Lady Gaga and Alice Walker don’t have much in common. One dresses in red meat; the other doesn’t even eat the stuff. One writes lyrics like “I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your everything as long as it’s free.” The other writes The Color Purple.
But they are both cultural celebrities, and the media gravitates to them for comments. And they both have used this celebrity status to weigh in on global issues.
Alice Walker, for instance, was a passenger on the Audacity of Hope, one of the boats that tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. She appeared in the first paragraph of The New York Times story on the second flotilla’s formation, made her case on CNN, parried questions in a Foreign Policy interview, and prompted a disparaging Commentary commentary entitled “The Alice Walker Flotilla.” Walker used her celebrity status to raise the media profile of the initiative but also to bring her own sensibility to bear on the issue. She compared the blockade-busting to the civil rights movement and spoke of her “awareness of paying off a debt to the Jewish civil rights activists who faced death to come to the side of black people in the American south in our time of need.”
At 67, Walker decided to put her reputation on the line, as well as her life. Last year, Israeli forces killed nine people after confronting a similar flotilla. And this year, as Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Stephen Zunes points out in Washington Okays Attack on Unarmed U.S. Ship, the Obama administration preemptively excused any Israeli attack on the flotilla as self-defensive. In reality, though, Israeli forces would have been defending themselves against a truly paper enemy. “Not only have organizers of the flotilla gone to great steps to ensure are there no weapons on board,” he writes, but “the only cargo bound for Gaza on the U.S. ship are letters of solidarity to the Palestinians in that besieged enclave who have suffered under devastating Israeli bombardments, a crippling blockade, and a right-wing Islamist government.”
Walker was not able to reach Gaza. The Greeks and Israelis were about as impressed with her celebrity status as the Birmingham police were impressed with Martin Luther King Jr.’s. The Greek government imposed a ban on all ships heading to Gaza from Greek ports. Only one boat, the French Dignity, has managed to leave a Greek port with plans to continue on toward its goal of challenging the blockade. And Alice Walker will live to fight another day.
Lady Gaga has not shied away from important issues either. She has campaigned against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law and supported marriage equality. And with her project to help out the people of Japan after the March earthquake, she is now going global with her activism. Her “We Pray for Japan” wristbands raised several million dollars (though a Michigan law firm is claiming that the charity is pocketing some of the money).
But on her recent trip to Japan, Lady Gaga went a step further in her activism. She dressed up as a panda and drank Japanese tea on television. This might seem more like performance art or an outtake from a music video rather than a political act. But it was all part of an effort to demonstrate that Japanese food is safe, despite the spike in radioactivity after the meltdown at Fukushima. FPIF contributor Alexis Dudden reports from Japan that “environmental activists, nursery school teachers, scientists, and mothers from Fukushima and Tokyo clamor for better information about radioactivity. They are demanding that, if nothing else, the government should stop spending money on expensive pink brochures that instruct mothers and pregnant women: ‘Don’t worry! It will all be ok!'”
Lady Gaga, like Alice Walker, is risking her life, but inadvertently and in service of a government instead of in defiance of one. As economist William Easterly describes the difference between these two modes of celebrity activism – John Lennon the radical versus Bono the darling of the G20 – “There is something inherently noble about the celebrity dissident, but there is something slightly ridiculous about the celebrity wonk.” Easterly has gotten it half right. It’s when celebrities do what comes naturally to them – cuddling up to power – that they become slightly ridiculous. Power and popularity are the lifeblood of celebrity culture. Only if cultural icons go against the grain and risk unpopularity do they engage in an inherently noble enterprise.
Celebrity involvement in global affairs is nothing new. Mark Twain, for instance, spoke out against the genocide in the Belgian Congo at the turn of the century. Helen Keller was a prominent anti-war activist. But it seems that over the past decade, more and more celebrities have gotten involved in global affairs. It’s almost as if they’ve been instructed, like beauty contest aspirants or rising high school juniors, to add some gravitas to their resumes by choosing an issue to become passionate about: Burma (Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Aniston), Tibet (Richard Gere), Sudan (Mia Farrow, George Clooney), the environment (Leonard DiCaprio), Iraq and Haiti (Sean Penn), Iran (Annette Benning).
Here in Washington, NGOs rack their Rolodexes for celebrities that can boost their issue, as Princess Diana once did for the landmines campaign or Elizabeth Taylor did for AIDS. Last year, as part of an effort to prevent the building of another U.S. military base in Okinawa, I proposed that our anti-base coalition approach actress Daryl Hannah to be “our” celebrity. Not only was she a big environmentalist but her most famous role was as a mermaid (in the movie Splash) – and we were trying to stop the base construction to save the dugong, a marine mammal that early sailors often mistook for a mermaid. It turned out, however, that Hannah was also a big opponent of whaling, so our Japanese partners vetoed the suggestion. Soliciting a celebrity is like accessorizing your issue: you must select with care. Imagine the cause that has to deal with Lindsay Lohan…
Being high-profile themselves, cultural icons generally gravitate toward big issues. I can’t think of any U.S. celebrities who have devoted their energies to promoting principled engagement with North Korea, rallying against gold mining in El Salvador, sticking up for Roma rights in Europe, or opposing the authoritarianism of Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus. With some exceptions, celebrities usually reinforce what the media is already interested in. They tend to bandwagon, to use political science lingo, like all the celebs that have flocked to the ONE campaign (including Lohan, but her liability is lessened by the sheer quantity of participating stars).
The exceptions to this bandwagoning rule usually involve U.S. power. It’s one thing for a celebrity to challenge the Burmese, Chinese, and Sudanese governments, but as soon as they say something critical about U.S. policy, they go beyond the pale. Sean Penn travels to Cuba, and suddenly he “hates America.” Danny Glover opposes the U.S. war in Iraq and acquires a #3 ranking in “top 10 most dishonorable Americans.” Celebrities are their own brand, and most are careful to cultivate that brand. Feeding hungry people, standing against genocide — these efforts are, of course, important and worthwhile. But they are relatively safe, for they ultimately serve to build, rather than undercut, the brand.
The policy elite sometimes adopts a certain snobbishness when it comes to celebrities. It is, after all, deeply disconcerting to see how the media and politicians listen so avidly to these famous instapundits after yawning through another wonkish PowerPoint. But celebrity activism is important for its demonstration effect. People want to be like celebrities, so they might just decide to get involved in global affairs to link arms, virtually, with Angelina Jolie. Foreign policy, after all, is not just for the mandarins. It’s for all citizens, however famous or obscure. And if more celebrities go out on a limb — like Alice Walker or Sean Penn — then more citizens will feel moved to take unpopular positions themselves.
Flexing the Military
Robert Gates, the outgoing secretary of defense, tried his hardest to protect the Pentagon from the budget axe by preemptively applying a scalpel here and there to trim waste. As FPIF contributor Keith Menconi writes in The World According to Robert Gates, he “has characterized more recent calls from the President’s Deficit Reduction Commission for a much deeper cut in the military budget, which would amount to about 10 percent of annual expenditures, as potentially ‘catastrophic.'”
Gates, frankly, is wrong. In our new Unified Security Budget, we recommend that the Obama administration cut substantially from the Pentagon and shift resources to the State Department for conflict prevention programs — precisely to prevent potential catastrophes. So far, the administration has listened to Gates and continued to increase military spending (though at a slower pace). True, the State Department has gotten some more funds. But as FPIF contributors Miriam Pemberton and Lawrence Korb write, “the increase in the international affairs budget is mostly attributable to increased State Department responsibilities for operations in Iraq, rather than in strengthening State Department capacity to prevent conflict.”
One of the conflict prevention areas that the United States has sorely neglected is the nuclear stand-off in South Asia. “The shifting U.S. focus on Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now back to Afghanistan has combined with other policy initiatives — such as deepening its relationship with India to balance rising Chinese regional influence — to significantly limit U.S. efforts to resolve outstanding grievances between India and Pakistan,” writes FPIF contributor Greg Chaffin in Reorienting U.S. Security Strategy in South Asia.
Meanwhile, to keep the military-industrial complex humming along, the United States continues to court all sorts of potential catastrophes by dumping huge quantities of arms all over the world. Back in October, the Obama administration announced a $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that would include helicopters, missiles, bombs, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions. Given the reputation that Saudi Arabia has at the moment for suppressing the Arab Spring — which FPIF contributor Paul Mutter details in Saudi Arabia: Rolling Back the Arab Spring — the administration has been mum on the deal. FPIF contributor Anthony Newkirk has tried to dig up more info on what’s happening in Tracking the Saudi Arms Deal and concludes that U.S. citizens must “demand an accounting of the ‘pending’ Saudi arms deals from their congressional representatives.”
Another issue the Pentagon has been quiet about is the report by three former U.S. soldiers of dumping Agent Orange at Camp Carroll in South Korea in 1978. All three suffer from serious illnesses they believe are linked to the handling of the deadly chemical. But the Pentagon only provides medical compensation for vets who might have been exposed to Agent Orange at the Demilitarized Zone between 1968 and 1971. And, as FPIF columnist Christine Ahn and FPIF contributor Gwyn Kirk write in Agent Orange in Korea, the Pentagon also has to consider the consequences for Koreans: “Cancer rates in the Chilgok area near Camp Carroll were up to 18.3 percent higher than the national average between 2005 and 2009…and mortality rates for nervous system diseases were above the national average.”
Fixing the Economy
It seems such a simple and elegant solution: apply a modest tax on financial transactions that can both raise revenue and dampen speculation. The Obama administration and the G20 are dragging their feet, so the Europeans are forging ahead by themselves. “The European Commission has included an EU-wide financial transactions tax in its budget proposal for 2014-2020,” writes FPIF contributor Sarah Anderson in Europe Taking Lead on Speculations Tax. “According to reports, the EC estimates that it would raise about 30 million euros ($43 million).”
In other respects, however, Europe is applying the same old tactics to economic crises. With Greece on the edge of default, European governments and banks offered a large loan but contingent on all the worst kind of austerity. “On June 29, the Greek parliament ignored the huge protests in Syntagma Square and approved the austerity program,” writes FPIF contributor Kia Mistilis from Athens in Greece on the Verge. “But the Greek movement that has emerged to challenge this unpopular loan package is not going away.”
Meanwhile, in the developing world, sweatshops remain a major employer of desperate workers — and many liberals support them as an anti-poverty strategy. “Sweatshops may indeed be preferable to poverty,” writes FPIF contributor Jason Hickel in Rethinking Sweatshop Economics. “But instead of taking poverty for granted in the first place, we should question the processes that produce it — the policies that make people desperate.”
Fear and Loathing
The FBI has aggressively gone after what it believes are domestic terrorists. Many of these suspects are Muslims, but not all. The new documentary Better This World looks at two protestors at the Republican National Convention in 2008 that the FBI arrested. The story of these two activists “serves as a crucial reminder of broader and more disquieting government trends, such as the tendency to amplify minor offences as cases of ‘homegrown’ domestic terrorism and employ pre-emptive counterterrorism strategies on U.S. soil,” writes FPIF contributor Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb in Looking at FBI Entrapment. “‘Going on the offense,’ as former Attorney General John Ashcroft once dubbed it, has worked to push the boundaries of civil privacy to their limit.”
Fear has been the chief U.S. reaction to Iran’s recently successful satellite launch, fear that the satellites are a cover for long-range missile development. Think again, urges FPIF contributor Abolghasem Bayyenat in The Politics of Iran’s Space Program. “Iran’s main goal for developing satellite technology is to reap the strategic and political benefits emanating from the very space presence itself,” he writes. “Possessing the technology to build satellites and launch them into space gives Iran strategic benefits in both civilian and military arenas over the long run. Self-sufficiency in the production and launch of satellites to provide telecommunications and possible military reconnaissance services is an important national security goal for Iran.”
Finally, fear is a motivating factor behind the construction of a new naval base in Jeju, an island off the coast of South Korea: the fear of Chinese military power in East Asia. But as FPIF contributor Nicole Erwin writes in Postcard from…Jeju, the citizens of Jeju’s port city of Ganjeong are fighting back. “Gangjeong protestor Koh Kwon Il said that U.S. pressure will largely determine whether the South Korean military goes ahead with construction of the base,” she writes. “But if and when the day does arrive when the South Korean military arrives in full force, he will not back down.”
Art and Reviews
Artists and poets have come together to commemorate a legendary street in Baghdad that was the center of Iraqi literary life. “In 2007, a car bomb exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street, killing 30 and injuring another 100,” writes FPIF contributor Sarah Browning in Recreating Baghdad’s Lost Literary Street. “Residents of Baghdad felt it as not just another attack but a strike against the richness of Iraqi literary history and against the free exchange of ideas and openness of thought.” Read her article to see how Al-Mutanabbi Street has come back to life, at least on the page.
FPIF contributor Sholeh Wolpe was in town recently to read her poetry. In Iran: Poetry Can’t Be Arrested, she describes the literary situation in her country of birth: “in a country like Iran, literature, particularly poetry, is like rain — it cannot be arrested. Vast umbrellas of censorship can be raised, people can be forced underground and into dungeons, but the water will eventually seep in, cleanse, nourish, and create a new landscape.”
And we’ve published two poems about Gaza from FPIF contributor Tala Rameh, including the poem “Talephone” with the lines: “Gaza is for resilience./Gaza is for people thicker/than stone./Gaza is for those who can walk/through shit./Gaza is for people who smell/of stale water./I am a boat.”
Finally, FPIF contributors review three books. Guteriano Nieves writes that John Dale’s Free Burma “challenges the basic assumption underlining ‘constructive engagement’ policies that continued trade with Burma will help bring about political reform in the country.” V. Noah Gimbel describes how The Militarization of Indian Country, by Winona LaDuke and Sean Cruz, “sheds light on the historical and continuing damage done to native peoples and their lands within the United States and its colonial holdings.” And Peter Certo, in his review of Stephen Kull’s Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger, hopes that “someone in Washington is paying attention to what Muslims are saying and what Steven Kull is reporting.”
John Feffer, “Foreign Policy Goes Gaga” (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, July 12, 2011)