Monday, December 13, 2010

Lennon was a rebel - Bono is a wonker

From the Washington Post

There is a fundamental difference between Lennon's activism and Bono's, and it underscores the sad evolution of celebrity activism in recent years.

Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not.

Lennon's protests against the war in Vietnam so threatened the U.S. government that he was hounded by the FBI, police and immigration authorities. He was a moral crusader who challenged leaders whom he thought were doing wrong. Bono, by contrast, has become a sort of celebrity policy expert, supporting specific technical solutions to global poverty. He does not challenge power but rather embraces it; he is more likely to appear in photo ops with international political leaders - or to travel through Africa with a Treasury secretary - than he is to call them out in a meaningful way.

Lennon merged his activism and his music: In 1969, "Give Peace a Chance" became the anthem of the movement after half a million people sung along at a huge demonstration at the Washington Monument. "Imagine" and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" expanded his antiwar repertoire.

Lennon paid a price for his activities. We now know from subsequent Freedom of Information Act releases that the FBI monitored and harassed him. In 1971, President Richard Nixon set in motion a four-year effort to deport him.

Bono had regular photo-ops and lunches with President George W. Bush, giving Bush much-needed publicity . For example, the singer appeared onstage with Bush at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington in 2002 . Bono even toured Africa with Bush's first Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, fully aware that the administration was capitalizing on his celebrity.
"My job is to be used. I am here to be used," Bono told The Washington Post. "It's just, at what price?"

On Bono's signature issue of poverty, for instance, why not call out a few of the oppressive regimes that keep their people impoverished - as well as the leaders, in the United States and elsewhere, who have supported them with economic and military aid? (Bono has acknowledged that "tinpot dictators" were a problem for aid efforts in the past but has not confronted today's despots and their enablers in rich nations.)

Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong but he does not identify the wrongdoers. He buys into technocratic illusions about the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it, who oppresses and who is oppressed. He runs with the crowd that believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise. The technocratic approach puts him in the position of a wonk, not a dissident; an expert, not a crusader.Bono is not the only well-intentioned celebrity wonk of our age - the impulse is ubiquitous. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (seriously) in addition to serving as a U.N. goodwill ambassador. Ben Affleck has become an expert on the war in Congo. George Clooney has Sudan covered, while Leonardo DiCaprio hobnobs with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders at a summit to protect tigers. The celebrity desire to gain political power and social approval breeds intellectual conformity, precisely the opposite of what we need to achieve real changes.

True dissidents - celebrity or not - play a vital role in democracy. Politicians, intellectuals and the public can fall prey to group-think need dissidents to shake them out of it. True dissidents claim no expertise; they offer no 10-point plans to fix a problem. They are most effective when they simply assert that the status quo is morally wrong. Of course, they need to be noticed to have an impact, hence the historical role of dissidents such as Lennon who can use their celebrity to be heard. We need more high-profile dissidents to challenge mainstream power. This makes it all the sadder that Bono and many other celebrities only reinforce this power in their capacity as faux experts. Where have all the celebrity dissidents gone?

William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and co-director of NYU's Development Research Institute. Author of "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good."

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