Although it’s two-plus months old, the published exchange between TCU associate professor of religion S. Brent Plate and journalist Jeff Sharlet on The Revealer (an excellent source for analyzing media coverage of religion) offers not only an engaging debate about Vanity Fair’s July “Africa” issue, but also raises the important question of whether U2 lead singer Bono’s extensive humanitarian efforts over the past several years have produced much in the way of tangible results. Is this an exercise in bad faith and/or judgment? After all, it’s a legitimate argument that he’s utilized his status in a manner unlike practically any other rock star in history: partnering with Bob Geldorf on several fundraising projects (notably the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts); helping spearhead the Make Poverty History and ONE campaigns; meeting with President Bush and other world leaders to advocate increases in foreign aid to Africa; and, most recently, serving as a spokesperson for corporate-oriented PRODUCT (RED). But Sharlet raises a valid criticism:
“I remember riding around with Senator Sam Brownback a couple of years ago, talking about some bulls*** ‘free market’ solution for Africa. His aide says, ‘Let's get Bono!’ Brownback says something to the effect of, ‘Bono can sell anything.’ ”
In other words, at what point does Bono’s advocacy become a problematic sort of salesmanship? Sharlet and Plate’s argument about Bono making Africa “sexy”—involving potentially negative cultural and racial implications—is a good starting point for forming a critique. So too is the Catholic journal First Things’ March article on Bono and (RED)’s pro-consumerism approach. While Ryan Anderson’s argument generally sticks to the journal’s roots in theological (and often political) conservatism, one of his central points mirrors Sharlet’s above concern:
“…there is something wrongheaded—even repulsive—about the approach. Turning the life-and-death plight of an entire continent into just another advertising strategy. Making charitable giving a matter of satisfying consumerist desires. Attempting to solve African need by Western greed.”
Is Bono therefore responsible for the irony that Anderson identifies in the last sentence, where buying an iPod for oneself becomes an act of giving towards others? There aren’t easy answers to this question, and I think it would take several posts to fully explore the topic, as it involves contextual issues that are bigger and more complicated than just Bono. For now, I think it is fair to contend that while we can hardly fault him for his enthusiastic humanitarian efforts, he is also capable of choosing or forming campaigns that are less dependent on consumer patterns ( (RED) ) and fashion statements (the white bracelets of ONE and Make Poverty History), both of which are ultimately ephemeral and require virtually no change in both thought and action on our part. We should, of course, be willing to make such changes regardless of celebrity advocacy. Yet it would be refreshing to see Bono use his earnestness as a means of encouraging us to our better selves rather than to more or less stay the same, for even if the end result wouldn’t fully provide what Africa needs, it would at least provide a firmer foundation for positive change.