Monday, February 10, 2003

The troubling spectacle of celebrities for peace. Last night I tuned in the Fox News Channel to watch a mini-debate on Iraq with actress and peace activist Janeane Garofalo and the hawkish Ruth Wedgewood, who's with an organization called the Committee to Liberate Iraq. The phenomenon of entertainers' passing themselves off as policy experts is enough to make one wince, and I admit I watched mainly to see if a train wreck would occur.

I was pleasantly surprised. Garofalo parried Wedgewood calmly, intelligently, and with a moderate point of view, arguing not that the United States is evil, but that war will bring unintended consequences, mainly in the form of renewed terrorist attacks. (Isn't that what last week's Orange Alert was all about?) Garofalo didn't claim to have any special knowledge beyond being an intelligent, well-informed ordinary citizen. And she managed to get her points across even though the buffoonish host, Rita Cosby, kept trying to shout her down.

The low point came when Cosby asked Garofalo if she would be willing to go to Iraq as a human shield -- a question Cosby was so proud of that she actually promo'd it earlier in the show. Garofalo, to her credit, simply sneered and said no, of course not (you idiot!).

Still, I find it hard to understand why celebrities keep doing this. Not long ago Sean Penn visited Bagdhad in the name of peace. The New York Times did a long piece on him (no longer online at the Times, but I found it here), and I was struck -- and surprised -- by how carefully he spoke, and how insistent he was on refusing to say anything that could be interpreted as helpful to Saddam Hussein. "You come here on a Friday, you leave on a Sunday, and you start throwing out flamboyant and inflammatory messages -- that doesn't seem to be of advantage to anyone," Penn said.

But that didn't stop conservatives from ripping Penn as naive or even unpatriotic. This piece on National Review Online was typical, if more well-reasoned than some I've seen.

The whole notion of celebrity peace activists is an interesting one. In the case of Garofalo and Penn, the flak they've taken from the right has been largely unfair and unjustified. But what good are they doing? Well-intentioned though they may be, they help cement the image of the antiwar movement as an idle indulgence for unserious people.

Following Colin Powell's devastating report last week, it may no longer be possible to avoid war. It doesn't help that the main antiwar voices that the public is hearing from belong to Hollywood celebrities.

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