A dispatch for the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.
Published in Dissent.
Effective celebrity activists use their fame to bring attention and credibility to legitimate representatives of social movements.
That, in a nutshell, is my standard of celebrity activism done right. Ineffective celebrity activists… well, they do all sorts of things wrong. But, most fundamentally, they approach issues without any awareness of or connection to social movements. They might still have noble intentions, but they can end up being a net negative for social change efforts.
Coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death, Bill Easterly has published an interesting article in the Washington Post comparing the ex-Beatle’s antiwar activism with the social engagement of U2’s front man, Bono. Easterly writes:
“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.”
Given our age of commodified dissent, I’m not interested in trying to determine who counts as truly rebellious and who doesn’t. But I think Easterly makes some important points.
First, he notes that Lennon paid a real price for his antiwar stances. The FBI tracked his activities, and he fought for years with immigration officials in the Nixon administration who were set on deporting him from the United States. Bono, on the other hand, has turned up to dine in the White House, schmoozing with elites even while encouraging them to do more for the poor. In other words, his activism hasn’t cost him much.
To me, this isn’t a problem in and of itself. But it is a symptom of much larger shortcomings in Bono’s approach. Rather than putting his focus on publicizing and legitimizing social movement leaders (those in the Jubilee debt relief movement, for example), Bono has put himself in a leadership role. He acts as a spokesperson, brandishes his supposed expertise, makes demands, negotiates, and accepts compromises. All these are things that should rightly be done by social movements and by representatives accountable to democratic structures within those movements. Ultimately these people should be accountable to those directly affected by the issue at hand. Absent any such structures, Bono has left himself vulnerable to cooptation.
Easterly describes Bono’s model of activism as that of the “celebrity wonk”:
“[Lennon] 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….
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.”
In celebrating Lennon, Easterly doesn’t allow for the agency of social movements. Instead he valorizes the figure of the “dissident” who helps to shake things up and discourage “groupthink” among experts. “True dissidents claim no expertise,” he writes; “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.”
This is a pretty limited view of how activism functions, as well as of how art can contribute to the creation of critical social consciousness. But, putting that aside, Easterly correctly notes that Lennon was more successful than Bono in using his art (in this case, music) to directly support a cause. He writes, “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…[T]wo more songs released [in 1971]—‘Imagine’ and ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’—expanded his antiwar repertoire.”
While I appreciate Lennon’s artistic contributions, he would still not be my model for celebrity activism. That would be someone like Harry Belafonte, who was a steadfast supporter of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, among other causes. Even at the peak of his fame, Belafonte could be relied upon to turn out at rallies and lend his magnetism to events. In just one of many notable instances, he played an important role in bankrolling the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during 1964’s Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Not only did his funding provide a lifeline for activists in the South, his ongoing presence with the civil rights movement helped make it a fashionable cause for other donors, volunteers, and public figures.
Now in his eighties and less well known than he was in the 1960s, Belafonte nevertheless remains active, advocating for the people of Haiti and speaking at the recent One Nation rally. All this has earned him a page of scorn on David Horowitz’s DiscoverTheNetworks.org, a site dedicated to tracking and defaming the Left.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but looking at Horowitz’s site, I notice that he didn’t make a page for Bono.