To say our expectations for celebrities range from the sublime to the ridiculous would not be an overstatement. In fact there are few bigger targets than celebrities who try to speak outside their purview as say actors, sports stars or comedians. A recent case in point would be that of Russell Brand assuming the role of guest editor for New Statesmen. When interviewed about it, Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman opens with a line of questions starting with the invective: “Russell Brand — Who are you to edit a political magazine?” A bit on the rhetorical side and clearly setting the tone for the discussion. Ostensibly Brand is required to jump through hoops to explain his political leanings and even his right to an opinion! When Brand tries to lighten the mood with humor Paxman responds by saying, “You are a very trivial man!”. The famously and unapologetically flamboyant Brand is clearly a big target for the conservative camp but does he and other celebrity activists deserve to be regarded as trivial?
Celebrities putting their fame to more than vainglorious use
Or could it be that Shakespeare’s words mirror the truth, that they are, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?” Is there nothing more to celebrity activism than the flashbulbs and cameras they draw to themselves like moths?
While all of us can be overly skeptical sometimes, it would be unfair to say it is in our nature to knock those we admire off a well earned pedestal for its own sake. Call it naive or idealistic, but when someone shows exemplary character we almost instinctively begin to lean in their direction as though their personal gravity has increased. But isn’t there an extra helping of doubt applied when a celebrity steps to the podium or speaks in front of a campaign bus? Is it because we too think they are “trivial”? Not to to reduce the argument to the absurd, but shoulder angels might best illustrate the opposing sentiments on this matter. The one with the pitchfork and crispy halo might argue that “actors have found one more way of using their fame to get famous”, while the white attired seraph might respond that, “it’s nice to see celebrities put their fame to more than vainglorious use”. Chuckleworthy maybe, but could they both be right?
At this point it would be easy but misleading to seek an answer by listing famous celebrities and the causes they lend their names to. You could then look at the track record of the organizations they support and determine the impact their presence has had in terms of money or exposure. But would that tell the real story? To boil it down further might be to ask, how can we know these people are sincere? And perhaps more disturbingly ~ does it matter if they do it to feed the image monster? What if they are acting purely out of selfish interest? A kind of Selfie-Activism. Should we care?
For most of us, we would argue that it does matter. If celebrities are fronting a movement we care about, but only to stay in the limelight, then on general principle we shouldn’t support that cause! Right? Wait — that doesn’t sound right either, does it?
If George T. Clooney, winner of two academy awards, actor, writer, director, producer holds a press conference as he did this past february to call for the return of ancient Greek treasures to their homeland we tend to sit up and take notice. Having fronted many relevant global justice causes as a contributing voice and topical expert his name carries an established credibility. However, the halo tarnishes slightly when weighed against the fact that he is promoting a film called the Monuments Men. A film he directed and starred in about Allied forces sent to prevent the Nazis from stealing and or destroying priceless works of art from Europe during the war.
Can you feel that? Poke..poke..poke..the pitchfork of credulity. Doesn’t this smack of manufactured controversy, or even…marketing? In fairness to George — he had only to make an offhand comment to a Greek journalist during an interview to be swept up in an international debate that has British antiquities curators up in arms. Further nods of agreement by co-stars Matt Damon and Bill Murray haven’t helped quell the furor, but again it begs the question: If any press is better than no press, then is George co-opting a cause to promote a movie or is he co-opting his movie to promote a cause?
Willing to lose a battle if it meant winning the war
Okay, some guided free association brings us from George Clooney to George Harrison and then to John Lennon. With respect to their approach to Activism, what would you say differentiates a Clooney, or Bono, or Russell Brand, Spike Lee or Oprah Winfrey when compared to the likes of John Lennon? Well, if you side with William Easterly of the Washington Post, the difference is that John was a bonafide rebel, while Bono et al are not. Why is this important? He would suggest that the significance lies in the nature of the activism itself. For protesting the war in Vietnam John Lennon suffered very real consequences after being targeted and harassed by international government agencies, including the FBI for years. In short, John risked the very thing which gave him such an elevated platform — namely his music; and some would argue, his freedom. He may have risked everything as in the case of Dr. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy; though for different reasons, John too, was shot dead in the end. Not to put too fine or indelicate a point on it but these giants were willing to lose a battle if it meant they would win the war. And many were willing to pay dearly.
Fighting the system from within
And maybe this is where we need to place the fulcrum when weighing impact or even moral high ground. Modern celebrity activists bring their art and their voices to bear on the issues which concern them for personal or professional reasons, but they do so in accordance with the power structures of the time. Not to be clichéd but they tend to fight the system from within. If they want justice for child abuse victims, they don’t make themselves a target by tearing up a picture of the Roman Catholic Pope as Sinead O’Connor famously did. Instead they hold a concert which is simulcast across the planet as in Live Aid. Raise some money, have a party. Win-win right? But are they being trivial or disingenuous for protesting in this way?
Can we take issue with seeking the win-win scenario when it comes to social, political or any other activism? If an organization gains an identifiable front person and that front person in turn gains social or political street cred — does that have to be a bad thing? These efforts may not immediately challenge the status quo, but it may give their cause more money and influence with which to ameliorate the effects. Put another way, today’s celebrity activists focus on winning the small battles while living to tell the tale, or dare I say, reap the benefits. Without overindulging in philosophical hair splitting: Does great change require a great Leader? Or just a cultivated climate in which a great Idea can take hold? It may be that history would argue for both, but we tend to remember the men and women who sacrificed themselves for the greater good. Why? Because it puts a human face to the story? See what happened there? We came full circle.
So maybe we need to bring this right into our living rooms in order to decide whether say, Pamela Anderson speaking for PETA while raising her public profile may, or may not, represent a conflict of interest, or at least some kind of moral quandary.
Let’s role play a scenario for a moment
Imagine you are sitting on the couch watching the news. The Anchorwoman breaks into a story of animal cruelty followed by corroborating pictures. Some poor bedraggled cat or dog, half starved and in pain. It fills you with pity and outrage. How could this happen?! What can be done to prevent this? If only I could do something!
Now… What if you were Pamela, or Oprah, George or Bono? Would you pick up the phone and call someone knowing you could make a difference? Would you agree to help when you were called? Could it be that simple?
Let’s put it another way: What if celebrities never got involved? Wouldn’t we view them as trite and maybe even irresponsible? We must admire and support those who put themselves in harm’s way to change an unjust system, whether they are John Lennon or John Doe, but it seems unfair to ask that of every celebrity who signs a petition. So while another photo op with Bono and Bush, or Oprah and Obama may seem less world changing, is it fair to say it is less significant in the long run? The answer may depend on which angel you tend to listen to, but for most of us it is a safe bet that even self-serving Activism will trump Inactivism every time.