Jolie Good in Hollywood

Angelina Jolie has just been voted the best celebrity humanitarian of 2007. With her role as a UN goodwill ambassador she topped the Reuters poll as the most respected celebrity humanitarian. Other celebs who made it onto the list included U2 singer Bono, Madonna and Bob Geldof.

Of course one never fully knows what motivates the superstars to get involved in such causes. Some would have a genuine concern for the poor and needy, and want to do something about these situations. Others may simply be acting out of guilt, thinking that a few token gestures might make up for their extravagant and lavish lifestyles.

I suppose one can at least be grateful that some of the Hollywoodians and jet setters have a bit of a social conscience. But one can still inquire as to how effective and beneficial such celebrity actions in fact are. Are they making a real difference? Are they perhaps counter-productive? Are they just window dressing?

Writing in the National Interest, Daniel Drezner offers an in-depth look at celebrity humanitarianism. He argues that foreign policy glam is a mixed bag. “There is no doubt that celebrities have the ability to raise the profile of issues near and dear to their hearts. Highlighting a problem is not the same thing as solving it, however – and the celebrity track record at affecting policy outcomes could best be characterized as mixed. Star activism has been reasonably successful at forcing powerful states to pledge action to assist the least-developed countries. It has been less successful at getting states to honor these pledges and not successful at all in affecting other global policy problems.”

There have been some real successes: “In the 1990s, Princess Diana embraced a ban on the use of land mines. Her death became a rallying point that led to Great Britain’s ratification of the 1997 Ottawa Convention to ban the devices. The Jubilee 2000 campaign, which Bono championed, should also count as a success. According to the Center for Global Development, the movement to assist highly indebted poor countries resulted in ‘the most successful industrial-country movement aimed at combating world poverty for many years, perhaps in all recorded history’.”

There have perhaps been more failures however. “While Bono provided an invaluable assist in promoting debt relief, he has not been as successful in his (Product) Red campaign. The idea was for consumers to do good through consumption – by buying iconic products colored red, a portion of the price would go to the UN Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The campaign was launched in January 2006 to great fanfare at Davos. According to Advertising Age, however, it has been a bust: After an estimated $100 million in marketing expenditures, the campaign netted only $18 million. (Product) Red has challenged the validity of these numbers, but the story invited media critiques of the campaign’s strategy, denting its momentum and cachet.”

Often well-meaning celebs are being less than successful in their efforts. “Richard Gere has devoted decades to the cause of Tibetan independence to little avail. Yet with one onstage kiss of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, he did manage to get himself burned in effigy across India – the reverse celebrity problem. On the whole, celebrities have made little headway in bringing peace to the world’s trouble spots.”

And some even resent the celebrity meddling. “Celebrity campaigns are also not always considered a greater good. Development expert William Easterly has argued that the celebrity focus on Africa’s problems has been misguided. By focusing exclusively on the diseases of sub-Saharan Africa, celebrities have unwittingly tarnished an entire continent: ‘[Africans are] not helpless wards waiting for actors and rock stars to rescue them.’ Many African officials and activists share this sentiment, even heckling Bono at a development conference.”

Certainly the celebs can bring attention to an issue, but more is needed than just consciousness-raising. “It is true that star activism can influence the global policy agenda. But as we’ve seen, when it comes to concrete achievements, celebrities have a spotty track record. They face a number of constraints on their ability to affect policy. Most obviously, celebrities might not be the most grounded community of individuals. While some celebrities have mastered the activist game, others seem out of their depth. Hip-hop singer and Live Earth performer Akon admitted to reporters that he didn’t know what it meant to be ‘green’ until the day of the concert. Sean Penn’s recent fact-finding trip to visit Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez served little purpose beyond a story in The New York Times that gently mocked both men.”

Again, socially aware and concerned celebs are probably to be preferred to those who simply wallow in their fame and fortunes, but one must guard against reducing international politics into something a few Hollywood heavyweights can somehow magically transform.

“A deeper problem celebrities face is that the implicit theory of politics that guides their activism does not necessarily apply to all facets of international relations. The goal of most social activism is to bring greater attention to a problem. The assumption is that once people become aware of the problem, there will be a groundswell of support for direct action. This is not how politics necessarily works, particularly in the global realm. Any solution to a problem like global warming, for example, involves significant costs. As people become more aware of the policy problem, it is far from guaranteed that a consensus will emerge about the best way to solve it. It is therefore not surprising that celebs have had their greatest successes in touting humanitarian causes and almost no effect on ending militarized conflicts.”

Celebs with a conscience are better than those without. But when faced with a real crisis, we must ask as Drezner does: “Who would you rather sit next to at your next Council on Foreign Relations roundtable: Henry Kissinger or Angelina Jolie?”

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8 Replies to “Jolie Good in Hollywood”

  1. What irks me is that most celebrities, especially those associated with pop music and Hollywood, not only display the most appalling moral standards in their private lives, but make music, movies and TV shows that have in no small way contributed to the decline in public morality. Then some of these celebs have the audacity to lecture the rest of us on how we need to save the environment.

    They think nothing of polluting our airwaves with moral filth, whilst pontificating about global warming, saving the whales or some such nonsense. You never see them using their profile to promote anything that might be considered politically incorrect like opposing abortion or speaking out about Islamic fascism for example. The little good that some of them might be doing is far outweighed by their collective bad moral example.

    I feel better for having gotten that off my chest!

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  2. I still do not understand why people believe (RED) is a corrupt, unsuccessful, or unethical. In effort to ensure your #’s are correct, (RED) has facilitated the donation of over ~$50 million. As for the money spent on advertising, I am cannot confirm how much money was spent, but I do not believe it was $100 million. More importantly, (RED) is a business model and does not directly receive any of the money companies donate; instead, the money goes directly to the Global Fund. Also, few businesses are profitable in the first two years. While (RED) is a non-profit organization, we should not expect the donations to exceed the costs within its first two years.
    Andy Carpenter

  3. Bill, I am sorry if I seem unduly negative in this post, but I am constrained to say it just the same.

    I am heartily sick and tired of so-called celebrities sponsoring fashionable political and social causes, and the whole world going after these vacuous profligates (which is most of them, albeit with some exceptions). When interviewed their replies are usually inept and ignorant. And especially Bono is now treated as some kind of authority in the American evangelical scene. What would he know about sound theology? When I have seen him interviewed he too is ignorant about the things of which he presumes to speak. Man, what he knows about good music is thin enough! Whether what he sings can be authentically classified as music is to me more than doubtful.

    I submit that it’s high time we derived our ministry to the poor, as well as our theology, from Scripture, and NOT from celebrities. This obsession with celebrities is one of the curses of our modern collapsing culture.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  4. What a radical idea from Dr Adamthwaite, deriving our treatment of the poor from Scripture! Too many in the Evanjellyfish Left derive their ideas from Marx instead, such as government control of resources like water (although the only biblical example of price controls is by the Antichrist), abolishing employment contracts entered into freely (endorsed by Jesus in Mt. 20), and high “progressive” taxes (although the biblical tithe was a flat tax).

    And so many of these Evangelefties are overjoyed that Chairman Rudd wants to increase “foreign aid”, which is really poor people in rich countries supporting rich despots in poor countries (see also Foreign “AID” at Taxpayer Expense: What is Seen and Unseen by Thomas Sowell).

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  5. Bill, a timely comment. For some of those you refer to, the Scriptural reference is “They have received their reward in full”.

    The best “celebrity cause” I know of – second hand only, is the special appeal made by The (original) Seekers during their “Carnival of Hits” tour in the year 2000.

    They supported research into Motor Neurone Disease (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) because a number of the band had been touched by it personally (Judith Durham lost husband Ron Edgeworth to the disease for example).

    So they explained what they were doing, and simply asked their audience to drop loose change into containers at the exits. The result: they raised almost $100,000 for research into MND.

    Oh, and if you think I’m merely an old nostalgic, they are Australia’s first super-group, having knocked over both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones with their chart hits in the 1960s. See here for their career details:

    John Angelico

  6. A further comment on the way people get their theology from celebrities and not from Scripture:
    “All you need is love”, sang the Beatles. From this little ditty went forth the formula that standards counted for nothing, that the only principle of right was what was loving in a given situation (Situation Ethics), and the sentimentalising of love such that it had more to do with what you saw in a Hollywood movie than with John 3:16, or Ephesians 5:25.

    But since when did the Beatles know anything about sound theology or sound ethics?

    Murray Adamthwaite

  7. I’m not entirely suprised it occurs, but a lot of Bono bashing goes on. I think this is a shame; people find it far too easy to criticise others who are actually acting on their convictions and working very hard to fix problems. Sure, there are celebrity activists who’s motivations could and should be questioned. Some, though, deserve respect. Bono, I think, deserves any recognition he gets for his work. He has, I think, been making a difference.
    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  8. The conundrum with Hollywood campaigners is that while they may provide a much-needed boost of awareness, the causes they champion so noisily may be much more complex than they imagine. Take for example, the Darfur brigade – the likes of George Clooney and Mia Farrow who campaign for awareness of the alleged genocide occurring in Darfur, Sudan. On the one hand, by merely being celebrities they are bringing the public’s attention to a tragic and arguably under-represented situation. On the other hand, the solutions they propose and the way they portray problems are often far too simplistic. In the case of Darfur, Farrow’s portrayal of the conflict as merely genocide between Arab and African muddies the waters of Sahelian politics. The reality of the situation being far more complex!

    I think celebrities have their uses, but sometimes they should be more informed when making comments that could mislead thousands.

    Emily Casebow

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