Among the Intellectualoids

Arguing With Bono

Is the Sting of rock lost if it plays groupie to the virtual Obama?

By 11.2.09

Send to Kindle

Rocker and philanthropist Bono wrote an op-ed for the New York Times to make two points: that "the virtual Obama is the real Obama," and that "the man might deserve the hype."

Bono is not the only well-known musician who thinks kindly of President Obama. Agnostic though he claims to be, Sting, the former frontman for The Police, joked October 28 that in many ways, Obama is "sent from God." Sting also thinks that Obama is "exactly what we need in the world." That you and I might say the same about each of our friends seems not to have occurred to him.

Sting describes the president's critics as "aggressive" and "fear-filled." ("Please don't stand so close to me.") For the president himself, the man feels gracious forbearance. ("Roxanne! You don't have to wear that dress tonight!") Oddly, however, Sting's praise never rises to the level of an actual argument.

Sting calls himself frustrated because "we seem to be living in a currency of medieval ideas." Unfortunately for the cause of legitimate disgruntlement, medieval ideas include everything from double entry bookkeeping to separation of church and state. Either Sting's interviewer did not think to ask a follow-up question about which medieval ideas (Free inquiry? Flying buttresses?) frustrate the bass player, or an editor who dislikes cheap entertainment robbed the rest of us of a chance to read further thoughts on the subject.

Bono deserves more of a hearing, if only because he actually tried to arrange the driftwood of hope into a case for supporting Obama.

Bono likes that the president reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the Millennium Development Goals in his speech to the United Nations. "For me," he wrote, "these 36 words are why I believe Mr. Obama could well be a force for peace and prosperity -- if the words signal action."

Aye, there's the rub. Had he given more thought to the matter, or been familiar with "Geraghty's Law" (that every Obama promise comes with an expiration date), Bono might have recycled "I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

The main purpose of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG one of eight) is to halve extreme poverty worldwide by 2015. The late, great Norman Borlaug did his part to make that happen, but Borlaug and his dwarf wheat were not also pushing for gender equality, universal primary education, and widespread access to antiretroviral drugs, as the United Nations is trying to do.

In Bono's surprisingly blinkered view, it took Barack Obama -- the president whose administration uses fallen warriors for photo ops while carping about any journalism it doesn't like -- to make the world see that "America might just hold the keys to solving the three greatest threats we face on this planet: extreme poverty, extreme ideology, and extreme climate change."

"Extreme climate change" is the weakest link in that chain, and "extreme ideology" (no fair guessing which one) the most euphemistic. Has no one told Bono that what used to be called "anthropogenic global warming" now approaches on the cats' paws of dubious data from the dark end of the street? Does Al Gore have the Irish rocker believing that that is where we like to meet?

Because he understands the power of the bully pulpit, Bono is confident that Barack Obama's words are sometimes "lifelines" for people in the farthest corners of the globe.

Here's the thing: lifelines only work when they are tethered to something solid and predictable. Although Bono suggests that "the idea of America" still rings like a bell, he is also convinced that Team Obama is giving this country a "re-branding," and (though Bono can't bring himself to say so) no one knows yet how that will turn out, much less whether it is virtual or real.

Bono supports the president, and the decision of the committee whose Nobel Peace Prize nomination process closed less than two weeks after Barack Obama took office, because he thinks America might soon get "soft power" right. More than that, Bono reads this year's Nobel Peace Prize not as a housewarming gift from five Norwegian leftists to an affable Chicago pol with Secret Service protection, but as a gesture from the rest of the world that challenges every American citizen by saying "Don't blow it." He means to be hopeful, and so does not realize that by interpreting the Peace Prize that way, he makes it into an instrument of condescension or threat.

For Bono, a man who has and deserves his own accolades, what matters, and what he thinks Obama gets, is that Americans are like singers, and singers want to be loved.

Well. My go-to people for all things musical are an entrepreneur who turned harmonica-playing prowess into a career, a songwriter who runs a record label in Los Angeles, and a singer with Broadway-class pipes who cantors at Catholic parishes in Las Vegas. Two are men, one is a woman, and all three are model citizens who have enriched my life more than I know how to say. With friends like these, I don't need to read valentines for singers from Bono.

On the evidence of the op-ed we're talking about, the man misreads the character of the country that he respects so much. All metaphors have limits, but Americans are more like roadies than like singers. As a rocker not named Bono observed years ago, it's roadies who "roll them cases and lift them amps," and roadies who "haul them trusses down and get 'em up them ramps." Roadies support singers, and may even sing themselves, but (like our Founding Fathers) they are practical people, impatient with abstraction.

If a roadie sat down for a pint with someone like C.S. Lewis, he or she would probably agree with the Oxford don about something that President Obama and his handlers do not yet understand: that it is better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.

When the robber barons seem to be striving for omnipotence, then it is time to write new melodies for these amazing days. Bono can help. Sting can help. Even Barack (Peace Prize be upon him) can help. But free people know the score (in every sense of the word), and free people don't take dictation. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.