The Virtues of Conspicuous Giving

How self-righteous, empty-headed celebrities promote private charity


On February 6, Madonna will help save Africa by attending the opening of the planet's largest Gucci store. The party she's hosting is expected to raise approximately $2 million for children who will never get to visit even the planet's smallest Gucci store. Paris Hilton is planning to go on a fact-finding mission to Rwanda, just as soon as she completes her fact-finding mission to determine where Rwanda is. Everywhere you look, celebrities are staring from billboards and bus shelters with sultry benevolence, imploring us to buy globally engaged T-shirts and humanitarian cell phones.

This may be the age of doing good by buying goodies, with glossy magazines like Benefit that celebrate "the lifestyle of giving" via fashion spreads and celebrity profiles, but can we really have our Godiva layer cake with hazelnut ganache and donate it to sub-Saharan AIDS babies too?

Not everyone is swallowing the organic, socially conscious, celebrity-endorsed Kool-Aid. Naomi Klein, whose book No Logo presented Gap T-shirts as the cause of global inequity, not the solution, decries the "Bono-ization" of activism, wherein consumers effect change by buying Project (RED) T-shirts from the Gap and swaying gently at huge benefit concerts. Chronicle of Philanthropy Editor Stacy Palmer recently told The New York Times "there needs to be greater skepticism about celebrity involvement [in philanthropy] than I see in the media right now." Wall Street Journal columnist Robert Frank frets that "too much of today's charity is about gratifying the giver, rather than helping the needy."

A nation of needy pundits and bloggers might beg to differ: There is no greater gift to those eager to bash fatuous Hollywood actorvism than Gwyneth Paltrow in beads and March Madness face paint gazing indigenously at the camera and declaring, "I AM AFRICAN." But what, really, is so terrible about a movie star who lives in a $5.4 million Hamptons mansion (and at least three other multimillion-dollar homes) expressing solidarity with poverty-stricken Africans through the transformative power of world-class hair styling, raising awareness for the Keep a Child Alive charitable campaign in the process?

In 2006 charitable contributions in the U.S. totaled $295 billion, an all-time high, according to the philanthropy report Giving USA. More than 80 million Americans volunteer each year, with the services they provide valued at more than $200 billion. Purpose-driven evangelicals have a lot to do with these totals, but so do Hollywood stars like Paltrow, who have done so much to popularize the free market approach to solving the world's problems while simultaneously giving us all something to mock at

It's easy to understand why leftists like Klein are wary of celebrity sing-alongs and the notion that corporations can help save the world one over-extended Visa card at a time. They'd prefer that the government have a monopoly on philanthropy. What's more puzzling is why the pro-market side views celebrity altruists with such a jaundiced eye.

Adopting a Third World baby may seem like moral grandstanding, but it's also the ultimate form of privatization. No one has done more than Hollywood's tax-and-spend socialists to popularize the notion that we can't rely on the government alone to combat global warming, AIDS, breast cancer, homelessness, and every other disease and social injustice under the sun. No one believes in the benevolent power of the private sector more than a rock star telling us to put our hands together for the melting polar ice caps. Al Gore, a man who once wanted to be president so badly he paid Naomi Wolf to pick out his ties, insists he's no longer interested in public service. Apparently he feels he can implement change faster, on a larger scale, working with Leonardo DiCaprio and Fall Out Boy rather than Congress.

Admittedly, the prospect that Hollywood celebrities might end world hunger or stop global warming through philanthrocommerce and philanthrotainment is slightly unnerving. If they think they deserve golden statues for producing dreck like Forrest Gump and American Beauty, just imagine how many award shows they'll throw for themselves, and how many sanctimonious speeches we'll have to endure, if they establish food security in Zimbabwe.

It's also true that celebrities haven't placed their faith entirely in the power of Gucci's $795 snakeskin-trimmed UNICEF sandals or charity auctions featuring lunchboxes customized by David Bowie's personal lunchbox-customizing assistant. No matter how many Project (RED) sunglasses we buy from Emporio Armani or how much we overbid for the Prada tuxedo Matthew Perry wore to the Emmys or how much we spend to watch Shakira's hips battle greenhouse gas emissions, celebrities will still keep asking the government to earmark billions for their favorite causes.

And they don't always put their money where their extravagantly catered benefit concerts are either. Compared to America's bleeding-heart titans of capitalism, celebrities aren't all that generous, at least in terms of their own contributions. The $58.3 million that Oprah gave away in 2006, while substantial enough to establish her as the country's most open-handed entertainer, was good for only 36th place on The Chronicle of Philanthropy's list of the top individual donors for the year. (The list does not include anonymous donors.)

The problem is that celebrities don't take enough credit for their good deeds. The common notion that anonymous donors, or at the very least humble donors, are more virtuous than their more visible counterparts gets it precisely backward. Contributing $1 million to tsunami victims or former child soldiers is a good start, but it's not a truly generous act until you've made it at least as visible as Paris Hilton's crotch on a Vegas bender. Noisy, grandstanding donors sacrifice discretion and good taste in the name of their cause. They get attention—from the media, the public, their peers. The more acclaim Brangelina get for their philanthropic efforts, the likelier TomKat are to start contributing too.

Or at least that's how it works in the larger realm of philanthropy. In 1996, when Slate first started publishing an annual list of America's top 60 individual donors in an effort to spur competition among the benevolent wealthy, it took only $10 million to make the cut. Ten years later, it took three times that amount. Now an organization called the Giving Back Fund has created a similar list devoted specifically to entertainers and sports stars, in the hope of catalyzing a similarly escalating arms race of benevolence.

Still, paying too much attention to the actual contributions of celebrities shifts the focus from their true utility. They're not investors; they're salesmen. Warren Buffett may give billions to worthy causes, but if he poses topless, clutching a Project (RED) T-shirt demurely to his bosom, his lips slightly parted, his splotched, meaty shoulders enticingly bare, that's probably not going to move a lot of units. Put Anne Hathaway in the same pose, and it's a different story. Unless, of course, she starts speaking about capital-labor ratio thresholds and malaria ecology indices with a little too much facility and expertise.

The whole point of malltruism, after all, is to show that philanthropy doesn't have to be time-consuming, difficult, or unpleasant. It can be sexy and fun. It can be as effortless and rewarding as ordering a Big Mac. You don't have to be a saint to do it. You don't have to be serious or well-informed. And who better to convey this fact than people who believe their ability to cry on demand gives them special insight into the world's most pressing problems?

Every time a celebrity reinforces the idea that individuals can make a difference by choosing a blender that will help micro-finance a small farmer in Bangladesh rather than one that won't, she is reinforcing the idea that government aid isn't the only solution to every global affliction. Celebrities are helping to create a system where we have countless easy ways to direct our resources to the issues we believe in most strongly. We should show our support for their efforts with golden awareness ribbons trimmed in cashmere and diamonds.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.