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"It's the most un-rock 'n' roll thing you could do, so I never ever talked about it, but that was actually my obsession before rock-and-roll." — Bono, on playing chess

Column: off the record ..., vol. 12-536


off the record, from @U2

As I write this week's OTR, Bono is jetting around Europe, discussing the need for greater transparency within oil and gas companies. On behalf of the ONE campaign, he and Bill Gates have met with the top leaders of Germany, France and England. The two are asking that each country demand stricter rules about the production of gas and oil, because bad policies and practices have led to the unjust treatment of poor workers in developing nations.

It sounds like Bono is back working at his second career. Have you ever heard him talk about judo as a way of describing this kind of activity? I have, and it's struck me as an odd metaphor for living the life of a rock star. Until recently.

I've been studying tai chi for the last six months and I've learned something about Bono's philosophy of life. Both tai chi and judo are martial arts, and though they have different origins (tai chi in China and judo in Japan), they have at least one thing in common. They each work at defeating an opponent by turning the strength of the adversary into a weakness.

The tai chi masters instruct students to "invest in loss" and "yield to others." Doesn't sound very aggressive, does it? That's the point. An enemy can be brought down with very little effort if done correctly. As an art, tai chi "spurns both bravery and force." The master Cheng Man-Cheng offers this advice:

When a tai chi expert meets an opponent who strikes at him, he neither resists nor counters the blow. Instead, he yields before the force, thus taking advantage of his opponent's momentum ... so the opponent is thrown to the ground. This is how a mere four ounces can topple a thousand pounds. The four ounces do not defeat the thousand pounds, but rather cause the heavier force to defeat itself.

Bono has used the judo motif many times in the last few years. As the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby rolled around, he reflected back on the Zoo TV tour with this idea in mind. In the early 90s, living under intense hostile media scrutiny (largely due to the wild success of The Joshua Tree and the relative failure of Rattle And Hum), U2 looked for a new approach as they headed into a Berlin recording studio. In one interview, Bono remembers, "We decided to call our sort of modus operandi in making the record judo, which is to use the force that is coming at you to protect yourself -- which, for us, meant taking the media and all the stuff that we felt had turned us into caricatures, and transforming it into another kind of force and having fun with it." In another interview he reiterates, "With Zoo TV, it was more us asking ourselves, 'What are we afraid of here? Our image? So, let's have some fun with image-making.' We called it judo at the time, the notion of using the force that was used against you."

I'm so glad they took this route and didn't try to defend or prove themselves. As a result, U2 discovered irony, came up with characters like The Fly, MacPhisto and Mirror Ball Man, produced one of the best albums of their career and traveled the globe on the not-so-subtle Zoo TV tour using media to critique media in unprecedented ways.

But Bono has also used judo as a metaphor for describing his philanthropic work. That's the point behind the (Red) campaign. A 2007 Vanity Fair article helps us understand:

"[The (Red) campaign] is judo strategy," adds Bono, "using the strength of your opponent to overthrow him." In this case the "opponent" is a criminally imbalanced world economy, where the residents of developed nations live in luxury while those of poor countries are lucky to scrape by. As Bono said at an N.A.A.C.P. event last year, "Where you live should not determine whether you live or die."

During the 2008 Millennial Development Goals summit, Bono was asked what it was like to meet with the world's most distinguished leaders and dignitaries. His answer: "Judo in a suit." I love that response. As is typical, Bono knows how to dress for the party, but the strategy he uses isn't status quo.

I wonder what would happen if we'd all apply the judo or tai chi principle a bit more often. I'm willing to give it a shot!

I know some people just tune out when the subject of Bono's philanthropic and political activity is brought up, but I find it fascinating (if you've read this far I'm guessing you might as well). Evidently, the business world has taken note. I recently had an odd but related "off the record" moment.

My wife is working on a masters degree in business administration and is reading a text book titled Global Marketing by Keegan and Green. Guess who shows up on page 60? I thought you might enjoy reading what these economists had to say: "When he's not fronting the world's greatest rock band, U2's Bono promotes debt cancellation for developing countries as a means of fostering sound economic policies." The authors then give a quick summary of Bono's work with DATA, the ONE campaign, EDUN Apparel and the (Red) campaign. They note that his work has been ethical, benevolent and collaborative, resulting in numerous positive global outcomes.

Now that's a cool text book!

Continuing on the theme of Bono's activism, I was in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago and I got to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. It was extremely moving, especially at night. Surrounded by a myriad of his own quotes etched in a granite wall, the massive rock sculpture of King was powerful. It was inspiring to read his words.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

"It is not enough to say 'We must not wage war.' It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace."

In an interview with Rolling Stone (November 3, 2005), Bono talked about "Pride (In The Name Of Love)." He recalled that the chorus was written first, but needed a subject big enough for the emotion of the song. King, an activist who has influenced U2 since the early 80s, became the focus. The band often references King's teachings of love and nonviolent protest while performing the song. "Pride" has become an enduring anthem, a symbol of something much bigger than the band themselves. Let's sing together, "Free at last, they took your life, they could not take your pride!"

Hmm, perhaps MLK knew a bit of judo.

(c) @U2, 2012.