If you saw media coverage of last year’s White House protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, you were more likely to learn that Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) and the mermaid from Splash (Darryl Hannah) are all against it, than to get any deep insight into the project’s complex design and potential social, economic and environmental implications.
Hollywood has a long tradition of speaking up on political questions of the day. From Charlie Chaplin, who attacked Nazism and made an entire movie parodying Hitler, to George Clooney who almost single-handedly ensured Americans recognized the suffering of people in Darfur, film star involvement can help raise an issue’s profile and engage a wider public.
We should admire people who are prepared to put their reputations, and perhaps their careers, on the line for controversial causes. Jane Fonda did it in the 1960s, joining the movement against the Vietnam War. Dozens of actors, writers and directors did it in the 1940s and 1950s, refusing to cooperate during U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of “Un-American” elements in Hollywood.
Environmental and animal rights groups have been quick to recognize the value of having a celebrity or two front their campaigns (particularly if the cause is fashionable in the circles in which the stars move.) They know even a B-lister can mobilize at least a few thousand supporters and help attract the attention of television news producers and newspaper columnists looking to feed the mass media beast.
We should not decry this – everyone is entitled to a point of view. But it is worrisome when media-savvy celebrities go from being viewed as endorsers of experts’ positions to being publicly perceived as actual subject matter experts.
The celebrity-as-an-expert trend is benign when actors are simply expressing personal views on issues of conscience, such as human rights. But it becomes more alarming when the issue is technically complex and has huge ramifications for the economic development of nations. The public isn’t well served when information about something as important as energy is reduced to a couple of simplistic sound bites.
Take Hollywood’s contribution of YouTube videos to the anti-Keystone XL campaign, for example. Not only do the videos vary widely in eloquence and accuracy, few offer any solutions to the challenges of meeting global energy needs in the decades ahead.
The degree to which celebrity involvement influenced the U.S. government’s ruling to defer its decision on Keystone XL is anybody’s guess. But with energy demand poised to rise dramatically in the coming years, the Keystone XL debate and others like it are critical discussions that require everybody’s participation, not just those immortalized on celluloid (though as Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to be immortalized through my work, I want to be immortalized by not dying.”)
Unfortunately few if any celebrities ever seem to side with energy development, which is a pity. Personally, we think “Bieber for Bitumen” has a really nice ring to it. (Justin, if you are reading this, our phone number’s below).