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The African Queen

posted by awelborn

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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Whitcomb

posted October 19, 2005 at 11:41 pm


Mr. Wieseltier can be wickedly funny. I wonder what he would say about Bono having lunch today with President Bush.
There are examples of celebrities who loaned their names to important causes and in so doing they did not overshadow the cause itself. I think of Paul Newman and Charlton Heston taking part in the March on Washington in 1963. Or Audrey Hepburn’s quiet work on behalf of the starving which drew national attention only when she gave modest testimony before a congressional committee.



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Ed

posted October 19, 2005 at 11:42 pm


I love it that Madonna and Barbara Streisand are the moral conscience of the Western World.
And Michael Douglas blazed a trail of public decency in his demands for a Whammy-Burger.



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Dennis

posted October 19, 2005 at 11:43 pm


I must quibble with his opening line: “On September 19, the editorial page of The New York Times lost its mind.” The NYT editorial page lost it’s mind long before that! :)
Though Wieseltier is usually an insufferable knee-jerk anti-Christian, and thus a tiresome bore to read, he’s basically right this issue, for once. Especially as concerns Jolie; after all, this is a woman who refers to the entire continent of Africa as a “country”.
I do think some deeper delving into this issue would have demonstrated to Wieseltier how Bono is in fact quite different than most celebrity campaigners. For one thing, unlike most, his efforts have had concrete results. Yes, he does some of the preachy celebrity concert stuff, but unlike most other celebrities out shilling for causes, he doesn’t stop there. He actually spends a great deal of time travelling and meeting with polticians and world leaders that can get things done, and he works hard on details rather than just platitudes. And, unlike many of his fellow artists and celebrities of a generally left-liberal bent, he’s not afraid to mix with people on the right and doesn’t engage in the facile demonization of them that people like Streisand, Tim Robbins, or Donald Sutherland do, to name just a few(in fact, Bono actually had lunch with Bush yesterday). I do, however, think Bono’s misguided in that he seems to focus too much on debt relief and aid (and to a lesser extent trade) without first recognizing that all of that will go for naught, just as such aid has in the past, unless there is serious cultural and political change in Africa. He still tends to see Africa’s main problems as originating in alleged Western stinginess, indifference, and general malfeasance, rather than in the continent’s own homegrown social, cultural, and political ills. Somehow though, I generally find Bono less annoying and insufferable than the average celebrity pushing a cause.



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elizabeth

posted October 20, 2005 at 3:07 am


When did this all start? Back during the Beatles, reporters asking THEIR opinions/take on world events? was it reporters/media that made them and us think they SHOULD have a say. (I can only recall back to the Bealtes – but did, say Garbo/Cosby/Sinatra speak about such things?)



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carolyn

posted October 20, 2005 at 8:02 am


I liked Jim Carrey’s refreshing humility when asked his opinion about how the world should be run as if his take had more clout due to his celerity. His answer–What does it matter? I’m just an actor. The reporter’s opinion was neither more nor less important than his own.



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David Hecht

posted October 20, 2005 at 8:11 am


Carolyn:
Huh. Hadn’t heard that particular Carreyism. Makes me like the guy more than ever! :-)
BTW, did you know that Elvis said almost exactly the same thing back in the 60s? He was asked by some nitwit reporter to express an opinion about Vietnam. His answer: “Ma’am, I’m just an entertainer.”



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MercyMe

posted October 20, 2005 at 8:42 am


Why can’t or shouldn’t Ms. Jolie use the attention heaped on herself for ends other than herself? Should she instead hold forth on the latest facial she’s tried or the brand of boots she wears?
We’re a celebrity-obsessed culture and we “buy” what they “sell” everyday (see the Ugg boot phenomena). How many fewer people would know about the plight of AIDS orphans, or the worldwide refugee crisis or even that the country of Cambodia exists without seeing it splashed across the covers of Us and People because of her involvement?



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Yootikus

posted October 20, 2005 at 10:33 am


“How many fewer people would know about the plight of AIDS orphans, or the worldwide refugee crisis or even that the country of Cambodia exists without seeing it splashed across the covers of Us and People because of her involvement?”
Precisely no fewer, in my opinion. It would be one thing if she were a songwriter, say, who had established some real connection between her art and her heart’s hunger for truth and justice (such as, say, Bono or Bruce Springsteen). But because all she is is a pretty face who hit the lottery and became a star playing dress-up for millions of dollars, everything she does for social justice or to make political points comes across as cynical publicity stunts, grandstanding to burnish her own image as Someone Who Matters. Pure vanity, pure ego, pure pride.
Stated another way: It’s a good thing for Angelina that there are lots of suffering sick and poor people.



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c matt

posted October 20, 2005 at 10:38 am


Well, its one thing to make a charitable plug – I applaud them for that. Its a completely different matter to make a political plug (particularly without any expertise, knowledge or intelligence on the matter).



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c matt

posted October 20, 2005 at 10:41 am


Charitable plug “Please help those hurt by Katrina.”
Political plug “Please help those hurt by President Bush and the Evil Republicans complete neglect of Katrina victims, and its all the Republicans’ fault anyway.”



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Yootikus

posted October 20, 2005 at 10:42 am


An additional thought: Compare and contrast Angelina Jolie’s media hounding with the charitable giving of Sandra Bullock, who has kept her mouth shut but quietly donated millions to charities she believes in. (I’m no huge Sandra Bullock fan, but I am impressed with that kind of humility and grace from a filthy-rich star who could likewise have used her money and clout to burnish her image and indulge her vanity.)



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Maclin Horton

posted October 20, 2005 at 10:50 am


One of the former MASH stars goes around giving very serious talks against the death penalty. Which is fine, except for the unavoidable implication in the publicity that the reason you should listen to him is because he used to be on MASH–a negative effect for me, as I am one of the apparently very few people who never liked the show. I agreed with Walker Percy’s description of the main characters: “uncommonly pleased with themselves.”



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MercyMe

posted October 20, 2005 at 1:42 pm


Why not assume that Ms. Jolie actually has good intentions? I don’t see any evidence presented here that she has adopted orphans or traveled extensively working for the causes she is passionate about in a cynical attempt to gain yet more publicity for herself.
People want to know more about her and what she does. I’m happy that she’s able to direct some of that attention to issues that Americans have little knowledge about rather than having it focus on where she went to dinner, what shampoo she uses.
Or is no good deed unsnarked upon in the blog world?



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Maclin Horton

posted October 20, 2005 at 4:31 pm


Y’know, MercyMe, I was kind of having a similar thought. I can’t say I’ve paid close attention to Ms. Jolie’s philanthropic doings, but insofar as I knew about them I had a vague sort of good-for-her reaction, and an equally vague sense that she seemed to mean it. Considering what a media favorite she is right now, it would be hard for her to do much of anything without getting a lot of attention.
But I wondered if I was only being indulgent of her because she’s very beautiful. Or because as an actress she’s good at feigning concern. I think unless given good reason to think otherwise I’ll assume she means it.



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Mia

posted November 22, 2005 at 11:15 am


excellent commenting by Amy Wellborn. I found this site when trying to access the “The African Queen” article by Leon Wieseltier. I would also agree with the posting by “Yootikus” – the type of people of read (& slavishly follow) magazines such as ‘People’ are not going to be overly concerned with the issues of development, conflict and the like – and those that Are (it hardly needs to be said) would very likely already have received their understanding from university or books. The issues to do with development/poverty/governance etc are highly complex & reducing them to one-line summaries for celebrities to use in their movie interviews does not in any way aid the fight against poverty – which in many ways is a fight against ignorance. I find this quite recent phenomenon of celebrities becoming the self-appointed mouthpieces of humanity deeply disturbing. While, as Amy Wellborn rightly points out “Celebrities are also citizens, and they have the right, and the duty, to act on their conviction” – there is a something distasteful in their obscuring very real and complex issues and reducing them to glossy photo-shoots and MTV entertainment. This is a subject that lately has given me some thought as I recently completed my PhD in development (poverty, governance and livelihood issues), and have extensive overseas work and field experience. While I think the idea of a UN ambassador is Good thing – there has to be some level of balance in the media representation of (in this case) Angelina Jolie’s “work” and the amount of accolades (in my mind – none) she is deserving of (indeed while it is a generally nice thing for her to be involved – one could find individuals of all ages and backgrounds doing charitable work in all corners of the globe. Surely it should be argued that with her background: huge pay checks, good looks and fame she Should give something back to those less fortunate?). What’s next? Paris Hilton travelling the world as the spokesperson for applied mathematics? I often liken A.J’s “work” for the UN as if I was awarded an Oscar for simply watching a movie – Ultimately, for Ms. Jolie to fly in and out to a project on a 1-2 day trip and then receiving an award for it seems a mockery in a profession (such as International Development work for e.g. the UN – which is what she is ‘representing’) in which the pay is only average, work environments are often dangerous or difficult, the hours are extremely long, the commitment required is paramount and the level of education needed is a Masters or above. At first I thought that perhaps the added attention of celebrities visiting vastly complex regions such as Africa would benefit development by increasing awareness – but in reality it makes no difference…not in actuality – although, it is true that more people may now know what Brad Pitt wore on his recent trip through a slum area. The reality is that those people who spend their life working on these issues are doing exactly that – regardless of Brad Pitt at 40+ coming to the vastly delayed recognition that poverty, does, in fact exist – or Angelina Jolie “discovering” (after a few years as a UN Ambassador no less!) that the money for USAID and other US aid programmes comes – in fact – from the taxpayer (where she thought it came from is anyone’s guess..although I suppose at $20 million a film financial budgeting is not a strong point). Equally every student I have ever taught or researcher, professional I have ever worked with or met, became interested in these issues because of their background, education etc – not because they watched MTV and read People! Moreover, given this fact, the amount of people that quietly spend years giving time (often in their own community as well as for overseas help) and money (which they would have in far Far shorter supply) – far outweighs Angelina’s token “work” – for which she receives accolades & awards at every turn. I also think her choice of movies (a few of which have been violent) and pay (in the millions) are fundamentally at odds with her role as an ambassador for poverty and refugees. Indeed – far from being a positive role model, of the friends and family I know that work for the UN – while many don’t care a twig about her (or know of her), those I know that do are now thoroughly sick of her. Having, myself, done a BA, MSc and now a PhD with a lot of experience working overseas – and knowing the level of education (at the least, a postgraduate degree) and incredible level of competition that one is required to successfully negotiate for positions in overseas and policy level work, it is a shame that the interest – if there is to be any – goes to a (not very good) actress rather than the many that work tirelessly for these issues who are truly deserving. Indeed, if accolades are to be given, why not highlight those national staff in the developing world – who are truly “raising their heads above the parapet” to make a change?
I live in the UK and Bono recently said (in reference to the Live 8) that he was appointing himself representative for all of Africa as they “do not have a voice”. While the lack of power or agency by many in the developing world (not just Africa) is indeed the case, it is absurd for Bono to think that the poor have no representatives simply because he feels the overseas policies of (say) Blair and Bush et al. are problematic. The poor are being supported and championed daily by the vast amount of researchers and campaigners, academics and field staff at organizations – which to name just a very, very few – range from think tanks: IIED, IDS, ODI, CDS, CIDS, to national development orgs SIDA, CAFOD, DFID, to international NGO’s: Save the Children, Action Aid, Red Cross, CAFOD, MSF, ICRC, CARE to the international orgs: UNDP, UNEP, UNICEF, UNHCR, WB, ABRD, UNHABITAT, WHO. ITO. ILO, WFP, UNOCHA….the list goes on (and on!)…not to mention the national org’s/NGO’s in the developing countries themselves.
I do think the idea of UN ambassadors are a good thing (after all, Audrey Hepburn was an effective UNICEF ambassador for years carrying on from her work as a child in the WWII resistance mov’t) – and it is indeed a positive state of affairs that people get involved in the plight of others. However, given the level to which these issues have been ‘highjacked’ by celebrity culture – the benefits will almost entirely be to those celebrities who may feel they can sleep better having been nominally involved (with development) at a superficial level, and the MTV/People reading public who can assuage their appetite/interest/guilt in world issues with the equivalent of nibbling on canapés at a Hollywood party.



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