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Review: The Front Man: Bono (In the Name of Power) by Harry Browne
Around the world, U2 lead singer Bono is seen as the archetypal celebrity philanthropist, jetting across the globe campaigning against hunger and injustice in Africa and elsewhere. Harry Browne’s new book, The Frontman, unmasks a very different picture.
reviewed by Eugene Egan
30 December 2013
This article first appeared in Ceasefire Magazine
To many people Bono is the archetypal celebrity philanthropist jetting across the globe campaigning against hunger and injustice in Africa and elsewhere. He has access to prime ministers, presidents and even Western military leaders. The rich and powerful know that through his music the leader of one of the greatest rock bands ever, U2, has a mass audience of millions across the globe. Meanwhile, Bono is someone who likes to present himself as a working class hero from Dublin crusading against global poverty.
Harry Browne’s The Frontman: Bono (In The Name of Power) takes a look beneath the surface and unmasks a different Bono to the one we are subjected to in the mainstream media. Browne argues that celebrity philanthropy and humanitarianism such as that advocated by Bono and others can be downright patronising, self-serving and offensive.
One example cited by Browne is Band Aid’s “very, very white” charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas.’ Another case was Live Aid, a charade that was once described by Frank Zappa as the ‘biggest cocaine-money-laundering scheme of all time’ and ‘a show business-oriented bogus charity event.’
Harry Browne is a lecturer in the School of Creative Arts and Media at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He is also a journalist whose work has been published in CounterPunch, the Dublin Review and various Irish newspapers. Born in Italy and raised in the United States he now lives in Ireland.
Browne is scathing on celebrity philanthropy, which self-servingly promotes the myth that Western neo-liberal policies are the solution for tackling global poverty. As he puts it, ‘celebrity philanthropy comes in many guises, but perhaps no single figure better encapsulates its delusions, pretensions and mis-directions than does the lead singer of rock band U2, Paul Hewson, aka Bono.’
The book focuses on Bono’s egotistical antics and the message his work conveys: that Western humanitarianism, with its free market ideological framing, is the solution. Bono is not alone, of course; Browne’s diagnosis could also be applied to other so-called celebrity philanthropists, such as Bob Geldof, who merely reflect the views and values of Western neo-liberal society and who therefore maintain the status quo and legitimise the current economic and political system.
As far as many neo-liberals are concerned, Bono represents the benign face of the wealthy elites in Western society, who want to help the poor in places like Africa, and who with a little help and encouragement, could eliminate global poverty.
As such, Browne argues, Bono is an ideal frontman for a system of ‘imperial exploitation and war whose depredations and depravity remain as savage as ever.’ Indeed, it could be argued that celebrity philanthropy and humanitarian interventionism are integral parts of the West’s imperialist game-plan; where actors on the world’s stage advocate a colonialist discourse that insists Westerners are the saviours of that “other world” by providing it with sustenance and spiritual enlightenment. This is the gospel according to Bono.
However, Bono’s lack of insight and sensitivities are not merely confined to Africa. For instance, he has also shown much ignorance of the plight of the Palestinians, eliciting criticisms for his remarks chiding them for having no Martin Luther King or Gandhi, essentially suggesting the Palestinian struggle was exclusively violent.
Northern Ireland, Browne writes, is another example of Bono’s ignorance and insensitivity. Referring to U2’s song ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, he tells how the original lyrics contained condemnations of the IRA whilst ignoring the violence of the British state and was implicitly offensive towards Irish nationalists who were killed by British soldiers on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. However, after the band thought better of it, the lyrics were duly changed so that its ambiguity would offend no one. Brown also notes how Bono gives the impression he hails from a working-class area in Dublin while, in fact, he comes from a leafy and comfortable middle-class suburb.
To add insult to injury Bono once tore up the Irish flag at a concert in 1983 in Colorado, allegedly in the name of peace. This act, according to Browne, was defying no one except the beleaguered and oppressed nationalist community in Northern Ireland. There was no similar urge three decades later at Madison Square Garden in October 2001. Performing that same song, as the US dropped bombs on Afghan cities, Bono ‘embraced the Stars and Stripes’.
Bono has come under much criticism for his tax arrangements in Ireland, primarily his tax exile to Amsterdam. According to his critics, this is immoral and hypocritical as it takes money out of Ireland that could have gone to provide services for those in need. Especially if one takes it in the context of his global anti-poverty campaign. Unsurprisingly, U2 have become known as the ‘band with no shame’ in many left-wing circles in Ireland over their tax affairs.
Browne also points out how Bono had no qualms about appearing in public and on platforms with the likes of the despised George W Bush and Tony Blair. He argues that such actions act as good PR for Western governments. Bono became less an advocate for the world’s poor and more an ‘apologist for leaders like Tony Blair, who used Bono and his campaign to legitimise their inaction… and downright damaging inaction in relation to poverty. In the meantime, Bono had helped to reduce the question of global inequality and impoverishment to, simply, Africa.’
In this regard, Browne points out that much of Western aid to developing countries is tied to them being on board with the West’s so-called “war on terror” as well as insisting that they open up their economies to multinationals at the expense of indigenous populations. Meanwhile, the critical voices of African intellectuals have remained largely ignored, as the issues of global inequality and exploitation became totally hijacked by celebrity philanthropists such as Bono and Geldof
Bono has often used his Irishness as a means to show that he understands the issues of colonialism, conflict and famine. Yet his actions and neo-liberal message contradicts this and illustrates just how pretentious and misdirected he really is. A million people died in Ireland in 1845-52 as a result of “free-market” policies under British colonial rule. Yet Bono seems to think this is precisely what Africa needs.
Bono-Frontman-Ceasefire-MagazineHarry Browne’s book is not only a damning indictment of Bono’s work in tackling global poverty and injustice, it is an informative and instructive read that shows us the “heart of darkness” that lies behind the message he advocates.
In his introduction, Browne writes: “It’s nothing personal Bono, but I’m afraid one of the first steps for people seeking real justice is that we stop buying the message you’re selling.’
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