As the Beatles remind us, we all want to change the world. That includes celebrities and the people who run big companies. Be that as it may, I’m still skeptical when I hear about celebrities promoting causes. What big movie or television show do they have coming up, what product are they trying to sell, I find myself wondering. Other people do the same when they hear about a company doing charity work.
Self-portrait – Joseph Ducreux, 1793
Why are we so cynical? Part of it is that celebrities and big businesses sometimes do use their charitable efforts for selfish reasons. What person hasn’t been tempted to do good for the wrong motives? Besides, the marketplace is so crowded these days that many are willing to do anything to get attention.
Still, I suspect that much of our cynicism comes from an innate appreciation of genuine charity. When true, charity is such a precious thing that it can change lives, so we are careful to distinguish between the real thing and its false imitations.
In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables it takes just one act of compassion from a victimized priest to transform the criminal Jean Valjean into an influential man of character. That’s powerful stuff. Unfortunately, the famous and the powerful are well aware of the esteem that we hold for such acts, and the less scrupulous ones will use that esteem to their advantage.
When that happens, the world wrinkles and dons more cynicism. Real charity won’t be greeted so warmly next time she comes to visit.
It’s worth mentioning that the only angry outburst from Christ recorded in the gospels occurs when he confronts the merchants in the tabernacle. Like their modern-day contemporaries, the merchants tried to turn charity and virtue into a profitable endeavor.
At the Cirque Fernando – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1888
How are we to distinguish between the sincere and the self-serving humanitarian efforts of the rich and the famous? Consistency is a good place to start. Does the celebrity’s cause correlate with the way he or she lives? Let’s look at some examples:
Lance Armstrong has dedicated his life to achieving peak physical performance. He battled cancer and then went on to win the Tour de France, so it is entirely believable that he is committed to the principles of his Live Strong organization.
Steven Spielberg’s efforts with the Shoah Foundation come across as sincere thanks in part to the kinds of World War II stories he has told. Similarly, Will Smith’s involvement in movies like Pursuit of Happyness and I am Legend gives credibility to his Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of inner-city kids.
On the other hand, U2’s Bono gets a lot of press for begging governments to finance welfare programs and forgive third-world debt. Yes, it’s a beautiful day, and you’ve got beautiful rhetoric Bono, but then again, you did move your band’s money out of Ireland to avoid paying more taxes. How does that fit into the campaign? You know all those fancy programs you advocate do cost money. Did you just assume it would be someone else footing the bill?
And then there’s Al Gore. He revived his career by traveling the globe to lecture about the environment, becoming a poster boy for the green movement. Yet while he was evangelizing for the earth, he was consuming more electricity per month than the average American household would use in a year, holding large amounts of stock in a petroleum company known for drilling in ecologically sensitive areas, and receiving royalties from a zinc mine that no self-respecting environmentalist would consider earth-friendly. He became quite the celebrity by telling other people to do what he couldn’t stomach.
Ophelia – John Everett Millais, 1852
Let’s go back to a more positive note by returning our attention to Will Smith. His character in I am Legend talks about how important it is to fight the darkness with the light, an attitude that resurfaces again and again in his films. Suppose though, that Will Smith made a career out of calling other black people the n word while acting like thug. Wouldn’t it be a little harder to buy into the candor of his charitable work?
To give an even more extreme example, what if a porn star started a foundation to preserve the sanctity of marriage? By inflaming lust, isn’t she doing the very thing that so often causes a marriage to deteriorate? Still, it is possible that our porn star is quite earnest in creating her marriage institute. Maybe she’s just as conflicted and complex as the rest of us.
Is there no hope for the poor gal? Well yes, there is hope even for her, bless her tender, porn-star heart. She would just have to work that much harder to convince us of her sincerity.
Masks and Death – James Ensor
Why would a porn star want to start a marriage institute, you ask? Perhaps for the same reason that many of us, myself included, sometimes do volunteer work: to make up for personal failings. How much easier it is to win the admiration of a distant public than to earn esteem up close, in private relationships. I’m betting big bucks (figurative ones) that so many of the world’s philanthropic organizations are direct descendants of their founders’ flaws.
Still, good can come even of that. Would Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence have been so compelling had he not struggled with the moral dilemma of owning slaves? Maybe not, but I wonder what might have happened if he had actually freed all of his slaves during his lifetime. What if other plantation owners were inspired enough to follow his lead? Might that have prevented the Civil War? Who knows, but others do tend to be more influenced by those who can walk the things they talk.
(Just to be clear, I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Thomas Jefferson. Humans are creatures of contradiction, more so with the great ones. The good Jefferson achieved far exceeds his moral shortcomings in my humble estimation.)
Watson and the Shark – John Singleton Copley, 1778
That brings us to another characteristic of the heartfelt cause: it has to cost something. The more it costs to support, the less likely the cause is a mere publicity stunt.
I’ve been working at Canon for a few years now, and I’ve seen the amount of resources that the company spends on treating the earth with respect and being socially responsible. The longevity and cost of their philanthropic efforts make me believe that they’re more than just surface-level gestures.
In contrast, sites like Twitter and Facebook make it easy to support a cause, but that very ease makes depth of conviction harder to prove. I’m sure you’ve run into the social-media scene kids who chatter about their undying support of community and compassion, but who follow back less than 30 percent of their followers. Real, honest-to-goodness celebrities tend to follow back less than 1 percent of their followers.
I get it: They’re VIPs, too busy doing important celebrity things to be bothered with reading the 140-character updates of their fans. Or, maybe they’re just adhering to security precautions outlined in their esteemed, never-to-be-violated Celebrity Playbook.
They might have other, very good reasons for their lack of engagement, but it does make it harder for me to accept the authenticity of their cause if their cause involves caring about people, and not, for example, increasing awareness about the effectiveness of galvanized garden hoes. Cause-promoting celebrities who follow hardly anyone can still convince me of their earnestness; they’ll just have to sacrifice a bit more to prove their case.
The Third-Class Carriage – Honoré Daumier, 1860s
Making ourselves accessible to others does leave us vulnerable, but I don’t know how to conceive of caring without that. The people who’ve had the biggest impact on me were not the ones who shouted admirable platitudes from a distance. They were the ones who risked something valuable to come close.
I wish I were better at doing that. There are still a lot of sore spots in my life, and my instinct is to protect the wounds rather than to prepare an embrace, but I’m working on it. Would you do the same?
Together, let’s dare to collide into the lives of others with an open heart and a generous spirit. That is, as it happens, what Jesus did, and he is still the most famous one of them all. Believe what you will about the man, but if you want to change the world, he’s not a bad act to follow.
Pity – William Blake, 1827
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