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"I've never thought of myself as U2's drummer but rather a contributor to the overall sound." — Larry

Column: off the record..., vol. 13-573


off the record, from @U2

I have a running exchange with my friend Susan about what disappoints us about U2. Generally, I try to avoid these kinds of discussions about the band because I feel like I am betraying friends, questioning their judgment and gossiping behind their backs. That is ridiculous, of course; I don't have any right to hold them to a higher standard nor do four strangers owe me anything for my thirty years of attention.

Although I would never engage a non-fan about the subjects of my cynicism for fear of becoming tongue tied or unconvincing or both, still the disappointments abound: U2's purported tax evasion, The Edge's proposed Malibu mansions development, Bono's support of Monsanto in Africa. Granted, these headlines might not bother everyone, but they bother Sue and me enough that we must remind ourselves that activism and self-interest aren't mutually exclusive and that being a U2 fan means sometimes overlooking the specifically distasteful and frustrating in order to focus on the broader humanitarian gains.

It is primarily for this reason that I was pleased to see Bono address the issue of U2's tax status during Tuesday night's broadcast of The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne. In a frank conversation with one of country's most influential and respected television personalities, Bono called it very "churlish" of his countrymen to be critical of U2 acting like a business. He described Ireland as a "small rock" which greatly benefitted from low corporate tax rates through the late 1990s thus saving the economy from drowning. He went on to argue that while critics might call U2's philanthropic involvement "idealistic" (he thinks it is "pragmatic"), it is entirely unrelated to good business sense. In essence, the band is where it is today as a result of rigorous management ("Paul McGuinness is the Winston Churchill of rock") and praiseworthy administration. The path U2 has followed is not only legal, he emphasized, it is within "the spirit of the law."

In his explanation, I felt a personal rebuttal to my concerns about U2's tax status and I am glad he got a chance to have his say unmediated by obvious editorial bias. I wanted Byrne to give Bono the opportunity to address people's G8 and Monsanto concerns, but one hour isn't enough time to placate every fan's wish. I know the difficulty of solving famine is a complex one and that genetically modified seeds could help the continent withstand drought, but sometimes my first world sensibility gets in the way of my practical sense. All in all, I have been duly put in my place.

As I write this, Nelson Mandela, 94, remains in critical but stable condition in a Pretoria hospital. Like U2, Mandela was a great influence on my life. In many ways, I am who I am today as a result of the lessons I learned from his fight against Apartheid.

Foremost, I am not afraid to criticize authority. In fact, some may argue I relish it a little too much. Next, I try to fight on the side of fairness and justice even when the odds of winning are insurmountable. At times, that has led to great disappointment, but at least I retain the satisfaction that I did the best I could with the resources I had. Lastly, I try to teach by example. Although I have never in my life found cause to exercise civil disobedience on the same scale as Mandela encouraged in South Africa, I won't ask my students or friends to do something that I couldn't or wouldn't do myself, whether it's the length of a reading assignment or a paper project. Fair is fair. 

As the retrospectives of Mandela's life emerge, I am reminded of the first 46664 Concert on November 29, 2003 in Cape Town. Mandela was the 466th prisoner to arrive at Robben Island in 1964, thus bore the title "Prisoner 46664" for the twenty years (1962-1982) he served in that prison. Bono and Joe Strummer wrote "46664" for Mandela to raise awareness of the campaign against HIV/AIDS in South Africa. The phrase "the long walk to freedom" from the song seems particularly apt as Mandela embarks on his final journey in this life. I am grateful to have witnessed the end of the Apartheid era and to have watched Mandela lead South Africa into a period of national reconciliation. My thoughts are with him and his family at this sad time.

Despite these heavy subjects, my lighter contemplations this week have come as the result of discovering the "official" Twitter feeds of inanimate objects, namely @WendyDavisShoes, the spunky Mizuno Wave Riders worn by Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis during her filibuster in the Texas Senate on Tuesday night and @ontopofadam, the wry, disembodied voice of Adam Clayton's ever-changing hair style. Whoever comes up with these things is much sharper than I am. I can only aspire to that kind of brilliance.

(c) @U2, 2013.