Celebrity-Activists Shine 1000 Spotlights on Politics

by Ron Silver and Mark Adams Taylor, Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1991

Look who's taking the flak. Stars at the podium, actors leading a march, volunteers from all walks of celebrity life are scorned for talking too much and knowing too little. Hollywood dines out in support of ecology, and more is made of the lavish party than the money it raises. Cher is attacked for her affiliation with a literacy campaign sponsored by a company that's not "politically correct." It's labeled "shameful" that Barbra Streisand doesn't make more public appearances to support AIDS research -- though she's a major donor to a wide range of causes, including AIDS.

Because of their activism, celebrities have been ridiculed for being self-important, self-congratulatory, self-righteous and fickle. Critics of celebrity-activists argue that issues are trivialized by having stars step out from behind the camera or off the stage to expound on the environment, foreign policy, domestic affairs and more. Why the hell should the world listen to Ted Danson on oceans, Morgan Fairchild on reproductive rights, Edward Asner on Central America, Sting or Madonna on rain forests? The list goes on.

What critics fail to mention is that voluntarism is, by nature, self-fulfilling. The world would be a better place if more of us rolled up our sleeves and went to work. As Cher says, "I don't see a lot of other people spending money to teach grown-ups and children how to read."

The time is right to take a new look at the effect of celebrities on society. The United States has culturally altered the globe -- more effectively than any of Washington's geopolitical efforts -- with celebrities leading every step of the way.

At home, celebrities influence what Americans buy. Celebrities sway the public during local, state and national elections. Through public-service announcements, celebrities focus citizen action and channel funds. By motivating people to give, get involved, speak out, celebrity-activists serve as role models.

Involvement in public affairs is a legitimate use of celebrity. Whether stars should have the power they have is arguable. That they possess such power is not.

The reason for the assault on celebrities who support issues is that, as an organized force, celebrities are realizing their potential to affect change. In our media-dominated culture, saturated with sound bites and nanosecond attention spans, stars' ability to galvanize public opinion is second to none.

Recently, on a cold night in Washington, a celebrity-activist was asked by a local news reporter why he was sleeping on a steam grate in the street. He said the obvious: "Because if I'm not here, you're not here." Celebrities know this better than most. If they stop drawing attention to homelessness and other issues, they fear the issues will be further obscured.

Still, celebrities also worry about what's happening to their parents' fixed incomes and their kids' schools. It's no wonder star-activists feel obliged to combat civic indifference and neglect and encourage participatory democracy.

Celebrities, like the press, politicians, and the rest of the nation, are eyeing Nov. 3, 1992. Celebrity-activists are ready to hold political candidates accountable for heartfelt promises and bright-eyed ideas. Politicians need glitzy folk to decorate campaigns and fund-raisers -- they think of celebrities as ornamental garniture whose opinions on substantive issues are superfluous. To them, stars have a surplus of passion and a dearth of expertise -- they should stick to acting and leave issues to the pros.

The pros? The issue mongers and special-interest groups with national headquarters on Capitol Hill where governance is thought to be too complex for common folk? Traditional power brokers shun outsiders. Technical information, they say, confuses the public. But celebrities have begun to attack this conventional wisdom. They are working to demystify the political process. It's not surprising that competition for the public-policy spotlight remains unwelcome.

Artists speak the truth to the public without fear of retribution or damage to their careers. Unlike elected officials, celebs don't have to compromise principles, embrace practical realities or trade votes. Maybe the greatest irony is celebrities received their invitation to become activists from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ronald Reagan, our celebrity-president, stressed show-biz tactics as a political precedent. Why should it be so controversial that celebrities feel a deep-rooted responsibility to bridge the gap between living rooms and hearings, between public discourse and political process? What's so strange about actor-activists following Reagan's lead? His was not the only cue from the White House.

"I ask all Americans and all institutions to make service central to your life and work." With those words, George Bush invited the American people to serve as "a thousand points of light." While the national level of charitable giving and volunteering has failed to increase measurably, greater numbers of celebrities have joined the activist ranks. Celebrity "points of light" have taken Bush's call to heart, becoming responsibly informed about the issues and the political process. Ultimately, they believe they can use their access to the media to push politicians to put action in place of lip service.

What's so bad about a star talking about the homeless? Why can't a celebrity demand that national health insurance be perceived as vital to the well-being of this country as national defense? Indeed, in a country with little more than one-third of the people voting, why criticize anyone who calls for greater participation in the political process?

Celebrity-activists need to join hands with other activists -- industry and union leaders, politicians and, most important, the public. Hands of celebrities are as human as any. Hands ladle in soup kitchens. Hands sign checks to charitable organizations. Hands hold placards. Most important in our political climate, hands cast votes. Must we find fault for the glaring problems facing the nation? Fault, in fact, lies not in self-service, but in apathy, not in our stars, but in ourselves. Celebrity-activists have at least taken it upon themselves to confront this fault.

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