Do celebrities belong in politics?

Ask any average college student what they think about celebrity involvement in politics, and you will probably elicit (if not outright jeers) a dismissive snicker to the effect of: “they just don’t mix.”

This derisive attitude toward politically-involved celebrities most likely stems from disgust towards the handful of overly-zealous, radical quacks who tend to mouth off considerably about why their political party of choice is superior.

One glaring example is Sean Penn, who has been known to say abominations such as “we have a dictatorship in this country,” and “I think it would be an enormously patriotic movement to invest in the possibility of revolution.” This sort of drivel often finds itself in the spotlight, since let’s face it, crude obscenities have mass appeal.

The cynical attitude toward the general topic of “celebrities and politics” ultimately reflects this media skew, but the truth is seldom pure and never simple.

The topic of celebrities and politics is not clear-cut. On the surface, there are the loud-mouthed celebrities who make statements or take action purely for its shock-value. A recent example is the Kanye West episode where he went on national television and exclaimed that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Or take P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign, where he went stressing the importance of having the youth vote, and yet failed to motivate even himself to show up at the polls. One can’t help but suspect that such performances are publicity stunts meant to boost market appeal, and possibly increase some album sales.

But below this murky surface of hypocrites lies celebrities who can contribute something meaningful to the political medium. Unlike those who waste their time about petty issues, Angelina Jolie takes action. She’s generated a lot of buzz about her activity as a UN High Commission for Refugees Ambassador in an audience that would have otherwise never heard of the UNHCR.

She travels to countries that have a high percentage of internally displaced peoples, and uses her superstar status to generate media coverage about their plight. In contrast to the celebrity hypocrites, she lets her actions speak for themselves.

Even though celebrities are plastered all over the media however, some still say that they’re not at all influential. They reason that since celebrities are usually ridiculed for their efforts (Bono comes to mind), no one would ever take them seriously enough to generate any kind of change.

Enter the personification of “joke” himself: Conan O’Brien. His shtick consists of making himself the butt of all jokes on his late-night talk show, and ironically, it was by way of said routine that he turned the presidential election around in Finland. Upon becoming aware that he physically resembles the female president of Finland (Tarja Halonen), who was running for re-election at the time, Conan decided to make a daily gag about it on his show.

He had no clue that he was a primetime sensation in Finland; his influence is so far-reaching that he succeeded at turning the election in favor of his presidential look-alike.

We mustn’t underestimate the power of celebrities when it comes to money either. In the political arena, many celebrities waste too much of their breath, and not enough of their green.

Julia Roberts has been known to make a whiney comment or two, “Republican comes in the dictionary just after reptile, and just above repugnant,” but she hasn’t donated a cent to the Democratic Party. Others fork up the cash, but squander it in the wrong places; Sean Penn recently spent 135,000 dollars on a full-page ad in the New York Times detailing his anti-war stance, instead of donating it to a more charitable cause.

However, there are also celebrities who’ve got it right, despite the bad press they get. Oprah, for example, recently put down 60 million bucks to build a private school for disadvantaged girls in South Africa, to which the media responded that: “Charity should start at home.”

Not only do celebs own a lot of money, they can easily generate it for good causes as well. Rock stars like Bono and Shakira (who are both UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors) frequently hold concerts aimed at raising money for the starving children of the world: only celebrities can raise so much cash so painlessly.

Then there are the celebrities whose political fervor is not tamed by mere activism; some feel the need to run for office. Soccer star George Weah, who is among the most famous athletes in African history, took his political zeal to bizarre lengths when he ran for president in his native country of Liberia last year. Weah, a high school dropout, ran against an infinitely better qualified World Bank economist and thankfully, lost.

Conversely, and much to our benefit, some succeed in smoothly transitioning from celebrity to politician, including the Terminator himself.

UM Political Science major Olivier Grinda feels this is a positive trend, considering our current president lacks the kinds of traits actors have an abundance of, and politicians so desperately require.

“We need more socially adept, confident celebrities as political figureheads, with the appropriate technocrats to back them,” Grinda said.

This idea isn’t as extreme as it seems-recall that Ronald Reagan was an actor before he became our esteemed president.

Many students seem to think that political activism is a new trend in Hollywood, akin to the no-panties craze the glitterati recently partook in, but President Ronald Reagan stands to attest that this is no fleeting fad.

Maybe there are too many celebrities involved in politics, but despite all the annoying pseudo-politicians the haute-monde has to offer, sometimes it spits out an invaluable celeb or two who make a world of difference.

Deborah can be contacted at d.acosta2@umiami.edu.

February 20, 2007


The Miami Hurricane

Student newspaper at the University of Miami

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