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John Lennon vs. Bono: The death of the celebrity activist

"My job is to be used. I am here to be used," he told The Washington Post. "It's just, at what price? As I keep saying, I'm not a cheap date."

While Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong, he does not identify the wrongdoers. Instead, he buys into technocratic illusions about the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it, who oppresses and who is oppressed. He runs with the crowd that believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise - doing things such as expanding food yields with nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants or solar-powered drip irrigation.

These are fine moves as far as they go, but why have Bono champion them? The technocratic approach puts him in the position of a wonk, not a dissident; an expert, not a crusader. (Little wonder that he hasn't cranked out a musical hit related to his activism. It's hard to imagine "Beautiful Day When We Meet the MDG Targets by 2015.") Can you imagine Lennon passing himself off as an authority on the intricacies of Vietnamese politics and history? His message was simpler: This war is wrong.

Bono is not the only well-intentioned celebrity wonk of our age - the impulse is ubiquitous. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (seriously) in addition to serving as a U.N. goodwill ambassador. Ben Affleck has become an expert on the war in Congo. George Clooney has Sudan covered, while Leonardo DiCaprio hobnobs with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders at a summit to protect tigers; both actors have written opinion essays on those subjects in these pages, further solidifying their expert bona fides.

But why should we pay attention to Bono's or Jolie's expertise on Africa, any more than we would ask them for guidance on the proper monetary policy for the Federal Reserve?

True dissidents - celebrity or not - play a vital role in democracy. But the celebrity desire to gain political power and social approval breeds intellectual conformity, precisely the opposite of what we need to achieve real changes. Politicians, intellectuals and the public can fall prey to groupthink (We must invade Vietnam to keep the dominoes from falling!) and need dissidents to shake them out of it.

True dissidents claim no expertise; they offer no 10-point plans to fix a problem. They are most effective when they simply assert that the status quo is morally wrong. Of course, they need to be noticed to have an impact, hence the historical role of dissidents such as Lennon who can use their celebrity to be heard.

We're hardly starved of moral challenges for our leaders today, in an age that has witnessed Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and enduring wars with unclear objectives and the clearest of casualties. On Bono's signature issue of poverty, for instance, why not call out a few of the oppressive regimes that keep their people impoverished - as well as the leaders, in the United States and elsewhere, who have supported them with economic and military aid? (Bono has acknowledged that "tinpot dictators" were a problem for aid efforts in the past but has not confronted today's despots and their enablers in rich nations.)

We need more high-profile dissidents to challenge mainstream power. This makes it all the sadder that Bono and many other celebrities only reinforce this power in their capacity as faux experts. Where have all the celebrity dissidents gone? It's not a complicated task. All Lennon was saying was to give peace a chance.

William Easterly is a professor of economics at New York University and co-director of NYU's Development Research Institute. He is the author of "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.


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