Thomas Friedman with shades
looks at the banal New Year's suggestions of U2 front-man Bono--a man dripping in both wealth and condescension.
IF THE last year of the "double-Os" is any indication, then the coming decade will be one of growing anger directed at the richest of the rich. By now, it's hardly news that there is a palpable resentment for the Goldman Sachs execs or insurance honchos that lead the world into a crisis of mammoth proportions.
It's just a shame that nobody told Bono this. Judging from his ongoing "guest columns" in the New York Times, the U2 front man hasn't picked up a newspaper in quite some time. If he did, he might see that folks of his ilk aren't getting a lot of love from the masses right now. Even his own group spent much of 2009 dodging accusations of tax evasion and criticism of their mega-expensive "360 Tour." None of this, however, seems to concern the singer.
For the past year, Bono has penned ruminations on everything from "What Sinatra Taught Me" to his own top-down solutions for African poverty. Try though you might, you will be hard-pressed to find anything even remotely resembling keen insight in any one of them. He's like Thomas Friedman with cool shades: someone whose own privilege has created a love affair with the free market--and completely divorced him from any kind of reality.
And this couldn't be more obvious in his most recent column to ring in the New Year: his list of "10 things that might make the next 10 years more interesting." It's a surreal glimpse into Bono's world-view--sometimes quizzical, sometimes infuriating, always supremely out-of-touch. Much like the man himself, this grocery list's innocuous veneer gives cover to something much more sinister underneath.
His overall thrust can be best summed up in a parenthesized line that he surely intends as a throwaway. While proffering an individualized version of cap-and-trade as a solution for climate change (essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic), Bono lets slip that we should "[t]rust in capitalism. We'll find a way."
Given the company he keeps, this should be no surprise. Bono has spent the past several years hobnobbing with some of the richest people on the planet--not to mention some of the world economy's key architects.
This kind of blind faith often takes on a tone that's simply backward. He takes time to insist that automobiles should be "sexier" before saying they should be made cleaner. He lauds new advances in cancer research--"In a world worrying about whether it can afford health care, advances in prevention are at a premium"--but says little about whether the prevention itself will be affordable. One might say that Bono is putting the cart before the horse, but then, it's been some time since Bono's kind have had to wait for their chariot.
THEN THERE are moments when it is clear just how much he has come to believe his own lines. Turning his attention to the war on peer-to-peer file-sharing, he writes:
A decade's worth of music file-sharing and swiping has made clear that the people it hurts are the creators--in this case, the young, fledgling songwriters who can't live off ticket and T-shirt sales like the least sympathetic among us--and the people this reverse Robin Hooding benefits are rich service providers, whose swollen profits perfectly mirror the lost receipts of the music business.
To be sure, Bono offers nothing new here--just the hackneyed arguments of the music industry claiming that they are really protecting artists rather than their own increasingly useless position. It bears asking, however, if file-sharing hurts new artists attempting to get their voices heard, then why are so many releasing their material for free online? Why would so many rather bypass the industry than sign a contract? Why has, ten years later, no definitive link been found between file-sharing and the music industry's decline in profits?
This isn't the first time that Bono or others in his cabal have opposed peer-to-peer. In 2008, Bono and his manager, Paul McGuinness, attended the World Economic Forum (WEF), where, among other things, they publicly lashed out at Radiohead for releasing their album In Rainbows in an online "pay what you can" scheme. The WEF is one of the few places where the ruling castes of the world let their mask slip. Apparently, Bono felt comfortable enough in their presence to do the same.
Other moments--perhaps the most infuriating--merely play as egalitarian fig-leaf. Like Bono's famed Red campaign, though, they belie much scarier implications. Bono puts forth that a "Festival of Abraham" based on using art and music to bring together Jews, Christians and Muslims may be possible in the Middle East "if there's a breakthrough in the Mideast peace process."
As a music journalist, as someone who believes sincerely in the power of music to draw folks together, it's an idea that appeals to me in the abstract. But Israel's assault on Gaza one year ago was proof about how effective the peace process has been in the past. This says nothing, of course, about the ongoing turmoil brought by the US to Iraq and Afghanistan, or the recent revelations that the Mideast economic powerhouse of Dubai is standing on shaky economic ground.
Several years ago, Bono announced that he bought a large share in Forbes magazine, a publication that had recently come out in favor of invading Iran. Bono's claim was that he agreed with Forbes' "consistent philosophy."
Despite all the craven pleas for "world peace" in his songs, he clearly has no problem rubbing elbows with the likes of Robert Gates, Madeleine Albright and Tony Blair. Given the kind of "peace" that these figures want to build in the Middle East, Bono's Festival of Abraham is likely to take place with backing from Lockheed Martin.
THIS KIND of masquerade as a man of peace continues when the front man expounds upon his version of nonviolent revolution. He starts, aptly, quoting President Obama's recent Nobel acceptance speech: "As someone who stands as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence."
Of course, Bono says nothing of the fact that Obama, in the same speech, attempted to justify the ramping up of troops in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the singer continues:
So, he might have added, are the Germans and Eastern Europeans who came out a couple of months ago to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Wall. And so are the brave Iranians who continue to take to the streets despite the certainty of brutal repression. Like Neda Agha Soltan, they are living (and bleeding and dying) testimony.
Once again, he needs to pick up a newspaper. Even a cursory knowledge of the struggle in Iran will show that ordinary Iranians have been more than willing to engage in street battles with Basij militias (and these are the same Iranians that Bono has indirectly endorsed bombing).
As for Eastern Europe and Germany, Bono seems completely unaware of the irony that he himself was a part of during the 20th anniversary celebration at the Brandenburg Gate. Here was a festival ostensibly held in commemoration of a wall coming down. And yet, the concert's organizers had no bones about constructing a wall to keep excess crowds out.
Bono's version of non-violence is that of the head of state who claims he was "forced" to go to war. Bono loves to reference Martin Luther King as an inspiration. But as Rock 'n' Rap Confidential's Dave Marsh has pointed out, "Dr. King spoke of the 'triple evils'--racism, war and poverty--as inextricably connected. He eventually concluded that opposing one of them without opposing all of them didn't make any sense."
Dr. King's legacy has long been co-opted and spun into a friendly, more harmless version to serve the needs of the powerful (which is worth remembering as we approach another MLK Day). And ultimately, this is what Bono represents. He speaks vaguely of world peace while doing nothing to oppose actually existing wars. He claims to care deeply about ending poverty, yet claims that solutions lie in the same powers that have created an underclass in the first place.
Irish writer Eamonn McCann tells a story about a young fan at a U2 concert in Scotland. Bono, taking center stage and clapping his hands in a slow rhythm, proclaimed that "every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies." The anonymous fan jokingly shouted "well fucking stop doing it then!"
All jokes aside, though, Bono's crusade does more harm than good. Though he wraps himself in the flag of the people, in reality he is little more than a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful. The world they have in store for us is a frightening one indeed. Whatever the next decade brings, we would do well to ignore pretty much everything Bono says.
First published at the Society of Cinema and Arts.