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huff-poIt's getting so hard nowadays for celebrities to convince themselves that they occupy a higher, more dignified plane than the witless prole. It used to be enough to be seen toting the newest Louis Vuitton bag or being chauffeured around town in a luxury sedan, sipping a glass of rare, vintage wine. But here we are in 2009, when the biggest growth market for all three of these things is China. CHINA! The world's turned upside down for America's most prized and self-prizing demographic. So what's an attention-hungry celeb to do? How can they be expected to flaunt their worth when any spoiled teenage girl in Dalian can sport the same pair of Christian Louboutins or gallivant around town in the same Enzo as them? The answer is simple: They [force their personal assistant to] write socially-conscious op-eds for the Huffington Post!

Let's put it all on the table here -- Celebrities are smart. That's why they're famous in the first place. And they're not just smart, they're literate and they're articulate. They've got something to say. They've got causes. They may not have studied international relations or earned advanced degrees from prestigious universities, read "books," or have a deep understanding of the intricacies of humanitarian aid and diplomatic bureaucracy or trade tariffs or any of that mumbo-jumbo, but they can memorize hundreds of pages of dialogue and pretend to be someone else. Can you do that, Brainiac? Let's take a look at a recent New York Times article on Africa, written by smarty-pants journalist Nick Kristof:

Mention Africa in polite company, and those around you may grimace, shake their heads sadly and profess sympathy. Oh, all those wars! Those diseases! Those dictators! Naturally, that sympathy infuriates Africans themselves, for the conventional view of Africa as a genocide inside a failed state inside a dictatorship is, in fact, wrong. In the last few years, Africa over all has enjoyed economic growth rates of approximately 5 percent, better than in the United States (although population growth is also higher). Africa has even produced some “tiger cub” economies, like Botswana and Rwanda, that show what the continent is capable of.

BOOO-RIIING. What a downer! Jeez, how am I supposed to understand the complex foxtrot of post-colonialism, entrepreneurship, diplomacy and politics, migration, conflict, and climate change playing out in a vast, heterogeneous continent like Africa? How can I be expected to shift my worldview of Africa from one of surreptitious pity for the poor Africans to one of fascination with that continent's vibrant patchwork of rich cultures and human ingenuity? I'm only one man! These journalists are playing games with my head! Huh? Oh wait, I just got a Google Alert. It's a HuffPo article on world hunger, an important and pressing issue. ::click:: Phew. Now this is insight I can really get behind -- an op-ed by Drew Barrymore, noted academic and expert on global food shortages and international aid:

I was so happy to speak with Colin because as a young person, that's what this is about: Changing lives of children in need, as we work to shift the consciousness of anyone who is able to help or contribute in any way. If our youth don't have the priorities to help others, we are in trouble. If children who need and fundamentally deserve that right for food and education, don't get it, we are in trouble. This young generation is the future. They will be in charge. And taking care of one another is what I hope for in that future. To deliver the message of hope and actually execute it! This is possible.

What a relief. I don't wanna read some egghead talking about that great downer, Africa, telling me that Africans are a productive, intelligent lot, who can devise ingenious solutions to the problems that they face, tailoring these solutions to their environment, sociopolitical situations, and personal needs. I wanna hear about the starving poor kids who need my money! [Note: It's not that I don't think starving kids around the world should receive food aid -- I do -- but who wants to hear bottom-up solutions to the problems facing the Global South when you can have your heartstrings strummed by the little girl from ET?] But the celebrity op-ed doesn't end with Drew Barrymore. The Huffington Post is rife with these bite-sized insight-lite backpatters, covering a multifarious array of hot-button topics, from cancer to Darfur to AIDS. All "written" by an ever-expanding corral of character actors and coy ingenues made notable by their witty repartee and/or buxom figures. Obviously these pieces are written by the stars' publicists, or more realistically by their publicists' personal assistants' interns, but celebrities can't be all things all the time -- heck, they're busy! But every so often, an op-ed is penned by a celebrity with such intelligence, such gravitas, that you know he or she agonized over the pages, sleep-deprived, the ink smudged with tears, not because their PR rep told them they needed to keep their name in the public eye, but because they believe in the cause. Case in point, a recent byline by Rhodes scholar Scarlett Johansson, tackling the difficult topic of body image dysmorphia in our society:

While training for an upcoming film, I've come to this conclusion: chin ups are near impossible and lunges suck. There is no magic wand to wave over oneself to look good in a latex catsuit. Eating healthy and getting fit is about commitment, determination, consistency and the dedication to self-preservation. While I've never been considered a gym rat, I have, in fact, worked up a sweat in the name of cardio before, and although I enjoy a grilled cheese as much as the next person, I combine the not-so-good foods I crave with an all-around balanced diet.

You tell it, girl! Fitness rocks! But chin-ups SUCK! So does homework! And what's the deal with airplane food? I could go on, using any number of HuffPo celebrity op-eds to drive the point home, but I don't see the point. And anyway, the case can be made that everyone knows the Huffington Post is just TMZ with a Bachelor's degree. But it at least claims to be more than that. When the Huffington Post started, it was meant to serve as an alternative to -- or at least a less-crappy version of -- the infotainment-heavy news blogs already in existence. With occasional opinion pieces by real experts, diplomats, former heads of state, esteemed professors and the like, it still serves up the occasional interesting viewpoint or unique perspective on the complex global issues that we face. Every so often it even publishes an article written (actually written) by a celebrity who does have credentials and deserves an intellectual podium -- the Natalie Portmans or James Francos out there. I give it that. But what I can't stand is the glacial metamorphosis of the Huffington Post from an alternative voice into a glorified celebrity blog, where the 'lyricist and bassist' of a miserable bandthe guy who's married to the aformentioned body-dysmorphia activist, or the girl from 'Zack and Miri Make a Porno' can slap their names on high-school-quality posts that may start off with the best of intentions -- e.g. Scarlett finds the double-standards applied to male and female beauty in Hollywood despicable -- but inevitably end up devolving into the same me-me-me nonsense -- e.g. "working out is boring and stupid and I don't wanna do it and it's wrong" --  that adds nothing to the broader conversation, provides no solutions, and leaves the reader no more informed than he or she started off. Maybe it's all part of Obama's "call to responsibility" gone awry. The Huffington Post has heard this clarion call to action, and has responded in full force by recruiting "voices of a generation" in an attempt to get the idle 18-to-24 "advertiser's dream" demographic involved. Maybe. But the problem is, what exactly are these people getting involved in? Everyone thinks famine sucks. Everyone thinks that recruiting child soldiers for use in guerrilla warfare is immoral and deserves the world's attention. Everyone thinks there should be more funding for AIDS research. By reading Pete Wentz's impassioned pleas for his cause, though, I still don't think even the most fervent Fall Out Boy fan is going to take this to the next level and start an NGO or decide to get his or her Ph.D. in Human Rights and Development. Although this sort of Pete Wentz "activism" wears the skinny jeans of Web 2.0, with its "democratizing" and "flattening" of the writer-reader space, and the readers' ability to comment, and maybe even the inclusion of links to some noteworthy organizations, it is essentially no different than the little tables set up in university quads in the 1980s and '90s, exhorting students to sign up for newsletters about the illicit trade in elephant tusks in exchange for 1" buttons to jab onto the back of their JanSports. It's completely antithetical to what Obama is really calling for -- for people to fulfill their responsibilities to their country and to the world by taking real action on something they believe in. And whether that entails something as tiny as eating 5 Cinnabuns instead of 4 because you believe in supporting your local mall food court, or something as huge as devoting a few years to the Peace Corps or giving up your office job to start a micro-charity to support hopeful entrepreneurs in Cambodia, action is action and talk is talk. Leaving a fawning comment on the Huffington Post that says, "Yeah, Pete! Keep on Rockin' for that Congo!1!" is the 2009 equivalent of sticking that "Down With Ivory" button on your backpack in 1999. Practice what you preach, for God's sake. But to circle back to celebrity op-eds, even though I find these pieces insulting to our collective intelligence and somewhat offense (particularly as they are hosted on a site that also includes a great deal of actual writing by qualified writers), I completely understand the impetus for these celebrities to get their names on as many bylines as possible: It's narcissistic without appearing as such. It assuages their (overwhelmingly) white liberal guilt while being, ostensibly, altruistic at the very same time. "Yeah, I'm writing about myself, and how rich yet generous I am because I gave a half-mil to "Hungry Kids International," but I'm doing it for the kids, you know. I'm calling attention to the cause. I'm not as shallow and unintelligent as I appeared to be in 'Van Wilder.' Nah, I'm a renaissance man." And the cruel irony is that the people drawn to the Huffington Post to read Ryan Reynolds's new byline are robbing themselves of the true resources of the site. Someone is arguably more likely to develop a true interest in a given subject by reading an op-ed by Johann Hari or Larry Lessig, then cultivate that interest into something real and actionable, than they would from the half-informed jottings of Jim Carrey or basketball star Baron Davis. So the cycle of non-action continues, albeit with more Facebook "causes" popping up in your friends' news feeds. And if you've ever known anyone who really wanted to make a difference in an impoverished country or do his or her part to fix the broken international aid system, then you know that these people didn't sit around all the time blogging about how much they cared about Laos or Equitorial Guinea or disabled Chilean craftsmen. Odds are, they either got an internship or a job at an NGO helping these people out, spent a few years living in and learning about these countries amongst the communities they hoped to assist, or at least figured out some way to put their money where their mouth was in a tangible way. The Huffington Post's celebrity blogs are not inspiring any of this real action. They're just another example of celebrities yelling into a crowd and waiting for the inevitable pat-on-the-back they'll receive in the comment section from blubbering fans. But I get it. I'm not new to the idea of PR and self-marketing. And I'm not one of those people who pounds his fist on the table and screams, "Them Hollywood stars should just act in their movies and keep their mouths shut!" I don't care if they want to express their opinion, if their opinion is valid enough, and they're informed enough and have a legitimate reason to present their case.  Because if they're going to air their thoughts in an op-ed format on a widely-read platform, they should at least be qualified to do so. "I'm famous" isn't enough rationale to get you on the agenda at an MIT conference on healthcare, so why should it make you qualified to have your byline on the plight of adolescent Kyrgyz miners published on the Huffington Post? The argument can be made that this is just the digital extension of the star-studded charity galas or USA For Africa in the 1980s, all of which were supposed to have saved Africans from themselves and "fixed" African poverty and strife. And we all know how well that worked out. But the difference between Band Aid or its innumerable Reagan-era counterparts and the Huffington Post op-ed is that USA For Africa was comprised of a bunch of celebrities being self-serving together. And it was easy to laugh off as absurd or benign -- "Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson singing together? Seriously?" The op-ed, however, particularly in blog format -- arguably the most narcissistic of all mediums -- is all about the individual. Showcasing one person's thoughts, which are apparently more valid than everybody else's. [Yes, I'm a hypocrite.] So now, in the lame, anachronistic echo chamber of southern California, where celebrities once bragged about getting their hands on the newest, most exclusive handbag collection or regaled one another with details of a weekend getaway in Bali, the changing economic dynamics of the world have reframed the discussion completely. It's not enough to just have things anymore, you've got to have an opinion. And not just that, you've got to get that opinion published. And who's going to publish the ill-informed jabberings of a functional illiterate? Well, the Huffington Post, apparently. So now, instead of, "Where do you summer?" or "Who's your stylist?", we are seeing the party refrain being bandied about in the private clubs and Peruvian-Tibetan fusion lounges of Los Angeles shifting towards, "Have you read my take on the Russo-Georgian conflict on HuffPo?"

3 Comments

  • 1

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jEnTSQStGE

    You know, I feel pretty conflicted about celebrity causes. While I agree that not all celebrities have the knowledge and language skills to truly bring about change in whatever the cause -- maybe they don't even have a firm grasp on what the cause IS -- they are promoting the idea that we here in the first world need to be more conscious of the world in general.

    I've heard a little tidbit of un-attributable (mis?)information that "the average US citizen thinks about politics less than 5 minutes a week." IF this is true then how much time and energy do we devote to all the other causes out there? Maybe some like world poverty get a little more attention than others, but on average I doubt many people even know or care about most of them.

    Of course this doesn't address the obvious question of HOW to go about helping in the BEST possible way which is as important as generally raising awareness for a cause. The "how" is the part that I think really requires a commitment by an individual to do some research and do some actual leg work (joining the NGO, visiting Africa, getting a PhD, etc.). I just don't think you can place the blame on the celebrities who bring about awareness of problems worth caring about. We have a culture that rewards ego and greed, so even if Bono gets a rich kid to throw a thousand bucks at AIDS research that's a thousand dollars to someone who HAS actually bothered to devote their time to get the PhD to help solve the problem instead of a thousand dollars toward a plasma television.

    On that matter, I think putting these celebrity op-eds in the same sphere as real scholars and experts will have a good effect too in that maybe a few people who originally clicked the link for the Scarlett Johansson article will stumble upon some other REAL writing and develop a few real thoughts about these issues.

    I don't know. I'm obviously advocating for incremental change and I have my doubts about how much progress will be made through this type of behavior, but I'm sure it is more likely to happen than a spontaneous radical commitment to a cause and it's far better than no action at all.

  • 2

    Agreed for the most part, but I don't think the celebrities are trying to get the first world to be more conscious -- they pity the poor subaltern and want to feel better about themselves. So maybe I'm just too cynical, but I don't believe that THEY really believe in what they're apparently advocating. And there are exceptions to this -- not all celebrities are so self-absorbed -- I still don't think these pieces will be effective.

    I'm not advocating everyone go get a Ph.D, obviously. But here's the thing: while the average American may think about politics 5 times a week, how many "average" Americans are reading the Huffington Post? The main reason I wrote this is because I was bothered how these pieces COULD be good -- they COULD be thoughtful and give readers a space for discourse on important subjects. But look at the comment section -- it's just an extension of a fan club.

    So anyway, I agree that some action is better than no action. But come on...Pete Wentz, dude.

  • 3

    I hear you on the idea that most celebs don't really care that much.

    I'm looking at the effect, however minuscule. You're looking at the motives.

    My point about putting the celeb pieces on Huffington Post is that some people who don't normally go to the site will now know about it and hopefully read other better written articles. As with any promotional tactic, 95% or more of the people who see the celeb article won't do anything. That's okay with me as long as 1-2% of the thousands that click the link DO go and read up on the real articles.

    Anyway, I think we can agree that celebrities are still MOSTLY petty, self-important asses no matter what they write.

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