a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Should celebrities take a stand?

Celebrities use their fame to take all sorts of social, political and commercial positions.  To the modern reader this may not seem unusual or even remarkable.  But it’s fairly new.  Clark Gable didn’t dish on his politics.  Charlie Chaplin never shilled for bowler hats.  And Greta Garbo only vanted to be left alooone.

Today celebrities take positions on everything, it seems: war and peace and genetically-engineered foods and same-sex marriage and clean energy.  And in a way, even when they promote products, it’s more than just an advertisement.  When a celebrity lets it be known they drive a hybrid or don’t eat meat, they are putting their powerful seal of approval on a lifestyle.

Which raises the question why we give their positions weight.  What did Meryl Streep know about alar in apples when she testified before Congress in 1989?  Does/did she have microbiology credentials? No, but she had star appeal and thus people were more persuaded by her testimony than by scientists.  (It helped that the media paid it more attention too, which if course is why people with causes are always eager to get stars behind them.) When it comes to dieting and detox, do Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow know any more than the loudmouth at the end of the bar?

No, but they have fame, and in our culture fame carries far more weight than authority. Tobacco companies know this, and for years, until it became illegal, they used glamorous stars to counter the medical researchers—boring geeks in labcoats—who warned about tobacco’s dangers.  Who cares what some doctor says when you can see Sela Ward lighting up?

What do you think about celebrities using their mugs to advance an agenda, any agenda? Does the power of fame nullify whatever good it may do?  Does celebrity cheapen the gravity of an issue?  Does it make it hard for one to separate the wheat from the chaff, reducing, say, green technology or political causes to the level of a soft drink?

It’s a tough issue.  Fame cuts both ways.  But maybe, like everything else that is overused, it can undermine the very causes it’s intended to enhance.

Welsey, by the way, does not promote any causes, and doesn’t like celebrities who do.

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