Star Activism

02.26.14

Why Does Congress Listen to Celebrities like Ben Affleck?

Ben Affleck and Seth Rogen went to Washington today to lobby policymakers on Congo and Alzheimer’s. Is their campaigning effective, or a failure of the political process?

What is the point of celebrity? What is the point of celebrity? Sometimes, like on Oscars night, we like them to look their prettiest, and then later—when they inevitably flub or say something overly fulsome or weepy—we get on with the cackling. Sometimes, when they are deemed to have dressed badly they are condemned, and other times, they are lavished with lunatic praise for a haircut.

The most intriguing celebrities are not the ones who dress best, or simply court greater fame and count their shekels, but those who attempt to use their inflated position in the world for the wider good. (Or their idea of whatever that is.) And still, because their day-job world seems so shallow and so removed, we laugh. What are their motives? we wonder. To appear edified? More important than a paparazzi bulb would merit?

Photos: Celebrities Who Testified on Capitol Hill

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Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty

Then there’s politics, once famously described as show business for ugly people. Washington is now dancing a tango with Hollywood in a bid to improve its own looks, while Hollywood is heading to Uglytown to make its own capital. George Clooney, having called on the President and Capitol Hill to take action in Sudan, was even arrested at one 2012 demonstration.

Inevitably, there was snickering when it was announced that the actor Ben Affleck was going to testify Wednesday in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the mass killings in the Democratic Republic of The Congo. Jim Geraghty of the National Review, joked, "If a Congressman asks about his qualifications as a Congo expert, Ben Affleck should simply answer, 'I'm Batman.'”

But as Mother Jones pointed out, Affleck is eminently able and qualified to speak on the situation. Affleck has made nine trips to the DRC and founded the grassroots organization the Eastern Congo Initiative.

He wasn’t the only star on Capitol Hill Wednesday: Seth Rogen addressed another Senate committee about Alzheimer’s disease, which his mother-in-law-suffers from. He told a Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and related Agencies hearing: "I came here today for few reasons. One, I'm a huge 'House of Cards' fan...Two, people need more help. I've personally witnessed the massive amount of financial strain this disease causes...Three, to show people they are not alone, so few people share their personal stories."

Video screenshot

Watch Ben Affleck's testimony.

Why do politicians and policy-makers need the benediction of celebrity to do their jobs? While Affleck and Rogen’s presence at the committees is welcome, should it be necessary? Affleck spoke passionately and knowledgably. After stating the obvious (and joking about it) by introducing himself, he said he came not as expert, but as an American: “I do my part for the people and country I believe in.”

For Affleck, small but powerful victories had been measured in the DRC since M23 (the Congolese Revolutionary Army) surrendered in November. Affleck cited the success of a small organic chocolate producer as what he saw as the route to future recovery and prosperity: small-scale local business at the heart of recovering communities.

He would like to see the winding down, or “sunset” as he put it, of Monusco, the UN’s “stabilization mission” in the country, while having the US pay a “pivotal role” in overseeing free and fair elections. Affleck likened the resilience of the DRC—why he believed the country had a positive future—to one of its own sayings: “No matter how hard you hit a boulder with a knife, it won’t turn to dust.”

Affleck and Rogen appeared suited, booted and very earnest. Affleck’s first slice of testimony was presented at a gallop, but his passion and earnestness rose a notch when he answered questions from Committee members. He paid tribute to Cindy McCain, who has traveled extensively in DRC—“much braver than I am”—and who sits on his organization’s board. Affleck revealed that it was hearing first-hand stories that awoke him to the “moral obligation” of intervening. Devastated as what happened to people there, he was impressed to see them “pulling themselves up and doing the best they can.”

“It is an unusual alliance, but attracts all the more support for that reason: you need unusual alliances in the world to make a difference.”

Affleck was assured that while the Committee admired his acting, it was his activism that had distinguished him. Congratulations, appreciation and back-slaps flowed both-ways, although doing a similar event for the Republican-controlled House of Representatives was talked about and turned down.

"People serious about resolving problems—especially problems related to life and death—want to have serious conversations with experts and leaders in the field, not celebrities," a Republican aide told Foreign Policy.

That aide was being unfair: Affleck’s commitment and knowledge can hardly be doubted. As Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said introducing Wednesday’s event, Affleck had approached his campaigning in the DRC, with “thoughtfulness,” having paid nine trips there.

The plight of those living in the DRC absolutely needs highlighting: As Affleck summarized, over five million people have been killed there, thousands more displaced, and there has been the conscription of child soldiers. Even without that, 200,000 people every year die of malaria in the country. The use of sexual violence as a particularly insidious weapon of warfare is widespread. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, once said a Congolese woman had told him: "We are raped like animals."

He had taken a trip to the DRC with Angelina Jolie, who, like Affleck, is another high-profile celebrity activist. “Sometimes people think of celebrities who take up a cause that it is a flimsy thing or passing fad or for the sake of media,” Hague said. “The great thing about her is that it's definitely none of those things. She speaks very authoritatively and knowledgeably about this issue, she is committed to campaigning on it for the long term. It is an unusual alliance but attracts all the more support for that reason: You need unusual alliances in the world to make a difference.”

That last sentiment, "make a difference" is key. It mirrors in its open-heartedness a piece of praise bestowed upon Affleck by Menendez (with a hint of wryness), that those like Affleck with a high profile bought more “attention” to an issue like the DRC than it might otherwise have.

But what “difference” do celebrities make? What is the end result of the “attention” they bring? And shouldn’t policymakers already be paying attention? If celebrities are now vital catalysts for political change, rather than welcome cameo performers, surely it points to a fundamental brokenness in Washington.

Affleck and Rogen performed admirably on Capitol Hill, and both policy-makers and celebrities benefit on these away-days: Their two brands of show business are briefly in perfect alignment. One side for the day is adjacent to true power, the other gets a coating of stardust. But will funds and productive initiatives to the DRC proliferate as a result of Affleck’s appearance? Will Alzheimer’s research programs be more prosperously funded and treatments improved because of Rogen’s?  

This isn’t an argument against celebrity involvement, or a snark at Washington and Hollywood’s mysterious pas de deux. But it’s a strange dance when celebrities go to Washington. Their journeys are rooted in venerable intentions, and the benefits, while profound in the moment, may prove harder to quantify in the long term. These are days when no one is in their familiar corners; when a dose of LA swagger invades the airless Capitol Hill offices of grey suits and entrenched power play. In this rare meeting of two different worlds is a shameful indictment: Why do our politicians and policymakers need such glitzy shots in the arm to do their jobs?