Bullhorn: Gaga for Gaga

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Jami Floyd

It seems music is not enough to satisfy the appetites of Lady Gaga.  Now the Diva of Pop is wading into politics, specifically on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. First, there was her impassioned plea to the King of Talk . Then she took her message directly to the Senate switchboard.  

Then, she popped up at a Maine rally this week to target the state’s key swing Republicans as the Senate prepared for its test vote. She doesn't want her Little Monsters (as her most devoted fans are known) to stop calling their senators, until DADT, goes down.

But Gaga isn't the only celebrity caught up in the Bad Romance between celebrity and policy.  

Coming this October: The Million Moderate March, led by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. This, in response to the Restoring Honor Rally inflicted upon us last August by none other than Glenn Beck. 

While some of us remain acutely aware that these folks are comedians, engaged in a satirical duel, millions of Americans seem to have forgotten that Stewart and Colbert (the moderates) and Beck (on the right) are not journalists, activists or politicians. They make their millions by making fun of the political system. Which is okay, to a point -- the point of confusion.

Beck is most guilty of blurring the line between serious editorial and entertainment.

He is quick to tell his viewers, "Now remember, I am not a journalist." Yet, his show airs on the Fox News Channel, which purports to be “Fair and Balanced.” Beck claims he is not a politician. Yet Sarah Palin and others have hinted at a Palin/Beck (Beck/Palin?) ticket in 2012. And what is Glenn Beck's Common Sense, published last year, if not a political polemic?

Comedy Central, to its credit, does not hold itself out as a news organization. Despite this, many Americans, especially young Americans, turn to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, instead of traditional sources for their news. And while it is true that, when compared to network news outlets (of which this writer is a veteran), “comedy news” often offers a broader range of topics, greater context, more objectivity, and encourages critical thinking, in the end, it is comedy.  It is not news.  

For his own part, Jon Stewart told New York magazine in the latest issue, “I think comedy is harder than what they do. We have to process things in a manner that’s more thoughtful.”  Even assuming he’s right (a debate for another day), I think we can all agree that not all entertainers take the business of entertainment as seriously as he does.  

And so, while Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity may have more purpose than just good fun, we've got a problem in America if we take our entertainers more seriously than our more serious thinkers, like our president, whose poll numbers seem to fade as does his celebrity luster.

Don't get me wrong. We certainly should appreciate the satire -- the cynicism even -- as healthy for our democracy. After all, Stewart's viewers are engaged on some level. They are not completely disengaged from the political process. The same can be said of Beck's followers. And if Gaga’s Little Monsters pick up the phone and call their senators, whatever their motivation, at least they are dialing into the process.

The question is whether we are engaged enough. Is it enough to watch The Daily Show? To really get the joke, don’t we have to get fully informed? Is Gaga's YouTube video really a primer on the complicated and longstanding policy surrounding DADT?  

Don't get me wrong. I applaud Madonna for her early work on AIDS, long before it was a popular cause, and George Clooney for using his mega star wattage to raise millions on behalf of Darfur , and Leonardo DiCaprio for starting his own ecological foundation, and then there's Bono.  Don’t forget Bono. The man has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize and has worked for everyone from Amnesty International to Greenpeace. Who can quibble with that?

Celebrities are to be commended, not condemned for their courage, when certainly to remain quiet is a safer bet than to risk fame and fortune on controversial causes. I don't question them, but I question us.  

Why do we only wake up to the genocide in Congo when Clooney is calling?  Why do we need MTV to tell us to go vote? 

After the latest Gaga video posted, I received a call of my own, not from Clooney or Gaga, of course, but from one of those cable news outlets struggling to win over some of Stewart's viewers and asking for comment about the “new phenomenon” of celebrities taking on political causes. 

Not new.  Not really. Bob Dylan, anyone?  Dylan, after all, was at the original march –- the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.  The first album I ever bought – on Bleeker street for 25 cents -- was The Times They Are a Changin’.

And Dylan wasn't alone. Joan Baez led the masses in verses of We Shall Overcome. Peter Paul and Mary were there too. And Mahalia Jackson. Marion Anderson sang the National Anthem.

And the list of activist celebrities goes on. Harry Belafonte.   Lena Horne.  And who can forget Cassius Clay famously refusing to enlist in the US armed forces to fight in Vietnam? 

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

Celebrities have long risked recording contracts, movie deals or, in some cases, their entire careers, for causes they believed in.  

But, back in the day, the celebs and their causes were but a gateway to our compassion -- not the source. And We The People didn’t follow the star map to the point of forgetting who our real sources of real information were; and we did not confuse Harry Belafonte with Dr. King or celebrity with leadership. 

If, for a minute, you think my concern, in the modern context, is misplaced, I have two words for you: Sarah Palin. The Palin phenomenon demonstrates quite clearly, the clear confusion between star power and substance.

So how did we get here? Why are we so confused?  Many reasons.  But first and foremost: We lost our filter. 

It is a fair bet that Walter Cronkite would not have interviewed Marilyn Monroe for her views on desegregation of the armed forces. Yet, the Internet gives Lady Gaga (and anyone else, for that matter) the ability to speak to millions on issues of great import – issues about which she may feel passionately, but be completely lacking in the policy expertise necessary to guide her passion.

Then, in an instant, her message is posted, unfiltered, unchecked, unbalanced.

It is left to us, therefore, the consumers of information, to edit the information, to filter for ourselves.  We always had this responsibility, of course. But never was there so much information, so quickly distributed, with no filter whatsoever.

So march behind them, if you will. Celebrities may have something to say, but not just because they are famous. Most are not leaders. They are just people with a platform by virtue of their talent. To expect them to have an expertise beyond their craft may prove foolish folly; and to look to them for true leadership is to risk becoming a shallow, leaderless society.