Friday, May 12, 2017

Commentary: When it comes to politics, celebrities should put up or shut up

We should stop falling into the trap of thinking that celebrity bestows wisdom on people, especially on issues where they have limited expertise or authority, argues Channel NewsAsia's David Bottomley.

By David Bottomley

12 May 2017

SINGAPORE: Robert de Niro has been channelling Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull this week, landing verbal punches on President Donald Trump for his attitude towards the arts, his immigration policies and perceived political shortcomings in a number of other areas.

In a speech made in acceptance of the Film Society of Lincoln Centre’s Chaplin award, de Niro lambasted President Trump’s “hostility” towards the arts, suggesting that there were political reasons behind the proposed cuts to some arts funding.
All well and good, for while one could debate the veracity of de Niro’s analysis, this is a field in which he has an interest and expertise (although the funding in question is usually directed to fringe projects rather than the big budget Hollywood movies that de Niro favours).

But then de Niro started going a bit Travis Bickle, the character who wanted to clean up the streets of New York in the movie Taxi Driver, by widening his attack to policy areas in which he has limited or no authority. Advertisement

“The administration’s mean-spiritedness towards our art and entertainment is an expression of their mean-spirited attitude about people who want that art and entertainment, people who also want and deserve decent wages, a fair tax system, a safe environment, education for their children and healthcare for all,” he said.


What de Niro did not address is why anyone should pay the slightest bit of attention to what he has to say about topics such as taxation, the environment, healthcare, or any hot-button political issue.

But perhaps he should have done that.

After all, it seems reasonable to ask why appearing in movies such as last year’s Dirty Grandpa, in which de Niro played a lecherous pensioner, would set someone up with anything useful to say on fiscal policy and how it impacts healthcare and education.

In fact, it is very hard to work out why a famous actor’s political views are any more important and worthy of attention than, say, those of the person who cuts your hair or serves you in a fast-food restaurant. Or, indeed, your own.

That doesn’t stop de Niro or many other celebrities, who seem to think their fame has bestowed on them a right to share with the world their opinions and insights into issues which they are generally underqualified to talk about.

Other celebrities who have recently used the pulpit of fame from which to lecture the world about politics include Meryl Streep (about Trump), Roger Daltrey (who supported Brexit) and David Beckham (who stood up against Brexit).
It is right and good that everyone is passionate about important issues, but really – we must stop falling into the trap that celebrity bestows any kind of wisdom on people.

At this point, I have to shine the spotlight on some of my peers in the global media, for whom the utterances on politics and current affairs of any two-bit celebrity could be worth a headline and a story. I would urge them to rethink the merit of such articles.

Yes, people are interested in celebrities and in an environment where the media’s fight for eyeballs is intensifying, there may be a temptation to run a story on what a popular singer or footballer has to say about the latest issue of the day (you might find some of these stories on this website!).

But maybe it is time to draw a line in the sand and everyone – the media and the public alike - should make a pact to politely ignore the political ramblings of those people who we have previously paid attention to for one reason alone: That they’re famous.


Perhaps doing this would encourage more celebrities to put their money where their mouth is and actually stand for political office where their expertise on important, complex issues could be properly examined and, if successful, they could actually effect the change that they're looking for.

It has happened before.

In the US, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger moved from Hollywood to high office for the Republican Party. At the other end of the political spectrum, British actor Michael Cashman went from soap opera to soap box, forging a successful career as a Labour Party politician.

More politically-minded celebrities should consider following suit.

They probably won’t, though. It's much easier to deliver headline-grabbing but ultimately hollow comments than work hard to put yourself in a position where you could actually do something about the political issues which are getting your knickers in a twist.

If standing for office is a step too far for some celebrities, then perhaps there is a compromise position. For instance, Angelina Jolie has worked hard to help refugees around the world through her involvement with the UNHCR. From a simple field visit to Africa in 2001, she has spent time and effort to draw attention to the plight of the people she is concerned about.

Promoted to UNHCR Special Envoy in 2012, meaning she can represent the organisation at a diplomatic level, Jolie is a widely respected advocate who has made a difference, while still having a successful movie career.

Compare that with the quality of de Niro’s political discourse, which has included such gems as wanting to punch Donald Trump in the face and calling him blatantly stupid.

Celebrities who can’t go beyond such ineffective rhetoric should perhaps follow the advice of Jimmy Conway, de Niro’s character in Goodfellas: “Always keep your mouth shut.”

David Bottomley is Supervising Editor for Digital News at Channel NewsAsia.
To paraphrase "Animal Farm", - All Speech are Equal. But some speech are more equal than others.

The argument here is not new. The Greeks (philosophers) had two words: parrhesia and isegoria. Parrhesia is approximately translated as "truth-telling", while isegoria might be translated as "everyone has equal and absolute right to speak in public debate". And these two types of speech are often in tension.

Or one might consider parrhesia as "Quality Speech", and isegoria as "Equality of Speech".

Except that there is no equality of speech. At least not realistically. The views of celebrities, by virtue of their fame, and public exposure tends to outweigh the views of your barber/ hairstylist, your waiter, or yourself (unless you are a celebrity too). Or at least have greater exposure or are more likely to be reported. That said, celebrities' missteps are also more likely to be publicised. It is the price of fame.

Then again, is there to be NO ROOM for the vox populi? And are the views of celebrities equivalent to the vox populi?

To insist only on parrhesia sounds elitist and exclusionist. "Put up or Shut up" was also a phrase Lee Kuan Yew would say, and to some extent he is right to challenge people to put their commitment where their mouth was. I may not be a great chef, but I do know what taste good to me. Put up or shut up, would mean only other chefs can criticise chefs?

Politics affects people's lives. We may not be educationists or be the Minister for Education, but we do have children in school and we can see the effects of Education policies on our children. Don't we have a valid opinion?

The result of Brexit, and the Rise of Trump is to some extent, or the thesis of one narrative, the muffling if not outright silencing of isegoria.

The tension of parrhesia and isegoria is a necessary tension. The key issue is distinguishing between the two, and not electing an isegoria-speaker. Like Trump.

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