We are living through times which are rich with untapped satirical potential. Reptilian special advisers, crazed anonymous bloggers and rent-a-quote moralisers are all worthy subjects, but none is quite so deserving of the contempt of laughter than that great contemporary archetype, the ethical celebrity.
The ethical celebrity is a very caring person who will ensure that their every interview will include a telling soundbite of social concern. They live opulently enough but, in a sort of showbiz version of carbon trading, they manage to offset their wastefulness by emitting clouds of hot air about the environment or poverty or human rights whenever anyone with a notebook or microphone is around.
So when the queen of ethical celebrities Trudie Styler, film-maker and wife of Sting, was asked about the elephantine carbon footprint for which she and her husband were responsible – seven houses, a band touring the world with a retinue of 750 people, a cook obliged to travel 100 miles to cook some pasta for the children, and so on – her reply was predictable. “I would like to think that we both work hard for the rights of indigenous people… but we do need to get around.”
For all her much-trumpeted good work, Mrs Sting often appears a more absurd figure than the most hedonistic and self-indulgent of celebrities. Her latest contribution to the planet is to hold a creativity and social awareness seminar for “20 or so like-minded souls” at their 16th century farmhouse in Tuscany. Now any sensible person, finding themselves extremely rich and owning a large house on 700 acres in Italy, might invite a group of interesting people for a holiday there, but the Stings, being ethical celebrities, have nobler aspirations.
“We are gathering together,” says the invitation, ” some of the most creative writers, humanitarians and film-makers we can find, people who care for humanity and the world we inhabit in a conscious and thoughtful way, and whose philosophy of life informs their creative process. The theme for the week is social consciousness and creativity – but I want it to be informal, relaxed, a source of inspiration for some of the brightest minds we know.”
Frankly, it all sounds rather fun. Only a very dull dog would turn down the chance to “rethink how change happens in our society” while enjoying the sumptuous hospitality of a rich pop star. For those gifted, creative people who care for humanity, it must be the perfect holiday – sun, food and luxury accompanied by a very real sense of making a contribution to the way that we think about the world.
The problem with ethical celebrities is more than mere humbug. The assumption behind Mrs Sting’s Tuscany think-tank is that a circle jerk of her brilliant, creative friends is actually doing something rather important, that it matters more in the scheme of things than anything done by those for whom change in society is not a holiday project but is part of their everyday work: politicians, trades union leaders, social workers, even the occasional quangocrat.
What will emerge from the humanitarians’ creative week in the sun? Are we to expect a paper on social transformation, edited by Mrs Sting, to be sent to world leaders? Probably not. But a group of smug, like-minded souls, who like to think that they care for humanity in a conscious and thoughtful way, will fly home, tanned, well-fed and comfortable in the knowledge that, unlike the rest of us drones, they have done their bit for change and creativity.
There is a little Canadian in each one of us
The unpleasantness endured in Canada by Billy Bob Thornton, the film star currently reinventing himself as a country singer, raises bigger questions than may at first be apparent.
Thornton, on tour with his band the Boxmasters, commented during a bizarre radio interview that he was used to playing in places where people threw things at each other. Canadians just sat there and listened. They were like “mashed potatoes with no gravy”.
The suggestion that Canadians are undemonstrative to the point of dullness is an unfair national stereotype, not unlike the old cliché about the English being bad in bed. Any nation which could produce, to name a few of my musical and literary favourites, Leonard Cohen, Douglas Coupland, The Band, Robertson Davies, Joni Mitchell and Leon Redbone can hardly be accused of being dull.
Yet, as with the erotic competence of the English, there may be a truth lurking behind the cliché. Imagine playing to an audience of Margaret Atwood and her friends, or indeed to any of my Canadian favourites.
It is not a matter of shame. We all have our listening, thoughtful, inner Canadians. The fact that they are not Thornton’s ideal gig suggests that the mashed potato is in his brain, not theirs.
‘South Park’ and the betrayal of satire
The disappointment of the week has, astonishingly, come from those geniuses behind South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The boys have just taken possession of a signed photograph of Saddam Hussein, which was presented to them for their services to torture. Their masterpiece South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was repeatedly shown to the former Iraqi leader, portrayed in the film as Satan’s boyfriend, while he was in jail, awaiting execution.
It is famously impossible to embarrass Parker and Stone, but they should at least feel a small stab of shame at this nasty betrayal of satire.