Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Harry Browne's "The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power)": Book Review

When Bono sells charity, should we buy his good intentions? As with Barack Obama, his savvy equals his threat. He imitates an activist, but he supports the powers that be. Tellingly, Obama's 2008 campaign played U2's "City of Blinding Lights" for the candidate's entrance. Bono peddles ideas for helping the poor to those such as the President, his donors, his cronies, and fans of both men. Logically, Bono gains plaudits from not only his audience, but politicians, philanthropists, and the wealthy. Without denying the practical good achieved by some of his projects, Harry Browne, a Dublin-based "activist and journalist", criticizes Bono's cozy neo-liberal, market-funded loyalties. Justice cannot be increased, Browne argues, without confronting this pampered elite.  Browne denies that aid, debt relief, or even altered trade agreements will fundamentally alter global poverty for billions of its recipients. Bono makes peace with power.

Taking his subject "very" seriously but with a touch of Irish self-deprecation and "light relief" as Bono would himself his own self, Browne cautions us against any expectations of a hatchet job. Sure, many assure us that Bono means well. Browne, however, as one better placed than most of Paul Hewson's admirers, knows the reaction by fellow Dubliners to Ballymun's earnest lad turned icon. Irish begrudgery cuts down those judged to have climbed high.

Bono advanced by Browne's estimation to "true greatness" by his own sly but genuine merits, but does this success grant him a free pass to peddle the schemes of technocrats, bankers, and arms dealers? Browne says no. Rather than rehash U2's musical impact or Bono's lyrics (unless relevant), Browne analyzes Bono's political success. He shifts Bono from a "bleeding-heart" left-liberal to a "conservative, Western-centric, and pro-capitalist" allegiance; this polemic joins a Counterblasts series against "apologists for Empire and Capital" Thomas Friedman, Michael Ignatieff, Bernard-Henri Lèvy, and Christopher Hitchens. The Frontman aims at Bono as a celebrity target.

Browne dispatches neatly the mythic origins assumed by gullible audiences of any street-smart cred, given U2's relatively posh origins despite their geographical residence as teens growing up on the purportedly working class northside of Dublin.  They sought success early. Browne touches upon a key force: the evangelical Christian beliefs of The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Bono Vox. Their ambitions matched with a sly, ruthless manager, Paul McGuinness, who "was and is a traditional Irish Catholic, which is to say a man without a shred of obvious, let alone ostentatious, Christianity". 

U2's emotional justification, to use music as "self-expression" to reveal revelation, countered a comparative lack of early skill, in Browne's estimation. Schooled in stagecraft, passionate, charming and well-connected within the Dublin music scene and soon abroad, "Bono talked a great gig".

But as in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" Bono's lyrics distanced themselves from ideological precision; they evoke charged Irish republican and nationalist themes without targeting responsibility for the cycle of violence perpetuated by more than one faction. The band's nimble manipulation of Irish identity led to American acclaim but this led U2 into being "appropriated" by Irish "politicians and pundits as a reason for the nation to be cheerful and encouraged" during yet another jobs downturn. Their stance elevated U2's "not-being-in-Ireland" attitude during the 1980s, as their self-righteous singer served as international spokesman for his homeland--if in an apolitical, unthreatening form. 

Ireland's generous incentives allowing the creative classes tax breaks on their published works fortuitously afforded U2 the opportunity to invest their quarter-century of profits in an opaque series of holding entities and start-ups, few of which flourished on paper. By 2006, the Irish government enacted a limit of 250,000 euro on untaxed earnings; U2 sent its money off to the Netherlands. Bono tried to argue that the band never broke any laws, but in trying to revamp the band's "tax avoidance" as "an act of patriotism" Browne blames Bono for his characteristic evasion. Promoting the "priorities of global capital" while attempting to represent himself as an "outspoken advocate of conventional wisdom," Bono from "Do They Know It's Christmas?" to Band Aid to Self Aid to Live Aid draws himself increasingly into the status quo even as he tries to stand out as a celebrity humanitarian. 

"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." Browne in part two explains how African debt relief, albeit an admirable cause, when backed by global banks does not generate domestic infrastructures within poor nations, but eases entry for foreign investment by multinationals. While $15 billion earmarked for anti-retroviral drugs to fight AIDS creates tangible change, as Browne credits via Bono's successful pleas to George W. Bush, this program emboldened the Christian Right to dictate its own moral guidelines for which African supplicants received priority care. Such reliance by Africans on First World aid perpetuates the Third World's dependence on charity as epitomized by the patronizing programs such as (RED) and ONE endorsed by Bono. 

(RED) shares with U2 a consistent lack of transparency in tracing precisely where its funds go. (Browne pegs Bono's personal wealth at half a billion dollars.) "Charitainment" fuels First World consumption, often of high-end baubles, fashion, and gadgets by First World consumers. Nike, Amex, Converse, Apple sign on, under contracts that betray the restricted amounts dispensed. A small share may go to worthy causes, but what Browne labels as "pitching pennies" to the poor faraway adds up to comparatively little. The past six years show, as far as can be ascertained, $200 million raised by (RED). U2's latest two-year tour added $736 million to their Dutch accounts. 

Meanwhile, 2010 advertised Bono with his wife, Ali, clutching $1000 limited-edition Louis Vuitton bags as they looked, in an artfully altered setting, as if they had just landed in an African grassland. Their prop plane's wheel was sprayed with mud. The air glows gold, shot by Annie Leibowitz. 2012 found Bono backing the NGO Invisible Children, responsible for the Kony video tied to a right-wing Christian spokesman whom Bono defended. His tangled ties to the continent keep digging deeper.  

Part three shifts from Africa to the rest of the world, as in its enclaves Davos and Pebble Beach, or wherever the G8 summits or World Bank's tycoons convene. By now, Browne cleverly borrows another messiah's prediction: "Wherever two or three are gathered, there too shall you find Bono, telling them how good they are." Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, Bill Clinton or George W., Obama or Oprah huddle with him, along with lesser-known but greatly influential figures such as Kennedy scion Bobby Shriver, who speeds Bono's access to neocon hawk Paul Wolfowitz and shock doctrine economist Jeffrey Sachs. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and George Soros also bend their ear to what Bono suggests. What he advises appears to bolster more injustice rather than justice.

Browne never claims that Bono's endeavors do not pay off by creating some good. Bono for all his jibes at his own image relishes the chance to use his prominence as U2's frontman to improve the lives of others. But his critic insists, as fairly as he can, that Bono does so not with much of his own money, but by encouraging the powerful to distribute their own funds. True, these may alleviate suffering, and minimize hunger. These funds from the elite nations and the affluent, however, go far less often if at all to assisting those who would shout out hard questions about wealth inequality, lack of education, or capitalist fidelity to the economic disparities which most of humanity labors under. 

Bono's appeal carried him far in the past thirty-odd years. Browne observes that "while mere photo-ops with Bush had earned Bono the anger of many US (and Irish) liberals, his lavish praise for Obama put him firmly in their company". Still, this journalist concedes that while his musical career may still hold surprises, his activism may find a less gullible hearing from those who connect Bono more closely with "Washington's powerful elite" over the past two decades, no matter which party.  

This critique nears its conclusion, in what is a slightly wearying (Browne rarely questions the tropes of radical rhetoric but then, would Verso have published this otherwise?) but often astute analysis, by reminding us of how a rock star's hubris may await Bono's next career move. It's a supposedly "post-recession" recovery, we are told by those with whom Bono partied and politicked. The best albums of U2 appeared quite a while back. Mephisto McFly buzzed away. Bono buys stock in Facebook. 

"A decade ago, one might arguably have suggested that he stood outside the system, bringing some moral authority to bear on questions of global poverty and disease and what to do about them. Today, as a high-profile multimillionaire investor, as part of a band of notorious tax-avoiders who assured us that financial innovation was the route to success, as the man who dressed a bunch of multinational corporations in the favoured shade of (RED), as the Blairite who applauded when the world's war-mongers pretended to lavish some relief on a few poor countries while saddling them with more neoliberal conditions -- today, he is hard to see as anything other than one of Them, the elite 1 per cent of 1 per cent." Nobody expects Mick Jagger to give away his millions, I suppose. But the Rolling Stones never aspired to position themselves as arbiters of a global conscience. Browne cannot discern how much Bono himself donates to charitable causes. (That estimate may be lower than that of some others equally graced with enormous funds tucked away, Browne avers.) This impenetrable labyrinth of financial fronts for the frontman and his bandmates in U2, abetting the charities Bono urges upon his clientele and the luxuries for us as consumers, may lead readers to wonder what U2 is up to. U2 naming its own financial holding entity Not Us Ltd. appears up to more than name games.

This book's cover photo, of Bono shaking hands with George W., will never gain the iconic kitsch status of Elvis meets Nixon. But the collusion between celebrity and conniver grows more blurred. Neither an American president nor an Irish pop star appears willing anymore to play the court fool. Browne's sharply drawn depiction of superstar humanitarianism and rock star philanthropy, personified in Paul David Hewson's rise to a status never attained by a previous member of a band, certainly diminished the King's pretensions to world domination by comparison. Elvis may have sought to rule the stage, but Bono and his friends in high places seek to rule us, by gradual stages. Taking care of business, indeed. (PopMatters 7-31-13. In shorter and altered form to Amazon US 7-12-13)

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