More harm than good from celebrity humanitarianism

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Recently I declined to sign an ad on behalf of a clearly worthy cause, as I generally do. The organizers were lining up people they consider "prominent" or with a "profile." There are A-lists and much lower ones (where I reside) both for signers and causes but if you believe in it, why not do what you can?

The reason I give for declining is that I dislike the implication that some voices count more than others on these matters. I know that sounds churlish and self-indulgent, especially if the issues are urgent. U.S. comic Janeane Garofalo once went on CNN to criticize the Iraq War. She was asked what gave her the nerve, since she's no expert and was only there because she's famous. She said she'd rather see Noam Chomsky on but CNN won't have him because he isn't famous enough so there she was. Then they attack her for it. She sounded smart and ambivalent.

So I'm grateful to American-Irish writer Harry Browne, for writing The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power) on the ultimate "celebrity humanitarian." For about 20 years Bono has split his time between U2 and cajoling world leaders like George W. Bush, Tony Blair and our own Paul Martin on behalf of causes like African poverty and Third World debt relief. Often his bandmates were left waiting while he worked these relationships.

Browne knows music, politics and economics; you leave the book feeling you understand better why you were uncomfortable with Bono's activism -- or I did. His critique isn't simplistic and he doesn't speculate on motives. His point is that Bono has done some good, but more harm. In Africa he won some poverty aid but in the process "reinforced" the model of the West as hero -- himself, his pals Bill Gates and superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs -- with Africa as victim. He never (or rarely) addressed the power imbalances at the root of African poverty. At the 2005 G8 summit in the U.K., he and sidekick (Sir) Bob Geldof got some minimal Third World debt reduction but, again, problematic structural elements like neo-liberalism, privatization and deregulation weren't just ignored but endorsed. His RED campaign, to set aside profits from high-end products to reduce HIV/AIDS in Africa, promoted the very consumerism that results from a wealth imbalance between countries without ever suggesting it also embodies the problem. He got very qualified AIDS support from George Bush but Bush got Bono's effective endorsement for his war in Iraq. This is quite different from individuals raising money for charitable causes. It involves political quid pro quos that imply excuses and justifications for particular policies in return for some cash. If you play the game at that level, you better know what's at stake.

Browne isn't mingy. He assiduously gives Bono credit where it's due, so his occasional outbursts of disgust feel more like irresistible impulse (guilty with an explanation) than cheap shots. That increases his persuasiveness.

Re. Canadian content: I was at the 2003 Liberal convention where Paul Martin ascended to leader. Bono came to hail him and say, "The world needs more Canada." He also promised that if Martin let him down, he'd kick his butt. At the 2005 summit, when Martin did renege on a pledge, Bono said he'd keep his word, although "it's a very nice butt, as prime ministers go." What an odd thing to say. As if Bono's aware of his impulse to ass-kissing in the halls of power.

Browne doesn't critique all celebrity humanitarianism, or celebrity worship per se, but I take his book as a licence to move in those directions. In that light, I want to speak in praise of the Star's Stargazing reporter, Malene Arpe. I know it's a bit of a no-go since we're in the same paper but I'm not an actual employee, I've never met Arpe -- and I can't stop myself. What she does is like an ongoing pre-emptive attack on the stupid cult of fame ("This item is brought to you by high school") long before it reaches the "humanitarian" bloating of Bono/Geldof. She strikes at everything the assumptions of celebrity imply. The world needs more Stargazing.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Remy Steinegger/World Economic Forum/flickr

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