Bono’s Commencement Speech 1
May 20, 2004
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 and I’m that guy. 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 PENN. 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 smarter.
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 ’70s, 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 and 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 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 heel of whatever you consider the man to be, it was something much subtle. As the provost just referred to, a combination of our own indifference and the Kafkaesque labyrinth of (nos) 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, (he should have been the bachelor’s one, he’s talking about mullets and stuff) and 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 a** off for four years to be addressed by a sock?” You have worked your a** 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 truths. 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 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?