When politics doesn’t need poster children (Guardian)

Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest mind of our era, has backed a boycott in protest over the policy of the present Israeli government towards the Palestinians. Hawking’s decision not to attend a conference hosted by Shimon Peres has been greeted with delight by supporters of the boycott campaign. What better way to bolster their argument than a lauded intellectual refusing to stand by in the face of injustice?

The efforts of those who want Israel to be shunned – whether in culture, sport, academia or politics – garner plenty of interest, but never so much as when a celebrity gets on board.

When Hebrew-speaking thespians were invited to the Globe theatre, a chorus including Emma Thompson publicly professed indignation. The debate about Israel hosting next month’s European under-21 football championship went far beyond the blogs following the intervention of Frédéric Kanouté.

Conversely, when Rihanna or Justin Bieber perform in Tel Aviv, they suddenly attract the unlikeliest of fans. Indeed, those against the boycott jumped for joy when it briefly – and incorrectly – seemed that Hawking had cancelled for health, rather than political, reasons.

It’s natural, if you support a cause strongly, to crow when a prominent individual who is listened to far more than the average openly backs your cause. For some – Roger Waters comes to mind – preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian situation goes further than a signature, but for many, I’d hazard, wading in one way or the other comes not after years of study of the Middle East.

The famous have as much right as anyone to talk politics and if a prominent individual wishes to back a boycott, or rage against it, he is free to do so. The problem is the activists who seize on them as poster children.

It’s disingenuous, investing one signature with the weight of an entire political approach, and implying that because of a person’s notoriety, their pronouncements are gospel instead of what they are – the views of someone no more or less informed.

Many causes need glitter to get a hearing. The Rohingya Muslims, for example: their plight rarely makes the front page. George Clooney brought Darfur to the world’s attention. You can say plenty about Gaza, but you cannot claim it is ignored by the mainstream media.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extraordinarily complex. It requires activists with a vested interest to focus on the facts, to aim for more than point-scoring, and consider the real questions – how to end the cycle of violence, for one, and how to educate people on both sides as to why two states is the answer – not which celebrity agrees with them.

What the Middle East desperately needs is dialogue, which is why I believe a boycott cannot offer a constructive approach. The discussion could well benefit from meaningful interventions from intellectuals like Hawking, but these must go beyond headline-grabbing.

This article originally appeared on the Guardian website. Read the original here

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Where are the women in The Ides of March? (The Telegraph)

Forget the polls. Forget what the pundits think and what the ordinary Joes interviewed on the street have to say. The best barometer of how we view politics and what state politics is in surely comes from fiction, from the bumbling leaders of Yes, Minister to the spin-doctored puppets of The Thick of It.

Nowhere is that more true than with regard to American presidential politics. When Americans have faith in their commander-in-chief – or wish for a leader different to the one they have – contemporary fictional leaders have Abraham Lincoln’s ability to unite a divided nation, Dwight Eisenhower’s physical valour, Franklin Roosevelt’s ability to enact change and John F Kennedy’s glamour. Think Harrison Ford as the action-hero president in Air Force One (1997), Michael Douglas’s Andrew Shepherd striking a blow for liberty in The American President (1995) or Grant Matthews in Frank Capra’ss hope-imbued State of the Union (1948).

Likewise, times of low public faith in politics are often accompanied by films where power and the pursuit of it is shown as dirty, dank and Nixonesque. That’s no new thing; as the Great Depression got underway a film called Gabriel Over the White House (1933) was made, featuring a vacuous, do-nothing president in Herbert Hoover’s mould.

The Ides of March, George Clooney’s drama about political aspirations gone awry, reflects a profoundly dismal approach to politics at a time when Barack Obama’s popularity is at a new low. The film, set during the Democratic Party primaries (and based on a play that was itself supposedly based on Howard Dean’s shortlived run) takes a Hobbesian view of the state of politics; everyone is a dealmaker, everyone will ultimately act against their beliefs and nothing is sacred.

The subtext is that no politician – and, in this adaptation, for politician, read Barack Obama, with “Yes We Can” style posters and all – can ever be the ideal he purports to be. It’s a film about how the audacity of hope will always let you down.

But as dispiriting as that message was, also noticeable was the lack of a single credible female political figure. The sum total of female characters stood at three; the intern, the journalist, and the First-Lady-in-waiting (a Laura, not a Hillary or even a Michelle).

This was a film filled with backroom deals, high-stakes conversations and political chess games and yet the women were eternally on the periphery. Involved, yes. But not the ones leading the country, or trying to.

This comment piece was first published in the Telegraph. Read the rest of it here