Bono and AIDS. Madonna and the school in Malawi. Farm Aid. Celebrities promoting good causes have become a tired cliché — and now here’s Angelina Jolie not only engrossed in humanitarian work but also directing a movie, In the Land of Blood and Honey, about the Bosnian War and violence against women, and making the rounds in Washington D.C. to promote it. The question is asked again and again, do these partnerships actually do any good, aside from creating an aura of good will for the already-famous entertainer/actor/pop star?
In a recent essay, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof turns this notion of celebrities promoting good causes for their stardom’s sake on its head, writing that, celebrities are actually making a difference and especially when you compare their efforts to the likes of (for instance) our vainglorious Congress and other politicians (some of whom could be said to be wrapped up in the business of becoming celebrities themselves). Writes Kristof:
Congress is so paralyzed and immature, even sleazy, that we reporters sometimes leave a politician’s press conference feeling the urgent need to shower. But look at university and high school students. Sure, plenty still live for a party, but a growing number have no time for beer because they’re so busy tutoring prisoners, battling sex trafficking or building wells in Africa.
Even more startling, we can now turn to moral leadership from — brace yourself — Hollywood’s “most beautiful people.” I know, I know. What we expect from celebrities is mostly scandalous sex lives and crackpot behavior, and some do oblige. But increasingly as our “leaders” debase the national conversation, sex symbols elevate it.
Describing himself as initially “rather scornful of celebrities dabbling in humanitarian causes,” Kristof specifically writes about Jolie and her movie. In the Land of Milk and Honey is about a Bosnian Serbian man and a Bosnian Muslim woman; the Bosnian war ends their romance when “he becomes an officer in a genocidal army and she becomes a survivor in one of the army’s rape camps.” Jolie’s hope is that her film will lead people to “meditate on humanitarian intervention and what can be done to prevent mass atrocities.”
Kristof also inveighs against news organizations that have given into “commercial pressures” and put gossipy celebrity news (George Clooney breaking up with his girlfriend, again) over reports about celebrities using their celebrity to make a difference (Clooney going to Sudan and making use of satellite photos to “catch the Sudanese government committing mass atrocities”). It’s the celebrities, writes Kristof, who are showing “authentic leadership” and “seriousness and moral purpose,” not our elected officials and he indeed has a point.
Celebrities have spoken publicly, and erroneously, about scientific and medical issues, causes of diseases and treatments as Jenny McCarthy did in claiming that vaccines caused her son to become autistic and that we need to “green our vaccines,” with unfortunate results; perhaps there are some topics they had best stay away from. But if celebrities’ efforts (which we hear about so much, thanks to the press and what seems to be our human need for gossip) stir us to action and even a flight of idealism, inspire us to make a difference and to make the world a better place (rather than just persuade us to vote in the next election) — and we actually do so — it is perhaps high time that, instead of automatically questioning the good will of celebrities promoting humanitarian causes, we make a point of trying to do as much good, too.
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Photo of Jolie visiting a wounded US service member in Germany in May of 2011 by AN HONORABLE GERMAN