"It is true . . . that I once danced -- or, to be precise, pogoed -- with Van Morrison in Bono's living room."
-- Salmon Rushdie, 2001
Nobel Peace Prize: In God's Country
Nobel Peace Prize nominees Bono and Pope John Paul II both use a gift for pleasing crowds in fighting the good fight
August 30, 2003
Four years ago Bono and Pope John Paul II struck-up a double act that played around the globe. The pair improvised their knockabout routine before a starstruck media in the Pope's mountaintop retreat, Castel Gandolfo. The banter really sparked when the Pontiff posed in the singer's trademark wraparound shades.
There was also a serious side to the encounter. Bono and his delegation were seeking Papal blessing for the Drop the Debt campaign which called on governments and big business to tear up the IOUs of crippled Third World states. As the audience wound down, Bono reminded His Holiness that it was exactly 20 years since his momentous visit to Ireland. The Pope needed no telling. "It was September 1979," he nodded. To mark the anniversary, Bono produced a leather-bound edition of the works of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.
Four years on, Bono and the Pope have both been nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, although not jointly, and not necessarily in relation to the continuing Drop the Debt campaign. There are indications that Bono's nomination is primarily linked to his efforts in AIDS prevention, but it's certain that his sponsors will have asked for other good works to be taken into consideration.
The reason all this sounds vague is that vagueness and secrecy are mixed into the bedrock of the Nobel Foundation. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, decreed in his will that the Peace Award should go to "those who, during the preceding year, should have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind -- who shall have done the most or best work for fraternity between nations" and so on. It's a tall, and very broad, order.
Of course, every so often, events serve-up an obvious winner on a silver platter, as happened when John Hume and David Trimble shared the million dollar honour in 1998, just six months after delivering the Good Friday Agreement. But world peace rarely runs to schedules and most years the five judges must decide who, out of a whole bunch of worthies (165 this year), is most deserving of possibly the world's most prestigious award.
The judges are bound to secrecy as to how they weigh up the contenders. Indeed, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation insist that all parties to the process, including the nominees and their sponsors, should keep mum about their involvement. Candidates must be nominated in writing, and in strict confidentiality, by a competent person. Competent persons include members of national governments, international courts, universities and former Nobel winners. Alfred Nobel was a Swede, and the four academic Nobel Prizes are decided in Sweden. However, he left the Peace Prize in Norwegian hands. The Norwegians, for their part, have placed the honour in the sort of protective custody that the Italians did the Papacy up to the arrival of John Paul II. Norwegian MPs figure strongly in the vetting committee which is appointed by Norwegian MPs.
While the judges abide by the secrecy rule, some sponsors breach it with apparent impunity. We know, for example, that France's Jacques Chirac was nominated this year by three Costa Ricans, and that the death penalty abolitionist George Ryan was nominated by Law professor Francis Boyle. A complete news blackout might have seemed proper a century ago but without these breaches of protocol there would be no build-up: the planet's most prestigious awards would be a one-day wonder.
So the rules and culture of the Nobel Foundation ensure that we can only guess at how Bono or the Pope will measure up. Less mystery surrounds the qualities that got the pair nominated in the first place. There's little to be gained by running a ruler over their respective good works or saintliness. For one thing, doing good is the Pope's full-time occupation, while Bono holds down a busy day job with U2. Suffice to say that both are deeply committed to fighting the good fight, as they see it.
Bono and the Pope were nominated for the Peace Prize not just because they're trying to make the world a better place but because they're global A-list celebrities trying to make the world a better place. This isn't a put-down to them, or their sponsors, it's simply a reflection of the fundamental change in the role and nature of celebrity over recent decades.
In an age of comparative plenty, when a majority have a car, a fridge and a mobile phone, the task of the car, fridge and phone industries is to keep creating fresh demand or go to the wall. Celebrities have become the centre of our world, the economic engine selling the intangibles of life such as glamour, sexiness or credibility in the form of perfumes, cars or replica football shirts.
In this confusing, ever-changing world, the Pope and Bono dispense the most coveted and elusive intangibles of all: certainty and purpose and belief. They do this by sharing some remarkably similar traits. The Pope is a churchman who embraced showbiz while Bono is a showman who embraced faith. Both have done so with a messianic clasp.
These are traits which they clearly recognise in each other. When they traded lines in Castel Gandolfo, Bono told John Paul: "You're a great showman as well as a great holy man." However, the Pope's showmanship was born out of dire necessity.
When he was elevated in 1978, it was plain to John Paul that he'd been put in charge of Catholic Church facing a dangerous crisis of faith. Vatican II had opened the door on a new era of "open" Catholicism where the faithful could pick and choose the articles they felt comfortable with, ignore the rest, and still remain within the fold.
Catholics were abandoning the notion of doctrinal certainty for the alternative doctrine of do-your-own-thing and John Paul could see the road to ruin ahead. If Catholics felt they could make their own rules, the Vatican might as well start shutting-up shop. In an inspired move, the Pope turned to showbiz to meet the challenge.
For readers under the age of 35, it might be hard to appreciate the utter transformation which John Paul II worked on the Papacy. For centuries, Popes were heard but rarely seen. They lived like timid curators of Rome's most splendid museum. In order to reassert the authority of Rome, John Paul II took his Roman Circus to the people, trailblazing the globe and drawing monster carnival crowds.
Bono too, has always felt that he was on a mission from God. Indeed, Destiny appears to have been on his side since even before birth. Early in their marriage, Bono's parents went on holiday to Sligo, where his mother visited a fortune teller who predicted that Mrs. Hewson would have two children and that one would have the initial P and would be famous.
Aged 20, Bono wrote to his father about "offering each day up to God, meeting in the morning for prayers, readings, and letting God work in our lives -- I hope our lives will be a testament to the people who follow us and to the music business where never before have so many lost and sorrowful people gathered in one place pretending to have a good time."
Bono and John Paul share more than a deep-rooted messianic streak. Both are control freaks. The Pope has devoted his entire Papacy to reining in liberation theology, ala carte Catholicism and any other challenge to the absolute authority of the Vatican. In 1990 he made a gagging order, aimed at liberal theologians, which said that no one could disagree with the Vatican and that, furthermore, no one could disagree with the Vatican when it said that that no one could disagree with the Vatican.
Bono too, has repeatedly displayed an urge to control everything around him. Tellingly, U2's very first single was a jittery cry of panic about being "Out of Control." A craving for control usually comes with deep reserves of certainty, and neither Bono nor the Pope lack for that. Indeed, both possess a righteousness that can lead them to sometimes alienate even their most loyal disciples.
During U2's Zooropa tour, which coincided with the Bosnian genocide, Bono insisted on interrupting concerts and subjecting audiences to a big-screen lecture from a Bosnian woman about the horrors of that conflict. It wasn't what people had paid-in for, Larry Mullen and others in the U2 camp told Bono it was inappropriate, but the frontman insisted on ramming home the message. Similarly, last month's vicious tirade from the Vatican against gays showed once again that this Pope is willing to cause offence for his convictions.
The likeness between Bono and the Pope extends to the fact that they're both sitting on sizeable fortunes, they're both in the happy position of paying very little tax, and yet they have both lectured governments on dropping Third World debts which, if that ever happens, will come out of the pockets of regular taxpayers.
Even some U2 fans find this a bit rich, to judge from notices posted on websites. Even among devotees, there's a wave of opinion that the Peace Prize is a garland too far for Bono and that a win for him would devalue the award.
But would it really? A win for Bono, unlikely as it is, would be fully in keeping with the intentions of the very first Nobel committees. It was decided from the outset that Nobel Prizes would, initially, be heaped on big shots of the various disciplines. The thinking was that, by honouring well-established and well-known figures, the Nobel Prizes would gain added value by association. It's an idea that has come centre-stage in today's celebrity driven world.
In the end, though, it will all be decided behind closed doors by a small group of people with absolute power to bin all external nominations and select one of their own, or to decide not to make any award at all.
The Pope, for one, would surely approve.
© Irish Independent, 2003.