A few days ago, Steven Spielberg officially announced that he was resigning as artistic director of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Unhappy with the lack of effort on China’s part in stopping the genocide in Sudan – China is Sudan’s largest supplier of weapons – Spielberg issued a public statement saying, “I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual.” It’s a simple, refreshingly unobtrusive statement, but, like all politically-inclined celebrity-issued statements, it brings up the question of just how significant these celebrities really are in the political arena.

American politics is intrinsically linked with American show business; after all, what better way to get a message out than through mass media? Celebrities have always understood this, and have always used their lofty statures to promote their opinions on various issues. They have mixed success. More often than not, stars come across as complete windbags when they try to become activists. When someone like Janeane Garofalo goes on air, spitting venom at the Bush administration and rattling off second- and third-hand tidbits collected from other, more reliable sources, it can be quite entertaining. Unfortunately, it also has a habit of turning people off from the issue completely.

People like Garofalo, or the infamous Jane Fonda – who out of nowhere became a political activist between stints as Barbarella and the home exercise queen of the ’80s – love attention, and that’s essentially the source of much of the resentment toward these people. When Sean Penn goes to Iraq for a few days, takes a brief but apparently earth-shattering hiatus from the good life and returns to the U.S. with the sort of enlightened observations you might get from someone who’d just gone on the Hajj, it all comes across as incredibly offensive and silly. Now, I have no problem with Penn going to Iraq – you don’t see me heading off to Iraq – but I do have a problem with the idea that this man’s three-day trip is apparently more significant than the numerous tours of duty many of our soldiers have done. Where are their published accounts?

Hollywood is full of such people who love to make statements, and for this reason, more often than not, a celebrity’s political motivation comes across as blatantly self-promoting and insincere. That’s why it was so refreshing to read Spielberg’s statement. This is not another bigwig blowing hot air, nor is it someone desperately seeking attention through his actions. Spielberg went about making his statement in the most respectful, subtle way possible. Still, people are noticing.

This is because, whether we like it or not, Hollywood stars matter. We listen to them. We care about what they have to say. Even if their political experience amounts to playing the president on an hour-long TV show every week, they still have just as much significance as real politicians. Steven Spielberg is just one of many celebrities who have spoken out against China for its role in the genocide in Sudan, but his voice is arguably the most critical to the issue. We respect Spielberg – this is the man who directed “Schindler’s List,” after all. If he thinks it’s wrong, it must be. The same goes for George Clooney who, alongside Don Cheadle, made his own respectful statement about the issue at a U.N. conference in 2006.

Ultimately, Spielberg’s and Clooney’s actions won’t affect much. The games will go on. Athletes will compete and tourists will watch. Even Spielberg said he hoped to be there as a spectator. But what he has done is remind people – and inform some – of a critical issue that should not be ignored. It’s here that the significance of the celebrity’s role in politics comes to the forefront. A star is good for initiating discussion, for getting a message out to the public – not for being a crusader.

If celebrities want to speak out against genocide, who am I to oppose them? It’s safe to say most of us know not to take many of these self-indulgent stars too seriously, but at the same time, something must be said for people who are willing to step out of line, take a few punches and put the spotlight on a current issue that actually deserves the attention. Hanoi Jane will always be a shameful example of celebrity activism gone too far, but if other celebrities can manage it with grace, sophistication and a fair amount of intelligence (as Clooney and Spielberg have), then maybe it’s not so silly to listen to Hollywood once in a while.

Conradis is excited for Paris Hilton’s Iraq tour. Tell him why he shouldn’t be at brconrad@umich.edu.

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