The World According to Bono

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.



Europe’s ‘Migration Crisis’ : Repression with a human face


Many years ago Franco Solinas, the scriptwriter for Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers, was asked by an interviewer why the French colonel Mathieu – a pragmatic exponent of torture –  was portrayed as ‘ too much of a gentleman in fatigues, excessively noble.  He is elegant, cultured….’  Solinas replied that ‘ There is no intention to create nobility.  Mathieu is elegant and cultured because Western civilization is neither inelegant nor stupid.’

I’ve often found myself thinking of Solinas’ s observation, while watching the way that European politicians have responded to the continent’s ‘migration crisis’ during the last weeks.  Listening to these politicians one would easily be forgiven for thinking that European governments mulling over the crisis are motivated by nothing more than the noblest humanitarian principles.

Last week I watched the French prefect Fabienne Buccio and other officials justifying the demolition of the Calais ‘jungle’ as ‘the most humane option’.  Buccio was photographed, looking earnest and concerned, as police demolished the shacks and tents that have gone up since the summer.  On Channel 4 News I watched the French ambassador to the UK similarly describing the demolitions as a humane act intended to improve the living conditions of the migrants stranded there.

Similarly humanitarian arguments have been put forward again and again by European politicians to justify actions that often have a very different purpose.  But while politicians talk of destroying smugglers’ ‘ business models’, saving lives and preventing dangerous journeys, the unstated objective of the European Union and most of its member states remains the same as it has always been: to prevent people from coming to Europe by an unacknowledged policy of deterrence and repression.

In recent weeks, this policy of repression has intensified up and down Europe’s borders, as men, women and even children have been teargassed and attacked by police, in migration ‘hot spots’ up and down the continent’s frontiers.   Consider the list of requests for border protection equiptment from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to a meeting attended by Austria and a group of nine Balkan states on 24 February to discuss how to close the ‘Western Balkan’ route for undocumented migrants.

The list was leaked by the excellent EurActiv website, and its requests give an indication of Macedonia’s priorities – and those of the states to whom the requests were sent.  In addition to engineering equipment to build a 300 kilometer security fence and a 400 person capacity camp, vehicles, and expenses to cover the ‘technical capability of an army’,  its demands for ‘equipment for crowd control’ include

  • Crowd control dispenser
  • OS spray (pepper spray)
  • “TASER” X26 – an electrical device
  • Weapon with rubber bullets
  • Special bomb (shock, with rubber balls)
  • Acoustic device to break the mob
  • Launcher (grenade with rubber balls)

According to EurActiv, the only objection from the states that received these requests was that this equipment  might be used for ‘internal repression’ in the lead-up to Macedonia’s snap elections in June.  ‘External’  repression, against migrants and refugees, it seems, is not a problem.

There is a grim logic to these developments.  For years, Europe’s policy of deterrence has been based on the belief that the worst things get for migrants, the more likely they are to stop coming.   The events of the last 12 months have made it glaringly obvious that this is not happening.  In these circumstances, Europe must either reconsider this policy and consider more humane solutions – or escalate the level of deterrence still further.

Despite the brief shift towards the former by Germany and other states last summer, Europe as a whole has remained firmly committed to deterrence, and last night’s breakthrough deal with Turkey is no exception.   Europe now proposes to send all refugees back to Turkey, and it has even sent NATO to the Aegean to make sure that this happens.

In effect, the EU has bribed Turkey – a country with a population of 75 million people – to take primary responsibility for absorbing the refugees that Europe – a continent with a population of 500 million – regards as a ‘crisis.’  Not only will Turkey accept all refugees ‘readmitted’ from Europe, but it will also take on responsibility for ‘readmitting’ them to their countries of origin.

To achieve this, the EU has empowered the gangster government of Recep Tayib Erdogan to take on the role once played by Colonel Gaddafi, and turn Turkey into a migrant holding ground and dumping ground for Europe’s unwanted refugees, even as Erdogan’s government is engaged in a reckless and headlong assault on Turkishcivil society and democracy.  No wonder Erdogan’s crony Ahmet Davutoğlu can’t stop smiling – you can’t blame him really.

This sleazy deal should be shameful and disgraceful, but Europe’s leaders, it seems, no longer feel any shame when it comes to migration.  They no longer appear willing even to uphold the principles on which the European Union was founded.  The treatment of refugees in Idomeni, Calais, Dunkerque and so many other places suggests that they are no longer even concerned to uphold elementary principles of civilized behaviour.

But even as they depart from these standards in practice, European governments continue to proclaim their commitment to refugee protection in principle.  So no one should be surprised to hear Donald Tusk, Cameron and others, boasting that they have ‘solved’ the migration crisis, even as Europe’s governments squirt migrants with tear gas and ask for tasers and rubber bullets.

Because no matter how thin and threadbare Europe’s civilized mask becomes, there will always be politicians who will never stop wearing it, and who, like Colonel Mathieu, remain ‘elegant and cultured’ even as they oversee the ongoing barbarity taking place at Europe’s borders .


Hope I die before I get old

There was a time when living longer was considered to be a desirable goal, and rising life expectancy was regarded as a metric of social progress.  In those not so distant times, ‘developed’ capitalist societies and already existing socialist societies alike assumed that work was a preparation for an old age in which you would be able to dedicate yourself to a life of leisure while you were still young and healthy enough to enjoy it and make the most of it.

According to this social contract, the pensioned retiree would be able to live – for a few years at least – the way Marx and Engels once imagined that everyone would live in a future communist society, liberated from the world of alienated labour and able  ” to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner…without every becoming hunter, fisherman,  shepherd or critic. ”

It now appears that our rulers have decided that these arrangements are no longer possible or desirable, and that living longer is not good for society after all.  On the contrary it seems that rising life expectancy is problematic and that we would be better off dying younger.  Because the Etonians and the gimlet eyed pointy heads entrusted with managing and paring down our expectations of the future in the name of austerity are worried that there will soon be too many old people and not enough younger workers.

They tell us that the NHS wasn’t designed to cope with people living this long; that young workers (who presumably will never get old themselves) shouldn’t be expected to fund the healthcare and leisure of the elderly; that we just can’t afford it dontchaknow etc, etc.

Well we know we can’t afford  a lot of things these days that were once considered hallmarks of a civilised and humane society, so it’s only natural that our leaders should have reached the conclusion that we can’t afford the elderly.   No one can be surprised that that foundation stone of the social contract, the state pension,  is being called into question, at least for millennials and their successors, by the blue sky thinkers and visionaries we were daft enough to place in positions of power over us.

In the 1970s sci fi classic Soylent Green, the elderly check into voluntary euthanasia clinics, where they can watch photographs of landscapes and mountains accompanied by soaring classical music while they die from a slow-acting lethal injection.  This possibility isn’t on the table – yet.   Instead our rulers are looking at a different kind of future.

Last week, British newspapers were floating the possibility that young adults coming into the jobs market may be forced to work till they are 75 or even 81 before they  get their pensions. These predictions emanated from  a titled pointy head named John Cridland, the former CBI chief who has been appointed head of the government’s new pensions review, to look into whether pensions are ‘affordable in the long term.’

With this government the answer will almost certainly be in the negative.  So we may soon be forced to contemplate an incredible and absurd future in which today’s young adults  will be expected to work until they are 75 or 81 before you are finally able to settle down to a life of leisure.  Personally this doesn’t bother me.  I love the work I do and don’t want to retire.  On the contrary, I want to be healthy enough to keep writing until the end the Reaper scythes me down, and there are other professions that feel the same way.

But there are a hell of a lot that don’t, because some jobs simply don’t offer that level of satisfaction.   No one says you should have to retire at 60 or 65, but even those who would like to be working into their 70s and 80s may not be able to, because old age can be harsh and difficult terrain to navigate your way through, and everything depends on having the mental and physical faculties to be able to live independently and with dignity, let alone work.

And there are many jobs in which it is simply ridiculous to expect people to work for so long.   There won’t be many teachers who can survive in a classroom at the age of 81, for example, and there won’t be many pupils who want to be taught by them.  All this should be obvious to the brain dead, but in an era in which a small and unimaginably wealthy elite believes that it has carte blanche to strip away everything that is left of the common good in the name of austerity, and which looks at every single aspect of society through the prism of ‘affordability’.it is depressingly predictable that such lunatic proposals should even be mooted.

In theory we all ought to be working less hours and less years, not more.  We ought to be thinking about reducing working hours and sharing work around.  Technology has made that future possible.   If people are living longer than we should celebrate that fact and think creatively of ways to adapt and prepare for it.

Instead, we are being dragged by the nose from a dystopian present to an even more dystopian future, by politicians with very little imagination, wisdom or even common sense, who really are demanding the impossible, and not in a good way.  In this future you will work for fifty to sixty years, until you receive your pension, by which time you won’t have much time to do anything with it except pay for a fancy funeral.

It’s nonsense, and brutal nonsense at that, and it’s yet another measure of our steep descent into collective inhumanity and stupidity under this government from hell that we should even be considering such a possibility.

And all of us, young and old, should do everything we can to make sure that these proposals get kicked deep into the long grass, where no one can ever find them.





Learn English! The Vicious Idiocy of David Cameron

I have to admit that when I hear the word ‘integration’ coming from politicians nowadays, it makes me want to reach for my revolver.   By integration, I don’t mean the term that British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins famously defined back in 1966 when he said:

‘ Integration is perhaps a loose word. I do not regard it as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own characteristics and culture. I do not think we need in this country a “melting pot”, which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one would a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced version of the stereotyped Englishness. I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.’

Wise and sensible words, but they couldn’t be further removed from the arrogant and condescending demands emanating from our government and so many others, to the effect that immigrants must integrate with ‘us’ or leave the country.

Such demands are often accompanied by accusations that certain groups of immigrants are deliberately refusing to integrate and that their refusal to do so is a sign of cultural hostility or incompatibility. Take the issue of learning English.   Anyone who has ever lived in another country knows that it’s sensible and even essential to learn the language of the country you are living in. Without that ability, a whole range of everyday activities and interactions become difficult or even impossible, and you are never going to be able to fully engage with the society you are living in.

As a former language learner and a language teacher, both inside and outside the UK, I know that learning a language takes time, patience and – for most of us anyway – a certain amount of instruction that you will usually have to receive when you aren’t working.

It makes sense therefore, for an immigrant-receiving country to provide such instruction and facilitate the language learning process for the mutual benefit of new arrivals,  and the country they have come to live in.  But that kind of thinking is entirely alien to the purse-lipped buffoons that the British public has chosen – for reasons known only to itself – to place in government.

For Lord Snooty and His Pals, it isn’t a question of helping immigrants to learn English; they want to make them learn it and punish and exclude them when they don’t.

His Lordship has been banging on for some time now that immigrants must learn English or leave – a demand that always carries the implicit suggestion that these nefarious intruders are willfully spurning the language that gave us Shakespeare and Tennyson and the locals who speak it, all of whom are just waiting with open arms to integrate them and join in choral recitations of Hamlet’s soliloquy or simply a good rousing version of Kumbaya.

Of course making these demands is far more useful politically than actually helping migrants to learn English.  Last year the government cut £45 million from ESOL Plus Mandation (English for speakers of other languages), thereby denying some 16,000 adult learners across the country the opportunity to learn English.

But now this week, in a display of gimlet-eyed idiocy that is egregious even by his own standards,  His Lordship has suggested that immigrants will be tested on their English after two and a half years, and that those who haven’t attained the required level of fluency ‘ …can’t guarantee they will be able to stay, because under our rules you have to be able to speak a basic level of English to come into the country as a husband or wife. We made that change already, and we are now going to toughen that up, so halfway through the five-year spousal settlement there will be another opportunity to make sure your English is improving. You can’t guarantee you can stay if you are not improving your language.’

These new demands appear to be aimed primarily at Muslim women.  Plucking statistics out of a hat with his usual deft sleight-of-hand,  Cameron says than 38,000 Muslim women can’t speak English and 190,000 have only limited skills in the language.   His Lordship thinks that this could be because ‘some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the menfolk haven’t wanted them to speak English.’

So Lord Snooty – in full on white savior mode – has come up with the brilliant idea of threatening to deport women who don’t speak English in order to save them from their backward husbands!   Don’t say that isn’t neatly done.

But if you thought that was clever, that was only His Lordship’s first trick.  In addition to prying Muslim women out of their backwardness, he has also discovered that not learning English may constitute a terrorist threat.  Ever the deep thinker His Lordship recognizes that there is no ‘causal link’ between ‘radicalization and language skills.’

Nevertheless he has concluded that ‘ If you’re not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find therefore you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore you could be more susceptible to the extremist message coming from Daesh.’

Now that, my friends, is joined-up thinking in action.   In Lord Snooty’s world, to prevent radicalization and promote integration and save women from patriarchal enslavement, you make them learn English and threaten them with removal if they don’t.  And all this is to be financed with a £20 million grant to fund ESOL classes for women, even though it’s still only half of the £45 million the government cut from ESOL last year, and a fraction of the £160 million cuts in ESOL funding overall since 2008.

It’s all for a good cause though, because His Lordship insists that

‘We will never truly build One Nation unless we are more assertive about our liberal values, more clear about the expectations we place on those who come to live here and build our country together, and are more creative and generous in the work we do to break down barriers.’

Just to repeat: this concept of integration is nothing to do with what Roy Jenkins’s use of the term.  There is no ‘mutual tolerance’ here, let alone creativity and generosity.  There is only an aggressive policy of assimilation which stigmatises immigrants in general and certain groups of immigrants in particular, as ungrateful and dangerous interlopers, who in Jenkins’s phrase must be ‘flattened out’

And what Cameron has done, with a stunning combination of ineptitude and sheer viciousness,  is turn a perfectly sensible idea – that immigrants should be encouraged and helped to learn  English – into yet another piece of red meat to feed the ‘concerns’ of those who would really prefer that there weren’t any foreigners in the country at all.