How Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp Can Save the World

by Jeff Halverson

In the war of ideas for the “hearts and minds” of the Muslim world, cultural diplomacy can go a long way. The US government may not be very popular abroad, but our cultural products certainly are. Many Muslims hate our policies, but they still love our movies, listen to our pop music, and cheer for our athletes. Extremists, on the other hand, actively try to disseminate monolithic images of “the other” to their audiences. Al-Qaeda loves to reduce Americans to the archetypal “Crusader” with a singular malevolent purpose. Our films, music, arts, and athletes, can profoundly disrupt and subvert such efforts.

In the age of twenty-four hour news networks, websites, blogs and YouTube, there is no shortage of information out there for inquiring minds to consume. To command a sizable audience amidst such a saturated media landscape (mediascape), many outlets have resorted to promoting outrageous opinions and personalities to garner public attention (i.e. ratings and readers). Thus, the outrageous polarized voices of inflammatory right-wing pundits and snarky left-wing cynics have become a daily fixture of our mediascape and the “old school” journalism of Walter Cronkite has been relegated to the News Hour on PBS.

Even a casual glance through the headlines of the major news sites and magazine stands reveals a disturbing preoccupation with stories about people with names like “Snookie” or “J-Lo.”  Judging by these sorts of headlines, one might not think there’s much going on in the world. But according to UNICEF, some 16,000 children die every day from hunger-related causes (1 every 6 seconds). The world spends well over $1 trillion dollars each year on military expenditures.  Every twenty minutes another species goes extinct. And despite the recent attention, people were suffering and struggling in Haiti long before the devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010. So why is the vapid cast of “Jersey Shore” still getting front page attention when the world has no shortage of urgent and horrific matters to report?

People love (even worship) celebrities.

This is nothing new, of course. Some celebrities have even used their cultural deification for good in the world and lent their names and images to important causes. Some of them might adopt causes for publicity or to fix a sullied public image (e.g. Paris Hilton), but I like to believe that most do it out of real compassion for their fellow human beings and the environment they live in. I guess I have “faith” in a few of these “gods.”

Last month, I was part of a planning committee for a grant proposal that would create a major conference on our campus featuring keynote speakers from academia, government, journalism, and the wild world of celebrity-activism. The core idea behind the conference was making specialized academic expertise about Islam accessible to public policymakers and the public-at-large. The inclusion of a celebrity-activist in our proposal was a response to the public’s preoccupation with celebrity-culture and how “ivory tower” intellectuals struggle to get their ideas and perspectives out into the crowded mediascape. After all, how many Americans would even know where Darfur is located if George Clooney hadn’t traveled to see Sudanese refugees with a film crew following him? The “bread and circuses” of the first world are too distracting for most people.

Communicating to a large public audience seems to require the aid of a celebrity spokesperson, ideally one with some credentials and intellectual clout who cannot simply be dismissed for adopting a “pet project.” A lot of NGOs and charities understand this concept. So why doesn’t our government?

No matter how hard they try to be “stars,” congressmen, senators, governors, and other politicians, are not “real” celebrities – although some admittedly exist in both worlds (e.g. Schwarzenegger, Franken, Reagan). President Obama certainly has celebrity status. But if the United States is truly interested in reaching out to the everyday people of the Muslim world and subverting the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Awlaki, we need to bring out the big guns of celebrity firepower through cultural diplomacy.

Even people who hate the U.S. government and its policies love American cultural products, including our movies, music, and athletes. It’s easy for Bin Laden to talk about waging holy war on the land of the “Crusaders” George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but it’s another thing to convince a kid in Cairo or Riyadh to wage jihad on Leonardo Dicaprio, LeBron James, Will Smith, and Johnny Depp. People in the Muslim world, many of which remain under authoritarian regimes, are understandably distrustful of governments and politicians. It’s easy for the Arab and Muslim street to dismiss the promises and claims of a Secretary of State or U.S. Ambassador reading a speech off of a teleprompter beside representatives of an unelected regime. An American movie star visiting a Muslim city with a charming smile and polite handshake would probably do a better job at disrupting the “Crusader” image constructed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates than a thousand government speeches and photo-ops. In 1971, we used table tennis or “ping-pong diplomacy” to improve U.S.-Chinese relations; what are we doing in the Muslim world today?

I propose a large-scale U.S. cultural ambassador program to university campuses and cities throughout the Muslim world. In 2007, the State Department conducted a program in China that featured Cal Ripken Jr. and organized youth baseball clinics in four cities. This was too brief to be truly effective. And as much as I love baseball, it is not a popular U.S. export to the Muslim world. So an extension of this program to a country like Syria or Jordan would likely be ill-advised. In terms of athletes, we’d be better off sending stars from the NBA – maybe the kids in Amman would enjoy seeing a dunk contest. Basketball is much easier to set-up and play than baseball – especially in crowded, impoverished and arid cities. Movie stars also need to be enlisted. American movies are everywhere. When I lived in Cairo, there were American movies on broadcast television a couple of times a week. The biggest obstacle might be convincing American movie stars to participate between awards ceremonies.

It is equally important to point out that this sort of cultural diplomacy needs to go both ways. There are a lot of people in the United States who – out of fear, ignorance, or anger – carry disturbing attitudes about Muslims that influence our public discourse and the conduct of our elected government (for the worse). These folks likely won’t listen to an informed professor down at the local university or pick up a copy of his or her over-priced academic hardcover at the bookstore, but they might show up to hear Natalie Portman talk about these issues and share her personal insights as someone who has worked and lived in the Middle East (Portman is Co-Chair of a village banking program with Queen Rania of Jordan). People might also sit down in a theater together to watch a play performed by American and Muslim actors, like the brilliant Ghassan Massoud of Syria. American audiences would undoubtedly find it hard to see the zealous jihadi of their fears in an actor creating a work of art on stage beside their fellow countrymen.

In all, the last thing America needs to do is allow U.S.-Muslim relations to be dictated by or restricted to the events on the battlefield when we are all a part of so much more than the characters imagined by both sides of the “War on Terror.”

2 Responses to “How Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp Can Save the World”

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  1. G Fisher says:

    I have noticed that the US government seems to always start the public relations, publicity campaigns too late, unless it is for an election. The military tends to stick with the simple “Press Release” and lets the opponents parse it out how they want to without rebuttal. As a 21 year veteran, this has always bothered me. You see, we have been talking about “Winning Hearts and Minds” since the late ‘60s, but we have yet to launch into an aggressive campaign to do that very thing.
    I would have to agree that it is very possible that the celebrities could help spread the word that Islam is not what it has been portrayed as in the media. Also, having a true round-table, or panel, discussion including Muslims, Jews, Middle-East “experts” and celebrities that are working in the region could easily help change the pervasive perceptions about Islam.
    As a side note, I think that Natalie Portman would be the best candidate since she is Jewish and working with the Queen of an Islamic country trying to improve the lot of the poor throughout the region. That would show that the extremists are a small minority and they are using religion to justify their actions, just like extremist groups in all religions have done in the past.
    How do I sign up to attend one of these discussions? I think it would be great to see.

  2. Gregory Garland says:

    You start by discussing what essentially is a bottom-up, non-policy phenomenon by American celebrities aimed at American and to a degree, Western European, audiences (in part for self-promotional purposes), then end by proposing a top-down, government solution aimed at the “Muslim” world. American audiences don’t particularly care if a celebrity is working hand in glove with Uncle Sam, but would non-Americans care, especially in the Middle East? I would argue that whatever influence celebrities have outside America flows in part from the fact that they are perceived as independent of Uncle Sam’s tentacles. And that operating independently of Uncle Sam, sometimes against his policies, is a pretty powerful message to send about a vibrant, open democracy that can broadcast its societal contradictions as loudly it does its partisan shouting sprees. Think that would fit into a DOD or DOS short-term influence peddling strategy?

    Careful with your “Muslim” stereotyping. Public opinion polling in predominantly Muslim states in Africa have consistently demonstrated high favorability towards the U.S. Muslim Senegal and Mali have among the top ten pro-American populations in the world, according to Pew. Why is this? Or is it easier to just to ignore them in talking about the “Muslim” world as a monolith? It could be that there are other factors at play than religion. It could be, too, that two of the most influential American “celebrities” to hit West Africa in the last 50 years were Muslim, black, and had faced the wrath of Uncle Sam: Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X. It turns out that the actors who played the Hollywood versions of their stories, Denzell Washington and Will Smith, are far more popular among Africans that out any of the American celebs who make causes of Africa.

    The American cultural ambassadors program of yesteryear had its bright spots, such as in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union where such celebrities as the New York Philharmonic impacted because of a shared culture. There were also plenty of dark spots that weren’t often reflected in the USIA reporting of the era. Take a look at Penny Von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up the World to read a complex and critical history of the Jazz Ambassadors, notably in Africa.

    It’s an easy answer to say Uncle Sam must always do something. Sometimes, though, it’s the better half of wisdom not to do anything, and perhaps let our democratic culture — non-state actors — do what they do democratically. Muhammed Ali, silent though his voice is literally now, might have something to say about this, and believe me, if he does, that dadgum draft-dodging you-know-what will get a bigger audience that will pay closer attention out there in the Middle East and Africa than anything Washington might gear up in the name of national security.