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Saviour, Pawn or Asshole?

Bono: “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”

by HARRY BROWNE

The interview with Bono by Tim Adams published in the Observer last Sunday was blessed, or cursed, with interesting timing. Within a couple of days of the piece appearing, with its headline quoting Bono’s defensive “There’s a difference between cosying up to power and being close to power”, Bono was literally jumping into Bill Clinton’s seat at a Clinton Global Initiative conference to offer his loving imitation of the ex-president’s voice. (Bono’s version of Clinton was, by happy coincidence, flattering Bono.) You gotta admit, it looks pretty cosy.

The scene was all the more ironic because Adams’ interview, and Bono’s answers, rested heavily on the proposition that the mega-rich rock star, whose access to the world’s media is as unobstructed as his route to its corridors of power, is nonetheless a beleaguered and misunderstood figure, fighting to have his ideas heard and his Bono-fides respected in a hostile world. In the Bono-Adams parallel universe, the singer is under attack not merely by lefties, but even by liberals.

Funnily enough, this proposition, while somewhat peculiar when viewed from the US, is not delusional, at least not in the pages of a Guardian newspaper, which the Observer is. While it is true that the Guardian’s ““global development’ section is conspicuously supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also happens to be the chief sponsor of Bono’s African work, the U2 frontman occasionally takes fierce abuse in the paper’s pages. This may come in the form of barbs from Marina Hyde, or a more sustained critique from George Monbiot, who wrote last June that Bono’s “ONE campaign looks to me like the sort of organisation that John le Carré or Robert Harris might have invented. It claims to work on behalf of the extremely poor. But its board is largely composed of multimillionaires, corporate aristocrats and US enforcers.”

That same month the Guardian saw Terry Eagleton take the opportunity, while reviewing my own book on Bono, to heap impassioned scorn on the singer’s activism.

The occasional critique of this sort hardly justifies what interviewer Adams says sympathetically to Bono, and with no hint of irony: ‘Your press in the UK and Ireland could hardly be much worse.’ (I suspect Adams knows very little about how Bono is fawned upon by Irish media.) But it’s real criticism
frontmannonetheless. It’s no wonder that eight years ago Bono’s long-time adviser, ONE executive director Jamie Drummond, used a letter to the Guardian to announce, effectively, Bono’s break with the left, and in the current interview Bono reinforces that message a few times more, making pleased-with-himself references to ‘the cranky left’, ‘tortur[ing] the left’ and ‘annoying… anti-capitalists in Europe’.

Sure, he also makes a few rhetorical concessions in this Observer interview to some historic left-ish sympathies, in much the same way he deploys Scripture when he talks to American evangelical radio, but he really doesn’t pretend to represent any meaningful critique of capitalism; and as for imperialism, it’s hard to miss that Bono reserves some of his highest praise here for the US military and the wisdom of its approach to ‘the enemy’ in Africa, an approach with which he clearly allies himself.

In this context, it’s remarkable, and perhaps a testament to the power of music to convey an impression of integrity, that he is not more widely and deeply criticised by those who identify with the left, people who wouldn’t imagine defending, say, Tony Blair, but who insist that Bono should be judged by some different standard, based on what appears to be his self-evidently good intentions and a partial and narrowly defined set of achievements.

Bono clearly has no time for us – why on earth should we cling to him?

I have written elsewhere about one of the other propositions girding the Observer interview: that Bono’s left critics just don’t like the people he has to work with in order to get things done. This is something of a strawman, to say the least: our beef, in short, is not (just) with the people, it’s with the things.

There has never been a doubt in my mind that Bono cares, not least about how he is understood by the public, as this interview confirms.  And he is also knowledgeable about issues of poverty and development, at least in Africa. But concern and knowledge don’t make him right – and they certainly don’t make him ‘left’.

What’s more, they shouldn’t make him immune to criticism of some of the terrible guff he comes out with in an interview like this, such as the story of bringing US officials to a Liberian bar: ‘We were in Liberia, downtown Monrovia, a city that is still emerging from the rubble of civil war, and we are at this beyond-cool village bar and there are these five lawmakers from the most powerful nation on earth listening to Sweetz, the local sensation, as she is shaking her stuff and dancing. I mean: I live for that kind of thing.’ Beyond-cool indeed. As the Irish global-justice activist Andy Storey wrote to me: ‘Doubtless he does live for it (in ways he does not appreciate, perhaps): the spectacle of claimed interaction concealing the reality of power imbalances.’

Then there’s the hole he keeps digging for himself about his band’s Irish tax arrangements. Bono lives in Ireland, where the ruins left by the state’s economic and taxation model must surely have wandered into the rear-view mirror of his Maserati every once in a while over the last five years. Yet his insists that “tax competitiveness” – his latest euphemism for tax avoidance – has been an unqualified benefit to his home country. And he hasn’t been asked to answer for its effects on Africa, where it costs governments tens of billions of dollars every year.

Or how about the baiting of his Irish and Irish-American critics as IRA supporters? ‘I think some of the people who criticise us in Ireland and America have a history that you can trace back to our opposition to Noraid.’ As an Irish-American whose first article for a publication in Ireland was a mid-80s attack on Noraid, which raised funds in the US for Irish-republican causes, I find this sort of line, which has also been trotted out in recent Irish-media defences of Bono, to be both irrelevant and just a little sick-making.

Despite the frequent self-deprecating quips, Bono takes himself seriously, and so should his critics. He is right when he tells Adams that, in effect, his foray into the “unhip” worlds of neoliberal politics and corporate whitewashing has brought much of his audience along with him. As he puts it: “I think that the U2 audience have turned out to be incredibly subtle in their understanding…. When you have been singing into somebody’s ear for 20 years through a set of headphones, people tend to know if you are an asshole or not.” He might have said, “people tend to think they know…”, because the few hours of often-good music that U2 has produced over more than three decades isn’t really the window into anyone’s soul, despite what we as fans might like to believe. I’ve been listening to Bono’s lyrics for all those years and immersed in his political work for the last couple of them, and I still don’t know for sure if Bono, personally, is an asshole or not.

My suspicion is that for Bono, as for most people, the question can’t yield a definitive answer, and should be discarded in favour of more useful ones. Like this one: Does Bono’s work serve the purposes of some of those who seek financial and ideological domination over the poor world and the rich world alike, and whose interests differ profoundly from those of the majority of us? He may not know the answer himself, but we had better.

Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email: harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne