28 December 2007

celebrity activism... driving the policy agenda

There was an interesting article in The National Interest last month by Daniel W. Drezner about celebrity activism, particularly in world politics, discussing whether they are actually effective.
Increasingly, celebrities are taking an active interest in world politics. When media maven Tina Brown attends a Council on Foreign Relations session, you know something fundamental has changed in the relationship between the world of celebrity and world politics. What’s even stranger is that these efforts to glamorize foreign policy are actually affecting what governments do and say. The power of soft news has given star entertainers additional leverage to advance their causes. Their ability to raise issues to the top of the global agenda is growing. This does not mean that celebrities can solve the problems that bedevil the world. And not all celebrity activists are equal in their effectiveness. Nevertheless, politically-engaged stars cannot be dismissed as merely an amusing curiosity in foreign policy.
Um, who is Tina Brown and why should I care? I think this may also be a case of political leaders wanting some celebrity glamour to rub off on them
Why has international relations gone glam? Have stars like Jolie, Madonna, Bono, Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg, George Clooney and Sheryl Crow carved out a new way to become foreign-policy heavyweights? Policy cognoscenti might laugh off this question as absurd, but the career arc of Al Gore should give them pause. As a conventional politician, Gore made little headway in addressing the problem of global warming beyond negotiating a treaty that the United States never ratified. As a post–White House celebrity, Gore starred in An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize, promoted this past summer’s Live Earth concert and reframed the American debate about global warming. Gore has been far more successful as a celebrity activist than he ever was as vice president.
Al Gore had a film to promote. Without the film, nobody would have taken any notice of him.
Current entertainers have greater incentives to adopt global causes than their precursors. Furthermore, they are more likely to be successful in pushing their policy agenda to the front of the queue. These facts have less to do with the celebrities themselves than with how citizens in the developed world consume information. Whether the rise of the celebrity activist will lead to policy improvements, however, is a more debatable proposition. Promoting a policy agenda is one thing; implementing it is another thing entirely.
Some of these celebrities should put their money where their mouth is and run for high political office with an election agenda.
The final reason more celebrities are interested in making the world a better place is that it is simply easier for anyone to become a policy activist today. An effective policy entrepreneur requires a few simple commodities: expertise, money and the ability to command the media’s attention. Celebrities already have the latter two; the Internet has enabled them to catch up on information-gathering. Several celebrities even have “philanthropic advisors” to facilitate their activism. This does not mean that celebrities will become authentic experts on a country or issue. They can, however, acquire enough knowledge to pen an op-ed or sound competent on a talk show.
Perhaps some of these celebrities want to be taken seriously and use activism as a means to demonstrate that they have some intelligence. It's a pity that many don't show any sound judgment.
At its core, star activism hints that the famous are somehow better than you or me. Some Americans view celebrities who pontificate on politics and policy as taking advantage of a bully pulpit that they did not earn. There’s a fine line between principled activism and righteous indignation, and the celebrity who crosses that line risks incurring the wrath of the common man or woman.
Ha! I wonder if Governor Schwarzenegger has traded in his gas-guzzling Hummer. Some of these celebrities could reign in their over-consumption for a start and live by example.

After three days off work (public holidays), it was strange going to work on a Friday. Hardly anybody was in. Strangely, I completed a fair bit of work today.

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