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At TNR, Leon Weiseltier on celebrities and their causes

…I have been watching the emergence of Angelina Jolie as a historical figure with a deepening grumpiness. Not since the 1960s have so many entertainers believed that they can rescue the world. The Times also pointed emphatically to the energetic activism of Michael Douglas. "It was Michael Douglas, after all," wrote a reporter in Sunday Styles, "who stood behind the lectern at United Nations headquarters on Wednesday calling attention to an International Day of Peace that might otherwise have been overlooked." Otherwise? Douglas also boasted that "he had discussed arms sales and weapons of mass destruction with the presidents of Austria, Thailand, and a half-dozen African countries." My own admittedly perfunctory inquiries into the security policies of some of these states indicate that those discussions appear to have been inconsequential. The internecine savagery of the Palestinians has proved similarly immune to the charisma of Richard Gere.

No, there is no real harm done. Celebrities are also citizens, and they have the right, and the duty, to act on their convictions. They can raise money and they can raise consciousness. But I have a suspicion that they corrupt the consciousnesses that they raise, because they confirm them in their belief in the moral authority of fame. With the exception of the cognitive habits of a Googling nation, nothing more disfigures personal authenticity in America than the veneration of celebrities. This is America’s polytheism. It teaches Americans to live vicariously, passively, alienated from the possibilities of their own lives, in slavish imitation of people luckier than themselves. (Celebrity is in almost all cases a matter of luck.) One of the nice things about crimes against humanity, if you will pardon the expression, is that they seemed to be beyond the reach of the fabulous people, too shatteringly true to be absorbed into such a system of illusion; but no more. It was the glamour of Brad Pitt that led Diane Sawyer to the squalor of Ethiopia, where sick and starving children were transformed into the accessories of a reputation. (Pitt was opening a movie around the time of his humanitarian adventure.) There is the view, of course, that at least the star brought the children into prime time, and star-fucking in the service of good cannot be bad, right? Perhaps; but this was not publicity about human suffering, it was publicity about the publicity about human suffering. It was promotion disguised as compassion. Watching the diary of Brad Pitt and Diane Sawyer in Africa, it was hard to shake the feeling that you were being played. So let us see how often and how long the herd of icons stays with the story. I expect that the story will soon come to seem very 2005.

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