Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bono at CMC, or, In Defense of Celebrity Philanthropy

In what was undoubtedly one of the biggest speaking engagements of the year at CMC, U2 frontman and Africa activist Bono came to Bridges Auditorium to give students, faculty, and staff from the 5Cs as well as local citizens "A Lesson in Giving Back."

Bono's speech certainly played more to his rock-star side than his technocrat side. His accounts of his trips to Africa and meeting with countless heads of state and captains of industry to rally support to his cause both awed and inspired. To be sure, his accounts of suffering in Africa were sobering -- I'm sure not a few in the audience were moved to some sort of action to help the cause -- but overall, his message was one of hope and inspiration, exhorting our generation to action. (The unabashed admiration of America and her values didn't hurt, either.) To give a better idea of the inner workings of Bono's mind, I've compiled a list of memorable quotes from his speech and the Q&A session that followed:

"Please don't tell my band I'm here."

"Rockstars have two instincts: they want to have fun, and they want to change the world."

"The world is more malleable than you think."

"This rockstar knows that the power of rock 'n' roll should not be undersold."

"The question for your generation -- and mine, by the way -- is whether or not we know what is going on -- because we do -- but what are we going to do about it?"

"Human rights and civil rights going global -- that's what the ONE campaign is really about."

"I've become the least attractive thing in the world: a rockstar with a cause."

"I like to call it 'the swarm of bees strategy.' That's right, the buzzing you hear isn't your iPhone, it isn't your hangover -- it's the swarm."

"...The America that says, 'Is that the Moon? Let's take a [rhymes with "truckin'"] walk on it!'...of thee I sing."

Former head of the IMF Horst Köhler to Bono on fame: "'So you make ze money and zen you develop ze conscience?'"

"...The U.K. is a great country -- ugh, I can't believe I just said that."

"Sorry to be so anecdotal tonight, I had a gin and tonic."
To be sure, Bono is not without his critics (fellow classmate and blogger Charles Johnson among them). But while the arguments against Bono-style aid efforts have their virtues, it seems to me that those arguments are nonetheless flawed. Celebrity philanthropists like Bono strike a key balance between celebrity and technocrat -- not so far removed from those who would otherwise not be interested in Africa as to alienate them, but clearly knowledgeable enough in the subject to avoid accusations of simply being a publicity-seeker. Such "celebthropists" are capable of tapping into the vast base of average American citizens who hear about the plights of the African continent but are unaware of how they can make a difference; one need only look at the Product Red line of consumer goods, which has raised $45 million for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, to see the effect that ordinary Americans can have if they practice what Bono referred to as "conscientious consumerism" -- that is, purchasing products that not only accomplish what the consumer desires from it, but are also under a system where the proceeds go towards such initiatives as The Global Fund.

Critics of the "conscientious consumerism" approach argue that there is a lack of transparency inherent to such corporation-supported enterprises, and that direct philanthropy is far more efficient. Yet the movement's detractors perhaps fail to recognize one of the key benefits of the approach: that the participants receive something tangible -- along with the satisfaction of having contributed to a charitable cause -- for their money, and this ultimately broadens the possible base of donors. Over 110 million iPods have been sold in the United States, and even if only a small fraction of them have been Product Red purchases, that is still a vast amount of cash flow waiting to be tapped. If a consumer is planning on purchasing an iPod, he or she can walk into any Apple Store and receive an iPod that is no way functionally different from other models, but additionally contributes to the Global Fund (and comes in a snazzy red color, to boot). In the simple act of buying a product he or she already wanted, the consumer can contribute in some meaningful way towards one of the great humanitarian efforts of our time. This is nothing less than the harnessing of the great power of the free market for the purpose of improving the lives of millions of people, and that is something that cannot be argued against.

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