The death of the celebrity activist
By William Easterly
Friday, December 10, 2010; 9:00 PM
The recent release of the Beatles' music on iTunes, coupled with the
anniversary of John Lennon's tragic death in New York City 30 years
ago this past Wednesday, has brought on a wave of Beatles nostalgia.
For so many of my generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s,
Lennon was a hero, not just for his music but for his fearless
activism against the Vietnam War.
Is there a celebrity activist today who matches Lennon's impact and
appeal? The closest counterpart to Lennon now is U2's Bono, another
transcendent musical talent championing another cause: the battle
against global poverty. But there is a fundamental difference between
Lennon's activism and Bono's, and it underscores the sad evolution of
celebrity activism in recent years.
Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not.
Lennon's protests against the war in Vietnam so threatened the U.S.
government that he was hounded by the FBI, police and immigration
authorities. He was a moral crusader who challenged leaders whom he
thought were doing wrong. Bono, by contrast, has become a sort of
celebrity policy expert, supporting specific technical solutions to
global poverty. He does not challenge power but rather embraces it;
he is more likely to appear in photo ops with international political
leaders - or to travel through Africa with a Treasury secretary -
than he is to call them out in a meaningful way.
There is something inherently noble about the celebrity dissident,
but there is something slightly ridiculous about the celebrity wonk.
Lennon was no Johnny-come-lately to the antiwar movement. As early as
1966, during the Beatles' American tour, he answered a reporter's
question about Vietnam, much to the consternation of the band's
business manager. "We just don't like it. We don't like war," Lennon
said simply. And when he married Yoko Ono in 1969, they used their
honeymoon to stage two seriocomic "Bed-Ins" to publicize the antiwar cause.
Lennon also merged his activism and his music: In 1969, "Give Peace a
Chance" became the anthem of the movement after half a million people
sung along at a huge demonstration at the Washington Monument. That
same year he sent back an award he had received a few years earlier
from the queen of England, in protest of British support for the
Vietnam War. After moving to New York in 1971, he continued his
high-profile opposition to the war, and two more songs released that
year - "Imagine" and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" - expanded his
Lennon paid a price for his activities. We now know from subsequent
Freedom of Information Act releases that the FBI monitored and
harassed him. In 1971, President Richard Nixon set in motion a
four-year effort to deport him, which failed after the political tide
in America turned against the war.
In this role, Lennon was continuing a venerable tradition: the
celebrity as a crusader against the wrongs committed by those in
power. In the 19th century, the celebrity activists were not
musicians but writers. Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry
David Thoreau and other authors loudly supported the abolitionist
crusade against slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe went further and wrote
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" to boost the anti-slavery cause - a sort of
19th-century equivalent of "Imagine."
Mark Twain denounced American imperialism and atrocities in the
1898-1902 war against Spain and Filipino independence fighters,
publishing his savage satirical essay "To the Person Sitting in
Darkness" in 1901. In the imperialist claim to spread "civilization,"
he detected "two kinds of Civilization - one for home consumption and
one for the heathen market." Twain also saw "two Americas: one that
sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive's new
freedom away from him . . . then kills him to get his land." Other
Twain essays on the same issue were so politically toxic that he
could not get them published during his lifetime.
Alas, today's celebrities seldom challenge power in the manner of
Twain or Lennon. Bono's signature effort involves the Millennium
Development Goals campaign, a United Nations-sponsored initiative to
achieve eight anti-poverty goals by 2015. The campaign stresses that
189 world leaders have endorsed the targets to reduce poverty and
hunger and to improve health by the deadline.
In the course of his activism, Bono had regular photo-ops and lunches
with President George W. Bush, giving Bush a much-needed publicity
boost on U.S. foreign aid and on his campaigns against AIDS. For
example, the singer appeared onstage with Bush at the Inter-American
Development Bank in Washington in 2002 as the president pledged a $5
billion increase in foreign aid. In May of that year, Bono even
toured Africa with Bush's first Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill,
fully aware that the administration was capitalizing on his celebrity.
"My job is to be used. I am here to be used," he told The Washington
Post. "It's just, at what price? As I keep saying, I'm not a cheap date."
While Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong, he does not identify
the wrongdoers. Instead, he buys into technocratic illusions about
the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it,
who oppresses and who is oppressed. He runs with the crowd that
believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise - doing
things such as expanding food yields with nitrogen-fixing leguminous
plants or solar-powered drip irrigation.
These are fine moves as far as they go, but why have Bono champion
them? The technocratic approach puts him in the position of a wonk,
not a dissident; an expert, not a crusader. (Little wonder that he
hasn't cranked out a musical hit related to his activism. It's hard
to imagine "Beautiful Day When We Meet the MDG Targets by 2015.") Can
you imagine Lennon passing himself off as an authority on the
intricacies of Vietnamese politics and history? His message was
simpler: This war is wrong.
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 Congo. George 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?
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're hardly starved of moral challenges for our leaders today, in an
age that has witnessed Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and enduring wars with
unclear objectives and the clearest of casualties. On Bono's
signature issue of poverty, for instance, why not call out a few of
the oppressive regimes that keep their people impoverished - as well
as the leaders, in the United States and elsewhere, who have
supported them with economic and military aid? (Bono has acknowledged
that "tinpot dictators" were a problem for aid efforts in the past
but has not confronted today's despots and their enablers in rich nations.)
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.