George Clooney just got himself arrested, protesting in front of the Sudanese embassy. I can’t quite put my finger on it, was it his radiant smile as the cop ushered him along, but somehow his arrest didn’t quite remind me of that archetypal image, repeated over and over again in places like 1960s Mississippi, 1980s South Africa, or the Arab streets of last year, of protesters being hauled off to the certainty of beating, torture, rape or disappearance. I suspect George will not have his face rearranged by interrogators. I suspect our tax dollars will not pay for his water-boarding.
With a world still excited over the Invisible Children video phenomenon, the last thing the Sudanese government wanted was to become famous like Kony. They should have paid the WDC police not to arrest the most handsome gray-bearded man on the planet. And even if there are plenty of similarities between Kony 2012 and the oversimplification of the Save Darfur Campaign, I’m not going to complain much about the useful fact of celebrity catastrophe tourism. Let’s give Clooney some credit, because like Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn and some others, he has consistently made an effort, not just showed up at a few cocktail parties.
Celebrity altruism is at times comical, at times pitiful, and now firmly established as part of the humanitarian landscape. As Madonna’s publicist explained to Mother Jones: “She’s focusing on Malawi. South Africa is Oprah’s territory.” See MJ’s clickable map of celebrity African do-gooding. I guess I’m used to the idea of NGOs shamelessly exploiting celebrities, trading souls for search hits. Celebrityism is just one more stunt, a questionable and yet undoubtedly profitable response to a world where American Idol losers are more famous than Omar Bashir or Joseph Kony or the entire nation of Chad.
Should we question one children’s agency’s lucrative use of David Beckham, by all accounts a devoted father and footballer, simply because he’s pretty much a poster child for the sort of rampant materialism that’s consuming childhood itself, not to mention the idea of spending more money on a pair of underpants than 2.7 billion people earn in a week? Yes, of course we should, but it’s not such a big deal.
The more interesting story is the celebrifrication of the humanitarian crisis itself. It is no longer just a question of celebrities shining the light of attention on a particular cause; it has become the interpretation or “reality” of that cause. We increasingly perceive the disaster itself, be it the suffering of Somali refugees or the war in Nuba, through the eyes of movie stars, as opposed to the eyes of academic experts, humanitarians, or journalists. Our views still exist, but who sees them? Now, the story is the celebrity visit itself, not the disaster, and the suffering of others reaches us through the lens of their experience. Here’s Sex in the City’s Kristin Davis fresh off the plane from Dadaab camp in Ethiopia.
This is only partly sour grapes. We should give some celebrities credit, for rolling up their sleeves and getting far deeper into the issues than many NGO CEOs like myself, who drop into major mediatized crises and demonstrate little timidity around cameras and starving babies.
So as the celebrity experience of the suffering, catastrophe and crisis overshadows our own, who do we in the disaster cartel resemble? Why, it’s the Somali, Congolese, or Sudanese people themselves, who we academic experts, humanitarians and journalists have spent decades rendering almost completely invisible. Hooray for justice.
P.S. If you want to see a gray-bearded humanitarian take a stab at acting, click here.