Politics as Spectacle

Can Brangelina and Bono really change the public sphere, or just make it glitzier?

In the spring of 2004, I had the chance a million 30-somethings would give their iPods for: I shook hands with Bono. For Oxfam, I had helped set up his trip to Ottawa to lobby Paul Martin. When he gripped my hand and the cameras clicked and whirred, the Irish singer wore the nervous grimace and wary body language one might expect in any celebrity, but his bowlegged, swaggering walk and trademark glasses were all his own.

A few moments earlier, the star had spoken clearly and knowledgeably to the press about raising Canada’s aid to the long-promised 0.7 percent of gross national income. He congratulated the prime minister for past decisions on debt relief and AIDS, but chided him for failing to increase aid as another 50,000 people died that day from preventable causes. Reporters ate out of his palm. Mr. Martin, sitting beside him, just beamed.

The moment I witnessed defined how the tussle over 0.7 percent would be framed from that point forward: not the pros and cons of increased aid, not the raucous cries of white-banded activists hectoring timid politicians, not even NDP do-gooders badgering wishy-washy Liberals. No, it would be the rock star versus the prime minister.

An issue languishing on the back burner was suddenly on the front pages. Over the next year Bono repeated the feat in most capitals of the Group of Eight rich nations. Then he helped his buddy Bob Geldof ramp up the pressure with the star-studded Live 8 concerts in June 2005, including one in Barrie, Ontario. And before you could say “Make Poverty History,” the drum we non-governmental organizations had been banging for years had called a quarter of a million Canadians out of the woodwork to talk to their members of Parliament about 0.7 percent.

Celebrities have been speaking out for generations (Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger); they have long been active as charity fundraisers (Danny Kaye’s glad-handing for UNICEF, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh). What is new is their ability to gain the attention of political leaders, and to do so with the public resonance to make it stick. As Paul Martin put it, celebrities “make it possible for governments to act. And in fact make it impossible for governments not to act.”

Many commentators worry that a singer’s opinion about a complex policy issue now weighs as much or more than that of professionals in the field. Andrew F. Cooper, author of the slim and insightful Celebrity Diplomacy, is not one of them. Although he cloaks his views in academic fair-mindedness, the respected University of Waterloo political scientist clearly welcomes the eruption of entertainers into the stuffy domain of diplomats. If nothing else, it makes international relations a hell of a lot more interesting.

Cooper has written or edited half a dozen books on global governance, including several of the annual Canada Among Nations series, and he is an associate director at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. The slant that intrigues him is how advocacy by celebrities is changing diplomacy, a trend that parallels the way celebrity culture is altering people’s sense of identity and connection. His analysis gives convincing depth to a phenomenon commonly and unfairly derided as superficial posturing, and confirms the rising power of non-state actors in a globalized world.

Diplomacy by celebrities is driven by what Cooper calls “a desire for some psychological exchange, with the political elite wanting to become not just glamorous but to be connected with popular culture, and the entertainers wanting to be elevated into the role of serious thinkers and doers.” Superstars thus gain access to leaders at the very top, where they can give voice to sentiment that otherwise would not be heard, opening up a channel of communication that our calcified political systems somehow do not provide.

Celebrities have been instrumental in pushing up the political agenda such issues as AIDS, debt relief, Darfur and climate change. They find most success when working in concert with NGO-led campaigns that make public opinion palpable through demonstrations, petitions and emails to leaders. Many NGOs recruit celebrities for their ability to get to politicians and to mobilize supporters (Oxfam currently has 14 such “ambassadors”).

Cooper’s gaze is focused on stars who look beyond philanthropy to policy advocacy, address issues of global rather than national concern and are not themselves current or former politicians (icon Nelson Mandela gets only a nod). He touches on an impressively long list of Hollywood actors, pop musicians, athletes, Nobel Prize–winners, businesspeople and royalty, who range from shallow self-promoters without much depth or staying power (Ginger Spice) to well-meaning but not always effective enthusiasts (Sharon Stone or Richard Gere), to highly skilled and innovative operators (Angelina Jolie and Bono).

Celebrity Diplomacy singles out two entertainer-cum-diplomats: Bono, the smooth and sophisticated “talisman of celebrity diplomacy,” and Bob Geldof, the foul-mouthed and perpetually angry “antidiplomat,” who seem to work best when they team up in a good-cop, bad- cop routine. We get the fascinating story of the Live 8 concerts and the Gleneagles G8 Summit that followed (where all but Canada finally promised new foreign aid), including the moment when a clever politician managed to manipulate the manipulator and Tony Blair trapped Geldof in an uncomfortable embrace.

Cooper rightly views Bono as head and shoulders above the rest, because of not only the enormity of his draw but also the seriousness of his approach. Only Bono has set up an NGO (DATA) to organize his advocacy, has reached out to stars of the business world for support and is unfazed by the need to embrace right-wing Republicans to achieve his goals. As if his public camaraderie with George W. Bush were not enough, his route to the president, Cooper tells us, came via the infamously reactionary former senator Jesse Helms.

In the author’s pantheon, business titans Bill Gates and George Soros are on a par with Bono and Geldof, or above them even, although their efforts to change government policy come less by star power than by clever philanthropy. Like Rockefeller and Ford before them, they fund the research that policy makers rely on and entice official donors with offers of matching grants for programs they believe will get “the results that, to their immense frustration, [do] not seem to be produced through conventional routes.”

Gates and Soros are highlighted in a chapter on the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, where business luminaries rub shoulders with Hollywood stars — “gold meets glitter” — and politicians crave entry. Like the annual G8 summit, the Davos meeting each January has become an emblematic “site of diplomatic theater” in Cooper’s view. There, political leaders compete to win the approval of the glitterati by announcing high-profile initiatives, and celebrities make high-minded speeches to increase their own diplomatic currency.

Celebrities are in many ways the opposite of traditional diplomats, who prize discretion, subtle signalling and arm twisting behind closed doors. The stars are brash, loud, public. Cooper contrasts Bono with Henry Kissinger, both of whom raised the bar on their respective brands of diplomacy. Kissinger’s greatest concern was control, and coercion was his tool of choice; Bono prizes access, and his only power resides in his voice. Of course, Kissinger could (and did) cause real pain, whereas Bono’s threat to condemn is not nearly as potent as his promise to support.

A common critique of celebrity diplomats is that they have assumed the role of messenger between citizens and states without any real legitimacy — who elected them? But it could be argued that stars need public support to remain “in office,” perhaps even more than politicians. A false move in their personal lives, a bad movie or album, and their power to influence can vanish.

A more serious difficulty, as Cooper astutely points out, lies with the business celebs whose deep pockets allow them to assume the role not of messenger, but of policy maker. Cooper calls it “an expression of the ascendancy of private authority on global public policy,” but he stops short of naming the implications. He could have pointed out that the Gates Foundation and Soros’s Open Society Institute together dispense nearly a billion dollars a year in development-related grants (Canada spends $4 billion) with few mechanisms for public accountability. Cooper might have related how Gates has leveraged changes in official aid policy to favour private sector solutions to public health problems. Or how his championing of a high-tech green revolution for Africa has persuaded some donors to join the quest for a magic bullet that seems as likely to fill the coffers of the fertilizer and seed giants as the bellies of the hungry.

The book offers a fascinating tour du monde of celebrity diplomacy beyond the anglo-American sphere that dominates “global” culture. In France, Brigitte Bardot notwithstanding, public intellectuals occupy the diplomatic space of celebrities and gravitate toward more radical critiques, while in the rest of Europe and Japan, stars tend to choose the more careful route of low-profile association with the United Nations. Bollywood has given rise to activist celebrities who fit the author’s model, such as Shabana Azmi and Amitabh Bachchan, but who have little crossover influence on the global stage. African stars Youssou N’Dour and Desmond Tutu enjoy global clout, Cooper argues, in part because Africa is the object of so much celebrity diplomacy. Sadly, the book omits Latin America, the region that has elected the most celebrities to public office, and China gets not even a listing in the index.

Canada, too, is strangely absent. The Bono versus Martin saga merits only a paragraph, while Stephen Harper’s cozying up to Bill Gates, which would have made a lovely and illustrative parallel, remains unmentioned. Canadian celebrities who fit the author’s criteria — Mary Walsh, Stephen Lewis, Roméo Dallaire, Alanis Morissette, Steve Nash, to name a few — may lack the global clout of the anglo-American mega-stars, but Cooper is Canadian after all.

As befits someone writing about celebrities, Cooper is quite a name dropper and does not stint on gossip. We learn how Audrey Hepburn’s husband felt about her work on behalf of refugees (he liked it), that Bono does not put his own money into his causes, how the Duchess or York had no staying power as a UN rep and how, even at Davos, everyone swoons over Angelina Jolie. Cooper also gives ample space to controversies normally only aired in the cyber- tabloids of the left and right: attacks on Bob Geldof for filling the London Live 8 stage with old white guys, on Bono for his “Product Red” commercialism, on Princess Diana for her unbecoming-of-a-royal advocacy for victims of landmines amd on Harry Belafonte for his favourable views of the Venezuelan government.

But this is not People without the pictures. Cooper’s intent is serious, and salacious details do not divert him from his carefully argued analytical drive. What’s more, the book does have pictures, two of which are worth the cover price: Audrey Hepburn in Somalia in 1992, months before her death from cancer, holding a starving child only marginally thinner than she, and Danny Kaye sharing a joke with John F. Kennedy in 1962, as a smiling, relaxed Judy Garland smokes and leans against JFK’s desk.

Celebrity Diplomacy poses great questions, features characters who are larger than life and builds a powerful intellectual case that the insular world of diplomacy has been irredeemably transformed by celebrity culture. And that is a good thing, Cooper believes. “Notwithstanding all of their flaws,” he concludes, “… celebrities do raise the level of expectations … tilting from the boundaries of the possible to catalytic visions of what is necessary.”

Yet I came away feeling Cooper had not quite put his finger on the phenomenon. Part of the reason may be the research the author undertook: despite copious footnotes, it seems he did not hold a single interview. Reporting on reporting may say more about media coverage than anything else. More fundamentally, he is so focused on tracing who is influential and why that he does not say much about the results of their efforts.

Which brings us back to Paul Martin. He never did come around to embracing 0.7 percent, despite Bono’s high-profile challenge and the great movement of young activists it helped spawn. I suspect Martin was personally convinced by the moral and intellectual argument, but the political calculation fell short. With an election looming, he just did not see enough votes in it. Advocacy by the stars garners an awful lot of attention. Many people can be moved to write their MPs or sign a petition, and a courageous political leader just might seize the moment. But I have to wonder if celebrities’ “speaking truth to power” undermines that very possibility by encouraging more of us to view politics as spectacle.