Daniel W. Drezner

Wanted: dumber, simpler celebrities

As someone who wrote about celebrity activism a few years ago, I’m always intrigued to see new takes on the issue.  In the Washington Post, a curmudgeonly William Easterly argues that today’s celebrity activists — like Bono — ain’t like the celebrity dissidents of a prior generation — like John Lennon: Is there a celebrity ...

As someone who wrote about celebrity activism a few years ago, I’m always intrigued to see new takes on the issue.  In the Washington Post, a curmudgeonly William Easterly argues that today’s celebrity activists — like Bono — ain’t like the celebrity dissidents of a prior generation — like John Lennon:

Is there a celebrity activist today who matches Lennon’s impact and appeal? The closest counterpart to Lennon now is U2’s Bono, another transcendent musical talent championing another cause: the battle against global poverty. But there is a fundamental difference between Lennon’s activism and Bono’s, and it underscores the sad evolution of celebrity activism in recent years.

Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not.

Lennon’s protests against the war in Vietnam so threatened the U.S. government that he was hounded by the FBI, police and immigration authorities. He was a moral crusader who challenged leaders whom he thought were doing wrong. Bono, by contrast, has become a sort of celebrity policy expert, supporting specific technical solutions to global poverty. He does not challenge power but rather embraces it; he is more likely to appear in photo ops with international political leaders – or to travel through Africa with a Treasury secretary – than he is to call them out in a meaningful way.

There is something inherently noble about the celebrity dissident, but there is something slightly ridiculous about the celebrity wonk.

Where the essay gets a little strange is where Easterly defines what he means in his dissident vs. wonk divide:

Bono is not the only well-intentioned celebrity wonk of our age – the impulse is ubiquitous. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (seriously) in addition to serving as a U.N. goodwill ambassador. Ben Affleck has become an expert on the war in Congo. George Clooney has Sudan covered, while Leonardo DiCaprio hobnobs with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders at a summit to protect tigers; both actors have written opinion essays on those subjects in these pages, further solidifying their expert bona fides.

But why should we pay attention to Bono’s or Jolie’s expertise on Africa, any more than we would ask them for guidance on the proper monetary policy for the Federal Reserve?

True dissidents – celebrity or not – play a vital role in democracy. But the celebrity desire to gain political power and social approval breeds intellectual conformity, precisely the opposite of what we need to achieve real changes. Politicians, intellectuals and the public can fall prey to groupthink (We must invade Vietnam to keep the dominoes from falling!) and need dissidents to shake them out of it.

True dissidents claim no expertise; they offer no 10-point plans to fix a problem. They are most effective when they simply assert that the status quo is morally wrong. Of course, they need to be noticed to have an impact, hence the historical role of dissidents such as Lennon who can use their celebrity to be heard.

Now, on the one hand, I can kinda sorta see what Easterly is saying.  Sometimes it takes the innocent to say that the emperor has no clothes, and goodness knows celebrities can play that role if they so choose. 

That said, Easterly is also being a bit innocent himself.  As I argued a few years ago, celebrities have strong personal incentives to embrace causes that are seen as having broad appeal.  It’s worth remembering that Lennon only starting acting dissident-y after he was more popular than Jesus.  The celebrities that have made their anti-war views loudly known — like, say, Sean Penn — haven’t exactly shifted the debate all that much. 

This could be because today’s celebrities simply can’t project the same kind of star power that the Beatles could.  Today’s global popular culture is more fragmented, and so individual celebrities might have smaller groupies fan bases than in the past. 

More generally, however, Easterly seems to be arguing that the more celebrities know about the cause that they are embracing, the less effective they will be.  Again, in today’s information ecosystem, I’m not sure that’s right.  As I wrote before: 

In the current media environment, a symbiotic relationship between celebrities and cause célèbres has developed. Celebrities have a comparative advantage over policy wonks because they have access to a wider array of media outlets, which translates into a wider audience of citizens. Superstars can go on The Today Show or The Late Show to plug their latest movie and their latest global cause. Because of their celebrity cachet, even hard-news programs will cover them-stories about celebrities can goose Nielsen ratings. With a few exceptions, like Barack Obama or John McCain, most politicians cannot make the reverse leap to soft-news outlets. Non-celebrity policy activists are virtually guaranteed to be shut out of these programs.

The growth of soft news gives celebrity activists enormous leverage. The famous and the fabulous are the bread and butter of entertainment programs. Covering celebrity do-gooders provides content that balances out, say, tabloid coverage of Nicole Richie’s personal and legal troubles. ESPN can cover both Michael Vick’s travails and Dikembe Mutombo’s efforts to improve health care in sub-Saharan Africa. MTV will cover Amy Winehouse’s on-stage meltdowns, but they will also follow Angelina Jolie in her trips to Africa. They covered Live Earth for both the music and the message….

Indeed, celebrities actually have an advantage over other policy activists and experts because hard-news outlets have an incentive to cover them too. Celebrities mean greater attention, and hard-news outlets are not above stunts designed to attract readers or ratings. Consider this question: If The Washington Post is deciding between running an op-ed by Angelina Jolie and an op-ed by a lesser-known expert on Sudan, which author do you think they are most likely to choose?

On the other hand, it is very easy, in today’s world, to mock the uninformed dissident who simply says "war is bad."  Indeed, given the causes that celebrities have latched onto — like Darfur — the dissident response might well be to call for greater American intervention as the means to end the status quo in the region.  Ironically, only as celebrities have acquired more information about Sudan have they realized the huge risks of that policy.     

Having read and reviewed Easterly, I suspect he’s making these arguments because he knows a great deal about aid (which makes him a wonk in that area) and not so much about war (which makes him more of a dissident) and he’d like celebrities to be following his lead.   More generally, and revealing my own biases, I’m skeptical that the dissident will be more effective than the insider.  Or, to posit the counterfactual, even if Bono, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and George Clooney had railed against the Iraq war from day one, I don’t think it would have made a damn bit of difference. 

Of course, if Salma Hayek had gotten involved, then all bets are off. 

I’m willing for the commenters to persuade me otherwise.  Particularly Salma Hayek

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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