Celebrity endorsement is the super-weapon of modern humani-tarianism. But it can go badly wrong.
IT is easy, particularly for dedicated readers of Ms Magazine and people who educate themselves about rape as a matter of conscience, to wince at the sight of Angelina Jolie at the side of the foreign secretary, William Hague, travelling to Bosnia to meet rape victims in her role as a special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Jolie, who specialises in films where the camera seems unable to leave her face, has reinvented herself as a philanthropic lobbyist of the most celestial kind. Together, she and Hague seek to eradicate rape as an instrument of war.
Hague might do as well to stay in Britain and investigate – and even lobby against – the annihilation of support services for raped British women and victims of domestic violence generally, which has happened under the government of which he is a member. Or perhaps he could really stretch his philanthropic wings – and do both?
Recently, a report from Britain’s Commons Work and Pensions Committee noted that not all victims of domestic abuse are exempt from the so-called “bedroom tax”, which cuts claimants’ benefits if they have spare rooms in their homes.
But then the presiding Labour MP Anne Begg is rather less photogenic than Jolie, who does not sit on the Commons Work and Pensions Committee. Although I rather wish she did, because perhaps then Hague would endorse the report. In any case, the cause is less dramatic, and will not win Hague votes in his constituency of Richmond, Yorkshire, which is nowhere near Bosnia.
“This (rape) is something that has been out of sight and out of mind for most people in the world,” Hague told the BBC, in a short joint interview unfortunately headlined: Angelina Jolie and William Hague tackle Bosnia war rapes.
It is hard to disagree with the foreign secretary here, but we are in satirical lands nonetheless. These are a dystopia seething with hypocrisy and soaked with vanity; a place where Sasha Baron Cohen, as his alter ego Bruno, a newly-hatched celebrity in search of a cause, can tell us: “Clooney’s got Darfur, Sting’s got the Amazon and Bono’s got Aids!” Jolie and Hague, who have also travelled to the Congo together, will co-host a conference on global sexual violence in London in June, to which Hague has invited representatives from 137 countries. Because Jolie will be present, they will come.
Hague’s hypocrisy is predictable and easily explained; but what drives Jolie’s philanthropy? It is, again, easy to dismiss her charity work as a rational extension of her own narcissism, which is almost pitiable in itself – it is a truism that it is almost impossible to recover from fame. Her intentions would be more palatable if she had not agreed to accept quite such a clutch of philanthropic awards at quite so many gala dinners; and if she shed fewer tears in Hello! magazine while dressed in a black robe so ostentatious it looks like costume. Do the rape victims of Bosnia really need more tears?
Celebrity endorsement is the super-weapon of modern humanitarianism – three quarters of Britain’s 30 largest charities (excluding housing and care trusts) have full-time celebrity liaison managers to ease the celebrities on and off aeroplanes in and out of hell. This is a shame, because when the trivial touches the important, it too becomes trivial.
When Sport Relief asked celebrities to bake for Africa, it only seemed depraved. Do you remember when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge went to Unicef’s emergency supply centre in Copenhagen to pack a box of supplies for malnourished children in east Africa? It seemed hard to believe that their dedication to Unicef would outlast their actual presence in the depot, particularly when you consider their personal profligacy. At such affairs, elites seem more robust than ever, as they ape the medieval royal practice of the laying on of hands.
Celebrity endorsement can go badly wrong, and often does, because our gods have feet of clay. They do not operate effectively on Planet Earth, because that is not the point of them; and so why, in an arena where expertise is so essential, do we not seek professional advocates, rather than wandering stars?
Naomi Campbell campaigned for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, saying she would “rather go naked than wear fur” – and then wore fur. Perhaps she forgot her oath? Scarlett Johansson had to retire from Oxfam when her endorsement of SodaStream, an Israeli-based company with a factory on the West Bank, contradicted the charity’s stated aims.
Bono (or Paul Hewson as I would rather call him) has a particularly fascinating case of what Paul Theroux calls “mythomania”, a condition that afflicts “people who wish to convince the world of their worth”. Hewson is a hypocrite with a limited understanding of what Africa needs, even if he is so drugged by his own possibilities he would never recognise himself in that description.
Theroux believes that Jolie and her husband, Brad Pitt are likewise mythomaniacs.
“Cuddling African children and lecturing the world on charity,” he wrote, “the image that immediately sprang to my mind was Tarzan and Jane.”
This is clearly an extension of their original vocation, which is drama. None of it can happen without a compliant audience; and in that lies the shame.
Celebrity culture is anti-culture; and it is, sadly, the dominant culture. I have never understood why actors, whose professional vocation is to erase themselves, are to be idolised, but maybe that itself is the reason. Even so, it feels peculiarly self-hating, even for a self-hating species. — Guardian News & Media 2014