Bono-Benioff fireside chat at Dreamforce 2022: divinity in the destitute

The last time I sat in the Yerba Buena Theatre near the Moscone Centre in San Francisco at Salesforce’s annual conference Dreamforce, was to hear David Beckham having a fireside chat with the then UK managing director for the supplier, Jayne-Anne Gadhia. And an enjoyable and charming conversation it was, too. Beckham was speaking on the same day as Barack Obama, who had said he never acted as if he were the “smartest guy in the room”, but instead endeavoured to “orchestrate the conversation”. Becks confirmed that he is never the smartest guy in the room, especially if his children are there in the room with him.

That was in 2019, in the Before Times.

This time around, was less than a week since Beckham had queued up to pay his respects to Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland and II of England (this is my only chance to write that, okay?). It was also in the same week that we lost our most important novelist, Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall trilogy traces the eventual fall of Thomas Cromwell, executed by Elizabeth’s ancestor, Henry VIII – a terrible king.

And this time, it was to hear Irish rock star Bono being gently grilled by Marc Benioff, founder and co-CEO of CRM in the cloud slinger Salesforce.

Bono is no stranger to Dreamforce, or indeed to Benioff, who is clearly a good friend. U2 played Dreamfest, the conference concert, in 2018. They have collaborated on Bono’s anti-HIV and AIDS charity, (Red). In the fireside chat, he said “if you work for Saleforce, you are an AIDS activist”.

The ostensible topic of the conversation was Bono’s memoir, Surrender. The subtitle is “40 songs, One Story”, though he quipped that he considered “tall tales from a short rock star”, as an alternative. The memoir includes an account of the sudden death of the Dubliner’s mother, at his grandfather’s funeral, when he was 14, and Benioff probed him on that as a taproot of his music.

In the course of the conversation, Bono said he knew he shared with Benioff the capacity to see “the divine in the destitute”. This is a Judeo-Christian theological precept. The Romans would never have seen the divine in the destitute. This observation I owe to Tom Holland, especially in the Crucifixion episode of the excellent podcast “The Rest is History”.

Now, unfortunately, the streets of San Francisco are notoriously strewn with the bodies of homeless and distressed people. That is what a feral capitalist society with no safety net looks like. Benioff’s philanthropy – which is extensive, laudable, and generous – is something for which there should be less need. The small, broadly social democratic Scandinavian societies offer an alternative, and frankly better model to that of the US; and there are some flashes of that in western Europe more generally – even, residually, in the UK.

Nevertheless, Bono’s comment that “seeing the divinity in somebody who is sleeping in the doorway, as you’re stepping over them to go into your office is something to hold on to” feels right, as does his related comment, “seeing divinity in the natural world, this sort of ecosystem that keeps us all alive, I’m starting to understand that more and more”.

One of his big messages was not to write off people who you might assume are against you. He referred to his father’s animus towards narrow and sectarian Irish nationalism and said: “I was always suspicious, maybe because of my father, of the left and the right. I was always interested in the radical centre. That’s where I was coming from. And the [value of the] Yeats poem [‘The Second Coming’] that has the lines ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’. So, I think that I do sense and try to listen to myself and to others. Working with President [George W.] Bush was amazing, you know, a conservative. The idea that conservative people didn’t care about people with HIV/AIDS – I don’t believe that’.

Towards the end of the conversation with Benioff he added: “I’m working to make peace with myself and my maker. I’m not making peace with the world. The world is it is to be resisted at times, and this is one of those times.

“You are doing an amazing job locally and globally. And I love that people who come to work for Salesforce can be absolute fuckers. But they are probably not going to get on as well as the people who are thinking about their communities and thinking about doing something useful in their communities”.

Now, it is easy (and great larks) to mock Salesforce and Dreamforce, with its meditating monks and its menagerie of mascots. And its interviews with celebrities, like David Beckham. There is chapter in Dan Lyons’ very entertaining 2016 book about his time at HubSpot, Disrupted, which does just that. Similar lampoons are legion.

However, the fact that Benioff and Bono are trying to put forth and put into action a humanitarian ethos is undeniably impressive. Bono referred, in the chat, to “the Catholic priest and Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr, who has a place out in the desert, called the Center for Action and Contemplation. I like his order, action and contemplation, not the other way around”.

And the supplier’s Trailhead online learning programme has demonstrably lifted people out of poverty and given them careers.

It’s not everything. But it’s not nothing.

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