PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 10
Apart from the fact that he’s got a cool retro-sounding name which could be found on a character from a Roddy Doyle novel, politician John Paul Phelan has at least done the state some service by speaking in a rather un-politician type way.
Minister of State in the Department of Housing, his comments about celebrity homelessness campaigners may be wrong or right – we’ll come back to that – but at least he gave an honest opinion.
That’s not really how it’s done, is it? Usually politicians bluster and plámas, hum and haw, not committing to anything for fear of offending someone or other.
Phelan, by contrast, was refreshingly blunt: he said he “didn’t see the point” in artists and entertainers “banging on” about the issue because they know “little or nothing” about it. He added, “It’s all well and good artists like Cillian Murphy and Glen Hansard, banging on about housing and homelessness – but what exactly are they achieving? They’re just complaining from the sidelines.”
It feels a bit churlish to criticise anyone, including famous people, trying to better the condition of those less fortunate than themselves. But be that as it may, there is, I think, a grain of truth in what Phelan said.
For one thing, do these celebrity interventions ever actually work? Take the last US election: Hillary Clinton had virtually every big name on her side, and Donald Trump still won.
It could be argued that the involvement of pampered superstars like Katy Perry and Jay-Z had the opposite effect to that intended and only antagonised Trump’s base further, reinforcing the notion that Hillary was part of a gilded elite and didn’t speak for them.
The same thing appeared to happen before the Brexit referendum, when footage of Bob Geldof and well-known chums hollering at some fishermen did little to disprove notions of the EU as a bureaucratic machine for the rich and powerful.
I don’t doubt that Murphy and Hansard, at least, are sincere in their views. They’ve always come across as decent, very un-Hollywood lads.
But for every sincere intervention, there are a dozen examples of celebrities using hot topics to lecture the plebs, feel good about themselves, drive a personal agenda, attack those they dislike or – the simplest and deepest motivation of all – further their careers. (I think it was the late Lemmy from Motorhead who admitted, “I don’t know if Live Aid was good for Africa – but it was certainly good for our record sales.”)
They adopt babies from Africa. They visit the world’s poorest places and performatively “feel the pain” of the destitute, all on camera of course. They do stupid telethons and encourage their fan-base to support this cause or retweet them using that hashtag.
They look fabulous while wearing those chic Repeal sweaters (black is very slimming, dahling, and very on-trend this season). They rep for Unicef. They make grandstanding speeches at awards ceremonies. They talk down to the lumpen proles, all the time, everywhere they can.
And guess what? Many of us are thoroughly sick of it.
There’s something slightly nauseating about being lectured in moral virtues by the most privileged people on the planet. Especially when you consider how hypocritical most of them are.
Hollywood, television, tech giants, the music business, professional sport: these are some of the most unethical industries on the planet, and these hectoring celebrities are some of the worst people on the planet.
They never do anything practical and constructive to make the world a better place; they never do a protest which might cost them personally or financially. They just talk the talk, never walking the walk.
So, for instance, it’s easy for movie stars to harangue “society” about how it “must do better” on sexism or racism or whatever the cause-du-jour might be. It’s not so easy, apparently, to demand that the studios cease using slave labour to produce the merchandise that you’re now hawking to children.
There’s one way you could instantly improve the lives of millions of non-white people, millions of women and girls (sadly, they often are mere girls): insist that the toys and lunchboxes from your new superhero blockbuster are made by staff given a good wage and safe working conditions.
Yet I have never read of an actor boycotting a film or studio, until those massively important problems are corrected. Not once.
The worst thing is, it would be so easy. The stars and studios would hardly notice the loss, such are the immeasurable oceans of money in which they swim. But much wants more, I suppose, and still they refuse. “Raising awareness”, after all, doesn’t affect the bank balance.
These clowns will then pontificate about how “we need” more female directors winning Oscars, or demand the introduction of gender-neutral toys. So long as they’re only costing a penny each to produce in a Third World sweatshop, though, right?
It all reminds me of the rich guy in a Simpsons episode who, on taking up some government job pro bono, declared piously, “I wanted to give something back to society. Not the money, but something.”