Lots of people act well, but few people talk well. This shows that talking is the more difficult of the two. - Oscar Wilde
The Founding Fathers thought that by banning titles of nobility in the United States, they could ensure that the only differences between people would be those arising from differences in natural ability, wealth and the like. Unfortunately, they could not have predicted the invention of telecommunications and the rise of that peculiar phenomenon which originated in the United States but has now infected the rest of the world: the celebrity. Daniel Boorstin, in his 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, defined a celebrity as one who “is known for his well-knownness”; this is usually paraphrased as “famous for being famous.” Celebrities are a sort of modern nobility, people who are given respect and even power far out of proportion to anything they might have earned had they not appeared in a movie or on television.
I couldn’t help but think about this a couple of days ago when Laura Agustín was interviewed in a shamefully-underexposed (judging by the lack of commentary) column on Huffington Post about her participation in a BBC-sponsored “debate” at the recent “End Human Trafficking” event in Egypt. I put “debate” in quotes because it was a debate in name only; Laura alone was pitted against the head of Interpol, an ex-victim of trafficking, a guy who personally “rescues sex slaves” and an actress named Mira Sorvino. In the interview, Laura said:
It was an incredibly stacked deck, four against one, so it was never going to be a real debate. But I went for the chance to reach the television audience. The BBC World Service is a 24-hour international news channel watched all over the planet, so in my head I was reaching people interested in trafficking issues anywhere who might have doubts about the way trafficking is usually talked about… I try to break down these huge generalizations. Some people are working in conditions that look like traditional slavery, but a lot are undocumented migrants with debts to pay, workers under the age of 18 and people who would rather sell sex than do any of the other jobs open to them. People who say there are 30 million slaves in the world are including all those and many more.
Now, I don’t watch television nor see very many movies, so when I read this column I had no idea who Mira Sorvino is besides the contextual revelation that she is a film actress. So I looked her up on the IMDb and discovered that her only characteristics which might be considered related to the subjects of prostitution and/or human trafficking are that she has a degree in Mandarin Chinese, wrote a highly-lauded paper on race relations in China and played a hooker in the Woody Allen movie Mighty Aphrodite; the last fact irresistibly reminded me of the much-ridiculed American television commercial of the 1980s in which an actor intoned in all seriousness, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” as though that made him a medical authority. But her fame was apparently more important to the UN and BBC than her lack of credentials, because she was not only invited to participate in the debate but allowed to take it upon herself to “back-seat moderate” as well, which is rather like someone acting as both judge and prosecutor:
I am not sure she understands that she’s allied with abolitionists. I had only spoken a few times when she began waving her hand to get the moderator’s attention. She demanded to know what I was doing there, why I was being allowed to speak. She seemed to think she could over-ride the BBC. I don’t mind people having different ideas from mine but implying I don’t have the right to speak? [The BBC Moderator] asked me if I wanted to respond, so I said in the British tradition debate means dissent, and the BBC invited me because I have a different point of view. Sorvino came across as wanting to censor me, which is shocking in a ‘goodwill ambassador’, isn’t it? I don’t know quite what they are supposed to do, but acting outraged every time I spoke, keeping up a running commentary to people near her (including Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore), is certainly not ambassadorial.
The audience’s response?
People applauded, as though attacking me were a heroic act. Someone heard her use the term ‘holocaust denier’, too…I think the event participants did not understand what the BBC was doing there and thought the panel should be just stating conclusions. Maybe they thought the BBC was there to cover the event! But that would be weird, since such go on all the time — they are hardly newsworthy. Someone had not explained, and they took it out on me just because I questioned some of the statements made.
My only commentary on this would be to mention Godwin’s Law, and to quote Laura Agustín herself: “Beware movie stars who see themselves as crusaders.” I’ve opined before (in my column of October 20th) that what the sex worker rights movement needs is “a bunch of empty-headed Hollywood stars who are looking for a new cause to adopt…[because] in the minds of the hoi-polloi, the opinion of one celebrity who knows nothing about the subject is worth the life-experiences of a thousand veteran whores”; obviously, Mira Sorvino, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher need not apply.
But perhaps we could try Arnold Schwarzenegger; he’s European, highly charismatic, politically involved and looking for a new gig now that his tenure as Governor of California is over. And he has recently shown at least some sympathy for prostitutes; regular readers may remember the story of Sara Kruzan, an underage hooker who was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing her pimp and was until recently all but ignored by trafficking fetishists. Well, earlier this week her sentence was reduced by Schwarzenegger in one of his last actions as governor. The Arnold stopped short of a full pardon, but his action will at least allow Miss Kruzan to be paroled. Maybe SWOP needs to start aggressively wooing him as a spokesman; can’t you just see it? “Terminate laws against prostitution now!” After all, he’s almost as much a subject-matter expert as Mira Sorvino; he’s never played a whore, but he did play a pregnant man once.