The financial apocalypse has delivered us some small mercies after all: Bono won’t peer down on the ferries arriving into Dublin port from U2’s recording studio atop a 100-metre tall tower on the south quays. Having just returned from exile, Ronan Lynch had forgotten such megalomania. Harry Browne’s recent bashing of the shaded one quickly reminded him. Here’s his review.
We get used to Bono in Ireland – we roll our eyes, forgive and forget, and move along. Yet when Bono’s 30-year plus career as a public figure is laid out end to end, it becomes altogether more unforgettable. Harry Browne’s new book about ‘The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power)’ is as good a critique of ‘Ireland Inc’ as most of the after-the-fact books on political and financial corruption that are cramming the shelves of the nation’s bookshops.
Make no mistake: this is not an objective or subjective biography but a polemical tract, from Verso’s ‘Counterblasts’ series, and it’s significant that it comes from a non-Irish imprint. Browne tackles Bono’s life as a political figure and celebrity philanthropist, a position that Bono took on himself, and this book is already causing some controversy – precisely the point of polemical writing – as the Irish media line up to defend a favourite son, employing the logic that ‘he may be a tosser, but he’s our tosser’. The argument is made that Bono is an easy target, and is better ignored than ridiculed. Still, how is it possible to ignore him when he’s made it his life’s mission to persuade us all of the righteousness of his cause?
It’s somehow appropriate that Bono’s Americanisms and piety are best observed through a sense of humor rooted in American culture. When Bono visited the Vatican and presented a pair of sunglasses to Pope John Paul II, I couldn’t help recalling Hunter S. Thompson’s requiem for the progressive spirit of the 1960s in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “One of the crucial moments of the Sixties came on that day when the Beatles cast their lot in with the Maharishi. It was like Dylan going to the Vatican to kiss the Pope’s ring.”
On seeing Bono popping up to front for Louis Vuitton, Bill Hicks came to mind: “You do a commercial – you’re off the artistic roll call forever. You’re just another whore at the capitalist gang bang … every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink”. In turn this would remind me of a particularly dark South Park episode, where Bono features as, well, a turd.
Browne’s book features three long chapters. The first deals with Ireland, and the origins of Ireland’s famed philanthropic rockers Bono and Bob Geldof through Band Aid, Live Aid and Self Aid. Bono’s antics so often veer close to parody that it’s difficult to take him entirely seriously. In 1978, Bob Marley stood on stage in Jamaica and forced the two party leaders, Manley and Seaga, to join hands, even as their followers were murdering each other. Twenty years later, Bono recreated the incident in Belfast, bringing David Trimble and John Hume together on stage. ‘People tell me that rock concert and that staged photograph pushed the people into ratifying the peace agreement,’ Bono recalled. Where Marley was righteous, Bono was self-righteous.
Browne tries unsuccessfully to disentangle U2’s complex corporate structures, but in that regard they were no different than many other Irish and international corporations who sought, in technocrat-speak, to ‘minimise their tax obligations’. Bono and the rest of U2 made millions from their music and chose to invest some of that money in Dublin property, during the course of which they dealt with the likes of the now-discredited Anglo-Irish and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. The ultimate failure of these institutions spared us from the U2 tower.
We’re now conditioned to expect multinational corporations to avoid taxation, but U2’s avoidance of tax by moving part of their operation to Holland in 2006 rankled with a lot of people in Ireland, and caused a shift in perception of U2 from artistic collective to dead-eyed corporate entity. As we recently learned, criticism of their tax status caused the band/corporation to complain that they weren’t ‘feeling the love’ that they feel is owed to them.
In the second chapter, Browne turns his focus onto Bono and the ‘terrible beauty’ (in Bono’s words) of Africa. There’s little need for invective about Bono: Browne mostly allows Bono to make an arse out of himself. Reminiscing about his first six-week trip to Ethiopia, Bono recalls ‘learning some of the language’ – enough to allow him to write some simple instructional ditties for the orphaned children he was minding. ‘So the children would sing We can’t eat the seeds because they’re for next year / If we plant them right there will be no more tears’.
Sadly, Bono doesn’t provide us with the original rhyming Amharic lyrics (or was it Oromo? We never learn). In the spirit of the staggering lack of irony that often permeates his pronouncements, Bono later returns to this theme of the importance of using the right seeds when he joins forces with Monsanto to fund a ‘green revolution’ in Africa. This leads to the intriguing possibility of a Monsanto-sponsored educational album featuring Bono singing once again: ‘We can’t eat the seeds because they’re for next year / Oh no, hold on, we can eat them, because they’ve been genetically engineered to be infertile, and we’ll have to buy next year’s seeds from Monsanto anyway.’ (Translated from the Amharic).
The third chapter (‘The World’) opens with an inverted Christian meme: ‘Wherever two or three of the world’s rich and powerful were gathered, there too shall you find Bono, telling them how good they are.’ On the book’s cover, Bono, wearing an open-necked black shirt and jacket, unshaven and accessorised with earrings and sunglasses, stands opposite a smirking US President George W. Bush, with his hand on Bush’s shoulder. This is the central theme of the book: Bono’s sprinkling of rock’n’roll stardust on politicians and corporate leaders makes him the ultimate frontman for the powers that be. Here’s Bono praising Bill Clinton as ‘more of a rock star than anyone in this room’; here he is appearing at a Labour Party conference, praising Blair and Brown as the ‘John and Paul of the global development stage’. Here’s Bono teaming up with Jesse Helms. There’s Bono and Jeff Sachs. Here’s Bono and Paul O’Neill, touring Africa.
‘Indeed,’ writes Browne, ‘his capacity to speak the language of global justice while advancing policies that do little to advance it might be regarded as the central political fact of Bono’s subsequent career.’ Is it true? Is Bono a hypocrite? There’s a case to be made that many people have incorrectly projected an image of rebellion onto Bono and U2. Browne catches this distinction, arguing that the deliberate ambiguity of Bono’s lyrics were open to wide interpretation, from ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ onwards: Bono was simply an incarnation of ‘Ireland Inc’ all along. U2 meant it. Their song was never a rebel song.
The deeper charge is that Bono has given political and social cover not just to neo-liberal globalist politicians but to the global corporations that seem intent on controlling our data, curtailing our rights and more disturbingly, profiting from the gradual privatisation of land and water in exchange for the ‘debt forgiveness’ that is motivated by practical rather than charitable concerns.
Yet Bono is no mere corporate shill, as he’s become a corporate player in his own right. As a partner in private equity group Elevation, Bono has invested in Facebook, Dropbox and Forbes media (aka the ‘capitalist tool’). He’s one of the one percent now. So, one can argue that there’s been a certain consistent logic running through Bono’s projects over the years.
Browne tries to hand out credit where credit is due, including Bono’s role in lobbying for funding of anti-retroviral drugs in Africa, and U2’s funding of the music education scheme Music Generation. As the Irish critics of Browne’s book contend, Bono means well. I know some genuinely caring people who also think that Bono means well, but none of them are African. There’s a 2010 ad for Louis Vuitton featuring Bono and Ali emerging from a light aircraft, Africa in the background, but not an African in sight. It’s this type of image or text, produced or endorsed by Bono, that cries out for ridicule, and Browne obliges: “Surely we are being invited to imagine that a refugee camp or an orphanage, like the one worked in all those years ago, is lurking just out of the shot, with children ready to be saved by the couple’s amazing grace.” It’s Bono, philanthropologist.
It’s worth noting that Harry Browne has form on critiquing liberal philanthropy, wherein capitalism is merely a way to make vast riches in order to give it away and ‘make a difference’. Ultimately, the point is that Bono is shilling for a particular brand of liberal capitalism that suckers voters over and over. We expected George W. Bush to be a ‘war president’: Obama walked and talked like an activist, got elected on a platform of hope and change, and proceeded with much the same military and economic policies. Suckered again! Just don’t expect the rest of us to endorse the kind of techno-positive turbo-capitalism that has been tearing apart the social fabric in Europe and beyond in its elevation of naked greed to political policy. Indeed, Facebook – part owned by Bono – now turns out to be an instrument of surveillance, used as part of an international surveillance policy defended by President Obama as a necessary evil in the fight for American security.
Remember too that there were times not too long ago when those of us who live in the so-called ‘first world’ saw the IMF as an entity that operated only in the so-called ‘third world’. Those times have changed. Yet Bono and his cohorts are still offering these pipe dreams as the solution for Africa. So when Bono speaks for Africa, who is he really speaking for? Fela Kuti mocked precisely those who enable the callous rulers of Africa in ‘Power Show’:
I be secretary for government office You foolish labourer, nonentity You go suffer for nothing And at this time, them go start them Power show