CELEBRITY DIPLOMACY/I AM AMERICA: And So Can You!

By Paul, Kyle David | International Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

CELEBRITY DIPLOMACY/I AM AMERICA: And So Can You!


Paul, Kyle David, International Journal


CELEBRITY DIPLOMACY Andrew F. Cooper London: Paradigm Publishers, 2007. 160pp, US$18.95 paperback (ISBN 978-1594514791)

I AM AMERICA And So Can You! Stephen Colbert New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007. 240pp, US$26.99 hardback (ISBN 978-0446580502)

Celebrities and the paparazzi who photograph them enjoy a strange, symbiotic relationship. Each relies on and uses the other for its own purposes, and neither could exist independently. But rather than allowing themselves to be photographed solely for self-promotion, some celebrities in recent years have used the attention they receive to focus the cameras on serious international issues, whether genocide in Darfur or the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. This pragmatic use of the paparazzi's spotlight is the main subject of Andrew F. Cooper's excellent Celebrity Diplomacy. Cooper's main question is what we ought to make of these celebrities' efforts. Various actors and singers, as well as politicians and pundits, are also the target of Stephen Colbert's I Am America, a comic manifesto that reads like the rant of a beautifully intolerant lunatic. Both Cooper and Colbert scrutinize the international public image of American foreign policy, but while Cooper's goal is substantive and serious, Colbert's goal is simply to scorch everything in his path. I Am America falls flat because Colbert pulls his punches. Celebrity Diplomacy excels in most areas, but falters when Cooper provides too few reasons to trust the celebrities he aims to defend.

In Cooper's defence, it is easy to question both the celebrity diplomats' sincerity and their ability to do good by drawing public attention to a crisis. Their efforts have yielded few clear-cut successes, which naturally raises doubts about their significance. However, they do deserve closer examination. As Cooper explains, "Just because [celebrities have] evoked some elements of a backlash is not an excuse to dismiss this phenomenon as irrelevant or defective" (14).

The organization of Cooper's study is interesting. Beginning with a brief history of celebrity interventions in crisis abroad, he traces the trend up to its leading contemporary figures, including the actors Angelina Jolie and Robert Redford. He then offers two case studies, focusing on rock musicians Bono and Bob Geldof respectively. He contrasts Bono's diplomatic strategy of befriending influential politicians with Geldof 's offputting, venomous ranting. In Cooper's view, Bono's approach is especially effective: "This charm offensive was based on different templates. It made use of an echoing technique; in a variation of the theme developed by NGOs, by playing back the statements of a notable figure in a favorable light" (46).

As an overview of of the celebrities who have made an impact on international affairs, Celebrity Diplomacy serves as an introductory guide for readers unfamiliar with the figures who populate the tabloids. As a result, Cooper's coverage is largely Anglocentric, a fact he notes towards the end of the book. He highlights the "Live 8" series of concerts that were held simultaneously in eight cities around the world and aimed to raise awareness of African issues. Yet few of the performers were African, and none of the concerts took place in Africa. At the last minute, in response to these concerns, an additional concert was hastily organized in Johannesburg. It was the only venue that featured a majority of African performers, but none of them had the profile of the western artists who played in London and New York, including Lenny Kravitz, U2, and Madonna. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the intimate Johannesburg concert was by far the most genuine. "Critics, both in oppositional circles in the United States and United Kingdom and within Africa," Cooper explains, "could use the slogan 'Saving Africans without Africans' to effectively denigrate the entire celebrity/Live 8 project" (101).

Cooper makes a solid case that some celebrities are in fact using their money and public profile to change the world.

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