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New Frontiers of Shamelessness

RED Light District: Bono’s Independent

by HARRY BROWNE

"I have no embarrassment at all. No shame." Bono says it himself, in the course of his luvvie interview with comic Eddie Izzard, and that’s a typically ‘disarming’ tactic. But don’t be disarmed: Bono’s shamelessness is of a whole different order from anything we’ve seen before, and it crosses new frontiers in the edition of the London Independent that he allegedly ‘edited’ today (16 May).

For a day, you see, it’s the RED Independent. (The capital letters in RED are obligatory, for some reason.) Much of the paper is given our to plugging Brand RED, this corporate PR strategy that sees a few big companies buy Bono-bestowed credibility in return for some shillings to Africa. If the word for Bono is indeed ‘shameless’, then the word that comes to mind in relation to the newspaper itself (a usually credible outlet in Irish mogul Tony O’Reilly’s media empire) is ‘prostitute’.

Much of Bono’s RED Indy is online, but its special qualities are best appreciated on paper. RED is somehow related to the colour red anyway, so we get a front-page created by celebrity artist Damien Hirst, soaked in red and declaring "NO NEWS TODAY" and an asterisk leading to the small print: "Just 6,500 Africans died today as a result of a preventable, treatable disease. (HIV/AIDS)" So far, not terrible, highlighting the issue and its absence from the conventional Western news agenda. But why does it say "Genesis 1.27" on the cover? That’s the line about how "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." Since Bono is responsible for creating this paper in his image, does that mean he’s God?

It’s not an entirely facetious question. Certainly this edition, largely given over to Africa and AIDS, creates an image of a continent in dire need of an outside Savior. On page after page, in stories, photographs and advertisements, Africans are presented as pathetic victims, often children. No Africans write about Africa. Only one is presented in an interview as having any agency at all, Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. It is remarkable that even for the sake of appearances Bono is incapable of hiding his essential paternalism.

A colleague points out that there is nothing here about the arms trade. But perhaps this is not surprising given all the advertising and editorial space given over to endorsing RED mobile phones from Motorola, a military contractor. Nothing either covering mineral exploitation in Africa, perhaps something else Motorola might be sensitive about, given the importance of African-extracted materials in cellphones.

The self-crafted character of Bono, on the other hand, is never far from the page. Justifying his commercial fundraising strategy, he writes: "For anyone who thinks this means I’m going to retire to the boardroom and stop banging my fist on the door of No. 10 [Downing Street], I’m sorry to disappoint you." Frankly, we hadn’t noticed any fistbanging: the butler is always discreetly ready to open the door unbidden for a welcome guest like Bono.

Bono’s status on Downing Street, at No. 10 and No. 11 (where Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is to be found), is underlined by the cozy, snoozy interview Tony Blair and Brown "teamed up" to do (by phone) with the U2 frontman. Bono’s hard-hitting line of questioning includes: "Chancellor, I’ve just got back from a trip to Washington, where your announcement of $15bn over 10 years for education for the poorest of the poor created a real reverberation. Are you worried that some of your other G8 partners and finance ministers are not coming up with new initiatives to match this?"

Bono is still reverberating when he talks to Blair: "Prime Minister, I want to just take you to a more personal place in your trips to this terrible beauty that we call Africa now–to an inspiring moment, a person you have met, or a moment of despair." Bono likes his Yeatsian "terrible beauty", repeating the phrase in his editorial.

Half the proceeds from this edition supposedly go to fight AIDS in Africa. Given all the extra advertising for cool products, gigs and charities targeting the day’s once-off buyers, you can be sure those proceeds will be considerable.

No outing with Bono would be complete without licking-up to the White House as well as Downing Street. So we’ve got Condoleezza Rice naming her "ten best musical works". Condi, it seems, is a "big fan" of Bono and names "anything" by U2 as number 7 on her list, just ahead of Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’. As for Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ at number 2 (after Mozart): "I love to work out to this song. Believe it or not I loved acid rock in college–and I still do."

What a long strange trip it’s been. And that’s before you open the supplement and find, after some grim monochrome photos of Deep South poverty from Sam Taylor-Wood, another hard-hitting interview. "She’s the bright young star breaking all the rules. He’s the grand master whose influence on the way we dress is felt around the world. In a rare interview, STELLA McCARTNEY asks Giorgio Armani about fur, fashion and film–and why RED is his new favourite colour."

Indy associate editor Paul Vallely is Bono’s luvvie for the day, with his full-page ‘big question’ feature, "Can rock stars change the world?" arriving at an ever-so-British qualified Yes ­ "Oh all right then. But with a little help from their friends. Which includes all of us ­ fans, activists, politicians and now ­ as Project RED so clearly demonstrates ­ shoppers too."

The edition is themed around this notion. Even "The 5-Minute Interview", with BBC radio DJ Zane Lowe, finishes with an incongruous, not to say idiotically phrased, question, "Can big corporations make a difference to people’s lives?" Lowe sings from Bono’s hymnsheet: "The only thing people who are trying to make a difference can do is work alongside corporations. We’re not going to abolish big business, people aren’t going to stop drinking Starbucks and buying Nike, but you can say to them, ‘There’s a big difference you can make and if we find a way to make it easier for you, would you contribute?’"

This notion of lowest common denominator activism is the keynote of Bono’s signed, somewhat tetchy editorial: "So forgive us if we expand our strategy to reach the high street, where so many of you live and work. We need to meet you where you are as you shop, as you phone, as you lead your busy, businessy lives."

Two more signed opinion pieces, by Geldof and Niall Fitzgerald (chairman of Reuters, former chairman of Unilever) both advocate more or less neoliberal solutions to Africa’s crisis. In fairness (and believe me, it’s tough to feel fair about these egomaniacal creeps), Geldof, like Bono in the Blair-Brown interview, does criticise "enforced liberalisation by the IMF, the World Bank or the EU", but in both cases it’s pretty parenthetical.

Not much new ‘news’ makes the paper at all. There is room for a rubbishy Google short declaring that "Irish are top users of ‘lonely’ search term", but no room at all for the story convulsing Bono’s hometown of Dublin: 41 Afghan men have been on hunger and thirst strike inside historic St Patrick’s Cathedral to prevent their deportation to the dangers of their home country. Since this story clearly involves the West’s role in the suffering of people from the poorer world, and it also involves poor people taking their own, desperate measures to defy a Western government’s prescriptions, it fails to fit Bono’s world-view.

Young fogey Johann Hari interviews Hugo Chavez with reasonable sympathy over two pages, pausing to wring his hands about Chavez’s admiration for Castro and Mugabe. The interview appears to be shorter than the online version because of the big ads for Unicef and the Global Business Coalition on HIV/Aids.

One weak attempt at self-mockery is John Walsh’s unfunny column about some of the "less successful guest-star interventions in history"–Groucho Marx addressing the Pentagon War Room on the eve of D-Day, Margaret Thatcher guest-editing teen-mag Jackie–"the usual questions about petting, bra sizes and periods were replaced by enquiries about the public sector borrowing requirement". (Did I say unfunny?)

Bono is obsessed with justifying Live8, and the centre-spread is given over to a board game called "Gleneagles Crazy Golf" ("Will the G8 keep their word?"). The biggest move available in the game is "Move Forward 3: Independent goes RED".

Much more can be said about this low point in the history of journalism and public culture, but the final word should go to Julia Raeside on Megastar.co.uk: "We wonder if Simon Kellner, the editor of the Indy, will get to spend a day being a self-important, whining rock bore in silly pink sunglasses and trousers that are ever so slightly too tight."

HARRY BROWNE lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. Contact harry.browne@gmail.com