Magazine article The Christian Century

Star Power: The Limits of Celebrity Activism

Magazine article The Christian Century

Star Power: The Limits of Celebrity Activism

Article excerpt

IN NAMING BONO Person of the Year, Time labeled him a good Samaritan. But this powerful biblical image misses the point of Bond's significance as a celebrity leader. He goes beyond being a high-profile good Samaritan--he stretches the moral imagination of his musical audience so that they, too, see the need to reach out to their global neighbors. In their own way, Bond and his band U2 deliver the message that we are, or at least can be, one world.

Bond has used his global celebrity to become an organizer and strategizer of Samaritans. He played a significant role in the Jubilee Campaign, which made unprecedented progress in gaining debt relief for highly indebted nations. He founded the organization DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) to work with governments and the international financial organizations to structure development assistance in effective ways. He has led the One Campaign, which seeks additional spending to alleviate global poverty, and worked with Bob Geldof to arrange Live 8, the concurrent benefit concerts in all of the countries of the Group of Eight, or G8 (the world's eight largest economies). At the July 2005 G8 summit, the world's most powerful leaders committed to an additional $50 billion in annual debt relief. A number of those leaders met with Bond before and during the summit and have credited him with making this agreement happen.

It is these efforts in public education, communication and mobilization that make Bond's work an intriguing case of celebrity leadership. The One Campaign--like the Live 8 concerts--asks fans for no money but "only" a personal commitment to take a stand against poverty. During U2's sold-out concert tours, Bond declares nightly that the One Campaign, which already claims over 2 million members in the U.S., will surpass the membership of the National Rifle Association by 2008.

Like that of the NRA, the One Campaign's goal is to communicate to political leaders that there is a large bloc of citizens behind it--in this case, citizens committed to addressing global poverty. Politicians, it is said, must be concerned in their public role not about citizens of other countries, however impoverished; rather, they must focus on the wants and needs of their own country's citizens. By making global poverty a concern of U.S. citizens, the One Campaign makes it a concern of U.S. leaders. Even politicians who want to fight global poverty need this public pressure so they can claim that it is in their own interest to act. "Bond made me do it," they can say.

Signing the pledge of the One Campaign requires very little. It is possible that Bond et al. will not be able to sustain the momentum to make a political difference. This is the point at which celebrity leadership can become a vice. At some point, the celebrity leader must motivate citizens to the point that they, in turn, motivate their political leaders.

This raises the question of how much motivation and how much commitment are needed to eradicate extreme poverty. In the grand scheme of things, the relative amount of money needed is small. The United Nations has asked industrialized countries to give 0.7 percent of their gross national product to fight poverty. This money, some $200 billion, would be far more than what is required to meet the basic human needs of the world's poor. The point: the level of commitment needed to address extreme poverty is not itself extreme. This stance is in sharp contrast to many past moral arguments, such as those of Peter Singer, which imply that the affluent must make drastic lifestyle changes in order to meet the needs of the poor. …

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