Elephant in the room: total ignorance of a celebrity political endorser

Aside

Celebrities are silly. They do silly stuff all the time – at least that’s what the media would have us believe. Journalists working for glossy magazines and tabloids mercilessly report on celebrity gaffes, stoking public ridicule (or outrage) over instances of celebrity stupidity which seems to be in regular supply. Effective as they might seem, I feel the ‘blunder-hunters’ have missed the biggest of them all. The music celebrity I dedicated this blog post to has been guilty of a ongoing blunder for more than 4 years; what’s more, their behaviour has much more profound consequences than the trivialities tabloid journalists tend to occupy themselves with.

The blunder  in question is enthusiastic endorsement of one of the most powerful politicians on this planet while being totally ignorant of their policies.

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The one-and-done model of celebrity politics

Celebrity adventure with politics can take form of a single tweet, as in the case of Kim Kardashian. During the November 2012 Israeli assault on Gaza the reality show star tweeted – presumably out of compassion for the civilian and military lives of the invading force – she was “Praying for everyone in Israel”.

Her account was flooded with hostile tweets shortly after, which regardless of the – sometimes vile and outright violent – form they took, were rightly pointing out that her reaction to an Israeli aerial assault of an enclosed and largely civilian area was deeply unfair, or just outright ignorant. In a cringeworthily obvious attempt to undo the embarrassing situation, the television personality proceeded to tweet she was “praying for everyone in Palestine and across the world”, but then ended up deleting both tweets.

It’s an example of a one-off, careless and irresponsible comment (however earnest it might have been) that ended up causing some unpleasantness and taught the clearly oblivious celebrity to think twice before setting foot in the unfamiliar realm of politics. In fact it is likely to lead them to refrain from doing anything of this sort again: one-and-done.

But what if there was a celebrity who has been involved in one of the most influential political scenes on this planet for more than 4 years, in clear support of a certain political personality but… seems to have absolutely no idea about their idol’s politics?

Will.I.Am & Barack Obama

Will.I.Am, otherwise known as William James Adams, is a music personality, producer and entrepreneur. He is best known for his time at The Black Eyed Peas, a hip-hop/pop group that reached the hight of their popularity in 2003. He is also famous for his solo output, having worked on a total of 4 solo albums. A single from his 4th, upcoming album ‘#willpower’ called ‘Scream and Shout’ was a commercial success, topping charts in 14 countries.

In 2008, Will.I.Am joined – or headed, by some accounts – celebrities in supporting Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He wrote a song almost entirely based on the speech that – then Senator – Obama gave in New Hampshire. The ‘Yes We Can’ single was a tribute to the presidential candidate and his election slogans. It was made into a viral music video and provided a platform for other celebrities to show their support of the candidate, making 3 million views within a week of release. Will also helped produce and contributed to a compilation album called Change Is Now: Renewing America’s Promise, released in April 2009, on which the ‘Yes We Can’ song can be found, as well as four others attributed – wholly, or partly – to Will. His pro-Obama efforts landed him number 2 on the Top-Ten Celebrity Obama Supporters list compiled by Huffington Post in 2008.

In 2012, Will.I.Am was there for Obama, too.  He was part of an Obama team and conducted a twitter campaign in support of his re-election. He reportedly spent the election night in the backstage – in his own words – “with the president and the secret service people”. This year, Will.I.Am accompanied Obama during his 2nd term inauguration ceremony.

The celebrity’s support of the politician has been discussed to some extent. In fact, on several occasions the music star himself gave brief interviews about it.  What reasons does Will.I.Am give for his backing of Obama and what is his understanding of American politics? I will not keep you waiting – Will does not have anything to say apart from meaningless babble and empty clichés.

Obama’s policies? “I have to learn more about that”

This interview was conducted in the first days of February 2008, after the “Yes We Can” – Will’s pro-Obama song  – went viral. Will, who seemed to struggle to answer questions, spent a few minutes talking about how Obama’s New Hampshire speech “super-inspired” him to write the song and how celebrities joined his project out of “hope for change”; he also said that Obama belongs with Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln in a category of people that have helped freedoms flourish and bring positive change.

Just what would the positive changes be, however, Will couldn’t say. At approximately 5:35, the journalist asks: “What are some of the changes you want to see right now?”. While the music video director Jesse Dylan smiles and fidgets uncomfortably, Will throws in vague phrases while he struggles to answer: “Education… Erm… America’s finance, you know, getting the dollar up to where it… should be” – “Stopping the war” – Jesse Dylan lends a helping hand – “Stopping the war… Erm… Health… Erm… International policies… you know, good things”. “Good things! We can support that!” – the news anchor said, smiling.

It seems Will’s ignorance of Obama’s policies remained unchanged up until 2012. Luke Rudkowski, a journalist of ‘We Are Change‘, approached the self-declared Obama supporter Will.I.Am last year and during this short encounter asked him about his opinion on Obama’s policies. Queried about the President’s secret kill-list, as well as his recent signing of the NDAA act and drone bombings, all the clearly baffled Will had to say is he had to “learn more about that”.

When Obama was re-elected on the evening of 7th November 2012, Will.I.Am was also available for comment and unsurprisingly – hasn’t contributed anything substantial. In this short chat, he said a few rather empty phrases about “keeping up the engagement” until the next election, lest “we will undo what we’ve done” – presumably hinting at the need to keep up Obama’s popularity.

Could it be that despite his far-reaching efforts to promote Barack Obama, Will.I.Am has no idea what his policies entail or what his governance means for America and the world? It seems very likely to be the case.

Obama’s record as president

Had Obama been a perfect president, Will’s ignorance would merely be a matter of a personal – or a professional – faux pas. But he is not.

President Barrack Obama’s achievements in office include, to name a few: not only continuing, but vastly expanding America’s highly controversial, secretive, counter-productive and unconstrained drone campaign with its mounting civilian toll (e.g., see TBIJ’s work on the drones in Pakistan) and war crime tactics; bulking up the state’s domestic eavesdropping powers and secrecy as well as signing the NDAA act which allows for assassination of US citizens without judicial review and imprisonment of thereof without trial and waging war on whistle-blowers on an unprecedented scale with the use of the WW1-era Espionage Act.

I don’t need to discuss the large extent to which these policies contradict the values inherent in Obama’s “super-inspiring” 2008 election slogans that Will claims to hold so dear. It’s obvious. What’s not obvious in the public sphere, however – judging from the fact Will’s support for Obama remains unchallenged – is that blind endorsement of a powerful political figure is dangerous.

Politics is not a game 

It would seem to me that if someone wishes to support a political personality, they ought to publicly acknowledge and engage with the political ideas their idols are endorsing and policies they’re enacting. Politics is not a game – domestic and foreign powers of the US government affect real people and create real situations at home – for instance, the signing of the controversial NDAA act that infringes on freedoms of Will’s fellow Americans – and abroad – like drone bombings in Yemen or Pakistan which have lead to real deaths and suffering among populations. To endorse the US president while not having a slightest grasp of his policies – especially if they’re so unprecedented and controversial – is wrong.

Based on what I have seen and read – I don’t believe Will.I.Am has the slightest understanding of Obama’s politics and their impact on America and the world. I would go even further in saying I don’t believe this particular celebrity has any grasp of politics in a general sense. To me, it seems very likely he’s just an ignorant music star jumping onto the Obama endorsement bandwagon in pursuit of publicity, while choosing to be completely detached from the realities of his presidency.

A useful idiot, if you will.

UPDATE:

On 20/01/2013, Will.I.Am spoke to MTV News after taking part in Obama’s inauguration ceremony, to which he referred to as “historic” and “nostalgic”. He said of the atmosphere: “The feeling in the city right now? It’s optimism and nostalgia; remembering where we came from and where we’re going”. Referring to Obama as “my ninja”, he gave a very favourable personal account of the president. Among the things he said about Obama was that he was “cool and fun but serious at the same time” and that he “takes time to speak to normal folk and important folk at the same time”. He also gave some of his suggestions for domestic policy: Will wants to see “science programs” funded in schools and factories “brought to the inner cities [so that they can] bring jobs to America”.

 

It’s only terrorism when they do it to us

Standard

In my first blog post, I take two recent assassinations that the US has reacted to very differently. One was branded a “terrorist attack”, but the other, despite being analogous in many regards, hasn’t. It appears that condemnation and application of the ‘terrorist’ label depends on whether the event happens to advance US interests.

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The politically powerful of the world have repeatedly demonstrated their double standards in how they use the word ‘terrorism’. The self-interested juggling of the term at the hands of politicians has effectively stripped it of any objective validity to the point where the word means no more than ‘those harmful to my political interests’.

Consequently, those who very much deserve the ‘terrorist’ label, but at the same time are complimentary to some policy goal of the powerful are spared the name.

Among most recent examples of such hypocrisy is the stance of Western governments – headed by the US – towards the anti-Assad militants in Syria. Not only have they failed to acknowledge and condemn their clearly criminal and, at times, ‘terrorist’ conduct, but have also directly (as well as indirectly) facilitated and supported it.

The ‘Free Syrian Army’ and other armed elements

The armed Syrian opposition has  an important role to play in the Syrian civil war.  It is to defeat the regular Syrian Army and in effect depose the Assad regime. The FSA, arguably the most spoken-of armed rebel faction, despite being often cast as noble freedom warriors by Western media, certainly don’t fit the ‘White Hat’ profile so often attributed to them.  Human Rights Watch reported abuses committed by the anti-government militia included:

“…kidnapping, detention, and torture of security force members, government supporters, and people identified as members of pro-government militias, called shabeeha. Human Rights Watch has also received reports of executions by armed opposition groups of security force members and civilians.”

This UN report describes, among other incidents, FSA fighters trying to force a prisoner to carry out a suicide bombing mission, a ransom kidnapping and subsequent murder of a civilian government supporter’s parents or kidnapping and detention of Iranian civilians.

Some elements of the FSA have reportedly tried killing journalists.

Syria’s other armed groups have also perpetrated numerous bombing attacks (including ‘suicide bombings‘ and the use of IEDs) targeting regime officials that have killed and injured civilians.

It is common knowledge that such conduct has for years been uncontroversially considered not only criminal, but also ‘terrorist’ in Western political discourse. Such actions by the West’s enemies would almost certainly prompt strong condemnation, a word or two to express disgust and perhaps a few to say how those behind the attacks hate peace; but most importantly lead to the naming of the perpetrators as ‘terrorists’.

The failed test of consistency

And indeed, when on 18th June this year, a Yemeni military commander Maj. Gen. Salem Ali al-Qatan was assassinated in a suicide bombing, the USSD’s (US State Department) spokeswoman Ms. Nuland had this to say about the attack (emphasis mine):

 “The United States condemns in strongest terms today’s terrorist attack against Major General Salem Ali al-Qatan, Southern Regional Commander of the Yemeni Central Security Forces. We extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends as well as our sympathies to those who were wounded in this cowardly attack.”

So here we have an assassination targeting the security forces of a close US ally – Yemen. The American response is made clear by the spokeswoman: the event was a “cowardly terrorist attack” which the US condemns in strongest terms.

What will be the US reaction to an analogous attack, that happened exactly a month later, but this time targeted not the West but Syrian government and military officials?

On 18th July 2012, the Free Syrian Army (alongside Liwa al Islam) claimed responsibility for assassinating several top military and defence officials in the Damascus bombing of the National Security Headquarters. Note that the event, initially reported as a suicide bombing, bears close resemblance to the Yemeni “terrorist attack” strongly condemned by Ms. Nuland.

How did US State Department react to this event? I consulted a Press Briefing dated 18 July 2012 – the date of the bombing. Speaking fresh after the event, the Director of the US State Department Press Office Partick Ventrell said in the  opening statement (again, my emphasis):

“Before we get started, I just wanted to go ahead and say at the top that we note reports that the Syrian defense minister and other regime officials were killed in an attack today in Damascus. The United States does not welcome further bloodshed in Syria. We note, however, that these men were key architects of the Assad regime’s assault on the Syrian people.”

When prompted by the journalist to define the deaths that have resulted as a good or bad thing, Mr Ventrell failed to specify. After a brief to-and-fro with a journalist, he reiterated: “We want a peaceful solution, Matt. We’re focused on ending the bloodshed. It is the Assad regime, however, that, in slaughtering its own people, has created these chaotic conditions. ” 

The reaction of the US to the Damascus bombing is evidently weak and apologetic. The man speaking on behalf of USSD provides a justification for the act and refuses to specify whether the attack was a positive or negative development. The only part of the remarks that can be considered to be negative – and quite remotely so – are Ventrell’s assurances that “The United States does not welcome further bloodshed in Syria”. No condemnation, no sign of disgust or moral distancing; but most importantly, no use of the ‘terrorist’ label.

Quite a stark contrast with the US response to the assassination of an army general in Yemen, where the attack was not only branded as “terrorist”, but also deemed “cowardly” and condemned “in strongest terms”.

Western support for the armed Syrian opposition (including the FSA)

The US support for the armed Syrian opposition doesn’t end at linguistic kindness. The administration has declared on numerous occasions it supplies them with communications equipment and training as well as logistical and propagandistic support. There are reports suggesting the actual support is much more far-reaching, including engagement of CIA operatives.

US ally, Turkey, has reportedly set up a secret base on its territory, from which it co-ordinates distribution of military and communications aid to anti-Assad militias. US allies – Qatar and Saudi-Arabia, as well as the US itself are also said to have a role in the running of the facility.

The Gulf allies of the US in the region were reported as paying the armed militias wages and supplying them with arms. The Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s comment on the latter practice was rather dispassionate: “We made a decision not to provide lethal assistance at this point. I know others have made their own decisions”.

A curiously neutral stance by a member of an administration that has so many times called for a “peaceful resolution” in Syria and declared its commitment to “end the bloodshed”.

The West (headed by the US) have clear intentions in regards to Syria – they want to depose the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and are determined  to facilitate that development. It is perhaps for this reason we can see such hypocritical disparity between the US reactions to the two ‘terrorist’ events.

The rule seems to be that for an event to be classed as ‘terrorist’ it has got to be perpetrated by US enemies or hurt US interests. It’s only terrorism when they do it to us.

How valid is the ‘terrorist’ label?

It appears that those who fall under the US’s own definition of ‘terrorism’ escape the name (and the moral condemnation that comes with it) when they happen to advance their political interests.

The Free Syrian Army, most prominent of Syria’s armed opposition factions, despite committing acts that amount to ‘terrorism’ has escaped any such labelling or condemnation. Quite the opposite – it’s a beneficiary to wide-ranging, direct and indirect support from the US and its allies.

What does that tell us about the validity of the ‘terrorist’ label, used eagerly when the West is the target, but generously spared when the victims happen to be our enemies?