Bono: 'What's Your Big Idea?'
Rocker Bono tells this year's grads about his struggle to help end AIDS and poverty in Africa, and why he loves America.
Adapted from the commencement speech delivered by Bono, lead singer of U2 and co-founder of DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa), at the University of Pennsylvania, May 17, 2004.
My name is Bono and I am a rock star. [...] I never went to college, I've slept in some strange places, but the library wasn't one of them. I studied rock and roll and I grew up in Dublin in the '70s, music was an alarm bell for me, it woke me up to the world. I was 17 when I first saw The Clash, and it just sounded like revolution. I was the kid in the crowd who took it at face value. Later I learned that a lot of the rebels were in it for the T-shirt. They'd wear the boots but they wouldn't march. They'd smash bottles on their heads but they wouldn't go to something more painful like a town hall meeting. By the way I felt like that myself until recently.
I didn't expect change to come so slow, so agonizingly slow. I didn't realize that the biggest obstacle to political and social progress wasn't the Free Masons, or the Establishment, or the boot heal of whatever you consider 'the Man' to be, it was something much more subtle. As the Provost just referred to, a combination of our own indifference and the Kafkaesque labyrinth of 'no's you encounter as people vanish down the corridors of bureaucracy.
So for better or worse that was my education. I came away with a clear sense of the difference music could make in my own life, in other peoples' lives if I did my job right. Which if you're a singer in a rock band means avoiding the obvious pitfalls like, say, a mullet hairdo. If anyone here doesn't know what a mullet is by the way your education's certainly not complete, I'd ask for your money back. For a lead singer like me, a mullet is, I would suggest, arguably more dangerous than a drug problem. Yes, I had a mullet in the '80s.
Now this is the point where the members of the faculty start smiling uncomfortably and thinking maybe they should have offered me the honorary bachelors degree instead of the full blown doctorate.. If they're asking what on earth I'm doing here, I think it's a fair question. What am I doing here? More to the point: what are you doing here? Because if you don't mind me saying so this is a strange ending to an Ivy League education. Four years in these historic halls thinking great thoughts and now you're sitting in a stadium better suited for football listening to an Irish rock star give a speech that is so far mostly about himself. What are you doing here?
For four years you've been buying, trading, and selling, everything you've got in this marketplace of ideas. The intellectual hustle. Your pockets are full, even if your parents' are empty, and now you've got to figure out what to spend it on.
Well, the going rate for change is not cheap. Big ideas are expensive. The University has had its share of big ideas. Benjamin Franklin had a few, so did Justice Brennan and in my opinion so does Judith Rodin. They all knew that if you're gonna be good at your word if you're gonna live up to your ideals and your education, its' gonna cost you.
So my question I suppose is: What's the big idea? What's
big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?
There's a truly great Irish poet, his name is Brendan Kennelly, and he has this epic poem called the
Book of Judas
, and there's a line in that poem that never leaves my mind, it says: "If you want to serve the age, betray it." What does that mean to betray the age?
Well to me betraying the age means exposing its conceits, its foibles; its phony moral certitudes. It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths.
Every age has its massive moral blind spots. We might not see them, but our children will. Slavery was one of them and the people who best served that age were the ones who called it as it was--which was ungodly and inhuman. Ben Franklin called it what it was when he became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Segregation. There was another one. America sees this now but it took a civil rights movement to betray their age. And 50 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court betrayed the age May 17, 1954,
Brown vs. Board of Education
came down and put the lie to the idea that separate can ever really be equal. Amen to that.