Friday, June 15, 2007

The Venn Diagram of Celebrity and Politics



Yesterday I was wandering through Barnes and Noble acquiring books to take to China (one of my big regrets in Africa was not bringing along enough reading material...even paperbacks were quite expensive.) and came across the Vanity Fair "Africa" issue. Guest edited by everyone's favorite perpetually sunglass clad African debt relief expert slash rock star. That's right friends, it was Bono.

I haven't read through it yet, but it appears that Malaria has once again managed to avoid any major coverage, despite the fact that its death toll rivals that of HIV/Aids in many places in Africa. In Uganda alone, malaria, a completely preventable and curable disease, claims the lives of 320 women and children each day. I will save my rant about Malaria and the shadow of HIV/Aids for another post, because what I wanted to write about was the "celebrity with a cause".

I'll admit, that I have been known to be quite anti-Bono. He just rubbed me the wrong way. He was preachy and out of his element. I mean, what does a rock star know about the troubles of the developing world? And what would he know about fixing any of them? Yet, it never bothered me in the least that Bill and Melinda Gates were throwing money and brain power at the problems of the poor. And I adore Oprah, though she certainly gets on her soapbox. So why the special disgust with Bono? What (aside from his truly bad hair and unusually ugly wrap around shades) bothered me so about his interest in the developing world?

I recently watched a documentary called "The U.S versus John Lennon". It prodded me to reconsider the intersection of celebrity and politics. John Lennon was one of the first celebrities to be ruthlessly hounded by the press. His every move was documented. Naturally, he grew weary of this, but his weariness did nothing to stop people's fascination with him, or to satiate public desire for information about his private life. So he decided to use all of that press attention to push a political agenda. Now, the way he did that was naive and really very sweet in some ways. It could only have really worked in the sixties. Certainly Yoko's performance art was a major influence in the "bed ins for peace". Their political ideas remained entertainment in many ways. In the film he says "People are going to pay attention to everything I do, so I might as well make them pay attention to something important."


Which, of course, brings us to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. They seem to have successfully refocused a great deal of media attention not by preaching necessarily, but by focusing their own attention on the trials of the developing world. It isn't that you hear them preaching their
solutions for the developing world, but you see paparazzi shots of them on the tarmac in Swaziland, or a refugee camp in Darfur or at the United Nations with development economist Jeffery Sachs (who is far better looking in person than he is in any of the photos you see of him...)

I can't help but acknowledge that whether or not I like a celebrity, I admire the idea of making that media attention work for something larger than just fame. Ultimately, it won't matter what US Weekly writes about Lindsay Lohan's underage drinking or Nicole Ritchie's eating disorder. But if Bono wants to use his name to draw public attention to the problems of developing countries, it could potentially save lives, and that is worthwhile. So I hereby officially retract my anti Bono sentiments.

I say, go forth, leather pant clad rock stars, malnourished starlets and powerful talk show moguls. Pontificate about poverty, have your picture taken with Nelson Mandela, visit as many orphanages as you can get to. Let's focus on something other than Paris Hilton going to jail. Let's do something useful. And while we're at it, lets get a celebrity champion for Malaria. HIV/Aids has a corner on the celebrity spokesperson market. It's time Malaria got its fair share of media coverage, and if The Edge wants to get in on the act, so be it.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Just before you returned from Africa, Ashley Judd was speaking about Malaria in Africa. It got some play on CNN.com but I'm not sure how must activism she can sustain while watching the Indy 500.

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