I’ve got nothing against famous people getting involved in politics or embracing political causes. On the contrary, there’s no reason why the accident of fame and the weird cult of celebrity-worship that comes with it should place anyone above politics or preclude celebrities from taking moral and political positions on issues that they feel strongly about.
My reservations about celebrity politics are essentially four-fold: 1) when an issue becomes important or interesting simply because someone famous is associated with it 2) when celebrity-politics becomes an exercise in narcissism and self-aggrandizement 3) when celebrities think that being famous entitles them to say things that are idiotic and banal, and 4) when celebrities use their fame to confer political credibility and legitimacy on governments, individuals and institutions that actually deserve to be criticized .
The rock-star politician known as Bono sums up most of these reservations. Many years ago, back in the early 1980s, I saw U2’s first gig in New York and thrilled to the Edge’s chiming guitar sound and the soaring anthemic songs that lifted the roof off a packed club in the Lower East Side.
I wasn’t quite as keen on Bono’s histrionic and somewhat messianic stage persona. In the years that followed it became obvious Bono was a rock star whose exaggerated but not disreputable belief in the power of music to change the world was coupled with an extremely grandiose conception of his own ability to change it, or simply to be seen to change it. .
Since then Bono has gone on to become the perfect embodiment of 21st century hip capitalism, combining philantrophy with tax avoidance, while hanging out with NGOs, US generals, George Bush and Tony Blair, and now Lindsey Graham. In his polemic The Frontman: Bono (in the Name of Power), writer Harry Browne has accused Bono of “amplifying elite discourses, advocating ineffective solutions, patronising the poor and kissing the arses of the rich and powerful”.
He’s not wrong, In Bono the now quaint notion that rock n’ roll is inherently subversive force or a challenge to the status quo has become an advertisement for the status quo, in which even the most right wing politicians seek to acquire a veneer of cool humanitarianism and rock star chic by having themselves photographed alongside the man in the leather jacket and shades.
Bono’s appeal to politicians like Blair, Bush and Lindsey Graham resides in his willingness to tell certain governments and politicians what they want to hear about themselves, and leave out the things they don’t. As a cool variant on missionary benevolence and Western good intentions, he makes them feel good, and he also makes them feel that they could be cool themselves.
This has been going on for a long time. Nevertheless it was a novelty to hear that Bono has been summoned by the US Congress to give testimony to a Senate committee on the ’causes and consequences of violent extremism and the role of foreign assistance.’
It’s difficult to understand why the Senate felt it necessary to consult Bono on these matters. It’s true that the US doesn’t exactly have a stellar record when it comes to dealing with ‘violent extremism’. In fact this phenomenon has grown exponentially across the world since 9/11, partly as a consequence of the insane and reckless militarism which the Bush administration embarked upon so disastrously, and which has been continued less overtly by his successor. But is the US Senate really so desperate that it needs to seek advice on these matters from a man who believes that ‘comedy should be deployed’ in the struggle against groups like Boko Haram and ISIS?
It seems so, and his audience at the Senate might chuckle at this fetching example of rock star naivete, but one can’t help suspecting that Bono was serious when he observed that:
‘The first people that Adolf Hitler threw out of Germany were the dadaists and surrealists. It’s like, you speak violence, you speak their language. But you laugh at them when they are goose-stepping down the street and it takes away their power. So I am suggesting that the Senate send in Amy Schumer and Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen, thank you.’
Yep, if only Hitler hadn’t ‘thrown out’ those dadaists and surrealists, why the whole German population would have quickly fallen about laughing at the sight of those goose-steppers, and their belly laughter would have ‘taken away their power.’ If you believe that, it’s perfectly possible to believe that ‘sending in’ Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Rock into occupied Mosul or northern Nigeria would help defeat ISIS or Boko Haram. Because it’s like, as Bono says, ISIS is showbiz, and if you can just get people to laugh at all those floggings, executions, rapes and murders, it takes away their power.
No wonder Bono’s pronouncements have been working their way through the Internet, accompanied by the clacking of a thousand dropping jaws at what is surely one of the most idiotic pronouncements that any celebrity-politician has ever made.
But no one should be surprised that Bono would say such a thing. What is really surprising – and alarming – is that the government of the most powerful country should feel the need to call upon this posturing narcissist in the first place.
If the US Senate really wanted to understand its own contribution to violent extremism, it might have done better to invite Malik Jalal, the tribal elder from Waziristan who has just come to the UK to ask why the US has been trying to kill him by drone on various occasions over the last few years. Jalal is a member of the North Waziristan Peace Committee (NWPC), which has been trying to broker peace with local Taliban groups in Waziristan. In denouncing the American and British governments for his unwarranted inclusion on a US ‘kill list’ and the deaths of entirely innocent people that has resulted from the attempts to kill him, Jalal argued:
‘Singling out people to assassinate, and killing nine of our innocent children for each person they target, is a crime of unspeakable proportions. Their policy is as foolish as it is criminal, as it radicalises the very people we are trying to calm down.’
Too right. And perhaps if the Senate invited people like Malik Jalal to its committees, the US government might have a better understanding of the roots of extremism than it has shown so far.
Unfortunately, it seems to prefer Bono.