Alex de Waal wrote this great piece, published in World Affairs, about celebrity activism. I think his article really captures the nuances and grey areas around this issue, which I’ve raised here and here before.
A celebrity playing a humanitarian role, such as Farrow does, acts as a bridge between a (Western) audience and a faraway tragedy. She is a focus for empathy, an emotional interpreter. While some columnists who write about foreign atrocities freight every sentence with bombast and outrage, a talented actress tells the story with just sufficient cues for the audience to supply the sadness and anger. That’s a far more potent performance. In some pictures, Farrow looks just as frail as the Darfurian refugees.
But a celebrity also brings handicaps to her role. The size of the audience and the length of the ovation are not the measure of success. Darfur events on American campuses and at town hall meetings are routinely acclaimed on the grounds that the world must pay attention. But unlike a Hollywood opening weekend, critical acclaim and box office receipts mean nothing unless they bring leverage for effective action. On that question, the jury hasn’t yet returned its verdict, but contemporary relief operations have done the wrong thing (and done too much of it) as often as they have not done enough. For this, today’s celebrity-saturated culture of humanitarianism deserves real blame.