The January 6th, 2021 attack on the Capitol building in Washington was not the death of the American dream but rather “the death of a generation’s innocence”, Bono has said.
The U2 singer was speaking at an award ceremony in Washington on Thursday night where he received William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding. The award was presented to mark his commitment to fighting injustice, extreme poverty and the global Aids crisis.
Bono is to donate the $50,000 prize to two organisations he co-founded; One, a global body that campaigns to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030 and Red, which works with well known corporate brands to try eliminate HIV/Aids in Africa.
In his acceptance speech Bono spoke of the “humbling heroism” of people in Ukraine who were “actually living for the ideal that is freedom”.
“We have not been asked to face that test yet,” he said.
He said there was a nagging thought that “maybe we have fallen asleep in the comfort of our freedom or at least we are waking up rough, our eyes are bleary and we are a little confused”.
“The questions that jolted us awake is: What will we do if freedom for Ukraine gives way to another more uncomfortable question. How long might our own freedom last?”
“It is the old joke, how do you swallow an elephant - one bite at a time.”
Bono said Hemingway had one asked -“how do you go bankrupt, gradually then suddenly”.
He said that most people of his age grew up thinking the world was becoming more and more free, especially after the Berlin wall came down.
“Revolutions waged in velvet, there were exceptions but it was if there was a kind of moral evolution at work. It was almost like you would have to stand in the way of freedom of stop it onward march.”
However, he said that by the time he had turned 60 (in 2020) “it felt to a lot of my friends like freedom was no longer gathering pace. In in fact it felt like it was reversing course, retreating down some dodgy cul de sac”.
“After January 6th in this city, I sensed a of mood of grief. Some spoke of the American dream dying on the steps of the Capitol that chilling day. But it was it was not the American dream that was dying. The American dream was alive.
“It was a death of a generation’s innocence,” he said.
He said he was not sorry it had been lost – the kind of innocence that saw progress as inevitable – as “naivete” was another word for that innocence.
Speaking about growing up in Ireland in the 1970s – which he described as an insular place – Bono said: "We looked to America. We saw a country with its own long-running arguments, its own injustices. We knew this promised land wasn't always keeping to that promise. We knew America wasn't living up to all its ideals, but the fact is America had ideals.
“We knew that because you wrote them down, you cited them, you held yourself to account on them. They shaped the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights and gay rights. I don’t know how, but I seemed to know that America wasn’t just a country. I felt it was an idea, if not yet a fact.”
He added: “Even when it got messy. Even when it got wild. America isn’t classical music, America is punk rock, America is hip-hop. I had a sense of America’s wrestling with itself, caught in the act of becoming…becoming itself…becoming its better self.
“William Fulbright talked about ‘the magnetism of freedom’, though he was selective about it. Even if he missed the full expression of it, in Ireland we felt its pull. And I have ever since.
“I love this song called America. And I ask you tonight as both fanboy and critic: Can you still hold that tune?”
Unusual acts of courage
Bono said freedom in Ukraine meant people who did not want to take up arms, taking up arms. He said in Ireland freedom meant laying down arms . He said to end the fighting in Ireland it took unusual acts of courage, true heroics of a less grand kind, and that it took America to change the geometry of the peace talks.
He said in Ireland “we learned the taste of victory does not equal total defeat on the other side”. He said victory is measured by “a parity of pain.”
He said everyone he met on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday understood “right now we need to show the world what freedom looks like and demonstrate what we can do with it”.
He said Russian president Vladimir Putin thought democracy was done.
“He is done. He is not just a tyrant. He is like a bad Bond villain,” he said.