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George Clooney’s Selective Activism

George Clooney is Hollywood's "heartthrob with a conscience" -- except when it interferes with lucrative endorsement deals, writes Mike McNally.

by
Mike McNally

Bio

March 18, 2008 - 1:00 am

We may never know how many people have been killed in the crackdown by Chinese forces over the past few days — perhaps as many as 100, with the threat of more violence to come.

But it’s clear that Tibetans are paying a high price for daring, with the Beijing Olympics just a few months away, to remind the world of their struggle against Chinese rule. Governments and NGOs around the world have expressed concern over events in Tibet, although their language is necessarily tempered by the constraints of diplomatic niceties. That, sadly is the way things work, no matter how much the idealists of the world (“We shouldn’t buy oil from the Saudis!”) would like things to be different.

However, there is one group that enjoys far greater freedom to speak its mind on controversial issues such as Tibet, and it’s also a constituency that can influence public opinion in ways Condoleezza Rice or the UN can only dream of — celebrity activists.

The cause of Tibet has been a popular one with Hollywood stars and musicians. Richard Gere, a Buddhist and chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, has been quick to condemn the Chinese action, and bands from the Beastie Boys to Radiohead have over the years performed for Tibet charities. Just two weeks ago singer Bjork incurred the displeasure of Chinese fans by shouting “Tibet! Tibet!” during a performance of her song “Declare Independence” at a show in Shanghai (not that you’d know it if you were in China — they’ve banned access to YouTube).

If his previous form is anything to go by, the Tibetans should soon be able to count on the support of Hollywood star George Clooney in their struggle for freedom. After all, the man anointed by the media as the “heartthrob with a conscience” must have been pretty outspoken about China’s indirect responsibility for the on-going genocide in Darfur, right?

Well, not really. Here’s Clooney’s latest attack on China regarding Darfur delivered in his capacity as “ambassador” for Olympic partner and official timekeeper Omega:

“I have talked with Omega (about China) for over a year and will continue to talk to Omega,” Clooney told BBC Sport.

“I have and will go to the places I and China do business and ask for help.”

You hear that, President Hu? Not so brave now, are we, People’s Liberation Army? Gorgeous George is going to “continue to talk to Omega.” He’s going to “go to places” and “ask for help.”

We’ve yet to hear from Clooney on the specific issue of Tibet, but he’ll surely take an even stronger stance than he has over Darfur, given that this time Chinese are doing the shooting themselves, rather than merely supplying the ammunition.

We can perhaps hope for something along the lines of the blistering attack Clooney launched on Nestle last year, when it was politely pointed out that his commercial activities on behalf of a company that’s been criticised for its policies in the third world didn’t sit well with his self-appointed role as global crusader for the oppressed.

Here’s the full, unedited transcript:

“I’m not going to apologize to you for trying to make a living every once in a while. I find that an irritating question.”

Okay, it wasn’t that blistering. However, Clooney has on other occasions been genuinely outspoken in his condemnation of perceived injustices — namely those he feels have been committed by the United States, and specifically by the Bush administration.

He’s been among the most high-profile critics of the Iraq war, which is of course his right, although as Austin Bay has pointed out, the numerous similarities between the case made by the Bush administration for invading Iraq and Clooney’s own justification for US intervention in Sudan somewhat undermine his position.

But Clooney’s America is one which can do no right — whether destabilizing Middle Eastern regimes (Syriana), or stifling dissent at home (Good Night and Good Luck) — and is run by scheming corporations (Michael Clayton) and corrupt politicians (all of the above).

As the blogger Scolai points out, Clooney has nothing to say about the US intervention in Afghanistan. When he was asked recently whether, in the context of Afghanistan, some wars were justified, he replied “I’m not the guy to answer that.” A strange response from someone who certainly appears to be the go-to guy if you want to know which wars aren’t justified.

Similarly, he’s silent on the Bush administration’s $15 billion initiative for AIDS relief in Africa (as, of course, are his friends in the media, an “oversight” for which they were recently admonished by Bob Geldof in Time magazine).

Clearly, Clooney’s crusading is selective to say the least. I can’t put it any better than Niall Stanage in this 2006 profile:

Films aside, what many journalists refer to as his ”activism” tends to comprise involvement with worthy but largely uncontroversial causes (like the Bono fronted Drop The Debt campaign) and nebulous statements about peace or holding the powerful to account.

In his 2006 National Review piece “Phoney Baloney,” Mark Steyn memorably ridiculed Clooney’s self-declared “bravery,” and his double standard of attacking easy political targets in the US while ignoring more complex and controversial issues. (You can also find the article here.)

Steyn’s piece is probably the greatest take-down of pompous celebrity activism ever committed to print or web: it should be carved in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Among many damning observations he writes:

By comparison [with earlier generations of Hollywood activists], Clooney’s [activism] is no more than a pose — he’s acting at activism, new Hollywood mimicking old Hollywood’s robust defense of even older Hollywood. He’s more taken by the idea of “speaking truth to power” than by the footling question of whether the truth he’s speaking to power is actually true.

When interviewers turn to the subject of his politics, Clooney invariably talks about the influence of his journalist father, and it’s easy to think that his activism is driven at least in part by a sense of guilt over his success in the often superficial and ephemeral movie business. He admits as much in a spectacularly smug and self-serving 2006 interview with clearly-smitten Guardian journalist Emma Brockes.

Clooney is as vain and materialistic as the next guy in Hollywood — “F*** it, I love my house in Italy. It’s big and audacious and ridiculous, and nicer than any human being has the right to have” — but he is also one of the few really grown-up movie stars. “I have Irish Catholic guilt,” he says, smiling, “and want to make up for [my successes].”

The profile is the perfect accompaniment to Steyn’s piece: the way in which Clooney harps on about being attacked for his positions by right-wingers (“I remember when they were picketing the movie theater for me and I called my dad and said, ‘Er, so, am I in trouble?’”) suggests a martyr complex to add to the Catholic guilt complex; he wears the “traitor” label like a badge of honor.

So why the apparent double standard from a man who affects such fearlessness in challenging injustice all its forms? Why the relative silence from Clooney over China?

He could conceivably make the argument I referred to at the start of this piece — that “engagement” with unpleasant regimes is more useful than punitive measures.

But, come now — no amount of Omega-sponsored photo-shoots and drinks parties featuring Clooney modeling expensive watches are going to affect China’s policies towards Tibet or Sudan.

On the other hand, public severing of his links with Omega would attract worldwide publicity on a scale similar to that generated by Steven Spielberg’s recent decision to snub the Games.

Maybe, like all those corrupt politicians and corporate scoundrels that inhabit his films, Clooney simply has his price.

But there’s another possibility, which is slightly more charitable. Perhaps Clooney needs the money so that he can continue to fund worthy documentaries and “political” feature films which, while well-received critically, aren’t necessarily successful in terms of box office receipts.

How ironic if would be if Clooney was reduced to compromising his principles so that he could make more films in which those principles are so blatantly flaunted.

Mike McNally blogs at Monkey Tennis Centre.

Mike McNally is a journalist based in Bath, England. He posts at PJ Tatler and at his own blog Monkey Tennis, and tweets at @notoserfdom. When he's not writing about politics he writes about Photoshop.
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