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Ice Bucket Challenge for a frigid society

What are we forgetting when we pour a bucketful of water on ourselves?

Last updated: 03 Sep 2014 13:26
Belen Fernandez

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.
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The Ice Bucket Challenged raised more than $100m in one month for ALS charities [AP]

A recent Forbes article poses the question-and-answer: "Think The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Is Stupid? You're Wrong".

The Ice Bucket Challenge is one of the modern era's greater marketing coups: a social media-based campaign to raise awareness and funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disease. The premise is that you either donate money to ALS charities or have a bucket of ice water dumped over your head; some people do both. The dumping is filmed and videos are posted on the internet, while their soaked protagonists nominate others to accept the challenge.

The operation has been celebrity-heavy, drenching the likes of US business magnate Bill Gates and Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima. According to Forbes, the Ice Bucket Challenge "is awesome" and criticisms of it are unfounded, because what ultimately matters is the monetary accumulation (over $100m was donated in 30 days).

The article concludes that "the people trying to throw cold water on the Ice Bucket Challenge simply need to warm the icy cockles of their own hearts" - although the predicate of the sentence has been crossed out and replaced with the tamer suggestion that critics "should stop".

An examination of various aspects of the campaign, however, reveals it doesn't exactly merit cockle-warming.

Egos in the spotlight

Aside from reported challenge-induced concussions and the fact that "ice bucket challenge death" is now an autocomplete option on the Google search engine, there are other reasons to throw a bit of cold water on the project.

For starters, as has been widely noted, the staged deluge of water onto individual heads makes a mockery of the severe water shortages that plague much of the globe and cause all manner of human suffering.

Furthermore, it seems less than sympathetic to essentially reduce ALS - a vicious and fatal illness that paralyses its victims before disposing of them - to a spectacle in which hordes of egos attain their moment in the spotlight by going under the bucket.

Of these egos, the Bill Gates variety is particularly problematic. What the ice water does in Gates' case is sustain his whitewashed image as a humanitarian multibillionaire and curator of global health - an image tarnished by, among other things, a Los Angeles Times report from 2007 that specified the following:

"The Gates Foundation has poured $218 million into polio and measles immunization and research worldwide, including in the Niger Delta. At the same time that the foundation is funding inoculations to protect health, The Times found, it has invested $423 million in Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and Total of France - the companies responsible for most of the flares blanketing the delta with pollution".

In case the irony wasn't clear enough, the article cited a claim that these flares adversely affected immune systems and made children "more susceptible to polio and measles - the diseases that the Gates Foundation has helped to inoculate… against".

And Gates is just the tip of the iceberg. The role played by other celebrities - from supermodels to actors - in fuelling the ice bucket frenzy is simply another testament to the institutionalised superficiality that constitutes neoliberal society, its populations seduced and sedated by material things and physical appearances.

Obviously, there's no crime in giving the elite ideas on how to share some of their obscene wealth. In the end, however, such practices help prolong the life of a diseased system by reinforcing the idea that, because they occasionally drop a couple hundred, thousand, or million bucks on a good cause, the rich are entitled to their riches. In other words, vast socioeconomic inequality spelling misery for lots of people is A-OK.

Right and wrong systems

Imperial warmonger and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman often remarks that "the way you get big change is by getting the big players to do the right things for the wrong reasons".

But wouldn't a better formula involve people doing the right thing because that's how society is structured?

For example, what if the US government were to decide that, instead of doing things like spending $720m a day to destroy other countries, it would channel funds into medical research for ALS and other diseases?

Counting the Cost: ALS: Ice buckets of success

Such proceeds might also come in quite handy in establishing a health care system that doesn't entail oppressive fees that can force ailing folks to choose between treating their ailments and drowning in debt. In many cases, obviously, the avoidance or postponement of treatment results in worsened health conditions or death, while the boost to the insurance industry known as Obamacare hardly constitutes a solution. Last year, radio host Doug Henwood envisioned a scenario in which "scores of millions are thrown onto the private individual insurance market and forced to pay $1,000 a month for crappy coverage".

As physician A W Gaffney notes in a Jacobin article on "the neoliberal turn in American health care", the Obama initiative leaves "millions still uninsured and many more 'underinsured' - a well-described and researched phenomenon in which the possession of health insurance still leaves individuals and families with dangerous financial liability when illness strikes".

Those who insist that decent health care is a utopian fantasy or a dangerous communist plot might consider the case of Cuba - which, despite being under pernicious embargo by the US, has managed to offer free, prevention-focused universal health care with not-too-shabby results. The infant mortality rate in Cuba, for example, is lower than in its imperial neighbour to the north.

Imagine what could be accomplished in a much richer country like the US, where the right to health might be further facilitated by suspending the annual $3bn-plus donations to the state of Israel, which it uses to inflict massive suffering on the Palestinians. Incidentally, as the Ice Bucket Challenge kicked off this summer, the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip were also undergoing their own unique test: the challenge to exist under Israeli bombs.

Over 2,100 Palestinians were slaughtered in 51 days, but the crisis apparently didn't meet the requirements to trigger mass narcissism-disguised-as-sympathy. Other obstacles to Palestinian participation in the Ice Bucket Challenge include Israeli usurpation of water resources and demolition of rainwater cisterns.

Reflections on water

The challenge, it seems, represents an optimal confluence of factors capable of temporarily attracting the attention of a permanently distracted populace. Forbes quotes the CEO of Plenty Consulting, a firm focusing on peer-to-peer fundraising: "These past few weeks, the Ice Bucket Challenge has eclipsed everything in our industry".

Looking past industrial terminology to the human side of the story, it's imperative to note that many sufferers of ALS have - completely understandably - endorsed the challenge as a sign of hope. So let me emphasise: I am not at all suggesting ALS is not a terrible phenomenon that shouldn't be combated at all costs.

I'm just saying that the ice water campaign shouldn't occur unaccompanied by reflections on the general ills of a frigid and inhumane society.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

Follow her on Twitter:  @MariaBelen_Fdez

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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