When stars get involved in global issues, there is inevitably a frisson of excitement in the entertainment press about that star’s commitment and bravery, and in the news press, there tend to be a slew of snarky articles about how such trips are self-serving, self-promotional branding exercises. Both can be true, of course. And when powerful aid agencies such as the United Nations Children’s Fund asks a starlet like Angelina Jolie visit refugee camps in the Darfur region, they can be almost assured that her visit – and their agenda – will gain the attention of the world’s media. In a world of short attention spans and decreasing foreign news budgets, it’s a logical choice to make.
Rap and rock stars, action heroes, and yes, even comic book characters – DC Comics recently sent its Justice League to take on hunger in the Horn of Africa – do their job well, raising public awareness about world crises.
But some critics have begun to ask whether any of this attention does any actual good.
In her biting critique of the reporting of influential New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, published this week by the W.E.B. Dubois Institute at Indiana University, Kathryn Mathers writes that the twin events of the growing AIDS crisis and the post-traumatic shock of the Sept. 11 attacks created a new mood of American humanitarianism. Laudable as it is for Americans to want to contribute to solutions – rather than, say, launching another war – this new humanitarianism was wrapped up in some very old and repulsive assumptions about Africa as a helpless and hopeless continent, which had almost no role in contributing to those solutions or determining its own future: