By John Feffer · 16 Jul 2011
Celebrities are going global in their activism. But are they doing the right thing?
Lady Gaga and Alice Walker don't have much in common. One dresses in red meat; the other doesn't even eat the stuff. One writes lyrics like "I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your everything as long as it's free." The other writes The Color Purple.
But they are both cultural celebrities, and the media gravitates to them for comments. And they both have used this celebrity status to weigh in on global issues.
Alice Walker, for instance, was a passenger on the Audacity of Hope, one of the boats that tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. She appeared in the first paragraph of The New York Times story on the second flotilla's formation, made her case on CNN, parried questions in a Foreign Policy interview, and prompted a disparaging Commentary commentary entitled "The Alice Walker Flotilla." Walker used her celebrity status to raise the media profile of the initiative but also to bring her own sensibility to bear on the issue. She compared the blockade-busting to the civil rights movement and spoke of her "awareness of paying off a debt to the Jewish civil rights activists who faced death to come to the side of black people in the American south in our time of need."
At 67, Walker decided to put her reputation on the line, as well as her life. Last year, Israeli forces killed nine people after confronting a similar flotilla. And this year, as Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Stephen Zunes points out in Washington Okays Attack on Unarmed U.S. Ship, the Obama administration preemptively excused any Israeli attack on the flotilla as self-defensive. In reality, though, Israeli forces would have been defending themselves against a truly paper enemy. "Not only have organizers of the flotilla gone to great steps to ensure are there no weapons on board," he writes, but "the only cargo bound for Gaza on the U.S. ship are letters of solidarity to the Palestinians in that besieged enclave who have suffered under devastating Israeli bombardments, a crippling blockade, and a right-wing Islamist government."
Walker was not able to reach Gaza. The Greeks and Israelis were about as impressed with her celebrity status as the Birmingham police were impressed with Martin Luther King Jr.’s. The Greek government imposed a ban on all ships heading to Gaza from Greek ports. Only one boat, the French Dignity, has managed to leave a Greek port with plans to continue on toward its goal of challenging the blockade. And Alice Walker will live to fight another day.
Lady Gaga has not shied away from important issues either. She has campaigned against the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law and supported marriage equality. And with her project to help out the people of Japan after the March earthquake, she is now going global with her activism. Her "We Pray for Japan" wristbands raised several million dollars (though a Michigan law firm is claiming that the charity is pocketing some of the money).
But on her recent trip to Japan, Lady Gaga went a step further in her activism. She dressed up as a panda and drank Japanese tea on television. This might seem more like performance art or an outtake from a music video rather than a political act. But it was all part of an effort to demonstrate that Japanese food is safe, despite the spike in radioactivity after the meltdown at Fukushima. FPIF contributor Alexis Dudden reports from Japan that "environmental activists, nursery school teachers, scientists, and mothers from Fukushima and Tokyo clamor for better information about radioactivity. They are demanding that, if nothing else, the government should stop spending money on expensive pink brochures that instruct mothers and pregnant women: 'Don’t worry! It will all be ok!'"
Lady Gaga, like Alice Walker, is risking her life, but inadvertently and in service of a government instead of in defiance of one. As economist William Easterly describes the difference between these two modes of celebrity activism – John Lennon the radical versus Bono the darling of the G20 – “There is something inherently noble about the celebrity dissident, but there is something slightly ridiculous about the celebrity wonk.” Easterly has gotten it half right. It’s when celebrities do what comes naturally to them – cuddling up to power – that they become slightly ridiculous. Power and popularity are the lifeblood of celebrity culture. Only if cultural icons go against the grain and risk unpopularity do they engage in an inherently noble enterprise.
Celebrity involvement in global affairs is nothing new. Mark Twain, for instance, spoke out against the genocide in the Belgian Congo at the turn of the century. Helen Keller was a prominent anti-war activist. But it seems that over the past decade, more and more celebrities have gotten involved in global affairs. It’s almost as if they’ve been instructed, like beauty contest aspirants or rising high school juniors, to add some gravitas to their resumes by choosing an issue to become passionate about: Burma (Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Aniston), Tibet (Richard Gere), Sudan (Mia Farrow, George Clooney), the environment (Leonard DiCaprio), Iraq and Haiti (Sean Penn), Iran (Annette Benning).
Here in Washington, NGOs rack their Rolodexes for celebrities that can boost their issue, as Princess Diana once did for the landmines campaign or Elizabeth Taylor did for AIDS. Last year, as part of an effort to prevent the building of another U.S. military base in Okinawa, I proposed that our anti-base coalition approach actress Daryl Hannah to be “our” celebrity. Not only was she a big environmentalist but her most famous role was as a mermaid (in the movie Splash) – and we were trying to stop the base construction to save the dugong, a marine mammal that early sailors often mistook for a mermaid. It turned out, however, that Hannah was also a big opponent of whaling, so our Japanese partners vetoed the suggestion. Soliciting a celebrity is like accessorizing your issue: you must select with care. Imagine the cause that has to deal with Lindsay Lohan...
Being high-profile themselves, cultural icons generally gravitate toward big issues. I can’t think of any U.S. celebrities who have devoted their energies to promoting principled engagement with North Korea, rallying against gold mining in El Salvador, sticking up for Roma rights in Europe, or opposing the authoritarianism of Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus. With some exceptions, celebrities usually reinforce what the media is already interested in. They tend to bandwagon, to use political science lingo, like all the celebs that have flocked to the ONE campaign (including Lohan, but her liability is lessened by the sheer quantity of participating stars).
The exceptions to this bandwagoning rule usually involve U.S. power. It’s one thing for a celebrity to challenge the Burmese, Chinese, and Sudanese governments, but as soon as they say something critical about U.S. policy, they go beyond the pale. Sean Penn travels to Cuba, and suddenly he “hates America.” Danny Glover opposes the U.S. war in Iraq and acquires a #3 ranking in “top 10 most dishonorable Americans.” Celebrities are their own brand, and most are careful to cultivate that brand. Feeding hungry people, standing against genocide — these efforts are, of course, important and worthwhile. But they are relatively safe, for they ultimately serve to build, rather than undercut, the brand.
The policy elite sometimes adopts a certain snobbishness when it comes to celebrities. It is, after all, deeply disconcerting to see how the media and politicians listen so avidly to these famous instapundits after yawning through another wonkish PowerPoint. But celebrity activism is important for its demonstration effect. People want to be like celebrities, so they might just decide to get involved in global affairs to link arms, virtually, with Angelina Jolie. Foreign policy, after all, is not just for the mandarins. It’s for all citizens, however famous or obscure. And if more celebrities go out on a limb — like Alice Walker or Sean Penn — then more citizens will feel moved to take unpopular positions themselves.
Feffer is Co-Director of Foreign Policy in Focus.