07 September 2007

Picking bones with Bono

Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times' chief foreign affairs columnist, wonders aloud why Bono the pop singer and global aid campaigner is so maddening. He proposes that it has something to do with Bono's embrace of the "mainstream NGO view of poverty", but he finds the problem difficult to disentangle. I write back here:

Gideon, surely you are onto it with your "mainstream NGO view of poverty" point.

The view is very peculiar: it is a sort of corporatised or perhaps collectivised version of the moral argument that sacrifice is required. It says that, yes, the vice president of a London bank is the neighbour of the starving herdsman in Darfur, and that neighbours must love each other as themselves. However, as a solution to bridging the gap in power and means between such neighbours, it proposes neither the immediate lowering of the banker nor the immediate ascent of the herdsman. Instead, it proposes a systemic fix, with governments and corporations acting as proxies for the morally compromised banker. The proposed fix is paradoxical. It implies guilt on the part of the fortunate individual but mitigates the need for reaction by the individual, since reaction is ultimately worked out through taxation or adjustments in sales prices. It also implies that material/circumstantial equality (or at least similarity) is morally required of all people; in other words its content is at very least neo-Marxian even if its form is globalist and pro-market. These paradoxes grate.

However, they grate much more coming from Bono, who embodies corporate bohemianism. He has sung many songs well and communicated important messages through them. But in his political role he sells a brand of moral imperative which is paradoxical -- and yet he sells it as the real thing.

But it gets worse. Bono escapes criticism, because he is neither stupid nor naive. Pressed, I expect he would acknowledge that his branded morality is not the real thing. However, it may be the best try that existing systems of corporate and collective power can manage, in terms of effectiveness and popular marketability. His personal defense would be that politics is the art of the possible, and that terrible suffering and need in much of the world are real -- an effective defense.

All this frustrates the critic. The quarry has got away, and the problem remains unsolved. The problem is that the critic is struggling to reckon with his own failure, perhaps like Bono's, to differenciate and correspond between the mechanics of collective responsibility and the imperatives of individual morality. It is a frustrating position. But don't blame Bono for it. He only appears to be the personification of a problem we all share. Moreover, he is trying to do something about it.

That he falls short is unextraordinary.

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