Davos and identity politics


Rick Astley was a pop star in the 1980s. At the height of his fame, someone asked Mr. Astley his position on a political question, and he endeared himself by replying:

“What are you asking me for? I’m a singer. What I think about politics doesn’t matter.”

I thought of Mr. Astley today when reading of the appearance of Bono, Sharon Stone, Richard Gere, and Angelina Jolie at the World Economic Forum.

I don’t mean to be exclusionary, but there’s a strong argument against movie and music celebrities giving us political advice.

I do not intend to develop this argument here, but I let me offer ethnographic evidence collected while I was working as a Hollywood chauffeur. We, the “staff,” had been assembled at the home to be occupied Julie Christie and Warren Beatty for the duration of the filming of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

There was, all of a sudden, a terrible explosion of epithets and exclamations. The cook, the butler, and I raced to see what the matter was. We found an executive producer shouting with unhappiness. The occasion of his misery: some of the flowers in the hallway were not quite fresh enough.

“What,” I remember wondering to myself, “must it be like to live in a world where your every wish is anticipated, often invisibly. Really you can’t have any idea what any of the real worlds are like. You might as well be a European monarch from the 17th century. You can’t really have a clue.”

But Bono, Stone, Gere, and Jolie were all at Davos. Not just present, but audible. Not just audible, but influential.

“You see celebrities walking through here, and you see CEO heads spinning like Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist’” (Sanford Climan, Entertainment Ventures, WSJ, Friedman)

So what’s the problem? If Bono uses a little of his celebrity to shine a light on the poverty or sickness of the third world, what could it hurt? Here’s how it hurts. This is a high altitude piece of identity politics. The publicity is now as much about Bono as the poverty in question. At the moment we have been invited to think about hunger, we are obliged to ‘tithe” to Bono, surrendering admiration for what a big hearted, socially minded, heroic guy he is. I feel pretty much about Bono the way I do about Jesse Jackson working on world peace. Spare us the grandstanding and get out of the way.

These issues will take good minds working in the best American tradition of problem solving: well briefed, unsentimental, utterly pragmatic individuals who would not hestitate to “kill a few baby seals” to get the job done. Because it’s not about them, it’s about the hunger, poverty, illiteracy, disease. With Bono, it’s always about Bono. It may well be that the most intractable aspects of these problems is that they have been taken captive of the liberal agenda. Could we not appoint some real problem solvers to get on with this? A little less beating of the breast and a little more ruthless efficiency. I would take a single Harvard Business School grad for the lot of them.

Mind you, according to Bret Stephens, there are other reasons, besides addled adoration, to wonder if Davos is really up to the challenge it claims for itself.

[W]hen it comes to politics, the Forum reflects a “Davos Consensus”—that is, the clichés, nostrums, banalities, elisions, evasions, upstanding sentiments and lowest common denominators generated when people of differing views are at their most polite. Everyone gets along splendidly at Davos, but platitude is frequently the glue that holds them together.

What do these people think they are doing at Davos? Networking? If there is a trace of sincerity to the Davos’ mission statement, surely participants are obliged to get beyond making “nice” with one another. If Davos means to solve problems, instead of posturing about them, our advice is clear: stow the chumminess, get over yourselves, and get on with it. It’s not about you.


Friedman, Alan. 2005. Hollywood Goes to Davos: Celebrities Attend World Economic Forum and, in Some Cases, Steal the Show. Wall Street Journal. January 31, 2005, p. 2.

Stephens, Bret. 2005. A Jolie Good Time at Davos. Wall Street Journal. January 31, 2005, p. A19.

14 thoughts on “Davos and identity politics

  1. Conchis

    So Bono’s not allowed to talk about poverty because some movie executive somewhere got annoyed about some flowers? Please.

    Sure there are celebrities whose pronouncements on world issues we would be better off without. There are many politicians about whom one could say the same. But that doesn’t mean that any celebrity contribution to debate on such topics is worthless.

    Even granting the purported harm you think you’re suffering by having to listen to Bono exists (you clearly don’t admire him, so I struggle to see how you’re paying the supposed “tithe”, and I expect that anyone who does admire him doesn’t really mind), it seems decidedly trivial compared with the potential benefits.

    I’m not suggesting that people like Bono should be listened to when it comes to devising specific policy proposals, but raising general awareness of issues like world poverty seems a valuable thing. Insofar as celebrities are already admired or treated as role models, their caring passionately about a problem makes others more likely to care about it, which in turn makes politicians more likely to want to do something about it.

    I really struggle to see where you’re coming from here. If you disagree with the substance of what these people are saying, then fine. (Often so do I.) But that’s a rather a separate point to the one you seem to be making

  2. Brian Kenny

    Celebrities not, archaeologists write extensive political folderol on cultural listservs and emote over non-archaeological issues as if they had real insight… apparently, amateur punditry coupled with an inability to actually solve pressing problems is a quirky behavioral trait expressed at many levels of society.

    Brian Kenny, MBA
    Applied Anthropologist

  3. Grant

    Wow, this is interesting, we have uncovered a cultural principle: attack Bono and ye shall be attacked in turn. Bono is a sacred figure with special rights and privileges…even an archaeologist leaps to his defense. Now that’s applied anthropology…though perhaps not very reflexive anthropology. But then the applied stuff never is.

    I thought my argument was pretty clear. When Bono and company get involved poverty goes from being a problem to being a cause. And when it becomes a cause, it joins the liberal agenda. And when it enters the liberal agenda, it’s all about “sharing and caring” instead of a hard headed pragmatism.

    I believe the poor, malnourished and illiterate are entitled to say, “stop feeling my pain. Solve my problem.”

    Thanks, Grant

  4. debbie millman

    I agree with Grant. I am interested in Bono’s point of view on world economics about as much as I am interested in Angelina Jolie’s point of view on monogamy in marriage.

  5. Brian W. Kenny


    I agree w you one hundred percent. There was no attack. I don’t care about Bono. If someone asked me what he does, I pretend to draw a blank (on purpose) just to get a reaction to stupid blind drunk star worship. My point in writing was that the Bono-esque folderol that you noted exists at many levels of society — Bono gives money and, unfortunately, it’s all about Bono. Colleagues of mine (in archaeology for example), get on listservs and emote over things they know not, and really it’s all about them. They dont give money like Bono, (because they dont have it), but it’s still all about them.

    Is it not so that from whichever stratum of society we hail, humans personalize the world, and demand ego stroke in return? We are human; itn’t everything — always — just about us?

  6. Colin

    It’s an interesting area to look at. A few years ago, a study was conducted on credibility with the public from various sources of information. One of the interesting items that emerged was that, on topics for which they have no evident expertise or qualification, celebrities stood out as absolutely the lowest and least credible. So there may be an interesting paradox here; the public (or benighted leaders at Davos) may want to watch them and hang on every word they say, but are not in fact prepared to alter their views or opinions simply because some celeb thinks its a good idea (with perhaps a few notable exceptions).

    One organization that relies heavily on celebrity endorsement is PETA. Anyone have any idea how effective it is in moving public attitudes?

  7. Conchis

    “When Bono and company get involved poverty goes from being a problem to being a cause. And when it becomes a cause, it joins the liberal agenda. And when it enters the liberal agenda, it’s all about “sharing and caring” instead of a hard headed pragmatism.”

    Thanks for the clarification of your argument, Grant. (That wasn’t at all what I took from the initial post.) I may still disagree with it, but at least I no longer think it’s bizarre.

    My counterargument is, I guess twofold.

    First, I see greater benefits than you do. In order to get to the stage of hard-headed pragmatic problem solving, the problem first has to be viewed as a priority for politicians. In order for it to be a priority for politicians, it needs to be a priority for the people who vote for them. Celebrities can help achieve this.

    Second, I don’t buy the costs. I have a fair amount of faith in the ability of pragmatists to tell Bono & co. to fuck off when it comes to the stage of actually trying to figure out concrete ways of solving the problems. Partially that’s because I give liberals more credit for being hard-nosed pragmatists than you do. Sure there are those who get far too caught up in the “sharing and caring”, but there are plenty of counterexamples too: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are nothing if not hard nosed pragmatists. But it’s also because people like Bono have continually stressed that they’re not the experts when it comes to actually fixing stuff, and that their job is precisely that I pointed out above: convincing people who might know how to solve things to do it.

  8. Skeptikos

    I am often moved by much of the brilliance I see on this site. But, I am also often confused.

    First read this, I got it from Marginal Revolution, who got it from Instapundit: http://www.livescience.com/animalworld/050128_monkey_business.html

    It seems that “A new study found that male monkeys will give up their juice rewards in order to ogle pictures of female monkey’s bottoms. The way the experiment was set up, the act is akin to paying for the images, the researchers say.

    The rhesus macaque monkeys also splurged on photos of top-dog counterparts, the high-ranking primates. Maybe that’s like you or me buying People magazine.”

    You said in the previous post that Status consumption is one of the grammars of the marketplace. If Status Consumption is part of our grammer, (and I agree it is, a very primitive and useless part I might add, a throwback to darker times) than doesn’t the expample of the flowers tell us why we think they are so important? If you are pro-capitilist (which I have posited before may make you anti-free market) shouldn’t all the attention go, not to those who produce, but those who consume the most? Myself being pro trade, pro producer, but rarely elevating the accumulation of capital to something praiseworthy in itself. But based on past posts, you do seem to have a “decent” respect for people who exclusively live for accumulation, and like to show that…so, as I said I am a tad bit confused.

    I guess it boils down to a diiference in the way we would approach things. I sold my stock in MicroSoft several years ago, when I believed Bill Gates had switched from producer to accumulator.

    I had taken a look the other day to see if the now three year old decision was wise. It was, by keeping my currency credits in producuer technologies, rather than with MS who were switching to refinement and defense, I have increased the earnings I would have had from MS by over 6%. Ho hum.

    It reminds me of another item that is once again in the news, the recombining of SBC and AT&T. AT&T, and all the bell labs are most prevelant in my mind for 2 reasons. Bell Labs selling Sony the transistor because there was no way to further that development (thankfully Sony, Texas Instruments, and Intel realized how full of crap they were, I believe Adam Smith, the modern, documented this), and the blockage that SBC put up to stop the rollout of broadband and dsl unless they were granted government monopolies on the service.

    Once again, ho hum…of course we worship those who accumalate and display, rather than those who produce.

  9. Liz

    It is interesting when very concrete thinkers encounter rhetorical figures (in this case, synecdoche, where one named example stands for the many) and construe the argument as an attack on the virtues of the named example.

    Well, we can regard the celebrity endorsement in two ways, I suppose:

    1. It isn’t sufficient that human beings are suffering and dying to move other human beings to action. A more significant human being, a celebrity (a demigod) must notice for action to be produced.

    2. There are too many claims upon our attention anyway. Why should I care more about the suffering in the third world, when I can travel 3 miles and see hungry people and homeless people and sick people without access to healing? It requires the pointer or searchlight of a celebrity to say, “well, that is true, but there is a little something else you could do, too.”

    The real deal, for me, is the pervasive nature of celebrity culture. People are more moved by the imaginary antics of their demigods–“The World Is Falling! Brad and Jen have Separated!” than the real world all around them.

    As far as Davos goes…it is not clear to me that these top-level meetings do much on the ground. It perhaps clears the way or provides momentum for actual work to be done…but would anyting be different if top-level meetings didn’t happen?

  10. nadezhda

    I have a good deal of sympathy for your critique of self-absorption. I made a similar plea — “it’s not all about us” — in a blog post predicting prior to the Iraqi elections what the post-election “discourse” would be all about. As several of your commenters have pointed out, self-absorption isn’t a trait unique to celebrities (or politicians or pundits).

    I was not, however, able to take the same (negative) leap that you seem to have performed — that the fact that Bono et al are receiving all this attention means that someone hard-nosed and serious isn’t working on these problems; that somehow these problems have become captives of bleeding-heart incompetents (i.e. liberals).

    “Could we not appoint some real problem solvers to get on with this? A little less beating of the breast and a little more ruthless efficiency. I would take a single Harvard Business School grad for the lot of them.”

    I’d think you’d find that your prescription has already been taken if you looked at the organizations (local and international) devoting brainpower and funding to these problems. There are in fact a large number of very serious and competent people — including a number with realworld business and finance credentials — hard at work on poverty, economic development and health and education programs, including anti-HIV/AIDs programs, who are in no way “captives” of some do-gooders’ incompetent agendas. You just haven’t heard of them, it seems.

    Why does anyone care about Davos? The hard-nosed pragmatists can’t solve these various problems on their own. Even a flock of Harvard B-School grads needs the materials to work with in order to translate great ideas into action. Ideas, plans, programs — all require implementing difficult decisions and mobilizing resources (and we’re not just talking about raising more money, but as important shifting priorities of where we focus peoples’ energies and funding). These things won’t happen without major commitments of political will and, where needed, financial resources. Signals from the captains of industry and finance help create and reinforce those sorts of commitments.

    Leaving aside the slightly distasteful display of Linda-Blairesqe head-swivling, and just thinking about yourself. How would you suggest they get your attention without the Bonos of the world?

  11. Bernie Wood

    From what I’ve heard, the ‘celebrities’ DID “stow the chumminess, get over themselves(sic), and get on with it.” I would have thought that the fact that they were there to do something other than promote their own music, films etc. mean that indeed, they obviously did realise that “It’s not about you.”


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