seeing RED

I hate Bono. Alright, maybe “hate” is too strong of a word. He’s not someone I think about very much at all, unless of course I am remembering seventh grade, when I listened to U2 and they were still cool. Before all of that Elvis rockstar nonsense. I think my disdain for Bono may have begun when my friend Patrick from high school morphed his personality into a combination of the U2 frontman and Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame. Yes, it was strange. In an interview years ago, someone asked Bono if he ever lied, and he said, “Everything I say is a lie.” Patrick apparently saw something quite profound in that statement and would say it all the time. Patrick had developed an obsessive crush on one of my best friends, and he’d send her poetry that he “wrote” with lines stolen from U2 songs, and act out scenes blended from Catcher in the Rye and the movie Say Anything on her front steps as if they were really happening. But all off that is another story.

I went to the Sprint store last week to replace my dying phone, and I got tricked into supporting the Product Red campaign when I purchased a red cell phone. I suppose I wasn’t exactly tricked. I chose a silver phone that would only cost me about $40 or $50 after my rebate, and the salesman offered me one of the many different colors that the phone came in. I don’t really care about having my phone in a particular color, I told him. Well, he said, we also have the red phone, and with every purchase of the red phone we make a donation to help eliminate AIDS in Africa. I laughed and said, oh–you had to go and bring up the whole AIDS epidemic, didn’t you? Now I’m an asshole if I don’t get the red one. I was, of course, totally kidding, but my tongue-in-cheek attitude was apparently lost on Mr. Personality.

It wasn’t until I was at the checkout that a light went on in my head–wait a minute–RED…Global Fund for Africa…isn’t that Bono’s gig? I vaguely remembered an article by Harry Browne that I had read on CounterPunch earlier this year, so I went back and read it again. Here’s an excerpt from that article, RED Light District: Bono’s Independent:

“I have no embarrassment at all. No shame.” Bono says it himself, in the course of his luvvie interview with comic Eddie Izzard, and that’s a typically ‘disarming’ tactic. But don’t be disarmed: Bono’s shamelessness is of a whole different order from anything we’ve seen before, and it crosses new frontiers in the edition of the London Independent that he allegedly ‘edited’ today (16 May).

For a day, you see, it’s the RED Independent. (The capital letters in RED are obligatory, for some reason.) Much of the paper is given our to plugging Brand RED, this corporate PR strategy that sees a few big companies buy Bono-bestowed credibility in return for some shillings to Africa. If the word for Bono is indeed ‘shameless’, then the word that comes to mind in relation to the newspaper itself (a usually credible outlet in Irish mogul Tony O’Reilly’s media empire) is ‘prostitute’.

Much of Bono’s RED Indy is online, but its special qualities are best appreciated on paper. RED is somehow related to the colour red anyway, so we get a front-page created by celebrity artist Damien Hirst, soaked in red and declaring “NO NEWS TODAY” and an asterisk leading to the small print: “Just 6,500 Africans died today as a result of a preventable, treatable disease. (HIV/AIDS)” So far, not terrible, highlighting the issue and its absence from the conventional Western news agenda. But why does it say “Genesis 1.27” on the cover? That’s the line about how “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Since Bono is responsible for creating this paper in his image, does that mean he’s God?

It’s not an entirely facetious question. Certainly this edition, largely given over to Africa and AIDS, creates an image of a continent in dire need of an outside Savior. On page after page, in stories, photographs and advertisements, Africans are presented as pathetic victims, often children. No Africans write about Africa. Only one is presented in an interview as having any agency at all, Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. It is remarkable that even for the sake of appearances Bono is incapable of hiding his essential paternalism.

In the paper, Bono and friends promote what Browne calls “lowest common denominator activism.” This is probably what irks me the most about the Product RED campaign and about all the attention that Bono the Statesman gets for his version of activism. The emphasis on neoliberal solutions to Africa’s problems, and how amazing the idea of “voting with your checkbook” is–it is so frustrating!! “Oh, so if I want to save Africans dying of AIDS, I can just go to the Gap and buy a pair of RED jeans?! So what if the Gap uses sweatshop labor–I’m saving lives and my ass looks really hot!” I’ll save you my extended lamentation on why I believe emphasizing consumer spending solutions to global problems (especially in America, the land of overconsumption) is so wrong, and instead point you in the direction of the Product RED mission statement (in a/v too!), and hope that after reading and/or listening to it, you will get the idea.

For more on Bono, check out The Statesman by James Traub in the September 18, 2005 edition of the New York Times Magazine. As I’m sure you can imagine, there is also a lot of criticism out there on the Live8/Gleneagles concert and Bono and Bob Geldof’s debt relief campaign. In What the world should celebrate, Nigerian political scientist and historian Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe discusses what he believes Africa needs from the international community in response to the G8 summit. I also came across an interesting article by Bianca Jagger (of all people! I’m sorry if I can’t quite keep track of celebrity activists.) from the New Statesman. Here’s an excerpt from Real people power, or pernicious platitudes? :

When G8 finance ministers announced last month a $40bn debt-relief package for some of the world’s poorest countries, Bob Geldof praised it as “a victory for the millions of people in the campaign around the world”. Bono called it “a little piece of history”. Forget the immoral condition of enforced liberalisation and privatisation that it contained. That was not all. Bono went on to hail George W Bush as the saviour of Africa. “I think he has done an incredible job,” he pronounced, adding: “Bush deserves a place in history for turning the fate of the continent around.” He came across as serious. Does Bono know that the US is the lowest aid donor in the industrialised world, giving over only 0.16 per cent of GNP? Does he not care about climate change and about Bush’s role as serial environmental abuser? Maybe he has forgotten.

That’s enough for now. Oh–no comment on his recent knighthood.

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