Monday, May 5, 2008

This Season's Atrocity

"'Hitler is alive in Burma' reads the words scrawled on a cardboard sign, held aloft by a sweet-faced Ellen Page, the 'Juno' star, in a 90-second human-rights public awareness message that began showing on video-sharing Web sites last week."

So began a recent New York Times piece about yet another Hollywood celeb concern, this time, human rights in Burma. The Burmese Hitler is played by Gen. Than Shwe, the latest but not last Hitler that we'll see, depending on geopolitical or pressure group need. That "Juno's" lovable homeskillet Page probably had no idea who Than Shwe was before the PSA was shot is not important. She's a hot item, and as Jack Healy of the Human Rights Action Center put it, “you have to ‘brand’ it up. It’s the nature of the business now.”

Human rights as Cocoa Puffs, Burger King, and Sunny D., to keep it on the same Page. What better emblem for a dying, erratic empire. Even its humanitarians are scrambling for market share and prominent product placement.

As the Times reports, concern for Burma (or Myanmar, depending on taste) is among the "A-list activist causes, along with Tibet and Darfur," and thus attracts those A-list, and lower letter, celebrities who want to be seen as "concerned" or perhaps "outraged" by the human misery in the aforementioned countries. There's a good reason why the likes of George Clooney, Will Ferrell, and Jennifer Aniston are shedding public tears for Burma, Tibet, and Darfur: it's politically safe and no threat to their careers; plus, it makes them appear humane, an added PR asset in a culture that loves to flaunt "decency" and "goodness," so long as it doesn't interfere with normal business operations.

But what if these enlightened celebs were asked to promote human rights in, say, the Occupied Territories? How many would rush forward, photos of Israeli tanks demolishing Palestinian homes in hand, and denounce starvation and death in Gaza? I'll crawl out on a frail limb here and guess zero. Okay, maybe Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and I'll toss in Danny Glover as well. But I can't think of many more who would dare portray Palestinians as human rights victims worthy of immediate support and solidarity, while excoriating the Israeli state for its ongoing strangulation of Gaza and continued building of West Bank settlements. There's also the minor fact that as American taxpayers, Hollywood celebs directly finance these atrocities, and so are more responsible for what they subsidize than what is fashionable in a PSA.

I know -- pie in the exploding sky. Wake me when George Clooney narrates a documentary about the reality of Palestinian suffering.

Later in the same Times piece, Jeremy Woodrum, a founder of U.S. Campaign for Burma, emphasized the unique severity of human rights abuses in that country. “When you’re talking about 3,200 villages destroyed and a million and a half refugees, I mean, that’s not everywhere.”

Again, the Palestinian experience could be mentioned here. But I'm thinking also about what happened in Turkish Kurdistan in the early 90s, where over 3,000 villages were wiped out, 2-3 million refugees created, and over 30,000 Kurds killed. I don't recall much celebrity-related concern about that human rights nightmare, financed by American taxpayers and carried out by a NATO ally. But then, it was Bill Clinton who made sure that the Turkish military had all the weapons it needed for these operations, and Hollywood looooved Bill Clinton. Plus, Ellen Page was only 7- or 8-years-old at the time. Turkey's Kurds picked the wrong period to be massacred, but their loss is Burma's gain, so it all evens out.

The Save Burma crowd is really gonna have its hands full after a deadly cyclone reportedly killed some 4,000 residents over the weekend, with a higher body count sure to follow. Military dictatorship (kept in place by China and Western oil concerns like Chevron and Total), a devastating storm, and air-brushed Hollywood A-Listers crying on cue: the Burmese people are getting it from all sides. It's a tragic situation, one of countless tragic situations on the planet. They are clearly in need of help and solidarity, but in the spirit of Hollywood's efforts, I think we should also name the cyclone that ravaged Burma "Hitler." It will help the public grasp what's going on and keep Ellen Page in the picture. "This is one doodle that can be undid." With your generous contributions, of course.