Are the Generation’
Text of Bono’s speech last weekend at the University of Pennsylvania.
Because We Can, We Must
‘My name is Bono and I am a rock star. Don't get me too excited because I use
four letter words when I get excited. I'd just like to say to the parents, your
children are safe, your country is safe, the FCC has taught me a lesson and the
only four letter word I'm going to use today is P-E-N-N. Come to think of it
'Bono' is a four-letter word. The whole business of obscenity--I don't think
there's anything certainly more unseemly than the sight of a rock star in
academic robes. It's a bit like when people put their King Charles spaniels in
little tartan sweats and hats. It's not natural, and it doesn't make the dog any
It's true we were here before with U2 and I would like to thank them for giving
me a great life, as well as you. I've got a great rock and roll band that
normally stand in the back when I'm talking to thousands of people in a football
stadium and they were here with me, I think it was seven years ago. Actually
then I was with some other sartorial problems. I was wearing a mirror-ball suit
at the time and I emerged from a forty-foot high revolving lemon. It was sort of
a cross between a space ship, a disco and a plastic fruit.
I guess it was at that point when your Trustees decided to give me their highest
honor. Doctor of Laws, wow! I know it's an honor, and it really is an honor, but
are you sure? Doctor of Law, all I can think about is the laws I've broken. Laws
of nature, laws of physics, laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and on a
memorable night in the late seventies, I think it was Newton's law of motion...sickness.
No, it's true, my resume reads like a rap sheet. I have to come clean; I've
broken a lot of laws, and the ones I haven't I've certainly thought about. I
have sinned in thought, word, and deed. God forgive me. Actually God forgave me,
but why would you? I'm here getting a doctorate, getting respectable, getting in
the good graces of the powers that be, I hope it sends you students a powerful
message: Crime does pay.
So I humbly accept the honor, keeping in mind the words of a British playwright,
John Mortimer it was, "No brilliance is needed in the law. Nothing but common
sense and relatively clean fingernails." Well at best I've got one of the two of
But no, I never went to college, I've slept in some strange places, but the
library wasn't one of them. I studied rock and roll and I grew up in Dublin in
the '70s, music was an alarm bell for me, it woke me up to the world. I was 17
when I first saw The Clash, and it just sounded like revolution. The Clash were
like, "This is a public service announcement--with guitars." I was the kid in
the crowd who took it at face value. Later I learned that a lot of the rebels
were in it for the T-shirt. They'd wear the boots but they wouldn't march.
They'd smash bottles on their heads but they wouldn't go to something more
painful like a town hall meeting. By the way I felt like that myself until
I didn't expect change to come so slow, so agonizingly slow. I didn't realize
that the biggest obstacle to political and social progress wasn't the Free
Masons, or the Establishment, or the boot heal of whatever you consider 'the Man'
to be, it was something much more subtle. As the Provost just referred to, a
combination of our own indifference and the Kafkaesque labyrinth of 'no's you
encounter as people vanish down the corridors of bureaucracy.
So for better or worse that was my education. I came away with a clear sense of
the difference music could make in my own life, in other peoples' lives if I did
my job right. Which if you're a singer in a rock band means avoiding the obvious
pitfalls like, say, a mullet hairdo. If anyone here doesn't know what a mullet
is by the way your education's certainly not complete, I'd ask for your money
back. For a lead singer like me, a mullet is, I would suggest, arguably more
dangerous than a drug problem. Yes, I had a mullet in the '80s.
Now this is the point where the members of the faculty start smiling
uncomfortably and thinking maybe they should have offered me the honorary
bachelors degree instead of the full blown doctorate, (he should have been the
bachelor's one, he's talking about mullets and stuff). If they're asking what on
earth I'm doing here, I think it's a fair question. What am I doing here? More
to the point: what are you doing here? Because if you don't mind me saying so
this is a strange ending to an Ivy League education. Four years in these
historic halls thinking great thoughts and now you're sitting in a stadium
better suited for football listening to an Irish rock star give a speech that is
so far mostly about himself. What are you doing here?
Actually I saw something in the paper last week about Kermit the Frog giving a
commencement address somewhere. One of the students was complaining, "I worked
my ass off for four years to be addressed by a sock?" You have worked your ass
off for this. For four years you've been buying, trading, and selling,
everything you've got in this marketplace of ideas. The intellectual hustle.
Your pockets are full, even if your parents' are empty, and now you've got to
figure out what to spend it on.
Well, the going rate for change is not cheap. Big ideas are expensive. The
University has had its share of big ideas. Benjamin Franklin had a few, so did
Justice Brennen and in my opinion so does Judith Rodin. What a gorgeous girl.
They all knew that if you're gonna be good at your word if you're gonna live up
to your ideals and your education, its' gonna cost you.
So my question I suppose is: What's the big idea? What's your big idea? What are
you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash,
your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of
There's a truly great Irish poet his name is Brendan Kennelly, and he has this
epic poem called the Book of Judas, and there's a line in that poem that never
leaves my mind, it says: "If you want to serve the age, betray it." What does
that mean to betray the age?
Well to me betraying the age means exposing its conceits, it's foibles; it's
phony moral certitudes. It means telling the secrets of the age and facing
Every age has its massive moral blind spots. We might not see them, but our
children will. Slavery was one of them and the people who best served that age
were the ones who called it as it was--which was ungodly and inhuman. Ben
Franklin called it what it was when he became president of the Pennsylvania
Segregation. There was another one. America sees this now but it took a civil
rights movement to betray their age. And 50 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court
betrayed the age May 17, 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education came down and put
the lie to the idea that separate can ever really be equal. Amen to that.
Fast forward 50 years. May 17, 2004. What are the ideas right now worth
betraying? What are the lies we tell ourselves now? What are the blind spots of
our age? What's worth spending your post-Penn lives trying to do or undo? It
might be something simple.
It might be something as simple as our deep down refusal to believe that every
human life has equal worth. Could that be it? Could that be it? Each of you will
probably have your own answer, but for me that is it. And for me the proving
ground has been Africa.
Africa makes a mockery of what we say, at least what I say, about equality and
questions our pieties and our commitments because there's no way to look at
what's happening over there and it's effect on all of us and conclude that we
actually consider Africans as our equals before God. There is no chance.
An amazing event happened here in Philadelphia in 1985--Live Aid--that whole We
Are The World phenomenon the concert that happened here. Well after that concert
I went to Ethiopia with my wife, Ali. We were there for a month and an
extraordinary thing happened to me. We used to wake up in the morning and the
mist would be lifting we'd see thousands and thousands of people who'd been
walking all night to our food station were we were working. One man--I was
standing outside talking to the translator--had this beautiful boy and he was
saying to me in Amharic, I think it was, I said I can't understand what he's
saying, and this nurse who spoke English and Amharic said to me, he's saying
will you take his son. He's saying please take his son, he would be a great son
for you. I was looking puzzled and he said, "You must take my son because if you
don't take my son, my son will surely die. If you take him he will go back to
Ireland and get an education." Probably like the ones we're talking about today.
I had to say no, that was the rules there and I walked away from that man, I've
never really walked away from it. But I think about that boy and that man and
that's when I started this journey that's brought me here into this stadium.
Because at that moment I became the worst scourge on God's green earth, a rock
star with a cause. Christ! Except it isn't the cause. Seven thousand Africans
dying every day of preventable, treatable disease like AIDS? That's not a cause,
that's an emergency. And when the disease gets out of control because most of
the population live on less than one dollar a day? That's not a cause, that's an
emergency. And when resentment builds because of unfair trade rules and the
burden of unfair debt, that are debts by the way that keep Africans poor? That's
not a cause, that's an emergency. So--We Are The World, Live Aid, start me off
it was an extraordinary thing and really that event was about charity. But 20
years on I'm not that interested in charity. I'm interested in justice. There's
a difference. Africa needs justice as much as it needs charity.
Equality for Africa is a big idea. It's a big expensive idea. I see the Wharton
graduates now getting out the math on the back of their programs, numbers are
intimidating aren't they, but not to you! But the scale of the suffering and the
scope of the commitment they often numb us into a kind of indifference. Wishing
for the end to AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa is like wishing that gravity
didn't make things so damn heavy. We can wish it, but what the hell can we do
about it? Well, more than we think. We can't fix every problem--corruption,
natural calamities are part of the picture here--but the ones we can we must.
The debt burden, as I say, unfair trade, as I say, sharing our knowledge, the
intellectual copyright for lifesaving drugs in a crisis, we can do that. And
because we can, we must. Because we can, we must. Amen.
This is the straight truth, the righteous truth. It's not a theory, it's a fact.
The fact is that this generation--yours, my generation--that can look at the
poverty, we're the first generation that can look at poverty and disease, look
across the ocean to Africa and say with a straight face, we can be the first to
end this sort of stupid extreme poverty, where in the world of plenty, a child
can die for lack of food in it's belly. We can be the first generation. It might
take a while, but we can be that generation that says no to stupid poverty. It's
a fact, the economists confirm it. It's an expensive fact but, cheaper thansay
the Marshall Plan that saved Europe from communism and fascism. And cheaper I
would argue than fighting wave after wave of terrorism's new recruits. That's
the economics department over there, very good.
It's a fact. So why aren't we pumping our fists in the air and cheering about it?
Well probably because when we admit we can do something about it, we've got to
do something about it. For the first time in history we have the know how, we
have the cash, we have the lifesaving drugs, but do we have the will?
Yesterday, here in Philadelphia, at the Liberty Bell, I met a lot of Americans
who do have the will. >From arch-religious conservatives to young secular
radicals, I just felt an incredible overpowering sense that this was possible.
We're calling it the ONE campaign, to put an end to AIDS and extreme poverty in
Africa. They believe we can do it, so do I.
I really, really do believe it. I just want you to know, I think this is obvious,
but I'm not really going in for the warm fuzzy feeling thing, I'm not a hippy, I
do not have flowers in my hair, I come from punk rock, The Clash wore army boots
not Birkenstocks. I believe America can do this! I believe that this generation
can do this. In fact I want to hear an argument about why we shouldn't.
I know idealism is not playing on the radio right now, you don't see it on TV,
irony is on heavy rotation, the knowingness, the smirk, the tired joke. I've
tried them all out but I'll tell you this, outside this campus--and even inside
it--idealism is under siege beset by materialism, narcissism and all the other
isms of indifference. Baggism, Shaggism. Raggism. Notism, graduationism,
chismism, I don't know. Where's John Lennon when you need him.
But I don't want to make you cop to idealism, not in front of your parents, or
your younger siblings. But what about Americanism? Will you cop to that at least?
It's not everywhere in fashion these days, Americanism. Not very big in Europe,
truth be told. No less on Ivy League college campuses. But it all depends on
your definition of Americanism.
Me, I'm in love with this country called America. I'm a huge fan of America, I'm
one of those annoying fans, you know the ones that read the CD notes and follow
you into bathrooms and ask you all kinds of annoying questions about why you
didn't live up to that.
I'm that kind of fan. I read the Declaration of Independence and I've read the
Constitution of the United States, and they are some liner notes, dude. As I
said yesterday I made my pilgrimage to Independence Hall, and I love America
because America is not just a country, it's an idea. You see my country, Ireland,
is a great country, but it's not an idea. America is an idea, but it's an idea
that brings with it some baggage, like power brings responsibility. It's an idea
that brings with it equality, but equality even though it's the highest calling,
is the hardest to reach. The idea that anything is possible, that's one of the
reasons why I'm a fan of America. It's like hey, look there's the moon up there,
lets take a walk on it, bring back a piece of it. That's the kind of America
that I'm a fan of.
In 1771 your founder Mr. Franklin spent three months in Ireland and Scotland to
look at the relationship they had with England to see if this could be a model
for America, whether America should follow their example and remain a part of
the British Empire.
Franklin was deeply, deeply distressed by what he saw. In Ireland he saw how
England had put a stranglehold on Irish trade, how absentee English landlords
exploited Irish tenant farmers and how those farmers in Franklin's words "lived
in retched hovels of mud and straw, were clothed in rags and subsisted chiefly
on potatoes." Not exactly the American dream...
So instead of Ireland becoming a model for America, America became a model for
Ireland in our own struggle for independence.
When the potatoes ran out, millions of Irish men, women and children packed
their bags got on a boat and showed up right here. And we're still doing it.
We're not even starving anymore, loads of potatoes. In fact if there's any Irish
out there, I've breaking news from Dublin, the potato famine is over you can
come home now. But why are we still showing up? Because we love the idea of
We love the crackle and the hustle, we love the spirit that gives the finger to
fate, the spirit that says there's no hurdle we can't clear and no problem we
can't fix. (sound of helicopter) Oh, here comes the Brits, only joking. No
problem we can't fix. So what's the problem that we want to apply all this
energy and intellect to?
Every era has its defining struggle and the fate of Africa is one of ours. It's
not the only one, but in the history books it's easily going to make the top
five, what we did or what we did not do. It's a proving ground, as I said
earlier, for the idea of equality. But whether it's this or something else, I
hope you'll pick a fight and get in it. Get your boots dirty, get rough, steel
your courage with a final drink there at Smoky Joe's, one last primal scream and
Sing the melody line you hear in your own head, remember, you don't owe anybody
any explanations, you don't owe your parents any explanations, you don't owe
your professors any explanations. You know I used to think the future was solid
or fixed, something you inherited like an old building that you move into when
the previous generation moves out or gets chased out.
But it's not. The future is not fixed, it's fluid. You can build your own
building, or hut or condo, whatever; this is the metaphor part of the speech by
But my point is that the world is more malleable than you think and it's waiting
for you to hammer it into shape. Now if I were a folksinger I'd immediately
launch into "If I Had a Hammer" right now get you all singing and swaying. But
as I say I come from punk rock, so I'd rather have the bloody hammer right here
in my fist.
That's what this degree of yours is, a blunt instrument. So go forth and build
something with it. Remember what John Adams said about Ben Franklin, "He does
not hesitate at our boldest Measures but rather seems to think us too irresolute."
Well this is the time for bold measures. This is the country, and you are the
generation. Thank you.’