Celebrity 'charity': A gift for a vicious system

Celebrity philanthropists help keep the neoliberal order in place and the powerful in power.

by
    Irish rock star Bono talks to pupils at a school near Lesotho's capital Maseru on May 17, 2006 [Mike Hutching/Reuters]
    Irish rock star Bono talks to pupils at a school near Lesotho's capital Maseru on May 17, 2006 [Mike Hutching/Reuters]

    When movie star George Clooney married human rights lawyer and fashion icon Amal Alamuddin in Venice back in 2014, the Entertainment Tonight website declared that "it was charity that came out as the real winner" of the multimillion-dollar nuptial festivities. 

    The reason for the alleged win was that proceeds from certain wedding photos were said to be destined for - you guessed it - "charity", that favourite celebrity pastime that so often translates into massive PR points and saviour-hero credit, not to mention tax breaks.

    We non-celebrities have been so conditioned to perceive charity as something unconditionally positive - rather than a commodification and exploitation of faux altruism - that we don't seem to notice reality's conspicuous absence from the feel-good world of celeb-philanthropy.

    Case in point: reports that rock star Bono's anti-poverty foundation ONE managed in 2008 to channel a mere 1.2 percent of the funds it raised to the people it purported to be assisting have done nothing to interfere with the man's portrayal as some sort of messiah for Africa.

    In the case of the Clooneys, who now preside over their very own Clooney Foundation for Justice, celebrity worship and Amal-mania have also precluded sound judgement. Objectively speaking, it would seem that "justice" is not really an option in a world in which human rights lawyer-philanthropists by the name of Amal Clooney wear outfits costing $7,803.

    The obscenity of inequality 

    Currently targeted for charitable assistance by the Clooneys' organisation is the Syrian refugee population of Lebanon, where, the foundation's website stresses, "refugee children are sent out to work for as little as 2 dollars per day". Roughly calculating, it would thus take a Syrian refugee child approximately eleven years to accumulate enough funds for the aforementioned outfit (less if accessories are left out). 

    Fantastically expensive galas, celebrity photo ops with black and brown children in international charity hotspots, and other mainstays of the celebro-philanthropist repertoire do little, in the end, to alleviate poverty, hunger, oppression, and the rest of the global ills that are repeatedly invoked to tug at heartstrings and thereby provoke admiration and/or financial contributions to the cause being peddled.

     

    This is not to suggest, of course, that one must always calculate and justify one's expenses in terms of Syrian refugee income, but rather to point out that any sort of actual justice in the world would require dismantling the prevailing neoliberal panorama of obscene economic inequality.

    In a forthcoming book titled Against Charity, authors Julie Wark and Daniel Raventos offer a meticulous and scathing indictment of the institution of charity as a key component of the neoliberal order - and of the role of celebrity philanthropists in keeping the have-nots in place and the powerful in power. 

    Celebrities, write Wark and Raventos, "draw attention to social distress but immediately cover it up by giving the impression that something is being done" by the wealthy of the world, who have the money to do things.

    But fantastically expensive galas, celebrity photo ops with black and brown children in international charity hotspots, and other mainstays of the celebro-philanthropist repertoire do little, in the end, to alleviate poverty, hunger, oppression, and the rest of the global ills that are repeatedly invoked to tug at heartstrings and thereby provoke admiration and/or financial contributions to the cause being peddled.

    Again, were global oppression to somehow magically cease, the "philanthropic" rich and famous would be up a creek - since no arrangement governed by literal justice would allow the obsequiously-celebrated "poverty fighter" Bill Gates to own a house with 24 bathrooms or for the ever-so-charitable David and Victoria Beckham to trademark their children's names.

    Disappearing context

    Regarding the function of celebrities within "a system that sees famous people as brands and thus consumer products", Wark and Raventos note that celebrity "excess" helps sustain the consumerist model by providing glorified examples of over-the-top materialism - while celebrity "beneficence" helps whitewash the brutality of institutionalised socioeconomic disparity. 

    Meanwhile, the "awareness" that celebrities purport to raise for their respective causes is frequently devoid of the political context necessary to comprehend contemporary causes of human suffering.

    Take, for example, actress and philanthropic superstar Angelina Jolie, whose work as Special Envoy for the United Nations refugee agency elicits continuous media prostration before her charitable "radiance".

    Descending upon war-torn nations and refugee camps in characteristic superhuman perfection, Jolie decries earthly injustice - while regularly excising crucial pieces of the puzzle from her lament.

    This was the case in a March 2017 speech in Geneva, when Jolie referenced "the conflict in Iraq - the source of so much Iraqi suffering to this day", and yet proceeded to self-identify as "a proud American" and a believer in the notion that "a strong nation, like a strong person, helps others to rise up and be independent".

    Never mind that the US - a strong nation indeed - happens to have effectively destroyed Iraq, inflicting unquantifiable death and misery upon the Iraqi people.

    In Iraq and beyond, in fact, the military and economic policies of the country of which our heroine is so "proud" have contributed to a range of humanitarian crises now abstractly seized upon by Jolie & Co - not least the Saudi-led starvation of Yemen, aided and abetted by none other than the US.

    It's showtime

    A recent Vanity Fair cover story on Jolie touches on numerous aspects of the actress' life, from her new Los Angeles mansion - "listed for around $25 million" - to her cofounding, with British former foreign secretary William Hague, of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative in 2012. According to its website, the initiative "aims to raise awareness of the extent of sexual violence … in situations of armed conflict and rally global action to end it".

    This is the same Hague who, in addition to fervently championing the war on Iraq, argued in 2015 that just because Iraq had turned out poorly didn't mean the west shouldn't intervene in Syria.

    In other words, so much for the prevention of violence.

    Wark and Raventos observe that "the demigods of celebrity culture are a symptom of a general moral and ethical malaise in which, as capitalism is foundering in its own morass, mythmaking is essential for keeping the show going".

    If only the curtain would fall - not only on the sideshow of celebrity philanthropy, but on the myth itself.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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