Tag Archives: celebrity activism

The Role of the Celebrity Activist

Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton.  Nas vs. Jay-Z.  And now, Easterly vs. Bono.  In an attack reminiscent of Jon Stewart’s epic takedown of the sheepish Jim Cramer after the financial crisis, Bill Easterly, a well-known development economist who favors bottom-up approaches to development rather than top-down technocratic solutions, uses the 30-year anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon to lament the decline of good celebrity activism.  Summing up the comparison in a sentence, Easterly pens:

Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not.

Bono is an interesting character.    I am not completely sold that he is not a completely negative force in terms of development, but I do think that he has the tendency to do more harm than good.  First, he aligns himself with a particular school of thought regarding how foreign aid should be delivered.  Then again, I do the same thing (the opposite school of Bono), so I don’t know if I can completely knock him for standing behind what he believes, even if I think he is wrong.  Second, he provides a public face for institutions and organizations that are often disingenuous when it comes to impact, as I have written about in this post about Project (Red) and the trend of cause marketing.  But Easterly sums up my thoughts nicely in his post.  Here, Easterly describes what he sees as the problem of celebrity activism in general:

Bono is not the only well-intentioned celebrity wonk of our age – the impulse is ubiquitous. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (seriously) in addition to serving as a U.N. goodwill ambassador. Ben Affleck has become an expert on the war in CongoGeorge Clooney has Sudan covered, while Leonardo DiCaprio hobnobs with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders at a summit to protect tigers; both actors have written opinion essays on those subjects in these pages, further solidifying their expert bona fides.

But why should we pay attention to Bono’s or Jolie’s expertise on Africa, any more than we would ask them for guidance on the proper monetary policy for the Federal Reserve?

I agree.  Raising awareness is important, and I like to see celebrities shining a light on critical issues.  I understand the desire and sense of need to use your celebrity for good, but, just like I don’t want to see Bill Easterly dance, I don’t want to hear Bono be a technocrat or an economist.  This, according to Easterly, is the role of a true celebrity dissident:

True dissidents – celebrity or not – play a vital role in democracy. But the celebrity desire to gain political power and social approval breeds intellectual conformity, precisely the opposite of what we need to achieve real changes. Politicians, intellectuals and the public can fall prey to groupthink (We must invade Vietnam to keep the dominoes from falling!) and need dissidents to shake them out of it.

True dissidents claim no expertise; they offer no 10-point plans to fix a problem. They are most effective when they simply assert that the status quo is morally wrong. Of course, they need to be noticed to have an impact, hence the historical role of dissidents such as Lennon who can use their celebrity to be heard.

We need more high-profile dissidents to challenge mainstream power. This makes it all the sadder that Bono and many other celebrities only reinforce this power in their capacity as faux experts. Where have all the celebrity dissidents gone? It’s not a complicated task. All Lennon was saying was to give peace a chance.

Amen.  Keep it simple.