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Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2003 /29 Elul 5763

Dave Shiflett

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The U.N.'s celebrity ambassadors capture the true spirit of the place -- President Bush's address to United Nations delegates this week has received some tough reviews from those fabled citizens of the world, which was no surprise. His appeal for international cooperation in Iraq suggested that perhaps the U.N. is not impotent after all. (Yo, Jacques! He needs us!) In return for the favor of being slipped a little political Viagra, the delegates and their supporters turned on their suitor with renewed passion. Mr. Bush might have done well to let limp dogs lie.

Yet one assumes the Bush team is taking all this in stride. United Press International reported Tuesday that "nearly two-thirds of Baghdad residents say the removal of Saddam Hussein was worth the hardships they have endured." Yet almost everyone associated with the U.N.--delegates, their drivers, their cooks--oppose this Bush policy, among others.

The animus clearly extends to many members of the U.N.'s celebrity auxiliary, whose members are known as "goodwill ambassadors" and "messengers of peace." Some of these luminaries have done everything short of showing up at open-mic nights in Peoria to oppose the man they love to hate. Goodwill ambassadors Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte are two examples.

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Mr. Belafonte has made headlines (Billboard's Top 10 seems out of reach these days) by likening Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to "house slaves" because of their support for administration policies. The opposition has taken other forms as well. Mr. Glover and Mr. Belafonte signed a letter printed in Cuba's state-run Granma newspaper denouncing the war and warning that a "strong campaign of destabilization" against Fidel Castro's government may be a "pretext for an invasion." The ad came when Mr. Castro was deep into a dissident-incarceration binge. Mr. Glover has also called Mr. Bush a "racist" because of domestic policies that Mr. Glover disdains, a typically nuanced critique.

Another star in the U.N.'s celebrity constellation is actress Angelina Jolie, the Tomb Raider who also played a convincing sociopath in "Girl, Interrupted." Ms. Jolie, goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, is hailed in a news release from World Scientific Publishing for her endorsement of "Iraq War and Its Consequences: Thoughts of Nobel Peace Laureates and Eminent Scholars." The book, due out soon, will contain essays by more than 30 Nobel Peace Laureates and academics, including Noam Chomsky, an anti-Bush academic celebrity who appears to believe that comparing the U.S. to Stalin's Russia is often a slight to the latter.

While intending no sympathy, one can't help wondering how Nobel laureates might feel about having Ms. Jolie serving as their pitchperson. All the acclaim of a Peace Prize and you can't get your book noticed without the help of a Hollywood High grad known for wearing a vial of her husband's blood around her neck, being advised publicly by father Jon Voight to seek mental-health treatment, and discussing the amorous thrills of using a knife in the bedroom. The publisher of "Iraq and Its Consequences" announces that Ms. Jolie's "review" of the book will be used on the "book cover, flyers, posters."

But if the laureates are a bit embarrassed by the cut of their shill's jib, they no doubt recognize that celebrity trumps all these days, and that Ms. Jolie will probably move a lot more books than some politico like Jimmy Carter or a brainiac from the Carnegie Endowment, even if the latter two know a bit more about war and peace. As for the celebrities themselves, the benefits of U.N. affiliation and publicized compassion are hard to calculate.

The demands are not overwhelming. The main job, Ms. Jolie says, is to "raise awareness" of your particular issue, which often means flying in, meeting with victims, getting your picture taken, then slipping back home to Hollywood before any serious rashes develop. (To her credit, Ms. Jolie has given her own money to refugee causes.) Geri Halliwell, who gained international recognition as a Spice Girl and who now plumps for safe sex under U.N. auspices, explains that "fame is like a bright light." And if only a couple of people take her message to heart, she adds, "that's brilliant and overrides all the cynicism." Well, perhaps not entirely. Even those of us who see the good done by do-gooding recognize that putting one's compassion on parade is not only good for the old self-esteem but can't hurt ticket sales, either.

The first U.N. celebrity was Danny Kaye, who was tapped in the mid-1950s to advocate for Unicef. These days, the constellation includes Peter Ustinov, Judy Collins, Muhammad Ali, Linda Gray (from the TV series "Dallas"), Luciano Pavarotti and Wynton Marsalis.

Nowadays, of course, it is difficult to find a celebrity who isn't promoting some cause or other, and perhaps two or three. Richard Gere is Tibet's man in Hollywood. The singer Bono has mugged on many continents for Amnesty International. Charlton Heston and Tom Selleck have done pro-gun-rights advocacy, while Warren Beatty pushes universal health care and has threatened to run for president if we don't listen up. High-profilers continue to cash in as private-sector pitchpersons, and even washed-up politicians can get a gig. Against all odds, Bob Dole is a Viagra salesman, and a prosperous future would surely await Bill Clinton in the Love Industry, where he could no doubt make a fortune selling mood music and penning pickup lines.

Not everyone is happy about celebrity advocacy, even some celebrities. Singer Damon Albarn told MTV's audience: "I've got a problem with Bono going to see the pope about Third World debt. I don't question his sincerity, but I think it's creating monsters. You see so-called stars in these situations and they seem irrelevant. They don't even dress for the part; they don't look like they're there. They look like computer-generated inserts."

Mr. Albarn may be onto something. The commercial world already uses computer generation to move products, sometimes even reviving the dead to get the job done. (Not long ago, John Wayne was brought back into service to sell beer.) It can only be a matter of time before the political world follows suit.

The possibilities are breathtaking. Environmentalists, for example, have lately been insisting that Jesus would never drive an SUV. Perhaps one day soon we'll turn on the TV and see the Good Lord tooling around on a moped. Indeed, viewers might eventually mistake the Second Coming for an ad blitz by the Sierra Club. For now, one hopes, no one is confusing the virtual "seriousness" of U.N. celebrities for anything other than what it is: a true reflection of the institution itself.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, Dave Shiflett