Ben Affleck, Go Home! Why Celebrities are Bad for Capitol Hill

Even though the House of Representatives rejected him, Ben Affleck is still coming to Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Congo. What qualifies a man, who knowingly distorted facts to make a "true" story more entertaining, to speak on such a complex issue? He makes Oscar-winning movies.

But Affleck isn't the only guilty party. He joins Demi Moore, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney, Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Eva Longoria, Jessica Alba, and many others in using celebrity status to get Congress' attention on a certain policy issue — a mixture of good, bad, and so-so.

Why is this bad?

As a former nonprofit worker and current political staffer, I know firsthand that celebrities coming to Capitol Hill is rarely productive. If anything, it does more harm than good.

On the surface, nonprofits and other advocates love cuddling up to celebrities because that presence gets them a meeting with a Member of Congress in addition to the appropriate legislative staffer as well as a gaggle of bubbly interns and the media, aching for a photo op. In Affleck's case, this gets him a Senate Committee hearing. Celebrity involvement also gives key policy issues public attention it wouldn't otherwise receive. Sounds good, right?

It's not. Celebrity presence in public policy is nothing more than an extension of a celebrity endorsement in marketing. It plays up to the arrogance that because an individual might be good at one thing (acting, modeling, singing), the same person must be good at anything else he tries (humanitarian "ambassador," fashion designer, artist, foreign affairs expert). Not so.

Having worked with one celebrity the night before she was going to Capitol Hill, I can tell you that my organization had to give the most basic facts of our issue (void of any nuance, complication, downside or basic math) that could be found in a Google search. (We also had to remind her of the official name of our organization because she kept screwing it up.) You'd think such scant preparation and involvement in a complicated issue would come to light on Capitol Hill. But it doesn't. Far too many legislators, staff, press, interns, etc. are more than satisfied by basking in this celebrity's presence that any tough questions, that a standard expert would get, are left unasked. Meeting this person is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so why screw that up by making it awkward?

The whole performance (and yes it is a performance) on Capitol Hill is the equivalent of trying to memorize an entire semester of knowledge the night before a final exam. Is that the information you want legislators to have to determine public policy that ultimately affects you? I should hope not.

But the lack of any direct dissent is exactly what advocates are counting on to get their message across unchallenged.

Many of critics remind me that if it weren't for people like George Clooney, no one in America would have even heard of Darfur or other struggling nations' challenges. True. Except celebrity advocacy rarely does any substantive good in the long-term. (I'd hate to think that George Clooney has to continually get arrested to maintain attention on Darfur.) If people are motivated to take action, it's little more than what is requested — opening a checkbook, writing Congress, etc. Yet hunger and poverty remain widespread in developing countries as they have done so in the last 50 years. Not much has changed sadly and the reasons are more political than anything else.

And as a staffer who has heard pleas for action, many people are just as uninformed about the issue as the participating celebrity. Whenever I mention funding challenges, complex foreign relations, trade issues, dictators, corrupt governments, logistics or even basic geography, I see eyes glaze over. And I think this is a person who barely cares beyond a self-righteous celebrity plea.

Celebrity advocacy is also destructive to an uninformed audience too. Much like the preparation the night before, complex global challenges are boiled down to a few talking points that grossly oversimplify the issue. That's largely why humanitarian aid groups see well-intentioned but thoughtless and ineffective philanthropy.

If Congress really wants to get to the heart of these issues, stick to the people who know their stuff — experts, researchers, humanitarian aid workers, refugees, and other people who see what's happening when cameras aren't around. Although those people won't draw a crowd, they are the ones who know the issue best and can truly break down why merely giving money, used clothing, and food to poor countries doesn't work and hasn't been working for several decades. Don't set the precedent that celebrities are welcome in Congress simply because they're famous.

Yes, the drawback is that most Americans won't care, but I'd rather have accurate, boring information available than reductive, sensationalist information that does more harm than good.

EDIT: Commenters are pointing out that Affleck has a better grasp of foreign affairs than most celebrities. That is true. However, this man intentionally disregarded two countries' roles in the Iran hostage crisis in the name of Oscar glory and fame. To put it another way, although he worked in the entertainment industry, he managed to piss of Canada and the United Kingdom with his work. If someone is going to such great lengths for selfish gain, then it's not a stretch to think he'd do the same in anything else he does, including Congressional testimony.