Sir Bono: the Knight Who Fled From His Own Debate
19 March 2009
This article first appeared on CounterPunch.
As CounterPunch and Rock and Rap Confidential disclosed in September, last May U2’s Bono confronted Irish journalist Gavin Martin and myself in the lobby of Dublin’s Merion Hotel. He asked what I’d been working on. I said “the premise that celebrity politics has been a pretty much complete failure.” Bono replied that he wanted to debate the topic in public. He reiterated the challenge the next evening. The witnesses included U2’s manager Paul McGuinness and my wife, Barbara Carr, among others.
I made sure that Sirius Satellite Radio, which was to broadcast the debate, knew about Bono’s invitation. By mid-June, U2’s New York office confirmed the plan, asking only that it be delayed until U2 finished recording its next album. I kept it public via RRC and my Sirius show, Kick Out the Jams.
In November, U2 manager Paul McGuinness rang me. After some brief personal palaver—I like Paul even though I know he’s alluded to me as a “Trotskyist” behind my back—McGuinness sheepishly said “Bono has asked me to ask you if he can withdraw” from the debate.
I said “Sure.” McGuinness expressed gratitude that I was taking it so well.
“Of course,” I added, “this was a public challenge. Backing out’s not gonna be private.” I did not ask why Bono ducked the debate. Maybe he’d come to his senses, as his apologetics for world capitalism disintegrated with the stock, housing and employment markets. Maybe he was too busy preparing the banalities he’d blare on the new album.
In the wake of the New Depression generated by Bono’s tutors in world finance, it’s hardly necessary to issue a point by point refutation of his statements about how the world works. Based on Bono’s response to criticism of U2’s tax avoidance, he plans to carry to the grave the ardently stupid globalization orthodoxy of Forbes, the Wall Street cheerleading rag he co-owns. Can there be anyone else who’s ventured a deep thought in the last several months who still believes that the only path to change involves bending the knee to the powerful?
As for the lyrics, don’t jump to the wrong conclusion. It can’t be denied that Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and the Edge can still make fascinating music. Bono’s yelped vocals are another matter, his hollow lyrics--where every platitude yields to an obscurantist pretension and back again--yet another. Unfortunately, even if he’d come up with a lyric as great as “One,” Bono also carries into each project his off-stage political pronouncements, and his fawning affiliations with war criminals such as Tony Blair and George W. Bush.
I don’t know why Bono spit the bit on debating these issues in a public forum with a well-informed antagonist. Maybe he decided that he’d fucked up and was about to lower himself by going head to head with a journalist. Maybe he doesn’t want to deal on the spot with descriptions of his repeated appearances at the conferences of the leading capitalist nations where he’s yet to ask his first hard question about anything but Africa; about his settling for promises from world leaders that patently weren’t going to be kept, and never doing more than mewing when they weren’t; about why it is that Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, by no means an anti-capitalist, observes that she met him “at a party to raise money for Africans, and there were no Africans in the room, except for me,” or why so many other Africans have complained that he claims to speak for them but has never so much as asked their permission. In regard to the last, I did receive more courtesy than Andrew Mwenda, the Ugandan journalist Bono cursed for raising such questions at an economics conference. (But then, I’m white and Celtic-American.)
It certainly isn’t my fault that I have to say “maybe” about all of this. Bono never got back to me, or had any of his handlers get back to me, about the ground rules for our projected “debate”--his term, not mine. I’d have settled for an honest interview although “debate” would have been more fun, even though the result was inevitable. No matter how many people sided with my being able to see through the kind of thing William Burroughs once poetically dubbed “a thin tissue of horseshit” it wouldn’t be enough to outweigh Big Time Pop Star status.
I don’t know. More to the point, you can’t know either.
U2 could be in a fair amount of trouble. The band is old by rock standards, and on the cover of Rolling Stone Bono looked much older than the rest because of a physical makeover that tries to deny it. No Line’s first single flopped on the radio. The band’s decision to have its song publishing company flee Ireland for a tax haven in the Netherlands has been subject to protests in the streets of Dublin and has no obvious justification, despite Bono’s fatuous counterclaim that it is his critics who are the hypocrites because free-market values were what created the “Celtic Tiger” of Dublin’s capitalist boom economy. The Tiger’s death throes look to be particularly messy, in part because of capital flight of just U2’s kind. The band’s attempt to alter the Dublin skyline with its Clarence Hotel expansion is another example of its ruinous distance from everyday Irish reality.
Bono’s self-promotion fares much better on this side of the Atlantic than at home. For instance, he got away scot-free in the American press after declaring during the Inauguration Concert, “What a thrill for four Irish boys from the north side of Dublin to honor you sir, Barack Obama, to be the next president of the United States.” But Shane Hegarty wrote in The Irish Times that only one of the band now lives on Dublin’s working class north side while Bono has lived more of his life on the south side.
“During the band's performance of ‘In The Name of Love,’” wrote Hegarty, “he described Martin Luther King's dream as ‘Not just an American dream--also an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream, an Israeli dream . . .’ And then, following a long pause reminiscent of a man who'd just realized he'd left the gas on, he added, ‘. . . and also a Palestinian dream.’ This was his big shout out to the Palestinians… You can't help but marvel at this latest expression of Bono's Sesame Street view of the world. Hey Middle East, we just have to have a dream to get along.
“Just ignore the sound of those loud explosions and concentrate on Bono's voice.”
So listen, Bono, if you decide to suck it up and face me, I’m still available. I can’t win a debate, we both know that, and why you’d want to continue to look feeble and cowardly when you have virtually nothing to lose… well, that’s another question I suppose you’ll never be asked.
It doesn’t mean that those questions are
going to go away. Maybe for the tamed tigers of the American pop press,
but not for me, or for those people in the streets of Dublin calling you
a tax cheat, or for the Africans who feel insulted by your ignorance of
their lives, or for that matter, the fans who wonder why you insist on
siding continually, if slyly, with the powerful against the powerless.
MAN O’ WAR
In 2005, the annual Man of Peace award was given to Bob Geldof, despite his promotion of the bloodthirsty Bush and Blair regimes. In mid-December the Nobel Peace Prize laureates who give the award gathered in Paris to bestow it on an even worse choice: Bono.
Bono is no man of peace--he has yet to speak out against any war. Bono is part owner of Pandemic/Bioware, producers of Mercenaries 2, a video game which simulates an invasion of Venezuela. Last year Bono met with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to discuss plans to set up a new U.S. military command for Africa. Forbes, the magazine Bono co-owns, constantly beats the drums for war (Bono says he was attracted to the magazine because it has a “consistent philosophy”).
Like Sir Bob, Bono sings the praises of some of the most warlike public figures. It starts with Dubya and Blair—Bono praised the UK prime minister for “doing the things he believed in.” He clearly meant to include massive British involvement in the war in Iraq. Bono also has nothing but praise for arch-reactionaries such as Jesse Helms and Billy Graham. In the video for Pat Boone’s video, “Thank You Billy Graham,” Bono intones “I give thanks for the sanity of Billy Graham, a singer of the human spirit.” Interesting. In 1966, Graham followed LBJ to the podium at the National Prayer Breakfast to give a ringing endorsement of the war in Vietnam. “There are those,” Graham said, “who have tried to reduce Christ to a genial and innocuous appeaser; but Jesus said ‘You are wrong—I have come as a firesetter and sword-wielder. I am come to send fire down on earth!” Sing that human spirit, Billy—you’ve got Bono on harmonies. Indeed, surrounded by America’s most hawkish politicians, Bono gave a fawning keynote speech at the 2008 National Prayer Breakfast. In a recent interview with the British music magazine Q, U2 drummer Larry Mullen said he “cringes” when he sees Bono hanging out with George Bush and Tony Blair, adding that those two world leaders should be tried as “war criminals.”
It might seem strange that a group of Nobel Peace Prize winners would anoint Bono as a man of peace. But maybe not. Past Peace Prize winners include Henry Kissinger, puppetmaster of the violent overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende and architect of the bombing of Cambodia, and Bono’s buddy Al Gore, who backed both Gulf wars after voting for the first-strike MX missile.
One of the people who might have injected some new thinking into the Man of Peace festivities in Paris is Tookie Williams. A co-founder of the Crips gang in LA who became a spokesman against the gang life and an author of children’s books while on Death Row, Williams was nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize (and once for the Nobel Prize in literature). Of course, Williams could not attend because he died of a lethal injection at San Quentin on December 13, 2005 after California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused worldwide pleas for clemency.
Yet on October 23, there was Bono, the “man of peace,” gushing with praise for Arnold as he gave yet another keynote, this time at the California Women’s Conference in Long Beach. Other speakers included the Governator, his wife Maria Shriver, and Madeline Albright. Albright, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, once said on national television when asked how she could justify the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children as a result of Clinton/Gore sanctions: “We think the price is worth it.”
Bono made no mention of the dramatic increase in California poverty caused by Schwarzenegger’s pro-corporate policies. Not a word about the two million children in the state who go hungry or about the immigrants hunted in the streets as if they were animals escaped from a zoo. The main theme of Bono’s rambling talk was poverty in Africa and Africa only, although he did make brief mention of how as an aspiring musician he was inspired by the Clash (ironic since they were artists who made their opposition to war very explicit).
Despite the inspiration that many people take from the anthems Bono has written, there is not one shred of evidence that he disagrees on any issue—war, tax shelters, immigration—with the power brokers he wants us to believe are the last best hope of mankind.
Dave Marsh (along with Lee Ballinger)
edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch's favorite newsletters,
now available for free by emailing: email@example.com. Marsh's definitive
and monumental biography of Bruce Springsteen has just been reissued, with
12,000 new words, under the title Two Hearts. Marsh can be reached at: