Celebrities ‘crossing the line’ on global issues: silly behavior or saying the unsaid?

April 19, 2012
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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with Sean Penn, actor and Co-Founder of the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization, March 2010 (UN Photo/Sophia Paris).

The intense controversy over the praise accorded to Fidel Castro by Ozzie Guillen, manager of baseball’s Miami Marlins (in an interview with Time magazine) illustrates the wide-spectrum of reactions to the intrusion of figures from the world of entertainment into the world of global politics. When celebrities say silly things, commonly with respect to some form of conspiracy theory involving international relations, they grab attention for themselves, but not for the issue they are talking about. Sometimes, however, celebrities hit on a topic that ‘crosses the line’ because it breaks rank with public orthodoxy on a serious topic, in effect saying the unsaid.

Celebrities are far from immune in embracing conspiracy theories that do little to advance public debate or opinion. Charlie Sheen – among other ‘bad boy’ attributes – is well known for his conspiracy-oriented views of 9/11, even going so far as to suggest that the Bush administration may have been responsible for the attacks. Marion Cotillard – the Oscar winning star of La Vie en Rose– not only has questioned the authenticity of 9/11 but the landing of a man on the moon. Whatever the impact or not on their personal reputations, these are classic cases where there is absolutely no spillover into the domain of serious policy discussion. Certainly public opinion on the issues they are talking about is not altered.

In other cases, the manner by which the message is expressed by celebrities elicits controversy, but there is a sense that the utterance itself has some significant meaning for world politics. Quite clearly, Harry Belafonte’s declaration in a 2006 speech at the side of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, that "No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush says, we're here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people support your revolution,” struck even many of his admirers as having crossed the line. Yet, given the fact that this statement was made by a veteran civil rights campaigner and goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, this speech demonstrated the extent of the image problem for the US in the Americas. If most probably not a good career choice for the Venezuelan born Guillen in a market dominated by Cuban-Americans, he said the unsaid (at least in the US), that Castro continues to have many admirers in the hemisphere. Moreover, the timing of this statement is fascinating as it came just before the April 14-15 Cartagena Summit of the Americas, where many Latin American leaders protested the absence of Cuba (where even after his official retirement, Fidel Castro continues to be described by his brother Raúl as “not substitutable”) at the event. Even President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, the host and a key US ally, concluded that: “exclusion of Cuba is due to ideological stubbornness and another summit without Cuba is unacceptable."

The recent comments of Sean Penn on the Falklands/Malvinas issue embellish the theme of celebrity voices – and our responses to them. As anyone who has followed Penn’s public activities knows, Penn is a repeat offender in crossing the line. His visit to Iraq prior to the US invasion – which included a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz – still hits a raw nerve with many US citizens. Yet, like Harry Belafonte, Penn is a serious activist. Unlike many of his fellow celebrities, Penn did not engage in a one-off manner in post-earthquake Haiti. Indeed, Penn has been awarded the 2012 Peace Summit Award at the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates for his relief efforts since the January 2010 disaster.

This hybrid nature of Penn’s role makes it fascinating to speculate about whether he has crossed the line again by his open support for Argentina’s claim over the Malvinas/Falklands or not. Akin to the reaction in the US to his Iraq activities, Penn’s venture into this issue hits a raw nerve for many in the UK. “Vainglorious and ill-informed,” the Daily Mail declared with the all the outrage it could muster.

However, even many of his detractors acknowledge implicitly that Penn opens up the debate abut the nature of self-determination and sovereignty. If the issue of the Falklands/Malvinas was judged as too hot an issue to deal with at the Summit of the Americas, such controversies will continue to demand attention on the global agenda whether we like it or not. While many of the tactics of celebrities can be correctly judged to be silly, in some cases, they address serious issues that policy-makers neglect. Crossing the line may have unanticipated public consequences, well beyond the short-term repercussions on the reputations of individual celebrities for saying the unsaid.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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