Commencement Address by Bono,
co-founder of DATA
(Debt AIDS Trade Africa), and lead singer
of U2, May 17, 2004.
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
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
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 those.
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 recently.
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 Pennsylvania?
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 harsher
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 Abolition Society.
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 than say 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
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
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 thatÉ.
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
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 America.
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 go.
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 the way.
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.
Almanac, Vol. 50, No.
May 25, 2004