Not to put too fine a point on it, but I hate Bono. He epitomizes everything that’s wrong with Clinton/Blair style liberalism: an intense desire to appear to care about the world, matched only by a complete unwillingness to stand up to any of the corporate or militarist complexes that stand in the way of progress. On the issue that should stand as a minimal test of conviction–opposing the Iraq war–Bono failed. And he is a huge tax evader, to boot.
Recently the New York Times signed him on as an Op-Ed Guest Columnist. On January 3, Bono offered his “10 ideas that might make the next 10 years more interesting, healthy, or civil.” Let’s not dwell on making automobiles sex objects (why not lightweight rail?) or his proposal for a festival of Abraham uniting Judaism, Christianity and Islam, preferably in Jerusalem (didn’t they have that already, in the form of a coalition denouncing a gay rights march in that city?) or his noting that the 2010 World Cup is being held in South Africa (is that really an idea?). And then lets skip three ideas relating to scientific matters (angiogenesis, quantum teleportation, and Rotaviruses).That still leaves four ideas in which the worst of Bono is on full display.
First off, “Intellectual Property Developers”. “A decade’s worth of music file-sharing and swiping has made clear that the people it hurts are the creators–in this case, the young, fledgling songwriters who can’t live off ticket and T-shirt sales like the least sympathetic among us” . The solution , apparently, is to more vigorously track what everyone is doing online. It is almost hard to know where to start with this. There have been two long term trends apparent in the last few decades. One, which he notes, is the increasing ease with which information is transferred, acquired, stored, sorted, etc. The other is increasingly tight and increasingly global ‘intellectual property laws’. The impact of both of these trends on those at the bottom of the ‘creative economy’ has been ambiguous. For example, the band Negativeland (and its record label) was nearly exhausted when, ahem, U2’s lawyers sued it for copyright infringement, although few would mistake its dadaist electronic experiments for the maudlin stadium rock of the latter. As for the internet, many young artists have found new fans without tithing the star-making machinery through means like MySpace and their own websites.
I frankly don’t know why we need a music industry, or any other cultural industry. Occasional exceptions aside, their products aren’t very good, rather like industry-produced food. If they collapsed, people would continue to tell stories, sing songs, make videos, etc. and people would continue to circulate them over the internet. The most talented or ambitious would manage to make a living through them, one way or another. There are many different ways creativity could be funded, instead of giving over vast tracks of space, airwaves, etc to corporate culture appealing to the lowest common demoninator. And trying to save that corporate economy through intellectual property laws wreaks havoc in important other fields–poor countries ability to access the latest medicine is much more important than the ‘right’ of a music or movie corporation to stay afloat.
Bono’s next idea almost sounds like a parody: “An equal right to Pollute (and the Polluter-Pays Principle)”. But he is actually serious. Rather than taxing carbon at the source, or cap-and-trade schemes, he suggests that “your average Ethiopian can sell her underpolluting ways (people in Ethiopia emit about 0.1 ton of carbon a year) to the average American (about 20 tons a year) and use the proceeds to deal with the effects of climate change, educate her kids and send them to university.” This fails on a rudimentary logic level. Why wouldn’t the Ethiopian use the payment to expand her consumption, which would increase pollution? And while this would have mild redistributionary effects, isn’t the problem with the climate too much greenhouse gas, about which this would do exactly nothing, since the American would now feel free to pollute? The real idea that might change the world here is that the wealthy countries begin to rapidly reduce the amount of pollution/greenhouse gas (need the money, America? Our ‘defense’ budget consists of a few hundred billion that could be thrown into the cause) AND directly fund efforts around the world to deal with the already ongoing effects of climate change.
The remaining two ideas sound good, until Bono clarifies how he is using them. First, there is “People Power and the Upside-Down Pyramid”: “Increasingly, the masses are sitting at the top, and their weight, via cellphones, the Web and civil society and democracy these technologies can promote… bears down harder when the few [in power] are corrupt or fail to deliver on the promises that earned them authority”. So far, so good, although it is debatable how often authority is ‘earned’. Then he goes on to say, “The world is taking notice… On her most recent trip to Africa, Secretary of State Clinton bypassed officials and met instead with representatives of independent, nongovernmental groups.” First, note the equation here between ‘the world’ and Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State, and this in a couple of paragraphs ostensibly celebrating ‘people power’! But also, lets reverse the situation to see how good this idea actually is. Imagine if Nigerian government officials came to the US with important business to conduct, and chose to bypass officials and instead met with Amnesty International, or the AFL-CIO, or the US Chamber of Commerce, or the Teabagger movement. Doesn’t this sound a tad condescending? As if this official knows better than the people who their representative in international affairs should be? It is easy enough to imagine the US government faced with such behavior accusing the Nigerian one of meddling in their affairs and not adopting a position of mutual respect. And Africans will feel exactly the same way if faced with the behavior of Secretary Clinton. There is nothing wrong with meeting with nongovernmental organizations–on the contrary!–but diplomacy begins through the meeting of representatives of governments in a climate of mutual respect.
Finally, Bono, declares ‘Viva la (Nonviolent) Revolucion‘. And if he left it at that, I would only add, Amen. But then he goes on to say “I’ll place my hopes on the possibility… that the regimes in North Korea, Myanmar and elsewhere are taking note of the trouble an aroused citizenry can give tyrants [in places like Iran], and that people in places filled with rage and despair, places like the Palestinian territories, will in the days ahead find among them their Gandhi, their King, their Aung San Suu Kyi.” Wait, did a paragraph celebrating nonviolence just turn into yet another kick at the Palestinians? There have been plenty of nonviolent leaders among the Palestinians and their sympathizers–unfortunately, their typical fate is to be imprisoned, tortured, or killed by the Israelis, and/or ignored by the media in the West. A really new idea would be for Bono and his friends to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, particularly when protests against Israel take a nonviolent form. For example, he could have jetted down to Cairo last weekend to join the 1400 world citizens demanding that Egypt allow them to cross to Gaza. But he did not, and only the most attentive news junkies in the US heard about Egypt’s refusal to let them go.
We could reformulate Bono’s ideas into ones that could genuinely change the world. Rather than Intellectual Property Developers, we need intellectual property demolition, so that the intellectual and cultural heritage of the world can be fairly shared. This would lead to an explosion in the production and sharing of creative solutions to global and local problems. Rather than an equal right to pollute, we need an equal right to a healthy and sustainable planet. People power might mean that millions of Americans join global grassroots movements demanding the transformation of international institutions into ones that serve people (or their dismantling), rather than another excuse for Western leaders to delegitimize non-Western states. And yes, Viva la (nonviolent) revolucion! For waves of non-violent protest demanding the immediate, global upgrading of housing, education, health infrastructure, demanding access to information fenced off as ‘intellectual property’, demanding the right of people to freely move across national borders, demanding the removal of all foreign military bases, demanding the appropriation of the ridiculous wealth of the Bonos of the world, demanding everything. Unrealistic? Not nearly as unrealistic as expecting progressive change without confronting the corporate or militarist obstacles that stand in the way.