Friday, February 15, 2008

Of Governments, Celebrities, and the Rest of Us

This morning I found myself reading a release from the African Press Agency (APA) as a follow-up to my "Celebrity Priorities" post. In that post I had written about Steven Spielberg's decision to resign from the position of artistic advisor to the 2008 Olympics, apparently under the influence of Mia Farrow, who was one of the signatories of an open letter about Darfur sent to the Chinese president. As might be expected, the APA story focused on another signatory, Bishop Desmond Tutu; but the basic story was still the same (except, perhaps, that in Tutu's case the "bully pulpit" metaphor has a closer tie to its literal semantics). The fact that I am still reading reports about celebrities taking on questions of human rights when "designated officials" have failed to do so set me to wondering. As journalists would say, this story has "legs;" but how far will those legs carry it?

My own reading skills tend to lead me to look for the "story behind the story," so to speak. In this case I suspect that the background story can be summarized in a single general question: Who speaks for the victims? We certainly get more than our share of reports about victims, whether they are on either side of the border between Sudan and Chad, still trying to recover from Katrina, or trying to cope with the aftermath of the latest mass shooting in "middle America." When catastrophe strikes it does not take the media long to get "on the scene" to shove their microphones and cameras into the faces of such victims; but those reports rarely endure longer than 24 hours. New catastrophes create new victims, the media run elsewhere, and they leave behind victims who are still victims with all too much to say and no voice with which to say it.

Our civics lessons taught us that the virtue of a representative government is that, through the structure and functioning of representation, every citizen has a voice that can be heard. How much value is there in telling this story to the young when they will then grow up to learn it is a myth? The real message of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke was that, from any practical point of view, the victims of Katrina had no voice at all. In that respect they were (and still are) no different from the survivors of the many massacres in Darfur, who have never labored under the illusion that their country provided them with a representative government. Thus, regardless of the particular type of government that controls a given piece of geography, it is simply not realistic to assume that the institution of government can be counted on to speak for the victims among its citizens.

So it is that we turn our attention to celebrities. Sometimes celebrity status can be institutionalized: This is basically what Nelson Mandela did last July, when he made the commitment to support a "brain trust" of elder statesmen (one of whom happened to be Desmond Tutu). The United Nations has taken a similar approach with "special ambassador" status that has been assigned to those who understand the principle of the bully pulpit, such as George Clooney. Then you have those like Angelina Jolie and Sean Penn, who, without institutional support, decide to commit their voices in the interest of others whose voices cannot be heard. (In Jolie's case her initial self-motivated initiative later converted to one with an institutional connection.)

Still, there is something disconcerting about celebrities filling a vacuum created by the inability of governments to speak for their victims. I suppose the greatest problem is that the space of victims is growing faster than it can be managed by the space of celebrities. There is also the problem that giving voice to a victim is more than a matter of having a good heart: It requires that one achieve enough understanding (in the semantics of the social theories of Jürgen Habermas) of what the victim is actually saying to be able to faithfully render that voice from the bully pulpit. This is no easy matter, particularly when the cultural context of the victim (which, as Clifford Geertz taught us, shapes the very identity of that victim) is radically different from that of the celebrity. Finally, there is the problem that speaking for a victim is rarely a one-shot affair; only mainstream media reporters can get away with treating it that way. Speaking for another requires a sustained commitment that may well end of conflicting with the celebrity's "day job" (such as the latest entertainment project that will provide not only financial resources but possibly further celebrity status).

This does not mean that we should dismiss the efforts of those celebrities who appreciate these problems and manage to deal with them. However, they cannot do it alone; so we should think of them not as solving a problem but as showing us a viable path to solution. This seems to me the spirit behind Habitat for Humanity. This is an institution that hears the voices of victims who need homes and then goes out to build those homes. The institution benefits from photo opportunities that show Jimmy Carter (another member of the Mandela "brain trust") with his tool belt participating in one of those building projects; but Carter is there to demonstrate that anyone can do this sort of thing. (My wife and I ran into a Habit for Humanity team on a train in Eastern Europe when I was attending an artificial intelligence conference in Budapest.) The real question that faces us, then, is: When someone shows you such a path in a loud, clear, and persuasive voice, how will you respond?

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