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November 1, 2005 -- Mark Satin, EditorBono: The very model
of a modern statesman
by John Avlon
Maybe it's time to redefine the word "statesman."
Elected leaders have been letting us down -- the art of winning converts is being replaced by preaching to the choir. Getting appointed to high office looks more like a reward for loyalty to a particular inner circle instead of loyalty to the larger public good.
But in the cross-pollination between politics and culture, new heroes are emerging who retain the ability to inspire across party lines.
Their moral authority is not handed down from on high with an official government post, but pulled up from the grassroots through the passionate logic of their argument. They break down walls by using the weapons of technology and celebrity, reaching so called "ordinary people" and inspiring them to think extraordinary thoughts about their ability to build a better world through pragmatic action.
These are the statesmen of the 21st Century, surfing the contradictions and elevating our sense of responsibility.
Enter Sachs and Bono
Last month (October 5) an unlikely pair of modern-day statesmen appeared at NYU to kick off the first annual Daniel Patrick Moynihan lecture: Earth Institute economist Jeffrey Sachs and his self-described "groupie," Bono, the lead singer of U2.
The packed audience was a combination of blue pinstripe suits and blue-jeans, boots and wing tips -- proving for once that the phrase "sold out lecture" does not have to be an oxymoron.
Their message was an extension of the rhetorical drumbeat that has brought these two from Africa to Davos to the White House -- the need for the Western world to eliminate the "stupid poverty" that is leading to millions of African deaths each year from starvation and preventable disease.
Their personal diplomacy has already won unexpected allies, from Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson to Tom Hanks, Tony Blair, and P. Diddy. On U2's current American concert tour, the band has signed up two million people to support the “One Campaign to Make Poverty History.”
Mr. Sachs described Bono's efforts as fresh evidence that "left and right can come together and go right down the middle to solve problems."
On this night, Bono played the role of opening act to Professor Sachs's main event, but they were both singing from the same script.
Mr. Sachs said the goal was "to do something useful and use politics and economics to achieve it." He said he wants to stop the "silent holocaust" occurring in Africa.
This is not a matter of simple debt relief or emergency food aid, but a question of giving Africans the basic tools to help lift themselves out of poverty -- irrigation pumps, seed and fertilizer, bricks and mortar, a truck, a trained doctor and anti-retroviral drugs. He points to the fact that an estimated 3 million Africans die each year of malaria -- a treatable disease that can be prevented with a simple $7 medicated mosquito net that covers a bed.
"We are only by neglect leaving millions to die each year," said Professor Sachs. "We are the first generation that can end extreme poverty. And since it can be done, we have to do it. Because if we don't we will so diminish the value of life on this planet that we will put our children and their children at basic risks."
Such an effort is not cheap, but neither is it endlessly expensive -- the manual irrigation pumps that Professor Sachs referenced cost about $40 dollars and last for years. They can provide fresh water to a village and help sustain crop development, putting a village out of the shadow of death and toward self-sufficiency. The contemplated total bill for this basic development of the African continent is 0.17% of western nations' GDP, or about $300 billion for the United States.
Not the Great Society
This price tag may remind fiscally responsible eyes of the Great Society's failed War on Poverty. All the signs are there -- longish-haired rock-stars protesting with academics to have the American middle class roped into giving their money to folks mired in poverty.
But this comparison breaks down quickly. Bono and Sachs are making the argument for the outreach in practical as well as moral terms; their itemized solutions are of the "hand-up" rather than the "hand-out" variety. They are determined to learn from well-intentioned mistakes of the past.
To judge the comparative cost, consider that the Bush administration's non-military discretionary spending is already higher than Lyndon Johnson's, but with less obvious impact.
And if we agree with the president that high spending is justifiable in the pursuit of winning a war that would bring greater peace and security to the world, then this global investment also appears wise -- an African Marshall Plan to win the hearts and minds of the developing world, on a continent where Osama is an increasingly popular first name.
A Nobel for Bono?
Because the winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize hadn’t been announced October 5, the crowd buzzed with the rumor that Bono was on the short-list for the award.
He would have made an excellent choice. Instead of using his stage to indulge in 1970s excesses he has transformed it into an unexpected bully pulpit, inspiring people to reach toward an enlivening, enlightened self interest. By working to organize diverse groups of people into common moral cause, he is the model of a modern statesman.
As Bono said that night, "I can't -- but we can -- change the world."
John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001. He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).
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