In God’s Country

03.15.14

Can Heritage Foundation Posterboy Bono Save the GOP?

The U2 frontman wants to save the world. Why shouldn’t he save Republicans, too?

Forget Rand Paul. Forget Marco Rubio. The hot leadership figure on the wonky right isn’t a politician. He’s not even American.

U2 may be sliding toward irrelevance, but Bono’s got a whole new fan base.

The Heritage Foundation raked in hundreds of retweets this month for its slick image of Bono flashing a peace sign while striding across a stage—beside a bold-faced pull quote touting “free enterprise” as a “cure” for poverty at home and abroad. Indeed, for Bono, “welfare and foreign aid are a Band-Aid.”

Just a day before Heritage jumped on the Bono bandwagon, Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, used his words to frame the conservative approach to inequality in a high-profile New York Times op-ed.

Surprised? Longtime Bono watchers in Washington, however, might have seen it coming. After all—this was the guy who (allegedly) made Jesse Helms cry. But it wasn’t lost on National Review that Bono seems to have surprised even himself with his capitalist infatuation. In the Georgetown University address on global social enterprise that yielded the Heritage quote, Bono apologized for nothing. “Wow,” he gushed, “sometimes I hear myself and I just can’t believe it.”

Believe it or not, the political reaction surrounding Bono’s conversion has tended toward the superficial. (Rich white guy embracing capitalism? Shocking!) The sensational quality of such a full-throated “ideological” endorsement, from such an incredibly famous human, has created the impression that nobody can afford to get bogged down in a nuanced reflection about how and why this is happening. Behind “moral clarity,” right and left, is the same crippling fear of falling behind in the race to win the public’s perpetual rush to judgment.

In fact, it only takes about five minutes to get our mental and spiritual wheels fruitfully turning. We all know a few major things about Bono: He thinks of himself first and foremost as merely a human being; he’s serious about religion; he’s richer than almost every person, and not afraid to stay that way; and he wants to use his fame to move and inspire the world. 

These features seemingly make Bono a man without parallel. Actually, he’s the poster human of a much broader phenomenon—and the best way for us to quickly understand the defining new tension in the tech economy that will soon drive its roots into nearly every facet of productive human activity.

Let’s begin by considering that Bono was into the spiritualization of finance waaaay before it was cool, like it now is becoming. CNN reports that hedge funds and venture capital firms are now lining up to avail themselves of David Lynch’s transcendental meditation coursework, the better to “reduce anxiety and increase clear, focused thinking.” Bob Roth, executive director of the David Lynch Foundation, let slip that “the head of global recruitment at a top Wall Street bank” called up in search of a way to woo back the kind of recruits “that have been choosing companies with ‘cooler environments’ like Google.”

The news should signal to us a shift of colossal magnitude: Where once Wall Street led capitalism by the nose, now Silicon Valley does. As Evgeny Morozov has suggested, there’s evidence that today’s enlightened nerds haven’t quite emancipated themselves from the “speculative logic” of Wall Street’s most unnatural methods of valuation. Nevertheless, the triumph of West Coast spiritualism over East Coast secularism has civilization-wide implications.

The journey of the celebrity artist or entrepreneur is today the most culturally significant journey people make from low status and high vulnerability to the reverse.

I urge you to think this way because I have watched the spiritualization of finance develop not only at the highest levels, where Bono dwells, but right in my own backyard. As my friend Sam Morris attested last month on my Free Radicals podcast, his Zen Warrior Training program was a hit this year at New York Life. Despite endless avowals that Northern and Southern California are like two different planets, San Francisco’s tech civilization and LA’s new-age civilization are merging into a single whole. What’s more, they’re setting up colonies everywhere from Burning Man to SXSW to, yes, Dublin, Ireland —the epicenters of the new spiritualized tech economy.

To be sure, since the likes of Oprah and Arianna Huffington first started spiritualizing extraordinary wealth, critics have taken a number and gotten in line to slam the enterprise as just the latest way for the obscenely privileged to feel great about themselves and ignore the systemic injustice around them. That’s a grossly unfair and incurious indictment, but there is a way to home in on the kernel of truth that it springs from.

Circle back to Bono. Once upon a time Bono was Paul David Hewson, an obscure, passionate young man in a mediocre rock band playing to small crowds at the ragged margin of the Anglosphere. His fame and fortune—indeed, his relevance—were anything but guaranteed. He was the ultimate outsider: an artist-entrepreneur. He could have erred, failed, or cracked under pressure; he could have simply not connected with people.

Every artist worthy of the name is on intimate terms with this harrowing experience. So is every entrepreneur. They are natural cultural allies (just like Los Angeles and San Francisco), and they instill in the rest of us the same kind of political wisdom: Whether “public sector” or “private,” uniformity, standardization, centralization, efficiency, and routinization always train us to mistakenly strive for complete safety, repose, and security—and to mistake these things for the hallmarks of our true nature. Meanwhile, vulnerability, risk, unpredictability, and sudden transformation are the constitutive experiences of human life.

The journey of the celebrity artist or entrepreneur is today the most culturally significant journey people make from low status and high vulnerability to the reverse. Artists and entrepreneurs who become rich and famous are our best guides to the dangerous way that former outcasts can become champions of an all-encompassing economic and political system run by elites who promise total health, total safety, and total control.

This tension between outcast and overlord is at the heart of our sweeping change into a tech-driven, spiritually infused economy. The fate of free enterprise—and freedom itself—hangs in the balance. Bono’s new Republican fans glimpse one slice of the wisdom that will see us through this momentous transition. But unless they clearly connect us to the whole, their search for salvation will grow ever more desperate and hollow.