George Clooney Gets It Right on Celebrities and Politics

George Clooney was the actor who irritated me most in 2011: I thought The Descendants was a less-revealing-than-it-thought-it-was celebration of rich people, and the Ides of March fundamentally misunderstood the dynamics of politics, and was weirdly smug about that ignorance. But I think he gets something important right about celebrities who want to speak out about politics in this week’s issue of The Hollywood Reporter:

Through the years, he says he has learned to think carefully before he speaks out on issues, but that makes his commitment to some causes all the more courageous. His criticism of the war in Iraq made him a highly controversial figure in the early 2000s. “They did a half-hour show on Fox saying my career was over, and there was a cover of one of those magazines with the word ‘traitor’ written on it, and the White House was passing out a deck of weasels and I was on one of the cards,” he recalls. After initial anger, there was a brief moment when he felt afraid. “I called my dad and said, ‘Am I in trouble?’ And he said, ‘Grow up. You’ve got money. You’ve got a job. You can’t demand freedom of speech and then say, “But don’t say bad things about me.” ‘ And he was right.”

Even more precisely, I think it’s that you can’t expect both that your endorsement of a cause or position will mean something and then also expect that people will not react to that endorsement as if it carries weight. I don’t think that the only way for artists to be of service to their politics is for them to validate politicians and policies with their constituencies—they have independent ideas to offer about framing and policy. But recognizing, when you have a lot of power, that you speak from a privileged position, is always smart and classy.