Sunday, March 16, 2008

Clooney sells watches while the Chinese shoot monks

Update: An expanded version of this post is up at Pajamas Media

According to reports coming out of Tibet, as many as 100 people have been killed by Chinese forces in a crackdown on pro-independence protests by monks and their supporters. The unrest is said to be spreading, and more deaths are likely in the coming days.

The Beijing Olympics take place in August, and Tibetans are courageously taking the opportunity to draw attention to their plight, and bring international pressure to bear on China. And if his previous form is anything to go by, the Tibetans should soon be able to count on the high-profile support of Hollywood star George Clooney in their struggle for freedom.

After all, the man annointed by the media as the ‘heart-throb with a conscience’ has been pretty outspoken about China's indirect responsibility for the on-going genocide in Darfur. Here's his most recent protest:

Sorry! Wrong protest. Here’s Clooney’s latest attack on China, delivered in his capacity as ‘ambassador’ for Olympic partner and official timekeeper Omega (I couldn’t find video):

"I have talked with Omega (about China) for over a year and will continue to talk to Omega," Clooney told BBC Sport.

"I have and will go to the places I and China do business and ask for help."

Get the message, Wen Jiabao? Coming through loud and clear, People's Liberation Army? Gorgeous George is going to “continue to talk to Omega”. He’s going to “go to places” and “ask for help”.

We’ve yet to hear from Clooney on the specific issue of Tibet, but he’ll surely take an even stronger stance than he has over Darfur, given that this time Chinese are doing the shooting themselves, rather than merely supplying the ammunition.

We can perhaps hope for something along the lines of the blistering attack Clooney launched on Nestle last year, when it was politely pointed out that his commercial activities on behalf of a company that’s been criticised for its policies in the third world didn’t sit well with his self-appointed role as global crusader for the oppressed (more on the Nestle connection here).

Here's the full, unedited transcript:

"I'm not going to apologize to you for trying to make a living every once in a while. I find that an irritating question."

Okay, it wasn’t that blistering. However, Clooney has on other occasions been genuinely outspoken in his condemnation of perceived injustices – namely those he feels have been committed by the United States, and specifically by the Bush administration.

He’s been among the most high-profile critics of the Iraq war, which is of course his right, although as Austin Bay has pointed out the similarities between the case for invading Iraq and Clooney’s own justification for US intervention in Sudan somewhat undermine his position.

And as blogger Scolai has pointed out, Clooney has nothing to say about the US intervention in Afghanistan. He was asked recently whether, in the context of Afghanistan some wars were justified he replied “I’m not the guy to answer that.” An odd answer from someone who certainly appears to be the go-to guy if you want to know which wars aren’t justified.

Similarly, he’s silent on the Bush administration’s $15 billion initiative for AIDS relief in Africa (as, of course, are his friends in the media, an oversight recently criticised by Bob Geldof in Time magazine). Clearly, Clooney’s crusading is selective to say the least. I can’t put it any better than Niall Stanage in this 2006 profile:

Films aside, what many journalists refer to as his ‘‘activism’’ tends to comprise involvement with worthy but largely uncontroversial causes (like the Bono fronted Drop The Debt campaign) and nebulous statements about peace or holding the powerful to account.

In his 2006 National Review piece ‘Phoney Baloney’, Mark Steyn memorably ridiculed Clooney’s self-declared ‘bravery’, and his double standard of attacking easy political targets in the US while ignoring more complex and controversial issues. (Not sure how long the link to Steyn's website is good for; you can also find the article here).

Steyn’s piece is the greatest takedown of pompous celebrity activism ever committed to print or web: it should be carved in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. He writes:

By comparison [with earlier generations of Hollywood activists], Clooney’s [activism] is no more than a pose — he’s acting at activism, new Hollywood mimicking old Hollywood’s robust defense of even older Hollywood. He’s more taken by the idea of “speaking truth to power” than by the footling question of whether the truth he’s speaking to power is actually true.

When interviewers turn to the subject of his politics, Clooney invariably talks about the influence of his journalist father, and it’s easy to think that his activism is driven at least in part by a sense of guilt over his success in the often superficial and ephemeral movie business. He alludes to as much in this spectacularly smug and self-serving 2006 interview with clearly-smitten Guardian journalist Emma Brockes.

(You should read the whole thing before reading Steyn’s piece. You can’t help thinking that Clooney is more interested in attracting the opprobrium of 'right-wingers' than he is in actually doing good; he wears the 'traitor' label like a badge of honour.)

So why the apparent double standard? Why the relative silence from Clooney over China?

He could conceivably make the argument that 'engagement' with unpleasant regimes is more useful than punitive measures – which, after all, is the position taken by Western governments with regard to China and other countries.

But no amount of photo-shoots and drinks parties featuring Clooney modelling expensive watches are going to affect China's policies towards Tibet or Sudan. On the other hand, the public severing of his links with Omega would attract worldwide publicity on a scale similar to that generated by Steven Spielberg’s recent decision to snub the Games.

Maybe, like all those corrupt politicians and corporate scoundrels that inhabit his films, Clooney simply has his price.

But there's another possibility, which is slightly more charitable. Perhaps Clooney needs the money so that he can continue to fund worthy documentaries and 'political' feature films which, while well-received critically, aren’t necessarily successful in terms of box office receipts.

How ironic if would be if Clooney was reduced to compromising his principles so that he could make more films in which those principles are so blatantly flaunted.

*Note that the linked BBC report refers to protests in 'another part of China', which suggests it considers Tibet to be 'part' of China. Slip-up, or a reluctance to offend as the BBC prepares to send hundreds of its employees to cover the Olympics?

Update: Thanks to Jim for linking.

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