Operating on the Front Lines

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There is lot going on in the world of celebrity activism.  I hardly know where to start.  However one episode in the midst of the Libya crisis rises to the top of my celebrity blogger list. The Libyan “humanitarian intervention” helps to tease out a major puzzle about the engagement by celebrities in world affairs. The puzzle – how does the profile and projection of celebrities from the world of entertainment differ from the profile given to public intellectuals?

As I have noted in previous posts one of the fundamental shifts in celebrity activism has been on the level of intensity. As opposed to simply becoming the recognizable name and face spokespeople for particular causes, select celebrities have moved to the front lines. This trend stands out among the celebrities I have profiled up to now: Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Mia Farrow and Bono and Bob Geldof. But this approach is evident for a wider celebrity group including Richard Gere, Bianca Jagger and others.

Adding to the intensity is the willingness of celebrities to make normative judgments of right and wrong in conflicts. Attempts to name and shame have become a tool in the repertoire of growing celebrity activism.

Given this contextual what then is to be made of the story of a well-known French public intellectual – Bernard Henry Lévy (or BHL to audiences in France and beyond) who recently conducted a secret mission for President Sarkzoy.  His mission – make contact with Libyan rebels. One way of interpreting this mission is to view it as an updated version celebrity diplomacy – the mobilization by states of public intellectuals for ‘ambassadorial’ roles.  This traditional celebrity diplomacy goes back to the 18th century with the appointment of Benjamin Franklin to represent the US at the court of France.

Another way of looking at the BHL episode is to relate it to a a competitive dynamic between public intellectuals and celebrity activists. As Bono, Angelina and George Clooney have grabbed attention for the intensity of engagement on select global issues, public intellectuals have been relegated to armchair experts. Worse for these public intellectuals there is the added dilemma that a good number of these experts clearly got it wrong on big issues.  The most notable “wrong view” was the support provided by many liberal as well as conservative public intellectuals for the 2003 Iraq invasion.

The BHL mission suggests, however, that public intellectuals can get out of their armchairs and operate on the front lines of international crises. Although a number of celebrity activists have made a impact by flirting with danger, including Princess Diana’s famous trip to the anti-personnel land mine fields of Angola, few narratives have the verve of BHL’s top-secret mission. How can you compete with a commandeered vegetable truck racing across the desert to rendezvous with the rebels fighting the Gaddafi regime (James Crabtree, ‘Philosophes sans frontieres as Plato battles Nato’, Financial Times, April 2/3, 2011).

The big question remaining, however, is whether this BHL intervention will represent a “high wire” solo act; or alternatively will secret mission become iconic leading to various  copycat actions by public intellectuals.

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