(Continued from previous page)
Tentative concern 1: the corporation
It would seem that the event has become as much about the battle against HIV as about corporate interests, and I am never convinced that any corporation big or small will ever do anything simply for non-commercial motives (irrespective of what they tell us). The Life Ball is cool – which is all the more surprising that my ticket still hasn’t arrived – and for any company to align itself with it is gaining a lot of kudos (except T-Mobile whose attitude to customer service remains that of the dart throwing monkey).
Then again almost everyone, to a lesser or greater extent, is allied with the corporate dollar either through work or the acquisition of stuff or services (I know I am) and despite my political and social leanings, It is largely inescapable and I accept it as part of the world we live in. It is this cost against benefit that behavioural economists use to try and explain the world and the choices we make. Clearly the boudoir of the Teufel is sometimes just too enticing and perhaps commercial carousing is a price worth paying. A mutually benefical construct. A two-way deal where one gets exposure and the other money to help those who needed support. Who could argue with that? Well, I suppose partly it depends which company or indvidual is making the donation.
But the true test of altruism is to do something, not shout about it and expect nothing in return. This might be the opinion of the misinformed and wide-eyed-innocent but this does nothing to alter the overriding moral question: do you do it because you want to, without recognition or reward, or is there, like it or not, another more egoistic motivation? And if there is something Mr Barratt despises most is corporate hypocrisy, a point he reflects on frequently whilst sipping his Twinings English, a traditional blend of black teas, creating a rich and satisfying taste.
Gery Keszler is one of the original founders and organiser of the Life Ball and comes across as eminently modest and unassuming . I like him (if it is possible to like someone you’ve never met). In his downtime he potters off to Burgenland to work in his garden (Burgenland is my favourite Austrian federal state so he must be alright). And when he appears on stage next to the likes of Clinton or Sharon Stone he has the face of a man that is thinking, “How the hell did I end up here?”
No doubt he would argue that such an event, and many like it, would never exist without corporate sponsorship and I suppose, realistically, he is right. In his words, in 2012:
“Our partners from the economy, whose support, donations, contributions in kind and know-how made it possible to organise the Life Balls and thus generate funds to support important HIV/AIDS projects throughout the AIDS LIFE association.”
But I suppose I would feel happier if business sponsors (through donation, knowledge or manpower) sent a clear message that they expected nothing back. In other words, here is a million Euro and we won’t use our donation (or donations in kind) for tax relief. Which is the nub of the problem; the Life Ball is a great cause but there are many great causes which deserve an equal share of the tax cake. If companies use it to make themselves tax efficient, then someone else further down the tax chain is getting shafted. And by someone else I mean me (and society).
Moreover, by offering taxable reducing relief to one cause or another I am effectively making a choice about where my tax contributions go. Which is not how it’s supposed to function, is it? I don’t really want any tax I pay to support useless bankers, but seemingly I don’t have a choice at the moment and never will until I don my poncho, sharpen my knives and lead the revolution. Ole!
Tentative concern 2: Is the Life Ball more about Vienna or about the fight against HIV/AIDS?
My other concern has nothing to do with the event itself but rather the feeling that it has been hijacked by the city, in cahoots with the Chamber of Commerce, and converted into one gargantuan marketing junket for Vienna, whilst reaffirming (with the solemnity of god-thundering preacher) how positive the occasion is for Austrian / Vienna business, jobs and tax revenues. In doing so it seems to me that the true spirit of the Life Ball has been appropriated and something else is now driving the narrative.
I know this because I am reading the press-pack from 2012 where after Gery Keszler’s introductory comments we get a piece from Brigitte Jank (ominously titled “KommR.”), El Presidente of the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, entitled From Charity Event to Flagship. By the fourth paragraph, on page 5 of the 50-page press sweetner we get the badly translated words:
“While the site of the event is of minor relevance compared to the ball proper Vienna no doubt draws on the worldwide attention which is giving it the opportunity to present itself as a city of tolerance and joie de vivire before a vast audience – priceless advertising for the city like ours.”
You probably might think, yeah, and? But what follows is page after page in great detail extolling the benefits to the Austrian and Vienna economies (investment and jobs), and I‘m reading this thinking, shouldn’t this be more about how the Ball generates money for HIV and AIDS charities? Shouldn’t the ethos of the ball and what it achieves be more prominent than how much tourist dollars it brings each year to the city or how many jobs the Vienna Chamber can claim credit for by their support? Is the site of the event really “of minor relevance compared to the ball proper”? I sometimes fear not. Especially when I see the smiling faces of local politicians traversing the red carpet (this year – magenta), arm-in-arm with the organisers and big name guests, sycophantically lapping up the love from the smiling, animated and adoring (pissed) spectators.
I suppose what I am saying is that moving as some of these figures on investment and job creation appear to be, my interest is more prickled by the rhetoric of anxiety. It is almost as if the town council is so desperate for the blessing from the taxpayer and opposition politicians that it has to repeatedly argue, in quite micro-economic language, about the benefits of the ball whilst wallpapering over some of the costs of staging it. And all I ask is, why?
Interestingly, the 76 page 2013 press-pack seems to have got whiff of my forthcoming assessment and made some radical changes (clearly my 4 year old assistant had leaked the early drafts to the press). This makes me think the 2012 version was more a round up of 20 years of Life Ball in Vienna, which may explain the emphasis on the benefits to Austria and Vienna
In any case, in the 2013 version we get the usual preamble from Gery Keszler but this time much more on the contemporary situation of global HIV and the various charities involved. There is a detailed description of the event itself, the merchandise, even Apps and then from page 38, it’s a big Grüss Gott (howdy-doo) sponsors…
Na ja, we live in an imperfect world where corruption of the human soul is a daily event and where we are forced to engage, sometimes reluctantly in moral judgements about the nefarious or conversely the reputable. But let me conclude with these words, words which may prove schnitzel-choking to 1st district political boss and puritan-in-chief, Ursula Strenzel, if she is reading: yes, the cafes are great, the history is long and the architecture, culture and music are amazing. But the Life Ball for me is the one spectacle which captures the true spirit of the Vienna I know; a chest beating, loud and proud message about contemporary tolerance and inclusiveness in a city at the top of its game. It mixes the modern with the old, the traditional with the cutting-edge and the elegant with the provocatively alluring. And I still want to go…
© RJ Barratt 2013