In troubled times, let celebrities speak

Singer Beyonce (above) made a provocative call to action on her website after the shooting death of Alton Sterling, actor Jesse Williams made Black Lives Matter the cornerstone of an awards speech last month and comedienne Amy Schumer wrote a pointed
Singer Beyonce (above) made a provocative call to action on her website after the shooting death of Alton Sterling, actor Jesse Williams made Black Lives Matter the cornerstone of an awards speech last month and comedienne Amy Schumer wrote a pointed pro-gun control commentary for her television show.PHOTO: REUTERS
Singer Beyonce made a provocative call to action on her website after the shooting death of Alton Sterling, actor Jesse Williams (above) made Black Lives Matter the cornerstone of an awards speech last month and comedienne Amy Schumer wrote a pointed
Singer Beyonce made a provocative call to action on her website after the shooting death of Alton Sterling, actor Jesse Williams (above) made Black Lives Matter the cornerstone of an awards speech last month and comedienne Amy Schumer wrote a pointed pro-gun control commentary for her television show.PHOTO: REUTERS
Singer Beyonce made a provocative call to action on her website after the shooting death of Alton Sterling, actor Jesse Williams made Black Lives Matter the cornerstone of an awards speech last month and comedienne Amy Schumer (above) wrote a pointed
Singer Beyonce made a provocative call to action on her website after the shooting death of Alton Sterling, actor Jesse Williams made Black Lives Matter the cornerstone of an awards speech last month and comedienne Amy Schumer (above) wrote a pointed pro-gun control commentary for her television show.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Skilfully or wrongly executed, self-evident or insightful, the responses of actors and singers to crises have the power to unite

WASHINGTON • In 2006, when actor-activist Martin Sheen was approached by Democratic officials and encouraged to run for office in his home state of Ohio, he politely demurred.

"I'm just not qualified," he said. "You're mistaking celebrity for credibility."

Ten years later, whenever ugly events summon headlines about "our divided nation", the United States' celebrity class thrusts itself headfirst and wholeheartedly into the debate. They conflate celebrity for credibility. They conflate activism with typing (or is it with self-promotion?).

And trapped in a rudderless, flopping shipwreck of a summer - seeking guidance from the beautiful people if we cannot have it from the ones we elected - we conflate it too.

Nation, let us turn to basketball star LeBron James, who tweeted, "We are all hurting tonight. More violence is not the answer", after the killings of five police officers in Dallas.

Actors and singers have... made careers of convincingly making us believe them. Retweeting one of their statements provides a sense of community that writing one's own statement does not.

The well-intentioned, if selfevident, comment was liked or retweeted more than 100,000 times.

Let us turn to Mischa Barton, or on second thoughts, let us not. Barton, an actress best known for her starring role on The O.C. (2003 to 2007), posted on Instagram a "heartbroken" call for "unity" after the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge - but paired it with a photo of herself in a bikini, standing on a yacht, holding a glass of wine.

As could be expected, Beyonce was both the most provocative and the most action-driven in her response.

"It is up to us to take a stand and demand that they 'stop killing us'," she wrote on her website after Sterling's death, but before the Dallas shootings. "We must use our voices to contact the politicians and legislators in our districts and demand social and judicial change." She provided links to help readers find their representatives' phone numbers.

Some angry commenters argued that she had overstepped the bounds of an entertainer - but by doing what? Expressing an opinion? Reminding Americans that there are politicians huddling in Washington, D.C., on the taxpayer dime and they have working telephones?

She is a performer with tremendous social power and absolutely zero political power, unless she starts funding political campaigns or runs for office herself.

And yet her missives are gobbled up and reposted because she is Beyonce and because, in an era where federal government approval ratings are abysmally low - last month, 80 per cent of polled Americans told Gallup they thought Congress was doing a bad job - is it any wonder that celebrities are our new first responders, the ones we turn to for wisdom in times of crisis?

We recently nominated one of them to a 50-50 shot to becoming the next leader of the free world.

Our elected officials bicker unproductively over the right way to address women's pay and health - so let us turn instead to British actress Emma Watson, whose Hermione Granger-ish speech on women's equality to the United Nations was viewed nearly eight million times after she made it in the fall of 2014.

Our Twitter feeds are clogged with the action-free "thoughts" and "prayers" of politicians who never seem to know what else to do after another senseless act of American violence.

But there was comedienne Amy Schumer writing pointed pro-gun control commentary for her television show and vocally partnering her United States senator cousin Charles Schumer to pass reform.

One might not have agreed with her position, but at least she had a position. At least it was not another mealy "we mourn for the victims" uttered by one of the representatives we have sent to the Capitol specifically to do something.

Help us, Amy Schumer. You are our only hope. Even if her actions do not do anything. Even if none of the celebrities' actions do anything.

Fame comes with an intrinsic confirmation bias. Actors and singers have, after all, made careers of convincingly making us believe them.

Retweeting one of their statements provides a sense of community that writing one's own statement does not.

Maybe the only way this fractured nation knows how to unite is by joining in a retweet of James. Maybe in these troubled times, we do not know exactly what to do, but we know that Barton did it wrong.

Celebrities have a longstanding relationship with activism, of course. Think John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono's famous bed-ins, or Harry Belafonte, whose singing career was accompanied by a legacy of civil rights activism and who was a friend and confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.

Belafonte made appearances at rallies and marches, he bankrolled protest movements, he travelled around the world supporting left- wing causes.

Today, most celebrities make their speeches from behind keyboards rather than podiums - one notable exception being Jesse Williams, the Grey's Anatomy actor who made Black Lives Matter the cornerstone of a BET Awards speech last month and who has been cited as his generation's Belafonte.

Maybe "consciousness raiser" is part of a performer's job description now, if one is so inclined to pick up the mantle.

In 2003, the Dixie Chicks made headlines after a member criticised President George W. Bush on stage. They received death threats, one telling them they had better "shut up and sing". They broke up for a while. But now they are back and touring again.

Do not shut up, Dixie Chicks. Do not shut up, Stacey Dash, Alyssa Milano, Patricia Arquette or any of the other celebrities currently fumbling their way awkwardly to some kind of dialogue.

You did not know what to say, but heaven knows practically nobody else does, either.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'In troubled times, let celebrities speak'. Print Edition | Subscribe