Charity becoming political football

In a campaign year, even doing good can be risky

Veterans of Hollywood grow accustomed to the time each year when charity dinners bloom. Beyond plates of chicken, there’s the joy of seeing humanitarian activists or groundbreaking medical researchers honored alongside someone who greenlights sitcoms, whose presence is counted upon to put wealthy butts in seats.

Admittedly, there’s a social and networking element to showbiz philanthropy that lends itself to parody — most recently in the Showtime series “Episodes,” a broad spoof of Hollywood conventions. There’s also plenty of ego-stroking of the Imax-sized variety.

That said, garnering attention and money for deserving causes is among the genuinely good things Hollywood does — a case of those with ostentatious salaries putting their money where their mouths are. It’s a sign of the times, however, that even this has become politicized thanks to those who resent the town’s reputation for liberal politics, inasmuch as raising money for charity ought to be one area where they broadly agree.

For starters, let’s stipulate that philanthropy is invariably political. Whatever one chooses to support — from inner-city schools to ending hunger in Africa — is an implicit critique about government not doing enough in regard to assistance in those areas.

At the same time, there’s something inherently conservative about stars and executives using their clout to champion private fundraising. For those who argue about the dangers of a nanny state, such endeavors represent the pursuit of private solutions to difficult problems.

A polarized climate has nevertheless made the causes people choose to support more political — or rather, narrowed the spectrum of areas unlikely to produce some form of blowback.

People can generally agree on opposing genocide in Africa, or affordable housing. Planned Parenthood, by contrast, has become a lightning rod, because its women’s health services include abortion, just as protecting the environment is now a target for conservatives who view the issue of climate science as tree-hugger-fabricated hysteria.

The relationship between celebrities and charity can be particularly thorny, given the understandable cynicism surrounding the preoccupation with image. Obviously, appearing to give back can soften perceptions of a star — deflecting emphasis, if only temporarily, from what they’re wearing and who they’re screwing.

That said, much of the humanitarian work undertaken by actors, musicians and other public figures in the arts goes well beyond that — leveraging their fame to draw attention to, and raise significant amounts for, causes to which the media often turns a blind eye.

Whether it’s George Clooney and Mia Farrow highlighting the situation in Darfur, or Brad Pitt and Sean Penn’s work in New Orleans, these are people clearly getting their hands dirty — including Clooney’s arrest earlier this year, along with his 78-year-old father Nick, outside the Sudanese embassy.

Critics throw around the pejorative term “limousine liberal,” which implies viewing the chaos from a bubble. Yet many of these actors and musicians have placed themselves in the thick of things. And while they surely win admiration in some constituencies for their efforts, they can easily alienate others, which, depending on the beneficiary, expends public-relations capital and introduces an element of professional risk to their charitable works.

Perhaps the most tired canard singles out bad personal behavior or private lapses to invalidate celebrities’ pet projects. Yet it’s possible to be both a lousy husband and concerned citizen. One just happens to benefit tabloid magazines, while the other assists the needy.

Hollywood’s politics are clearly fair game — including fundraising on behalf of Democrats in this campaign year — and those entering the public square should be treated accordingly. One can also rightly question why the media is so eager to provide celebrities with forums generally outside their area of expertise, though it’s hard to blame public figures for trying to use the opportunity to utter something more than the customary banal platitudes.

There’s plenty of pettiness and venality in Hollywood for which its brightest lights can be taken to task. It says something about the vitriolic nature of the current climate, however, when even charitable giving — one of the town’s most admirable indulgences — is no longer immune to mixed reviews.

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