Bono wants you

The lead singer of U2 and high-profile humanitarian chats here with a long-time friend about Africa, terrorism and God–and Bono’s most important political lesson.


Michka Assayas | November 2005 issue

You have taken a part-time job as a world ambassador for the DATA organization (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa—but also Democracy, Accountability and Transparency for Africa), a group you co-founded with Bobby Shriver. Don’t you ever feel like the world is just shit and nothing can be done about it?
Bono: I do get depressed on occasion, a bit black about the uphill nature of this particular struggle. What we’re talking about, in DATA though, in the end, comes from a great tradition. It’s the journey of equality. Equality is an idea that was first really expressed by the Jews when God told them that everyone was equal in His eyes. A preposterous idea then and still hard to hang on to now.

You can imagine these farmers standing there with sheep shit on their shoes in front of Pharaoh. And Pharaoh would say: “You are equal to me?” And they’d look in their book and they’d go: “That’s what it says here.” After a while, people accepted that, though not easily. Rich and poor were equal in God’s eyes. But not blacks! Black people can’t be equal. Not women! You’re not asking us to accept that?! You see, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have to accept this: It says that everyone is equal. Now most people accept that women, blacks, Irish and Jews are equal, but only within these borders. I’m not sure we accept that Africans are equal.

I’m not sure about what you’re saying either.
Right now there is the biggest pandemic in the history of civilization hap¬pening with AIDS. It’s bigger than the Black Death, which took a third of Europe in the Middle Ages. Sixty-five hundred Africans are dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease. And it is not a priority for the West. Why? Because we don’t put the same value on African life as we put on a European or an American life. God will not let us get away with this. His¬tory certainly won’t let us get away with our excuses.

We say we can’t get these antiretroviral drugs to the farthest reaches of Africa, but we can get them our cold fizzy drinks. The tiniest village, you can find a bottle of Coke. Look, if we really thought that an African life was equal in value to an English, a French or an Irish life, we wouldn’t let two and a half million Africans die every year for the stupidest of reasons: money. We just wouldn’t. And a very prominent head of state said to me: ‘If these people weren’t Africans, we just couldn’t let it happen.’ We don’t really deep down believe in their equality.

Who said that?
I can’t say, but it was a head of state who was ashamed. It actually scandalized him. We have written off Africans. So the next step in the journey of equality is to get to a place where we accept that you cannot choose your neighbor. In the Global Village, distance no longer decides who is your neighbor, and ‘Love thy neighbor’ is not advice, it’s a command.

My objection is that different civilizations don’t keep the same pace. That is what history shows. We in Western Europe and North America live in a post¬modern world, whereas Africa lingers on in the Middle Age, or pre-Middle Age. So however well-intentioned we may be, there is an unbridgeable gap.
But why is Africa pre-Middle Age? The answer to that question is historical. And let me illustrate this.” [Bono abruptly gets up and calls out to his daughter] “Jojo! … Jordan!” [He leaves the room and climbs up the stairs. He returns more than a minute later, bringing back a school manual. He sits down again and starts to leaf through it.] “This is a fifteen-year-old’s geography textbook. I was looking at this today, and it tells about it exactly. [Eventually finds the passage and proceeds to read out.] ‘Income gap. Two hundred years ago, it appears that very little difference existed in living standards between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. Today, a very wide income gap exists: The North is many times richer than the South. What brought about this gap? The an¬swer seems to lie in colonialism, trade and debt.’ They’re explaining to this fifteen-year-old kid how the reason why Africa is still in the Middle Age is largely to do with us, and our exploitation through French and British colo¬nialism, but also in their present exploitation of unfair trade agreements, or old debts. You can’t fix every problem. But the ones you can, you must. To the degree we are responsible, we must fix. When you ask me to just accept that civilizations are just at a different level, there is a reason why they are. That is my answer.

Generous ideas quite often bring about bloody results. So often, the good and the bad are closely intertwined..
Right, it’s true. Look: Evil encroaches in tiny footsteps on every great idea. And evil can almost outrun most great ideas, but fïnally, in the end, there is light in the world. I accept God chooses to work with some pretty poor material. But I’m much more amazed by what people are capable of than I am by what they’re not capable of, which is to say evil doesn’t surprise me.

I think you underestimate evil.
The jungle is never far from the surface of our skin. No, I’m never surprised by evil, but I’m much more excited about what people are capable of. And we’re talking about the journey of equality here. Well, it’s ongoing. There’s been some incredible progress but, I’ll accept, just more than there has been terrible regression. (…) But please! Don’t ever see me as a sort of wide-eyed idealist who only sees the good in people. Cockeyed, maybe, but just because I often find a way around the darkness doesn’t mean that I don’t know it’s there.

How do you find your way through darkness?
I try to make the light brighter.

Give me an example.
Harry Belafonte is one of my great heroes. He told me this story about Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, which changed my life indeed, pointed me in the direction I’m going now politically. Harry remembered a meeting with Martin Luther King when the civil rights movement had hit a wall in the early sixties” [impersonating croaky voice of Belafonte:] ‘I tell you it was a depressing moment when Bobby Kennedy was made attorney general. It was a very bad day for the civil rights movement.’ And I said: ‘Why was that?’ He said: ‘Oh, you see, you forget. Bobby Kennedy was Irish. Those Irish were real racists; they didn’t like the black man. They were just one step above the black man on the social lad¬der. (…) Bobby at that time was famously not interested in the civil rights movement. We were crestfallen, in despair, talking to Martin, moaning and groaning about the turn of events, when Dr. King slammed his hand down and ordered us to stop the bitching.’ ‘Enough of this,’ he said. ‘Is there nobody here who’s got something good to say about Bobby Kennedy?’ We said: ‘Martin, that’s what we’re telling ya! There is no one. There is nothing good to say about him. The guy’s an Irish Catholic conservative badass, he’s bad news.’ To which Martin replied: ‘Well, then, let’s call this meeting to a close. We will re-adjourn when somebody has found one thing redeeming to say about Bobby Kennedy, because that, my friends, is the door through which our movement will pass.’ So he stopped the meeting and he made them all go home. He wouldn’t hear any more negativity about Bobby Kennedy. He knew there must be something positive. And if it was there, somebody could find it.

Did they ever find anything redeeming about Bobby Kennedy?
Well, it turned out that Bobby was very close with his bishop. So they befriended the one man who could get through to Bobby’s soul and turned him into their Trojan horse and got the bishop to speak to Bobby. They sort of ganged up on this bishop, the civil rights religious people, and got the bishop to speak to Bobby. Harry became emotional at the end of this tale: ‘When Bobby Kennedy lay dead on a Los Angeles pavement, there was no greater friend to the civil rights movement. There was no one we owed more of our progress to than that man.’ (…) Whether he was exaggerating or not, that was a great lesson for me, because what Dr. King was saying was: Don’t respond to caricature—the Left, the Right, the Progressive, the Reactionary. Don’t take people on rumor. Find the light in them, because that will further your cause. And I’ve held on to that very tightly, that lesson. And so, don’t think that I don’t understand. I know what I’m up against. I just sometimes do not appear to.

I think that someone in your position has the ability to do things that other people can’t. People who run relief agencies don’t get to talk to Tony Blair. Still, aren’t you in danger of being used by politicians, who will in the end do what they have been elected to do, which sometimes isn’t a lot.
I’m available to be used, that is the deal here. I’ll step out with anyone, but I’m not a cheap date. I know that I’m being used, and it’s just at what price.

So what’s the price?
Well, as an example, so far, from the work DATA has been involved in with others, we got in late 2002 an extra five billion dollars from the United States for the poorest of the poor, and a commitment for another 20 billion over the next few years in a combination of increased aid to countries tackling corruption and a historic AIDS initiative. From a conservative administration, that was unthinkable in the development community.

Our next talk took place a week after the Madrid train bombings that left 191 people dead and more than 1,800 wounded on March 11, 2004. I wanted to know how Bono reacted to the news—not as a spokesperson or an ambassador for DATA, but as a human being. I mean, how do idealism and goodwill stand in front of that?

Terrorists are focused on big ideas. You’re quite aware that there are no greater idealists than terrorists. Most of them revere the notion of God and holy justice. I guess for a person like you, who is deeply religious and idealistic, it must be very disturbing.
I’m a lot of other things as well. But you see, people who are open spiritually are open to being manipulated more easily, are very vulnerable. The religious instinct is a very pure one in my opinion. But unless it’s met with a lot of rigor, it’s very hard to control.

Correct. But you’ve never seen a skeptic or an atheist smash himself to pieces in order to kill as many people as possible. I mean, atheists would organize concentration camps or would plan collective starvation, but this kind of terror we are dealing with now is of a spiritual nature. You can’t hide from that.
It’s true. Yeah, smashing other people to pieces doesn’t need the same conviction. Most terrorists want to change the material world. Well, add eternity to that, and people can go a lot further to pursue their ends…. But of course, this is always a corruption of some holy thesis, whether it’s the Koran or the Bible. My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don’t let my religious world get too complicated, I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that’s my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now, that’s not so easy.

We have been talking before about Jesuit priests arriving with the conquistadors in South and Central America with the gospel in one hand and a rifle in the other.
I know, I know. Religion can be the enemy of God. It’s often what happens when God, like Elvis, has left the building.” [laughs] “A list of instructions where there was once was conviction; dogma where once people just did it; a congregation led by a man where once they were led by the Holy Spirit. Discipline replacing discipleship. But the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

I haven’t heard you talk about that.
I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

That doesn’t make it clearer for me.
You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘As you reap, so will you sow’ stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

I’d be interested to hear that.
“That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to fïnally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

Excerpted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Bono: A Self-Portrait in Conversation by Michka Assayas with a foreword by Bono. Copyright © 2005 by Michka Assayas.

Solution News Source

Bono wants you

The lead singer of U2 and high-profile humanitarian chats here with a long-time friend about Africa, terrorism and God–and Bono’s most important political lesson.


Michka Assayas | November 2005 issue

You have taken a part-time job as a world ambassador for the DATA organization (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa—but also Democracy, Accountability and Transparency for Africa), a group you co-founded with Bobby Shriver. Don’t you ever feel like the world is just shit and nothing can be done about it?
Bono: I do get depressed on occasion, a bit black about the uphill nature of this particular struggle. What we’re talking about, in DATA though, in the end, comes from a great tradition. It’s the journey of equality. Equality is an idea that was first really expressed by the Jews when God told them that everyone was equal in His eyes. A preposterous idea then and still hard to hang on to now.

You can imagine these farmers standing there with sheep shit on their shoes in front of Pharaoh. And Pharaoh would say: “You are equal to me?” And they’d look in their book and they’d go: “That’s what it says here.” After a while, people accepted that, though not easily. Rich and poor were equal in God’s eyes. But not blacks! Black people can’t be equal. Not women! You’re not asking us to accept that?! You see, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have to accept this: It says that everyone is equal. Now most people accept that women, blacks, Irish and Jews are equal, but only within these borders. I’m not sure we accept that Africans are equal.

I’m not sure about what you’re saying either.
Right now there is the biggest pandemic in the history of civilization hap¬pening with AIDS. It’s bigger than the Black Death, which took a third of Europe in the Middle Ages. Sixty-five hundred Africans are dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease. And it is not a priority for the West. Why? Because we don’t put the same value on African life as we put on a European or an American life. God will not let us get away with this. His¬tory certainly won’t let us get away with our excuses.

We say we can’t get these antiretroviral drugs to the farthest reaches of Africa, but we can get them our cold fizzy drinks. The tiniest village, you can find a bottle of Coke. Look, if we really thought that an African life was equal in value to an English, a French or an Irish life, we wouldn’t let two and a half million Africans die every year for the stupidest of reasons: money. We just wouldn’t. And a very prominent head of state said to me: ‘If these people weren’t Africans, we just couldn’t let it happen.’ We don’t really deep down believe in their equality.

Who said that?
I can’t say, but it was a head of state who was ashamed. It actually scandalized him. We have written off Africans. So the next step in the journey of equality is to get to a place where we accept that you cannot choose your neighbor. In the Global Village, distance no longer decides who is your neighbor, and ‘Love thy neighbor’ is not advice, it’s a command.

My objection is that different civilizations don’t keep the same pace. That is what history shows. We in Western Europe and North America live in a post¬modern world, whereas Africa lingers on in the Middle Age, or pre-Middle Age. So however well-intentioned we may be, there is an unbridgeable gap.
But why is Africa pre-Middle Age? The answer to that question is historical. And let me illustrate this.” [Bono abruptly gets up and calls out to his daughter] “Jojo! … Jordan!” [He leaves the room and climbs up the stairs. He returns more than a minute later, bringing back a school manual. He sits down again and starts to leaf through it.] “This is a fifteen-year-old’s geography textbook. I was looking at this today, and it tells about it exactly. [Eventually finds the passage and proceeds to read out.] ‘Income gap. Two hundred years ago, it appears that very little difference existed in living standards between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. Today, a very wide income gap exists: The North is many times richer than the South. What brought about this gap? The an¬swer seems to lie in colonialism, trade and debt.’ They’re explaining to this fifteen-year-old kid how the reason why Africa is still in the Middle Age is largely to do with us, and our exploitation through French and British colo¬nialism, but also in their present exploitation of unfair trade agreements, or old debts. You can’t fix every problem. But the ones you can, you must. To the degree we are responsible, we must fix. When you ask me to just accept that civilizations are just at a different level, there is a reason why they are. That is my answer.

Generous ideas quite often bring about bloody results. So often, the good and the bad are closely intertwined..
Right, it’s true. Look: Evil encroaches in tiny footsteps on every great idea. And evil can almost outrun most great ideas, but fïnally, in the end, there is light in the world. I accept God chooses to work with some pretty poor material. But I’m much more amazed by what people are capable of than I am by what they’re not capable of, which is to say evil doesn’t surprise me.

I think you underestimate evil.
The jungle is never far from the surface of our skin. No, I’m never surprised by evil, but I’m much more excited about what people are capable of. And we’re talking about the journey of equality here. Well, it’s ongoing. There’s been some incredible progress but, I’ll accept, just more than there has been terrible regression. (…) But please! Don’t ever see me as a sort of wide-eyed idealist who only sees the good in people. Cockeyed, maybe, but just because I often find a way around the darkness doesn’t mean that I don’t know it’s there.

How do you find your way through darkness?
I try to make the light brighter.

Give me an example.
Harry Belafonte is one of my great heroes. He told me this story about Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, which changed my life indeed, pointed me in the direction I’m going now politically. Harry remembered a meeting with Martin Luther King when the civil rights movement had hit a wall in the early sixties” [impersonating croaky voice of Belafonte:] ‘I tell you it was a depressing moment when Bobby Kennedy was made attorney general. It was a very bad day for the civil rights movement.’ And I said: ‘Why was that?’ He said: ‘Oh, you see, you forget. Bobby Kennedy was Irish. Those Irish were real racists; they didn’t like the black man. They were just one step above the black man on the social lad¬der. (…) Bobby at that time was famously not interested in the civil rights movement. We were crestfallen, in despair, talking to Martin, moaning and groaning about the turn of events, when Dr. King slammed his hand down and ordered us to stop the bitching.’ ‘Enough of this,’ he said. ‘Is there nobody here who’s got something good to say about Bobby Kennedy?’ We said: ‘Martin, that’s what we’re telling ya! There is no one. There is nothing good to say about him. The guy’s an Irish Catholic conservative badass, he’s bad news.’ To which Martin replied: ‘Well, then, let’s call this meeting to a close. We will re-adjourn when somebody has found one thing redeeming to say about Bobby Kennedy, because that, my friends, is the door through which our movement will pass.’ So he stopped the meeting and he made them all go home. He wouldn’t hear any more negativity about Bobby Kennedy. He knew there must be something positive. And if it was there, somebody could find it.

Did they ever find anything redeeming about Bobby Kennedy?
Well, it turned out that Bobby was very close with his bishop. So they befriended the one man who could get through to Bobby’s soul and turned him into their Trojan horse and got the bishop to speak to Bobby. They sort of ganged up on this bishop, the civil rights religious people, and got the bishop to speak to Bobby. Harry became emotional at the end of this tale: ‘When Bobby Kennedy lay dead on a Los Angeles pavement, there was no greater friend to the civil rights movement. There was no one we owed more of our progress to than that man.’ (…) Whether he was exaggerating or not, that was a great lesson for me, because what Dr. King was saying was: Don’t respond to caricature—the Left, the Right, the Progressive, the Reactionary. Don’t take people on rumor. Find the light in them, because that will further your cause. And I’ve held on to that very tightly, that lesson. And so, don’t think that I don’t understand. I know what I’m up against. I just sometimes do not appear to.

I think that someone in your position has the ability to do things that other people can’t. People who run relief agencies don’t get to talk to Tony Blair. Still, aren’t you in danger of being used by politicians, who will in the end do what they have been elected to do, which sometimes isn’t a lot.
I’m available to be used, that is the deal here. I’ll step out with anyone, but I’m not a cheap date. I know that I’m being used, and it’s just at what price.

So what’s the price?
Well, as an example, so far, from the work DATA has been involved in with others, we got in late 2002 an extra five billion dollars from the United States for the poorest of the poor, and a commitment for another 20 billion over the next few years in a combination of increased aid to countries tackling corruption and a historic AIDS initiative. From a conservative administration, that was unthinkable in the development community.

Our next talk took place a week after the Madrid train bombings that left 191 people dead and more than 1,800 wounded on March 11, 2004. I wanted to know how Bono reacted to the news—not as a spokesperson or an ambassador for DATA, but as a human being. I mean, how do idealism and goodwill stand in front of that?

Terrorists are focused on big ideas. You’re quite aware that there are no greater idealists than terrorists. Most of them revere the notion of God and holy justice. I guess for a person like you, who is deeply religious and idealistic, it must be very disturbing.
I’m a lot of other things as well. But you see, people who are open spiritually are open to being manipulated more easily, are very vulnerable. The religious instinct is a very pure one in my opinion. But unless it’s met with a lot of rigor, it’s very hard to control.

Correct. But you’ve never seen a skeptic or an atheist smash himself to pieces in order to kill as many people as possible. I mean, atheists would organize concentration camps or would plan collective starvation, but this kind of terror we are dealing with now is of a spiritual nature. You can’t hide from that.
It’s true. Yeah, smashing other people to pieces doesn’t need the same conviction. Most terrorists want to change the material world. Well, add eternity to that, and people can go a lot further to pursue their ends…. But of course, this is always a corruption of some holy thesis, whether it’s the Koran or the Bible. My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don’t let my religious world get too complicated, I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that’s my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now, that’s not so easy.

We have been talking before about Jesuit priests arriving with the conquistadors in South and Central America with the gospel in one hand and a rifle in the other.
I know, I know. Religion can be the enemy of God. It’s often what happens when God, like Elvis, has left the building.” [laughs] “A list of instructions where there was once was conviction; dogma where once people just did it; a congregation led by a man where once they were led by the Holy Spirit. Discipline replacing discipleship. But the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

I haven’t heard you talk about that.
I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

That doesn’t make it clearer for me.
You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘As you reap, so will you sow’ stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

I’d be interested to hear that.
“That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to fïnally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

Excerpted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Bono: A Self-Portrait in Conversation by Michka Assayas with a foreword by Bono. Copyright © 2005 by Michka Assayas.

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