(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 22.)
I tuned into the BBC World Service in the middle of the night recently, as one does, and found myself listening to an interview with an American woman whose identity, since I came in part-way through, was not evident to me.
She was lamenting the appalling state of the world and the heartlessness of the people who allow it to be that way.
Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned, but he might as well have been, along with all the other people in positions of power who apparently don’t care about the downtrodden and marginalised.
It was a familiar display of verbal hand-wringing. She had that slightly whiny tone sometimes adopted by people who know exactly what’s wrong with the world, if only others could share their insight and compassion.
It should have come as no surprise to learn, when the interview ended, that I’d been listening to Angelina Jolie. And I found myself analysing what it is about Jolie and others of her ilk – such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Emma Thompson, Sean Penn and even my favourite actress, Meryl Streep – that makes my hackles rise when I hear them pontificating about all the injustice in the world.
To be fair, Jolie at least puts her money where her mouth is. You could argue she has earned the right to pontificate through her humanitarian work with refugees and displaced persons.
The others, I’m not sure about. Bono, for instance, seems to do most of his supposed philanthropy with his mouth.
It seems to me that the main reason these people pontificate is that an admiring media provides them with a ready-made platform.
They don’t have to demonstrate any serious commitment to the causes they espouse. (Again, Jolie is an exception here.) It’s enough that they have half-baked opinions on emotive issues such as poverty and refugees.
I regard this as a misuse, if not abuse, of their privileged position. They seem to assume that their celebrity status confers some sort of moral authority on them.
Well, it doesn’t. They have no more moral authority than the bank teller, the bus driver and the supermarket checkout operator.
The only difference is that wealth and, crucially, media adulation gives Hollywood stars – and some rock singers too – the luxury of being able to present themselves as the conscience of the Western world. They are encouraged in this belief by fawning interviewers who never ask hard questions.
But what are they, really? They are performers. Jolie is an actor, and many would say not a particularly good one. And what do actors do? They make immense sums of money by pretending to be other people.
They recite words written by others and are made to look good by skilled directors, cinematographers, film editors and (not least) makeup artists.
They haven’t climbed mountains, performed acts of heroism, made ground-breaking scientific discoveries or written great books. Yet for some reason people genuflect before them in awe.
Good for Jolie if she spends some of her wealth helping less fortunate people, but that doesn’t endow her with infinite wisdom. It doesn’t mean she knows the answers to the intractable problems dogging the world.
And here’s another thing. Activist celebrities enjoy the luxury of being able to pontificate without ever having to deliver results.
Unlike the politicians they often condemn, they don’t have to make complex policy decisions or choose between agonisingly conflicting priorities. And unlike politicians in a democracy, who must face the voters every few years, they are not accountable to anyone.
They don’t, for example, have to confront redundant workers from Detroit car plants or Pennsylvania steel mills who voted for the despised Trump because they felt robbed of hope and dignity. And they don’t have to face people from previously safe, stable Western European societies that have been ravaged by the multiculturalism that stars like Jolie espouse.
But they have money. They fly around the world in first-class or in private jets, apparently choosing to ignore their rather substantial carbon footprint (although still tut-tutting about climate change).
They stay in five-star luxury lodges and address $1000-a-head charity dinners. How much more agreeable than having to find fair and practicable solutions to real problems or to be held accountable for real results.
Oh, and they can afford to adopt children from Third World countries to demonstrate their kindness and their passion for diversity.
Adoptees from the Third World sometimes look like the latest Hollywood fashion accessory. Why not adopt children from their own country? They’re often just as needy. But it wouldn’t look as exotic, and it wouldn’t score quite so many political points.
Just once, I would like an interviewer to confront celebrity activists such as Jolie with the unarguable fact that capitalism and globalisation, which Jolie apparently blames for many of the world’s ills, have raised more people out of poverty, and eliminated more disease, than any of the fuzzy, ill-defined but fashionably soft-left ideologies promoted by her and others like her.
I’m waiting, but I’m not holding my breath.