Should celebrities promote charities?

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Should celebrities promote charities?

Professors Mark Wheeler and Ilan Kapoor argue.

YES – Mark Wheeler - Professor of Political Communications at London Metropolitan University


Some promotion by celebrities has helped powerful economic, social and political interests. But some celebrities, such as Bono, have developed international policies to reduce poverty and give indigenous people more power. They have used their fame to get attention for many different types of activities. Celebrities have made foreign policy more democratic by making it more public. Celebrities have brought attention to important international problems. And, very importantly, celebrities can use “soft power” techniques to change people’s opinions of solidarity and citizenship.

Celebrity activists can be a link between people in the West and distant tragedies. They can use their fame to make international events known. They can help the UN and NGOs by getting people to listen and act. Bob Geldorf’s Live Aid and Live 8 got lots of people to donate money by showing images of famine with the pop music. George Clooney’s support for NGO projects in Darfur has made people aware of human rights issues there. It has also changed the balance between wealth and poverty, and had an effect on laws to end the fighting.

NO - Ilan Kapoor - Professor of Critical Development Studies at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto


I am strongly against celebrities promoting charity because the global charity machine has many problems: charity allows social inequality to continue. Charity only helps the worst side of inequality that we can see. It makes the fact that global capitalism creates more poverty all the time seem rational. So charity helps put a “human face” on inequality in the world. And the problem becomes worse when celebrities like Bono and Geldorf work with it, as their “star power” simply stops people from seeing the real social and economic reasons for inequality.

We can see the problems in both of the examples above. Live Aid and Live 8 did not help the Global South at all. They were mostly simply music shows, to improve the name of the celebrities, and the result was huge increases in the sales of their music. More importantly, almost none of the Live 8 agreements on debt and trade justice have been met. Also, there is more and more evidence now that George Clooney did more bad than good in Darfur.

What is most important for celebrity charity is the show and fame: it makes celebrities (and our political leaders) look caring; it stops people thinking about the real problems of inequality (that celebrities are now part of). This inequality creates the poverty that the charities try to help.

YES – Mark

We agree about the inequality in global capitalism, but we do not agree on celebrity involvement in charities.

You said that Live Aid helped the celebrities and their music sales. It is true that bands like Queen and U2 had this benefit. But only afterwards. Bob Geldorf had to work very hard to persuade many bands to take part. Live Aid became a model for charity fundraising later, but when it happened, people did not know that it would make bands more famous, or raise over $100 million. The event showed that celebrities can be very powerful in commercial media. It made the public feel they were doing something useful.

I can see that all people do not agree about Geldorf, but you seem to be more concerned about ending capitalism than discussing the different types of celebrity help. Some people say celebrity activists have no effect and no power. But this opinion does not consider how they work.

NO - Ilan

What you say makes my ideas stronger. You said you agree with me about “the inequality of global capitalism”, but then you forget this when you discuss celebrity charity. To become famous, celebrities are very closely connected to global capital; they rely on the huge businesses of media and marketing. Geldorf persuaded bands to take part in Live Aid to make the business work – and Make Poverty History criticized him for making it a business and not including African bands, to sell the show.

The real proof that celebrities are linked to money is that celebrities almost always choose to work with safe issues, not controversial ones. Live 8 did not do anything about the controversial issues of the Northern domination of the World Bank, IMF and WTO, or the need for universal HIV/AIDS drugs, or the regulation of transnational corporations.

You say there are different types of celebrities, who work in different ways. Yes, Bono, Geldorf, Angelina Jolie, Oprah or Sean Penn may be “effective” in their own way, but how effective can they really be when they are all so closely linked to business and capital? And it is a mistake to make them even more famous by saying that some celebrities are better or worse than others. It is the celebrity culture machine that we need to destroy.

YES - Mark

You cannot see any difference between different types of celebrity activism because you can only see them all as part of one huge “celebrity culture machine”. This means you cannot critically examine the processes that have meant that celebrity activists are filling the space (created by lack of democracy) between the political elite and the public.


Star power – but does the intervention of George Clooney more harm than good? csztova under a CC Licence

Also, you ignore the progressive activism of some celebrities, who have fought for changes. Lord Byron, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were all great reformers who used their fame to bring in democracy and social justice, and to criticize imperialism. Did Johnny Cash sing at Folsom Prison to talk about the injustice of US prisoners, or was he part of big business?

In 2003, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen and Sean Penn all spoke against the war in Iraq. This could have been bad for their careers. In fact, they were accused by the rightwing and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News of being “traitors”. These are all independent actions, not “celebrity big business”.

NO - Ilan

You still cannot see the power of global capital. This shows how attractive capitalism is and that it is everywhere. I think all of us can be critical, and also still be under the power of global capital (celebrities too).

We should not make some, or all, celebrities into heroes. We should not look for radical politics in celebrities. You seem to do this, which shows how the business of celebrity culture everywhere is so glamorous.

Celebrity activists do not help democracy, but they take politics out of democracy. This means all types of people: business leaders, “expert” economists and scientists, and now celebrities, all give their ideas. This is an elite, top-down politics, trying to keep everything the same, but pretending to be “populist”.

The big problem is that this type of politics tries to make us, the audience, become the passive public. Slavoj Žižek, at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, said: “We want the power of the public back. We have allowed our work and torture to be controlled by others, we have allowed our love life to be controlled by marriage agencies, we have allowed our political engagement to be controlled. We want it back.”

Mark Wheeler’s book Celebrity Politics, will be out in 2013.

Ilan Kapoor’s book, Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity, is out in November.

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