Foreign Policy

Why World Leaders Call On Celebrities to Do Their Dirty Work

The Falklands debate reveals the (Sean) Penn is mightier than the sword.

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If you thought Sean Penn's victory over Mickey Rourke at the 2009 Oscars was weird, then how about his recent PR victory over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and its dwindling colonies?

Penn recently condemned Britain's "colonialist, ludicrous, and archaic" attitude towards the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, which Britain has claimed dominion over since 1833, and hinted that maybe it was time to hand the islands back to Argentina. Cue much fury in British media and political circles, where Penn has been branded "egotistical", "an idiot," "a fool," and a "vainglorious and ill-informed Hollywood actor" who should be "fed to crocodiles."

The crocodile thing might be going too far, but who can doubt that Penn is egotistical and vainglorious? This is, after all, a man so pompous that in 2002 he visited Iraq in order to see some of the people whose blood might one day be "on my hands" (nice, Sean), and he is so hilariously humorless that he couldn't even let Chris Rock's wisecrack about Jude Law being a non-entity pass uncommented on at the 2005 Academy Awards. ("Jude Law is one of our finest young actors", retorted Penn, proving that he's a liar as well as a fool.)

So no one could have been surprised when Penn, following a meeting with his buddy and president of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, decided to hold a press conference at which he pontificated about British claims of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. That is what bigheads like the former Mr. Madonna do. What is surprising, though—remarkable, in fact—is the impact that his comments made. They seriously rattled Britain. They provoked anger among leading British politicians. And they galvanized the actual inhabitants of the Falkland Islands to organize an anti-Penn motorcade. If Penn is just an idiot, how come his remarks delivered such a kick in the balls to the once-mighty U.K.?

This is the most revealing thing about the Penn affair—not that modern-day actors are arrogant enough to believe that their two-bit views on international affairs really matter, but the fact that their views do matter. The splash made by Penn's comments confirms the awesome and quite terrifying power of celebrity today, and shows that even the serious business of international sabre-rattling must now come with celebrity endorsement if it is to be taken seriously.

It is striking that, for a couple of weeks prior to Penn's pronouncement, the Argentine president had been trying but failing to land a blow on Britain. Following Britain's recent decision to send more military ships to the Falkland Islands, and its posting of Prince William there in a military role, Kirchner had made lip-wobbling statements about British "militarization" of the South Atlantic and had even sent her foreign minister to make an impassioned anti-British speech at the United Nations. These maneuvers made ripples, sure, but it took the deployment of the A-bomb (or perhaps A-List bomb) that is Sean Penn for Kirchner to properly grab the world's attention.

Kirchner's Penn-pushing suggests she is a wily leader. She has gradually come to the realization that, these days, getting a celeb to make a comment will make a far bigger dent in international consciousness than readying a warship or giving fist-waving talks at the UN or doing any of the other diplomatic bits and bobs of the B.C. (Before Celebrity) era. Clearly having encouraged Penn to say something provocative about the Falkland Islands, Kirchner was effectively saying to Britain: "I see your Prince William and raise you Sean Penn…" And if the response to Penn's comments is anything to go by, it seems pretty clear that Pinkos of Hollywood carry far more weight than Princes of Wales in international celebrity smackdowns.

At last, Kirchner had Britain in a stranglehold, and the world's eyes upon her. A minister in Britain's Liberal-Conservative government felt moved to condemn Penn. The British media went apeshit. While American outlets mulled over "Sean Penn's Falklands War" and made him their quote of the week, British papers yelled "Save us from these egotistical stars who think they are world statesmen" and railed against the "bleeding heart actor" and his "explosive remarks".

Most remarkably of all, the few thousand inhabitants of the Falkland Islands felt moved to organize a mile-long, pseudo-militaristic motorcade, at which they waved the U.K. flag and placards saying "Falk You, Sean." You could be forgiven for thinking that Penn was on his way to the islands in a warship, perhaps with a mercenary army of likeminded Concerned Celebs such as George Clooney and Matt Damon (whose name I still can't say in a normal voice, not since Team America: World Police).

Kirchner has discovered that, in international face-offs, the Penn is now mightier than the sword. The Penn affair reveals something very important about today's speedily growing celebrity culture—it shows that it is motored, not so much by voyeurism amongst the lower orders and white-trash magazine-readers, as we are so often told, but rather by a profound crisis of authority among our rulers and betters. It is the upper echelons' lack of moral authority, their estrangement both from the public and from the old, accepted ways of doing politics, which has encouraged them to cultivate celebrity as a new source of authority.

More and more political leaders now outsource authority to celebrities. George W. Bush aided and abetted in the transformation of Bono into spokesman for the whole Third World, to the extent that Bono was invited to a G8 gathering (as "the People's Republic of Bono", joked one British journalist). Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown once had a chat with Angelina Jolie about what to do with Africa. The Hague made supermodel Naomi Campbell testify at the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, partly because it wanted to bring the "spotlight" to this important political matter.

Again and again, leaders who feel they lack the purchase or gravitas or old-fashioned moral authority to make certain claims or front certain campaigns call upon celebs to do their dirty work for them. As a result the prefix "celebrity"—as in celebrity campaigner, celebrity doctor, celebrity chef—now enjoys far more clout in the public realm than old-world prefixes such as "political", "royal," and even "elected".

Kirchner has simply taken this trend to its bizarrely logical conclusion, so that we now have celebrity warfare. Whether Penn will be brave enough actually to board any ship that Argentina sends into a future Falklands war remains to be seen.

Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked in London. 

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