Blog post

Richard Dienst: The Case Against 'Saint Bono'

Andrea D'Cruz24 June 2011

Activists are set to stage a protest against the tax status of U2 during the band's headline performance at Glastonbury festival this evening. Adding to the tax-centred criticism of Bono, Verso presents an extract from The Bonds of Debt by Richard Dienst that exposes further hypocrisy. Dienst untangles Bono's problematic relationship with George W. Bush over the war in Iraq, as well as his deeply misleading claims to represent the people of the Global South.

Over the course of 2005, Bono's image took on a new ubiquity, especially during the media blitz surrounding Live8 and the Gleneagles G8 meeting. As Jamie Drummond wrote, "Live8 and the G8 Summit garnered this year more than 2.7 billion media impressions in America alone according to our best estimates." It is striking that Drummond speaks as if Live8 and the G8 meeting were the same event. It is hard to know what a "media impression" is-let alone what kind of significance 2.7 billion of them might have-but let us take note of one televisual event: Bono's appearance on Meet the Press on June 26. Bono's face and voice were being transmitted from Dublin to the studio in Washington, so that Tim Russert could interview him "live." Just moments before, Russert had interviewed Donald Rumsfeld about the war in Iraq.

Even though Bono wasn't in the same studio as Rumsfeld, he shared the same program, separated only by a few commercials for financial services companies, Boeing Aerospace, and the agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland. It's easy to see that all of these images fit together nicely. From moment to moment, television has an ineluctable way of making connections, sometimes surprising and sometimes not surprising at all.

Russert asked Bono a number of good questions. Concerning Live8, he asked if it was true that Bono and Geldof had agreed to steer clear of any critique of Bush and Blair over the Iraq war. Bono replied, "Absolutely. This is the other war. This is a war that can be won so much more easily than the war against terror, and we wish the president and others luck in winning the war against terror." Concerning the "accountability" of aid for Africa, he told Russert:

This is the number-one problem facing Africa: corruption. Not natural calamity, not the AIDS virus. This is the number-one issue and there's no way around it. That's what was so clever about President Bush's Millennium Challenge. It was start-up money for new democracies. It was giving increases of aid flows only to countries that are tackling corruption. That's what's so clever. It's-the implementation of the Millennium Challenge has not happened. It is in trouble. They recognize that. President Bush is embarrassed about that. They're trying to put it right. But the idea, the concept, was a great one.

We've already seen just how narrowly focused and badly funded the Millennium Challenge Corporation was. Nevertheless Bono offered his full support once again, performing damage control for the Bush Administration at a crucial moment. No wonder the State Department posted a proud news release the day after this broadcast, headlined "US Aid to Africa Hits Record Levels; Geldof, Bono praise Bush before Group of Eight Summit in Scotland."

Just a few minutes earlier on the broadcast, Russert had asked Donald Rumsfeld about the progress of the war on terror and the prospects for democracy in Iraq. Rumsfeld replied:

[The] Iraqi people have a choice. They're either going to go down a dark path where the beheadings are, and a small group of people who run that whole country, as they have before, or they're going to have a representative system, where women participate and where people have to have protections against each other because of the constitution. And I think they're going to choose a path of lightness. There's-the sweep of human history is for freedom. Look at what's happened in Lebanon and Kurdistan and the Ukraine and these countries. I think there's-we can be optimistic about the future, but we have to recognize that it's a tough, tough, tough world, and there are going to be a lot of bumps in the road between now and then.

Is the Defense Secretary's visionary optimism, tempered with hardheaded realism, really all that different from Bono's? One is fighting poverty and corruption in Africa; the other is fighting an insurgency in Iraq. We keep hearing that it is the same war, without metaphor, as far as the eye can see.

While interviewing Bono, Russert replayed a portion of the ONE campaign ad, which includes this statement by Nelson Mandela: "We now need leadership, precision, and political courage." Russert remarked, " ‘Political courage.' Those words seem to be a direct challenge to President Bush and the other leaders." To which Bono responded: "Yeah. Yeah, it is a challenge." He praised European countries for boosting their development aid (as a percentage of GDP), while "the United States is down to about .17 [percent]; .2 is within sight. But really to get serious about this, the United States has to get up to .3, .4, .5. That's our wish here. And we know it will take time to get there. We know that you've got a deficit problem. We understand there's a war being fought."

Underline these numbers. Bono casually suggests that the US might raise the level of aid to 0.3, 0.4, or 0.5 percent of GDP. He must know that such an increase would require multiplying that Millennium Challenge promise three, five, or seven times. And given the difference between promises, specific agreements, and actual disbursements, it is clear that the whole aid system would have to grow more efficient and effective by several orders of magnitude in order to deliver the money. Given everything-that president, that Congress, that deficit, that war-this was simply not a serious wish. Russert did not raise a challenge, and viewers could hardly decide if Bono was admirably stubborn about his demands or simply disingenuous. To speak of such goals without speaking of the need to make fundamental changes in the political situation is not dreamy idealism, it's disinformation. In the mass media division of labor, politicians lie about facts and celebrities lie about hopes.

We can also set aside the question of whether or not this increase in aid would really do so much good, whether it would solve the problems of developing countries or "make poverty history." We need not enter into the arguments about how aid might be spent, although that is clearly a crucial issue. (The economist Robert Pollin has made a reasonable argument that Bono's proposal for aid in alliance with a neoliberal trade regime will be strikingly worse than an effort to build an alternative to neoliberalism.) For our purposes here, on the level of images, it is enough to show just how much euphemism and misdirection have to be employed in order to make Bono's campaign look disinterested and philanthropic, even as it allies itself with the most aggressive imperial powers.

Earlier in the broadcast, Russert quoted a statement by Rumsfeld's former deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who testified to Congress in March 2003, "We're dealing with a country [Iraq] that can really finance its reconstruction relatively soon'. . . [The] oil revenues of that country could bring in between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years." Russert then asked Rumsfeld, "Did you make a misjudgement about the cost of the war?" And Rumsfeld dismissed the question with a shrug: "I never estimated the cost of the war. And how can one estimate the cost in lives or the cost in money? I've avoided it consistently." In his years directing the war, Rumsfeld had his own way with numbers, which was also his way with human lives: he didn't consider them at all.

When Wolfowitz was catastrophically wrong about the costs of the Iraq war, he was rewarded for his expertise with the presidency of the World Bank, a tenure that proved to be short-lived. He made a show of wanting to talk with Bono soon after his installation there, and Bono promptly took his calls. Later Wolfowitz met with Bono backstage at Live8, as the World Bank proudly advertised on its web pages. Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, and the rest of the administration remained openly dismissive of any attempt to count human costs along the "path of lightness." How could Bono put himself in such company and still invoke the moral authority of Nelson Mandela? Remember Mandela's criticisms of the rush to war: "[The] attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace'. . . [There] is no doubt that the United States now feels that they are the only superpower in the world and they can do what they like." Throughout the Bush administration, no matter what happened, Bono continued to do business with the president as well as with those around him.

Three and a half months after the Gleneagles G8 summit, where the multilateral debt relief and aid package had been announced, Bono visited the White House again for another photo opportunity. What was the deal this time? On whose behalf does he strike his deals? Who or what does he represent? Does he represent others like himself, well-meaning citizens of the West who feel indignant and guilty over the suffering of the poor and the sick? Or does he represent the poor and the sick themselves, as their self-appointed spokesman and champion? Bono made his position perfectly clear in a Rolling Stone interview published just before this meeting with Bush: "I'm representing the poorest and most vulnerable people. On a spiritual level, I have that with me. I'm throwing a punch, and the fist belongs to people who can't be in the room, whose rage, whose anger, whose hurt I represent. The moral force is way beyond mine, it's an argument that has much more weight than I have."

Is that so? By what right does he claim to represent the poorest and most vulnerable people? Does he represent all of them, everywhere around the world? It is hard to know what he could mean by such a statement. Political representation, at least in a democratic key, is supposed to involve some kind of deliberative process, whereby a group of people choose a representative as their surrogate, advocate, or intercessor. Moreover, this decision to name a representative has to be grounded in the principles of freedom and procedures of sovereignty that govern such acts, so that all parties-including representatives of other people-can accept the legitimacy of the representative. Only through such a process can a representative be considered responsible for and answerable to those people he or she represents. But enough of these technicalities. It is obvious that Bono cannot be the "literal" or "legal" representative of the poorest and most vulnerable people. If he were, he wouldn't be standing in the Oval Office.

Instead, he presents himself as the figurative and spiritual representative of a vast array of people, billions of them. He does not claim to represent their interests, their perspectives, or even their hopes, but rather their "rage, anger, and hurt." That is to say, he does not represent human beings, he represents affects, detached from real lives and filtered through his celebrity image. In his sleepy-eyed seriousness and sympatico slouch-which is the current signifier for "compassion"-he absorbs and deflects everything that those billions of people might actually say on their own behalf. It is not as if "the poorest and most vulnerable people" do not express themselves, in countless ways, all the time. They are articulate, deliberate, and far too various to be summed up just by their pain or their poverty. They have many representatives, too, in and out of governments. All of them are aching to be heard. None of that seems to matter when Bono goes to the White House. Indeed, we should make no mistake about it: he can stand there precisely because those people are so absent; he can speak for them exactly insofar as they are silenced; he can "throw a punch" at Bush, Blair, Obama, or any of the others only because he disguises the immense material force of their lives with the soft "moral force" of his rhetoric. The short circuit between imperial power and media spectacle makes every image of Bono-whether at the White House, Davos, Cannes, Ghana, or anywhere else-an apt visualization of the prevailing global order, shuttling between remote-control imperial projection and helping hand philanthropy. What is missing, invisible, off the agenda, is any belief that economic development can be a mode of collective self-determination, opening up a realm of freedom for the poor beyond that envisioned for them by billionaires.

The trajectory of Bono's campaigns over the past decade tells us a great deal about the limits of philanthropy, reform, and popular politics in a world where any feeling of global collectivity seems increasingly remote. In its earliest phases the debt relief effort drew upon established movements that were challenging longstanding historical injustices; Bono left those behind in order to strike deals with Bush and Blair (among others). As he encountered obstacles, he drove the agenda in wider circles, sweeping up disparate causes into an omnibus program that migrated toward the media mainstream, preferring conservative pieties to progressive abrasion. The Project Red campaign-a series of branding agreements that leverage symbolic synergies across sneakers, sunglasses, computers, and other aspirational goods-set out to prove that consumerism could trump both old-fashioned charity and official aid. After years of consolidation, the ONE organization (named after a U2 song) now functions as a kind of all-purpose NGO, a shadow UN fuelled by celebrity endorsements and colored wristbands. For a time it seemed as if Bono had succeeded in cornering the market in moral outrage, which he repackaged in a form that could turn a profit and soothe the uneasy heads of state. Yet in spite of his high-flown rhetoric, he does not want to forge a bond of solidarity and obligation between the mass audience he addresses in the West and the subjects in the South whom he claims to represent: such a bond might all too easily turn against the system he serves. Try as he might, he can hardly disguise the fact that the end of poverty will require a radical change in the current order of things. It will require new languages and new images-nothing like anything Bono has to offer.