Skip to content

Lennon vs. Bono

I watched last night a remarkable documentary on the life of John Lennon called “Imagine.” For my generation, it’s pretty much automatic that Lennon is our hero, and I am no different.

But then I thought, do I have a double standard? I criticize celebrity musicians today like Bono for taking on a role like “Africa expert,” because we would never put rock stars in charge of say, Federal Reserve Policy. Yet Lennon was also a politically active celebrity rock star – why shouldn’t I make the same criticism of his career?

Well, I still think there is a big difference between Lennon and Bono. Lennon’s anti-war activities courageously challenged the power of the status quo, so much so that he was frequently harassed by the police and FBI.  Bono’s support of aid to Africa and the MDGs is more like a feel-good consensus that does NOT challenge Power. Celebrity counter-weight to established power seems much more constructive than celebrity expert.

Bono did photo ops with George W. Bush; Lennon doing a photo op with Richard Nixon would have been inconceivable.

Lennon had a real impact protesting the Viet Nam war. Where are Bono and today’s other celebrity activists on the injustices and human rights violations of the War on Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay?

This entry was posted in Badvocacy and celebs, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Kevin wrote:

    they’re both phony. ‘Imagine’ is mediocre, and the rest of Lennon’s songs are pubescent hormone-raging teen bops. Bono’s never said anything worth hearing.

    Give me more Bob Dylan.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:28 am | Permalink
  2. Sean Murphy wrote:

    Mr Easterly, you forget that John Lennon died when he was aged 40. If it had not been
    for Mr Chapman’s gun I’m sure Lennon would have eased effortlessly into the role
    of doyen celebrity globe-trotting philanthropic humanitarian also.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 1:28 am | Permalink
  3. tyronen wrote:

    Lennon showed little sign of a deep understanding of the Cold War and its issues. He never really went past simple slogans. Bono, on the other hand, is legendary for his attention to detail and careful study of poverty and development. You don’t have to agree with his conclusions, but he makes Lennon look like a lightweight.

    (What’s wrong with rock stars using their celebrity to draw attention to world issues anyway? I’d rather have one Bono than a dozen Lindsay Lohans.)

    And Bono’s isn’t the safe, establishment position. Yours is. And you are winning.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  4. Thomas Young wrote:

    The main problem I have with Bono is that he advocates debt reduction and more governmental support from the first world to the third world. However when Ireland moved to restrict the tax relief for artists he immediately moved his company offshore to avoid Irish taxes.
    Perfectly legal, but where does he think the government get it’s money?
    A “Taxes are for the little people” mentality.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  5. Would Bono take a bullet for his beliefs?

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  6. Oh please.

    Plenty of celebrities are involved in human rights activism. Just check any Amnesty International country site. Or, on second thought, don’t.

    I’d rather you didn’t make Amnesty your next snark target.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  7. James wrote:

    I think the “Lennon vs. Bono” contrast reflects the change in activism that has occurred since the end of the Cold War. Activism used to be about sacrifice and something ‘hurting’ with consequences (i.e. the way it’s done in China). Today activism (in the West) has been sucked up into the general consumerist model and becomes benign and something you display to show off your symbolic capital (like the suburban kid wearing a Che t-shirt or supporting a cause on facebook but not in realbook – i mean, life).

    this was nicely summarized by Malcolm Gladwell in that twitter-as-small-change article that got so many hipsters and desperate middle-aged farts all worked up.

    I would love to see an American celebrity actually speak out in support of PALESTINIAN RIGHTS.

    There’s something we’re not likely to see. But off they go to DRC or Sudan – things that would help and not hinder their careers. Not that I blame them really – but just that until any of them stand up when it would actually hurt – I see the whole charade as nothing but PR feel-good inconsequentialities.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  8. Jeremy C-H wrote:

    Well… I agree with you. I think Lennon was a much better icon.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  9. Tam wrote:

    He he, I love another anti-celeb rant from Easterly.

    This was one of my favorite guilty pleasures (HRI does Celebrities – brilliant!):

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  10. joe wrote:

    Hmm.. so you’re saying that the role of highly public figures is to be prophetic – and speak truth to power? Is that the purpose (or a purpose) of the whole aid bandwagon?

    I haven’t really had much response to the question of whether aid and development represents the Universal Ethical (i.e. doing what any rational person would do in the circumstances) or the Divine/Prophetic – in the sense of standing against the status quo. Or maybe it is both?

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  11. caveat bettor wrote:

    So you are implying that Lennon would not be posing with Castro or Chavez, either, or pumping Ethiopian dictators with Live Aid type of dough?

    Sorry, I’m not extrapolating as freely today.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  12. William Easterly wrote:

    I will post the positive and negative reactions on Twitter. First, the negative:

    @idealistnyc: So Lennon’s a hero because he was a martyr? Bono not because he works w/in legitimate channels? Sorry @Bill_easterly, still think it’s a double standard

    @mcrum: You do. [@bill_easterly “But then I thought, do I have a double standard?” ] anti-establishment/politically engaged stars include MIA,, john legend, Rage Against the Machine, Wyclef, Flobots

    @bea_victorio: They lived in very diff times & their advocacies are also very diff in nature.

    @akmcquade: I think you’re comparing apples and oranges. You’re looking for direct parallels where they don’t necessarily exist. Also, I think they both had different objectives in mind. I disagree with the premise of your blog post.

    @antonie: Wow, you’ve missed it there by a mile. Being anti-establishment is more constructive than offering solutions? Grain of salt?

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  13. William Easterly wrote:

    Then positive Twitter reactions:

    @mettlinger: Right On Bill! There’s a difference between fighter/risk-takers & just good people.

    @atvangelder: Proper celebrities were once anti-authority but now they cosy up to Power

    @zachstock: Thanks for this piece. Absolutely right on

    Brief positives from @armavirumque, @sabes_a_arim

    More neutral: @edgery: gen’ly agree. still some celebs can be effective talking to both sides in society where even politicians want celebrity approval

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink
  14. I think your points are good, but I think I would draw the opposite conclusion as you did from the data points you highlight. While I do not like Bono’s positions on things and his general personality cult he’s created, as well as most of his music (at least 1990 on), I think he’s using his celebrity much more effectively than John Lennon did. I see Bono as working inside the system, rather than outside of it. John Lennon rejected society, which was cool for the 1960s, but did not actually get anything done. It just sold some records.

    Flash-forward 40 years, rejecting society is no longer cool, and it still doesn’t get anything done. You can disagree with the positions Bono takes on things and what he accomplishes through his influence, but I don’t think you should argue that the way he does things is wrong. I think meeting with Bush and learning technical knowledge about the issues is a much more appropriate way to get things done than staging a bed-in and writing a song about it. (But I do love Lennon’s songs. Don’t get me wrong.)

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  15. William Easterly wrote:

    My responses:

    Actually, those commenting in support give the response to the critics better than I could, like “@atvangelder: Proper celebrities were once anti-authority but now they cosy up to Power.”

    This is the essence of what I want to say. Yes celebrities today are involved in human rights, and yes Bono could be mildly pushing the establishment to give more aid than it wants to.

    But Bono and other stars taking risks that might get you negative publicity or arrested, as Lennon did? Challenging the Powers-that-be — You are Doing Wrong! — as opposed to signing a general declaration covering dozens of different areas, and then posing with the authorities? I don’t think so. I’ll stick to my guns on this one.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  16. Word_Bandit wrote:

    Uhhh, @Kevin ……

    You seem to forget the Dylan Victoria’s Secret ad.

    “Nothing is forever.”

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  17. Word_Bandit wrote:

    @MIchael ….

    Lennon didn’t take a bullet for his beliefs, he took a bullet because a mentally ill person was trying to get the attention of a girl.

    Big difference.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  18. maddel_int wrote:

    I don’t think its fair to judge Bono as a passive activist that does not really challenge any status quo regime. Do you remember U2 in the 80’s? They were political activists campaigning against the IRA’s efforts to raise money to fund armed conflicts. U2 received death threats and they kept on writing and playing songs to raise this awareness. Wouldn’t that be considered “challenging power”?

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  19. Alison McQuade wrote:

    I still disagree with your premise that to be effective, or to be “serious” that you have to be arrested or take reputation risks. I don’t think that’s a requirement. Your argument sounds like Gladwell’s assertion that the revolution wouldn’t be tweeted because MLK did it differently. Bono has a much different platform, selection of technology and historical perspective. That’s like saying that a modern writer’s work isn’t as good because he didn’t have to write drafts by hand, or deal with edits on a typewriter because he had today’s technology or media available. You’re comparing two different circumstances that can’t be compared due to timing. If you really have a problem with how Bono advocates or his effectiveness, I’d be interested in an in-depth follow-up post about that. But to take a shot at him because his methods are different, I think, is a poor argument.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  20. Kerry wrote:

    You’re right, we need more celebrities like Lennon speaking out against things like the war in Iraq. I think the celebrities of today don’t realize the influence and power they have to make a positive difference.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  21. joe wrote:

    Why, Alison? Show me an effective counter-cultural anti-establishment movement that succeeded in change without being arrested/having reputation risked etc.

    Surely the whole point about being the establishment is that you are conservative and therefore not open to change. If you were, you’d not be the establishment.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  22. Sam wrote:

    While I agree with Bill, I don’t think the difference between anti-authoritatian protest versus working within the halls of power is a matter of effectiveness. It certainly is, however, a matter of rock and roll. I’d say Bono had gone soft, but I’m not sure he started off any edgier. Insert pun about his fellow bandmate.

    I’d just like to add that Lennon also picked a much simpler, yet more meaningful battle. One can never really be in over his head in protesting a war on fundamental human grounds. Lennon never pretended to be well-versed in global security or foreign policy; he didn’t need to be. By contrast, Bono’s advocacy of a particular development strategy has put him in over his head. Does he realize the pitfalls and dependency issues his project creates? Maybe, but probably not. It didn’t take a scholarly mind to fully grasp the problems with the American invasion of Vietnam.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  23. William Easterly wrote:


    your second paragraph is exactly the response I would have given to the complaints about Lennon not being an “expert”, thanks!


    Posted November 24, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  24. Someone make the very appropriate comment about activism once requiring sacrifice and discomfort. Most Americans have lost that valuable lesson. Most activists today are really “slacktivists”. Would anyone take a bullet for their beliefs today?

    “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”
    Robert F. Kennedy

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  25. Jonathan Chan wrote:


    I was born a few years after Lennon’s tragic murder, so please forgive me if I’m missing an obvious point, but I’m not sure I see how Lennon had a “real impact” on the Vietnam War. Did the anti-war movement actually shorten the duration of US military action in Southeast Asia? My impression is that the decision to pullout was a long overdue response to geo-strategic realities, rather than political pressure at home.


    Posted November 24, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  26. Tam wrote:

    Also – to be fair to the celebs for just one moment (I just remembered that they are actual humans underneath their images) – the aid agencies aren’t going out on a limb either.

    They aren’t speaking truth to power either. They wine and dine power or only complain about aspects of it we all agree on anyway (e.g. right to education).

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  27. William Easterly wrote:

    Jonathan, good question. Of course, it should be rigorously tested, but I think the conventional wisdom is that by 1968 and after, the antiwar movement was making it much more difficult to keep sending more American troops and started the drawdown of troops earlier than would have happened without an antiwar movement.

    One tangible thing was anti-war Eugene McCarthy’s near-defeat of LBJ in New Hampshire primary, which caused LBJ not to run for another term in 1968.

    regards, Bill

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  28. terence wrote:

    Hi Bill,

    Quick question – did you publicly oppose the Iraq war prior to invasion or in its early phases?

    Can you link to any articles or op-eds you wrote at the time?



    Posted November 24, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  29. Quicksilver surfer wrote:

    Wow! Bill, it looks like you struck another sensitive area of the supporters of the “Industry” that depends on the continued motto of “if it did not work it is because we did not get enough $” rather than thinking whether doing things differently may address the problem.
    Bono (with his swag bags) and Sachs working to put more finds into the current system are not to be touched according to them…

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  30. Jeff wrote:

    I prefer Lennon over Bono just because he was less pretentious and I like his music more. But let’s not give him too much credit. Am I the only one here who read his interview where he said protesting the war was a great way to meet chicks?

    Posted November 25, 2010 at 12:55 am | Permalink
  31. Robert Tulip wrote:

    @Word bandit
    A book ‘Who Killed John Lennon’ by Fenton Bresler argues that Chapman was used by the US Secret Service to assassinate Lennon as part of the new Reagan Cold War. The generally accepted ‘lone nut’ theory is dubious. Lennon was a very complex person. he wrote ‘you say you want a revolution … well you can count me out.’

    In an interview with Tariq Ali, Lennon had this to say:

    Ah, sure, ‘Revolution’ . There were two versions of that song but the underground left only picked up on the one that said ‘count me out’. The original version which ends up on the LP said ‘count me in’ too; I put in both because I wasn’t sure. There was a third version that was just abstract, musique concrete, kind of loops and that, people screaming. I thought I was painting in sound a picture of revolution–but I made a mistake, you know. The mistake was that it was anti-revolution.

    On the version released as a single I said ‘when you talk about destruction you can count me out’. I didn’t want to get killed. I didn’t really know that much about the Maoists, but I just knew that they seemed to be so few and yet they painted themselves green and stood in front of the police waiting to get picked off. I just thought it was unsubtle, you know. I thought the original Communist revolutionaries coordinated themselves a bit better and didn’t go around shouting about it. That was how I felt–I was really asking a question. As someone from the working class I was always interested in Russia and China and everything that related to the working class, even though I was playing the capitalist game.

    At one time I was so much involved in the religious bullshit that I used to go around calling myself a Christian Communist, but as Janov says, religion is legalised madness. It was therapy that stripped away all that and made me feel my own pain.”

    Posted November 25, 2010 at 7:01 am | Permalink
  32. Robert Tulip wrote:

    John Lennon Interview with Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, published in The Red Mole, a Trotskyist sheet put out by the British arm of the Fourth International.
    “Power to the People”

    Posted November 25, 2010 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  33. IdealistNYC wrote:

    Bill, the hypocrisy of this post frustrates me, and your inability to see it disappoints me even more. You have repeatedly criticized celebrities for getting involved in political and social issues. You’ve repeatedly argued that celebrities should stick to acting and singing. You’ve repeatedly argued that celebrities are uninformed, uneducated on the issues, and only mouthpieces to gain donations for their pet cause.

    Yet here you stand, putting a CELEBRITY up on pedestal for making political statements and advocating on social issues. WTF? If Lennon could be trusted to have the people’s best interest at heart, why can’t other celebrities? If Lennon was able to educate himself on the issues, what makes you think other celebrities haven’t done the same? Ashley Judd just received her MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Is she still considered an uninformed celebrity looking for good PR without understanding the impact of her actions? Does one have to get an Ivy League master’s degree to past your test? If so…John Lennon fails.


    Posted November 25, 2010 at 11:40 pm | Permalink
  34. Linda wrote:

    Lennon is just cooler than Bono. Perhaps more realistic about what could be achieved?

    Becky – I agree – better to look at the end results of someone’s involvement in an issue rather than who they are. But looking at the majority of celebraid do-gooders it’s pretty easy to dismiss them as foolish and full of themselves….. I’m hardpressed to find celebs who actually know what they are doing and do it well. I also think times have changed. (American) Society is also different now than it was back in the days of Vietnam.

    Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  35. Bill Stepp wrote:

    I would put Bono, or my dog, in charge of the Fed. They can’t be worse than Comrade Helicopter Pilot.

    Posted November 27, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  36. delia wrote:
    Posted December 1, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Tweets that mention Lennon vs. Bono -- on November 24, 2010 at 1:00 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by timethief, cooper, Levan Ramishvili, casey, thegester and others. thegester said: RT @otncooper: Lennon vs. Bono – […]

  2. By Lennon vs. Bono « Daniel Smith on November 24, 2010 at 9:22 am

    […] Lennon vs. Bono […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives