social form of radical Islam that would turn its back on science and individual liberty and have us all live according to Sharia law, nor is it the unrestrained hedonism of a world that has rejected religion. It is something else altogether.

If your net value is worth more than two million dollars, you will be eventually caught in a web of charity that is similar to the form of Japanese gift giving called “on.” With each gift given you are obliged to return one in like value in a never ending cycle of reciprocal altruism that is always directed toward some cause to better the world. These causes are infinite as almost all of us are children of the enlightenment and believe in the ultimate perfectibility of humankind, or if you are a radical feminist then of men, who as their nature is now considered to be evil and base and the cause of all conflict, are the ones who need immediate reform and if we can reform them then, the best of all possible worlds will soon be close at hand. The millennium will soon arrive and the lion will lay down with the lamb. The reforming spirit is radically egalitarian in its goals but hardly so in its methods.

As a reasonable democracy can at best fulfill basic needs, it can never satisfy an exponential growth of wants masquerading as rights. The rights of the homeless to remain on the streets, the rights of criminals to be granted an infinity of opportunities to reform at their victims’ expense (and thus fuelling a slew of wonderful British detective TV series) and the rights of animals who have no obligations towards humankind. One day I predict there will be a society dedicated to the protection of poisonous snakes and insects.

And so North Americans, especially upper middle class North Americans, are bombarded with appeals to worthy causes which convince them in a number of ways, primarily because they have been made guilty for either inheriting their parents’ money or having made their own, as the common wisdom of the 21st century proclaims that the wealth of the west is what is taken from the south and therefore as so many people like to say, “If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.”

The gala begins as a meeting. The Board of directors of a charity is brought to the offices of their organization and they are assigned a variety of duties which include being the head of committees. There is a committee to clarify the theme of the gala. There is a committee to insure that all Board members call on their networks to buy tickets for the gala. There is a committee to find the gala venue. There is a committee to design the venue of the gala. There is a committee to find the right mix of music and musicians for the gala. There is a committee in charge of décor and centre pieces. There is a committee in charge of security. There is a committee in charge of volunteers during the “night of.” There is a committee that will taste the right food. There is a committee that will run the silent auction. There is a committee in charge of the noisy or spoken auction. There is a committee in charge of public relations and there is a committee that either invents the awards that the key note speaker will deliver, or finds secondary notables who shall receive them. Finally there is a committee that finds the keynote speaker.

The keynote speaker must be able to fascinate the invitees without having yet spoken. He or she must be of sufficient notoriety to create a buzz, in other words, a celebrity. The keynote speaker is not an honoree. He or she is the one who bestows honor onto the honorees. This is experienced as an act of blessing given by a larger than life moral icon to a life-size human  being. These are often men or women who have spent many long years trying to do what they think is right in their eyes. They are the field workers who work in the trenches trying to help their fellow man, and by inclination, few of them are used to speaking in public.

When they receive their award they are at their emotionally most vulnerable. They often get choked up, break into tears or thank the organization in a way that would make you think that they had been liberated from prison or rescued from terrorists. They are allowed to address the audience for a minute or two (sometimes not) and for many of them, this will be the one and only time that they have the undivided attention of five hundred people. The spotlight is on them, their families are watching, the cameras click and the event is often caught on film or videotape.

The MC for the night, who is not the keynote speaker, is often a member of the media and so once again the honoree feels as if he or she is on TV and they are able to say whatever they want. But they do not, as they have been maneuvered into such an extreme feeling of gratitude that they are unable to look at the situation critically. They have become famous for one minute and they relish that fame for years to come.

The keynote speaker is sometimes but no longer someone who has dedicated his or her life to ceaseless acts of altruistic charity, helping the poorest of the poor, or working with the homeless and marginalized. They are above all, extremely articulate. They can speak in public. They are naturally gregarious and they love a crowd. They are often extremely good looking, or striking in some other way, for instance if they have survived a concentration camp or captivity of some sort. They include high profile victims, perhaps the spouse of someone killed horribly but in a very high profile way. They are inevitably achievers and they, more than often come from the world of literature and now, more and more, from show business. Yet a growing number of politicians are joining their ranks, as they too  have learnt to act for the public. For those who still read ancient history we are reminded of the Emperor Nero who preferred singing and acting in public to the hard work of governance.

These speakers are drawn from commercial speaker’s bureaus. The public often believes that they are speaking for free, out of the bottom of their hearts as they profess to believe in the cause of the charity that they are visiting. This is almost never the case. They are tongues for hire. If truth be told they charge anything between 20 to 120 thousand dollars to appear and the contract is complex and restrictive in many ways to both parties. It is a competitive field and they are the modern world’s verbal gladiators.

The ones who get the most money are former rock stars and world leaders. I know of one European rock star known for his charitable work who charges 125 thousand dollars to speak. He loves Africa even when much of the money he once sent there ended up in the hands of armed combatants, he denied any knowledge of the fact, which is not surprising as he is totally ignorant about how things are done in Africa. Bill Clinton gets a quarter of a million dollars when he speaks “on the circuit.”

When the keynote speaker arrives he is picked up by Board members from the airport, whisked to a hotel and then brought in to the evening of the gala where they receive VIPs at a VIP cocktail.  We are used to seeing celebrities on the screen and therefore often feel literally that they are larger than life. So, when you finally meet them and find them to be your size or smaller it is a bit of a surprise. But, as you already have internalized them through watching their various film personas you often at loss to make small talk, so you have to be prepared. The best thing to do is talk to them about what your organization does. As they take very little interest in your charity, it is an opportunity for you to tell them what is happening, until you have broken the ice and are then able to introduce them to the VIP guests, who are simply donors who have paid more money that evening.

The dress code is black tie. Men often wear tuxedos and women wear evening gowns. The men look like characters in the wedding scene from the Godfather, whereas the women tend to dress like the women of the royal family, with fantastic hats and fabrics that fold and shimmer in the well lit halls of the usually five star hotels where the gala is taking place.

You are ushered in by ushers and your name is on the plate having been told which table you are at. After cocktails there is a short introduction and welcome and soon after to the tones of Baroque music or Jazz you are treated to a fine dinner with fine wine. Then the MC begins, followed by the keynote speaker who then gives the awards. This can then be capped with a special address by the founder of the organization or her representative.

Desert is served and you are then thanked for all your support until the next year.

Sometimes there is a prayer.

Nowadays the entire ceremony or edited parts of it appear on the Internet, preferably on Youtube and, on the web site of the organization. Again, the people who send their ten or twenty dollars to the charity are not aware that a hundred thousand has been spent to raise twenty dollars from one donor, but if a two hundred thousand people all do the same, then it is a profitable venture and the charity survives for another year.

No doubt fifty per cent of galas are held for worthwhile causes. But who is to decide which one is more worthwhile than the others? It is extremely difficult to do so in this day an age when “moral philosophy” is no longer taught under this name and we are prey to the sujective morality of professional “ethicists.”

Words can only partially describe the feeling of a gala. There is great expectation in the air. It has the emotional feel of what orthodox followers of the world religions must experience on the night of a major religious festival, Jewish New Year, Easter Friday, the night ending Ramadan or Hindu Diwali. There is state of joyous, heightened alert in the air. Everything is set out like a ritual and everyone plays their part. Even as a spectator you feel exalted as the speakers are speaking to you, live, and you feel that you are the most important person in the audience. If not, you feel that at least you are finally “where its at” and at a successful gala, you never feel that you are missing out on something else or should be anywhere else. You are at the centre of the universe, what students of comparative religion call the “axis mundi” the pillar of the world. In short you are in sacred space with all the trappings that go with it, including heightened suggestivity.

In a society where we feel that we are constantly on the outside looking in, at a good gala  we find ourselves looking infinitely inwards. Not surprisingly, the 21st century  gala has all the quality of successful ritual-seclusion, music, ritualized speech acts, social icons, glitter and darkness, food, intoxicants, isolation, and clear boundaries. You are in ritual time, not normal time, and the mundane world has disappeared. It is, come to think of it, a bit like sex which may go some ways to explain why it has become a billion dollar business.

Over a hundred years ago the great French anthropologist of religion, Emil Durkheim explained that religion is society worshipping itself. Without the benefit of Freud, he was trying to say that each religion is an externalized expression or projection of the distinctive features of a particular society. Each society or social group has its boundaries and each society creates a ritual that binds its members together, celebrates their solidarity and does so in a way that makes each member feel purified, transformed or exalted, in direct communion with and blessed by his deity.

Galas have all the formal trappings of this kind of ritual and religious experience. In fact, in an age of narcissism and declining religious belief they are the new religion. It would be sacrilegious at any point in any charitable gala to question any aspect of the event and it is considered extremely bad form to be anything other than extremely deferential, unquestioning and enthusiastic at a gala. Restrained clapping and anything less than hyperbole is bad form, simply unacceptable, and perhaps even, immoral.

In age that lacks faith, the rise and growth of the gala suggests that the form of our modern rituals of salvation are as ancient as those of Solomon’s temple, but the values that they embody are as ephemeral as yesterday’s papers.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.



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