Human Rights, Celebrity and Democracy

Wheeler, Mark (2018) Human Rights, Celebrity and Democracy. In: Routledge Handbook of Celebrity. Routledge International Handbooks . Routledge, London, pp. 285-300. ISBN 9781138022942


On 24 September 2015, the Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned the British singer-songwriter and gay activist Sir Elton John (Reginald Dwight) to meet him. The call occurred as Putin had decided to respond to the singer’s concerns about the ‘ridiculous’ nature of the homophobic attitudes which existed in Russia. Most especially, John was concerned that the Russian lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) community had been brutalised through a combination of homophobic legislation, state victimisation and political violence. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall, John criticised the passage of a Russian law in 2013 designed to prosecute those private citizens who were deemed to have promoted ‘gay propaganda’ to children.

Matters between Putin and John had been complicated when two Russian pranksters had tricked the pop star by claiming that the Premier had agreed to meet him. When the singer commented that Putin had agreed to a meeting he quickly received a denial from the Kremlin. Therefore, on this occasion, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Pskov confirmed to the world’s media that Russian President had indeed contacted John. The press release stated that Putin respected the singer as an internationally renowned entertainer who enjoyed a huge fan- base in Russia. John’s celebrity had given him an entrée to speak directly to Putin as a legitimate spokesman for LGBT rights. Both Putin and John stated that they wanted to arrange the meeting when their schedules allowed them to do so.

This incident exemplified how John could utilise his global fame to place the Russian state’s homophobic attitudes onto the international agenda. In recent years, he has advocated gay rights and engaged in the wider process of celebrity altruism. Conversely, it could be claimed that the incident was a clever publicity stunt wherein a wealthy pop- star and a shrewd political operator used gay rights for their mutual benefit. Invariably, celebrity figures including John, Bono and Bob Geldof have been accused of being ‘bards of the powerful’ to political leaders such as Tony Blair, George W. Bush and Putin (Monbiot 2005). Celebrity humanitarians have been accused of trivialising the issues so that the public interest could be easily manipulated.

Therefore, as there has been an increase of celebrity philanthropy within the humanitarian sphere, academic interest has simultaneously grown. In many respects, the contours of this populist debate have segued into the academy’s inter-disciplinary (political communications, media and cultural studies; international relations (IR) and diplomacy; development) analysis of celebrity humanitarianism. At one end of the spectrum, there is Ilan Kapoor’s critique of a ‘capitalist celebrity machine’, drawn heavily on the theories of Slavoj Žiž ek, in which celebrity humanitarianism is depoliticising, inequitable and anti-democratic (Kapoor 2012). In contrast, the IR scholar Andrew Cooper contends that celebrities create a new ‘space’ to open up the ‘disconnect’ between the diplomatic classes and the public (Cooper 2008 : 113–114).This form of public diplomacy may be seen to be part of a wider democratisation process in international affairs.

Consequently, this chapter will consider how the debate within the academy has facilitated a greater understanding of the relationship between celebrity, human rights and democratic behaviour. First, this study will outline the factors which have defined the principles of celebrity engagement and human rights. There will be a discussion of how celebrity humanitarians have used their fame to draw media attention to international causes. Moreover, their mediatised personas have been deployed by international state actors (ISAs) and non- governmental organisations (NGOs) to effect a ‘connection’ with the public. This section will show how there has been a popular debate about the worth of such engagement.

Second, the chapter will discuss the competing intellectual claims which have been made in relation to celebrity humanitarianism. This analysis will consider how these interventions demonstrate that a range of ideological values and disciplinary perspectives (critical development, international relations, public diplomacy) have been directed at celebrity activism. Most especially, this section will compare and contrast the arguments made about the worth (or not) of celebrity engagement within the international public sphere.

Finally, it will ask whether this polarised academic debate – in which celebrities have been to seen to either aid or undermine the realisation of human rights – should be reconfigured. Instead, the chapter will contend that for a proper analysis of celebrity humanitarianism to be operationalised that there should be a consideration of the structural conditions and personal forms of agency which shape such activism. Therefore, it will discuss how a literature which has been framed upon the principles of aesthetics and style (Street 2004 , 2012 ; Farrell 2012), Global North and South relations (Richey 2016) and post- humanitarianism (Chouliaraki 2013 ; Brockington 2014a) can be employed to map the relations between celebrity, human rights and democratisation.

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