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How Dare Celebrity Activists Express Political Opinions?
…what do they think this is, a democracy?!


There are certain topics I want to write about -- but I keep getting distracted by other things that crop up. Case in point is today’s little musing, which touches on something I’ve been pondering for a few years now but which I hadn‘t necessarily planned to address…and which, admittedly, is only loosely connected to Canadian film and TV. But it does relate to the bigger world of celebrity and entertainers. And what prodded me in writing it now did relate to Canada and, tangentially, Canadian entertainment.

It also kicks off referring to an animal/environmental issue which is unfortunate, ‘cause purely by coincidence, that was the focus of another recent essay. And I wouldn’t want to seem repetitious. But bear with me.

See, there was a recent little piece in the paper about how a couple of U.S. models (and sisters) the Barbi twins sent out a press release condemning Canada’s seal hunt -- the models even suggesting they were rethinking trips to Canada they both had been considering (for separate reasons) as a protest. Quick to respond was the office of Senator Larry Campbell (a guy who, in an earlier stage of his political career, was the supposed inspiration for the TV series DaVinci’s Inquest -- see, told ya there was a Canadian entertainment connection). The response from Campbell’s office was, well, pretty snide, snarky, and rude -- ironically it was the models that Campbell’s office sought to dismiss who showed more class.

That’s a whole ‘nother issue, but these days it does seem as though politicians of all stripes -- supposedly the best, brightest, and smartest we have to offer -- are deporting themselves with all the grace and erudition of toddlers in wet diapers fighting over a Tonka truck in the sand box.

Now one could see some irony in Campbell’s office seeking to dismiss the celebrities as irrelevant bimbos…given Campbell is a Senator. Y’know, that unelected position that the Conservative Party, backed up by most of the media, has long railed against as an embarrassing institution where party hacks are put out to pasture -- one step away from the glue factory. Personally, I tend to view the senate with a little more respect, but to a lot of people, Campbell’s attack on the models could be viewed as the kettle sniping at the pot. (And whether it was Campbell himself, or an underling, who actually sent out the e-mails, I’m not sure is relevant…the buck has to stop at the top).

ANYWAY…I tend to be of mixed feelings on the seal hunt. On one hand, I don’t particularly like it…on the other hand, it provides employment. So my point is, it’s not so much that I necessarily agree with anti-sealers…but unlike pro-sealers, I think they have a perfect right to express themselves and stage protests.

BUT…this essay isn’t about sealing, or even the environment. It’s about that off shoot of celebrity culture…the Celebrity Activist.

Taking advantage of the fact that the media likes to write about them and to take their picture, some celebrities have decided to use their celebrity in the service of causes they consider greater than themselves.

This has led to a frequent backlash, from politicians, from the media, and even sometimes from the man in the street. The feeling is that these celebrities are letting their fame go to their head, thinking that because they can sing, or say lines, or just look pretty, that somehow that means they have a right to opine on important issues of the day. How dare they try to think? Who do they think they are?

To which one might respond: who do they have to be? Isn’t the point of a democracy that everyone has a legitimate right to an opinion, and to express that opinion?

Sometimes celebrity activists are criticized as being undemocratic, un-egalitarian. Their fame gives them an unfair advantage, a platform, that the “average” person doesn’t have, so what right do they have to capitalize on it? It’s elitism! It’s fascism!!!

The problem with that rationale is that it’s not like if all the celebrities in the world kept their mouths shut on current issues, the media would suddenly take to providing forums for taxi drivers or home makers to pontificate on matters of importance. No. It would just mean the issues of the day would be discussed and debated by the usual suspects -- politicians and professional lobbyists, spokesmen for special interest groups and, of course, the journalists themselves, with their own biases and agendas.

One could argue, celebrities weighing in on current affairs, far from being undemocratic, is the closest we’ll get to true, grass roots democracy. Because a celebrity is not beholden to a political party, is not in the employ of a lobby group, or needing to curry favour with their publisher at a newspaper, their views are, in a sense, untainted -- the views of John and Jane Q. Public. Because they aren’t hoping to curry votes, or to cash a pay cheque, their opinion has the novelty of…sincerity. I doubt there are too many entertainers who saw a boost in ticket sales because they championed a cause -- occasionally some have even hurt their careers by speaking out. And perks? Being invited to tour a disaster zone is hardly what most of us would consider a vacation.

And sure, their opinions might be misinformed, or prone to error and emotionalism, or manipulated by those who seek their support -- but, honestly, are we so naïve to think that’s not equally true of politicians and journalists? One could even make the claim that celebrities can, in their way, be more informed than the arm chair “professionals”. After all, entertainers are generally travellers -- moving from town to town, even country to country. They probably see more of the world than a lot of the professionals who seek to pronounce on global issues. And because being an entertainer is not, inherently, political, it means they are probably more likely to brush shoulders with a diversity of people and opinions than would, say, a politician who joined the youth wing of a political party in his/her teens and spends the rest of his life hobnobbing primarily with people who share his views.

There’s the cliché of entertainers being predominantly liberal -- I’m not sure if that’s true, but if it is, maybe that’s why. Their very profession compels them to leave the safety and insular sanctity of their communities where everyone looks and thinks a certain way, and mingle with people with whom they have nothing in common save a love of their art. And in so doing, discover they have more in common with those people than they realized.

The further irony is that everyone’s happy to use a celebrity for their own cause. For years UNICEF and the UN in general has even assigned celebrities semi-official positions (as “goodwill ambassadors”) to highlight certain issues -- and this is generally seen as a good thing.

A few years back I came upon a conservative American website set up to denounce Hollywood liberals, creating essentially a kind of black list of Hollywood celebrities who spoke out in favour of liberal causes. The website made no bones about the contempt that was felt for ALL celebrities -- they were junkies and high school drop outs, bimbos and himbos. No one in their right mind should take these idiots seriously, it insisted. Yet then the website also had a page celebrating Hollywood celebrities who had publicly supported conservative positions and causes, lionizing them for their courage and wisdom. So, um, which is it? Are Hollywood celebrities dimwitted idiots who haven’t the mental capacity to grasp the issues on which they speak…or are they smart and insightful? Apparently the makers of the website wanted it both ways.

Obviously, part of the negativity toward activist celebrities…is disillusionment. There’s still a part of us that does want to look up to these people, and when they express opinions we disagree with -- we feel betrayed. But, let’s face it, we usually get over it. Sure, I’ll admit, I’ve lost some interest in celebrities with whom I’ve discovered I fundamentally disagree…but not to the point where I wouldn’t watch a movie they were in because of it. And there’s also that jealously thing. We’re mad that they’re famous and we’re not. Journalists and politicians are jealous that an entertainer’s opinion can garner as much coverage as theirs can.

But, honestly, read the editorials in your local paper, as one time journalists settle on an opinion first, and cherry pick the facts afterward to justify it. Listen to politicians rage about the latest hot button topic their campaign managers tell them will play well with a certain demographic.

In a way -- celebrities might be the only ones saying anything worth listening to.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

April 24, 2010

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