Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Celebrity Aid

I still remember with dreadful clarity one of the awful Sky News team of drippy eyed but heroic reporters being filmed across and over the heads of an apparently starving or homeless refugee family (perhaps they were both to add greater poignancy). I cannot for the life of me remember whether this was Dafur or some other then current and sexy African news hot-spot.

For some extraordinary reason the sheer level of intrusion shown by the news team seem to have passed them by. If indeed the family group in the foreground, over which the cameras grazed and then discarded in favour of browsing the far more beguiling figure of the reporter in the middle ground set against the blasted heath of some nameless drought stricken African savannah were truly disadvantaged and vulnerable, then this use of cinematic ornamentation was insensitive in the extreme.  But worse (even worse!) if the shot was a set-up (heaven forefend that a populist news service would do such a thing) then the cynicism exhibited in arranging such a fabrication beggars belief.

This in a way encapsulates my view, of their view, of the others.

By them I mean the default beneficiaries and by the others I mean the objects of attention. And for me I will readily accept criticism about generalising and conflating those who merely watch, look and report with those who purport to do; but my thesis is that actually there is sometimes little to distinguish the two.

To start with the easy bit first – which is paradoxically the most complex – The Others.

Poverty, destitution, hunger, high infant mortality, HIV AIDS exist for a reason; but that reason is not about you – the viewer – the reader – the donor – the “helper”. It is all about some one else’s circumstance. Do not kid yourself that you have any individual influence over that other person’s circumstance. It is all very much bigger and more distant than you can ever imagine. Lets face it – if you are really honest with yourself you have little real influence over your own sorry life – let alone someone else’s even sorrier life several thousand kilometres away or, I venture to suggest, even five kilometres away.

Start with that premise and then you can usefully begin developing a world view.

All the above traumas and a multitude of other ills exist because there are many and varied root causes –  sociological dysfunction & trauma, societal fractures,  environmental dissonance such as resource degradation, lack of potable water or available arable land; greed, power struggles, warfare, and so on.

That’s all simple and trite enough, however it just isn’t that simple. The condition of the others is complex, and it is that irksome and annoying fact that gives the lie to the activities of them, the default beneficiaries. But who are they?

The them that I am thinking about are those – like the drippy eyed reporter – who use the plight of others as scenery or a backdrop for their own benefit or the benefit of the organisations that they represent or work for. Aside from crass insincere reporters there are legions of celebrities who have been given free tickets on the Aid Train that is routed to Further Fame and Fortune.

It is not just those like the late Princess Diana who valiantly hugged AIDS sufferers and gingerly tripped through minefields, or her gauche son Prince Harry who has kicked many a soccer ball around mountainous rural areas in Lesotho where his charity is situated. Let’s face it these people are involved with charitable works because it is part of what they do and what they are. It is their career and their destiny. But what of the others who do it to enhance their careers? I just wonder how many of those merely see there apparent commitment to the alleviation of poverty and destitution as wall paper to decorate the rooms of their own careers and egos.

There seem to be two types of celebrity charity face; the pretty and expressive ones (with accompanying drippy eyes) and the proto-experts (with fearsome angry frowns), and to be honest I am not sure which are the most objectionable, although on balance I lean towards the latter. The celebrities who play the game are at least not purporting to be experts, but the moment they do become ersatz academics by stepping beyond their scripts then god helps us and the intended recipients. The extraordinary pseudo-intellectual posturing of Bono and Geldorf has been well documented and is worthy of further discussion, but not here and not now.

It is clear that the aid and celebrity businesses have mutual interests. The Oxfam America web page amply demonstrates this with a lengthy list of potted celebrity biographies involved with the organisation.What is notable is that the only substantive things that the celebrities do is go to wherever their particular assigned “interest” is and meet the sufferers and survivors, but more important be photographed and videoed indulging in these bizarre “meet and greet” stagings.

It can be of no surprise that the majority of the charity celebrity ambassadors are in show business. In fact one web page which triumphantly lists its Celebrity Ambassadors names 25 individuals;  identifying 14 who are actors, 2 who are sportsmen, 6 singers, a model, a TV personality, and a minor member of royalty. Not one of them (as far as I can ascertain) has any peculiar knowledge or particular skill in relation to the charitable enterprise to which they are somehow attached.

Few if any of these “ambassadors” are putting on concerts or making appearances at vast fees that go into the coffers of their respective organisations – in other words unashamed money raising. They are instead making appearances in deserts and war torn urban environments cuddling smiling pot-bellied under fives, or walking heroically through semi-drought stricken environments hair flowing like some sort of mad Shakespearean prince hand in hand with brave and noble under ten year-olds. And having done that they are regurgitating the ghastly facts and figures that have been provided by the agencies script writers in adverts and on various stages at national and international conferences and forums.

In short the agencies involved are relying upon the celebrity ambassadors to impart knowledge, the awful truths. They are merely mouth pieces, official knowledge brokers. They are not qualified to be interrogated about the information that they are passing on. They have no particular knowledge beyond the scripts from which they are reading, or from what they may have observed on their selected sanitised in situ visits.

Is the theory that because the facts are being imparted by celebrities they will be seen to be somehow more truthful; bear a badge of reality? Does the acronym VIP in this context mean Verisimilitude Is Pretend? Or is it that we are simply more likely to listen to celebrities?
Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rock of Ages deplores the conflating of celebrity with stature - and what rational mind can deny that sentiment. The fact that George Clooney or Angelina Jolie are telling me that the plight of children under 5 is now dire in Southern Sudan does not make that information any more believable than if it were being imparted by a local community leader or a Sudanese health extension worker. Frankly I am more likely to react to the latter than scripted pleas from the former talking heads.

So here’s the rub – the general populace of the well healed, well fed and largely “Western” (or perhaps more accurately “Northern”) world are being lectured and cajoled by professional entertainers whose actual raison d’ĂȘtre it to portray fictional characters who are living and functioning in fictional situations, expressing fictional emotions and exhibiting fictional morals that have been scripted, directed and filmed by others. But now, because, and only because they are familiar faces and are thus somehow heroic, they are regarded as being ideally suited to present real truths. You are now expected to believe and open your wallets to the blandishments of an actor whose skill it is to fabricate fact and emotion. Doesn’t anyone see the paradox in an Actor claiming our attention with his/her own words on something we all know they are not well versed in? Should they really be taken seriously?

Are they using their trade to promote aid to the disadvantaged or are we being led to believe that they really are wonderful human beings who care deeply? Whichever the answer it doesn’t really stack up on the moral and ethical front.

But the bottom line is that we are just as complicit in the Aid/Celebrity Alliance. It’s almost as if we need to sugar the pill of altruism with star-studded sprinkles – to make it more edible, more fun perhaps? If this is the case then we should be examining closely our own world view and our sense of altruism.

Here’s a thought though - Angelina is awfully pretty – and so is George Clooney. Bob Geldorf has a pixy quality about him, Bono is just a tad scary – and so is Madonna; but they all seem to fit some or other necessary bill. I wonder what Justin Bieber could be good for?
A Clay Celebrity reading from an Aid Agency script.
With acknowledgment to the late Austin Hleza

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