Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Make Celebrity History

I suppose it is an age old problem: the confusion between celebrity and authority. Being famous allows your opinions to be heard and being famous as well as articulate and appealing allows your opinions to be influential. Everything from the clothes that appear in our high street shops to the way people handle their love affairs may be subject to the influence of our role models – this stuff is a cultural inevitability – but in the last few weeks I have begun to despair at people, on mass, deferring to a group of celebrities on issues about which they have no intellectual or moral authority.

Bob Geldoff is an very useful example, because I really like the chap. It would be impossible to argue that the man is faddishly pinning his colours to a cause as some sort of self-publicity exercise; clearly the man has passion, he’s also reasonably articulate and he is a character which really appeals to us. Leaving Live 8 aside for a moment, last year I heard him speaking about another of his passions; equal access to children for separated and divorced parents. Something he knows something about from bitter personal experience.

I was totally with him on his arguments about the role of fathers. Of course it is nonsense to suggest a child needs a mother and a father or else they’ll be a total screw up, but when both parties are willing and able to contribute, it is in everybody’s interest that they do. Then Bob was challenged about the practicalities of truly equal parenting; children would wind up being passed from pillar to post throughout the week unless you forced estranged parents to actually live together. Bob, bright guy, had thought of this already.

The perfect solution was that the children remained in the family home and the parents took it in turns to stay there, each having their own household elsewhere. The children remained in the one location, they had total stability. Of course it is perfect. Absolutely perfect. Well, unless of course you sprinkled fairy dust over parents at the birth of a child which meant that they would remain in love and capable of living together harmoniously forever and ever…

Back in the real world of course, many couples struggle to make their joint incomes stretch to one household, let alone three. One of the common barriers to access for divorced fathers is that they can’t afford a house or flat with enough room for the children to stay over comfortably and single-parent households are the poorest in the country. But it’s been a while since Sir Bob has needed to worry about where the money for a school uniform is going to come from.

So back to Live 8. I cannot bring myself to be cynical about this sort of project, but cynicism and scepticism are two different things and I don’t know how a series rock concerts can make the slightest difference to anything. So Bob and the others are musicians; this is what they do. But if they were florists and they spent the day arranging flowers for Africa then what difference would it make?

Okay, awareness; thanks to these people, we’re all aware that the G8 summit is taking place and perhaps we are more aware that Africa is not in a much better state than it was twenty years ago. But besides that?

Did thousands of people turning out for the concerts or tuning in to the coverage send a message to the G8 leaders? Absolutely not. They had won free tickets to a concert with some of the most famous musicians in the world and a handful of Africans tucked out of the limelight. Their presence was not a protest; they needn’t have had any investment in the cause whatsoever. Had artists of such calibre arranged a concert in aid of “Save the Hedgehogs” the numbers would be have been the same.

And the G8 leaders, even if they were likely to be influenced by political protest, know this very well. The Make Poverty History campaign, that lobbies these people, will have made some impact, but the rock concerts? No way. I don’t believe that all but a handful of people at those concerts, on stage or in the audience, gave a hoot about Africa or would be prepared to adjust their lifestyle in even the small ways which might benefit justice for our cousins in the “Third World”. I don’t mean to offend anyone who attended or tried for tickets who is pious about this stuff, but the fact is you didn’t have to write a thousand word essay on European Trade Laws and their effect on poverty in Africa in order to get in.

But does any of it do any harm? The harm things like Live 8 might might do is too complex to speculate upon, but in general, confusing celebrity with authority is a bad idea. Celebrity, or something like this, is perhaps part of human nature; we like stories about people who are special and before these people existed on televisions, they existed in books, before which they existed on church murals or in the words of minstrels and in all other forms of story telling; both historic and fictional.

But I'm not sure they always had voices. I'm not sure they always yielded influence upon people when it came to issues with which they had little or no knowledge about. Occasionally, expertise and celebrity go together; Jamie Oliver knows about food and Tom Cruise is an alien. But please God, if we want to address a problem, we need to consult real experts and we then need to act on that consultation. Having a good old sing-a-long may lift our spirits but it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to the problems of the real world.

1 comment:

James Medhurst said...

I agree with you that Live8 is not going to change the world but I think it will make a small difference. MPH has been big in the UK but not in the other G8 countries and I think Live8 has definitely raised the profile of some of the issues. Still, it would be nice if some of these people would use their influence to raise the profile of African music or, indeed, of disability access.