Does it take a celebrity to speak for the majority of Americans?
Oscar-winning actor Matt Damon has been in the news quite a bit lately, and it’s not because he’s promoting a new movie. Damon, who is low-key about his personal life, comes on strong when he’s passionate about a political issue or a philanthropic cause. He has lit up the blogosphere, YouTube, print media and even late night television with his recent, high profile interviews on his philanthropy, Water.org, and his opinions on the state of education in the U.S. today and the recent U.S. debt agreement.
How much weight should we give celebrity opinions? People (and especially children and teens) are often swayed by celebrity endorsements and strive to emulate them, so when celebrities talk, many people listen. As a society, we eat up what they are wearing, what they are doing and who they are doing it with. Sometimes that means we are treated to diatribes about tiger’s blood, an episode of couch-jumping, or homophobic jokes during a stand up comedy act.
Celebrities don’t have to worry about being re-elected; they can simply say what they believe, whatever that may be. Damon’s opinions have gotten so much attention that outspoken Democrat Michael Moore has commented that he should run for president.
The July/August issue of Fast Company profiled Damon and the nonprofit organization Water.org that he co-founded with Gary White. Water.org is working towards providing safe drinking water to people in developing countries. Ellen McGirt described Damon’s immersive involvement in the organization as far and above the level of normal celebrity cause spokesperson. Damon has turned himself into a “development expert.” McGirt explains that, among other things, Damon can talk knowledgeably about microfinance with rural bankers, give reports from the field at the annual Clinton Global Initiative, and has personally thanked donors like Pepsi’s Indira Nooyi. Damon has also put in the time researching, studying and listening to experts in the field and visiting the very people it affects. This has garnered him a level of quiet respect.
Damon has been in the spotlight before for his opinion. A staunch Democrat, he supported President Obama during his campaign, but recently professed his disappointment in Obama’s handling of some key issues, including education, the Afghanistan exit strategy, and the Wall Street crisis. “I no longer hope for audacity,” he told Piers Morgan in a March 2011 appearance on his show.
On July 30, Damon gave an inspiring speech during the Save Our Schools march in Washington D.C. referencing his mother, a professor of early childhood education, and his public school education growing up. He described how he learned because he wasn’t taught to perform well on a standardized test, but was taught by teachers who were “empowered to teach.”
“This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.
So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything, please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.”
Following this speech, a journalist and cameraman baited Damon and his mother, saying that teachers needed incentive to put in effort and that ten percent of all teachers were probably bad. Damon shot back, “Ok, but maybe you’re a shitty cameraman.”
Soon afterward, Damon was back in the news after the debt crisis was resolved, voicing his disappointment with the result.
“The wealthy are paying less than they paid at any time else, certainly in my lifetime, and probably in the last century,” he said. “I don’t know what we were paying in the roaring 20’s; it’s criminal that so little is asked of people who are getting so much. I don’t mind paying more. I really don’t mind paying more taxes. I’d rather pay for taxes than cut ‘Reading is Fundamental’ or Head Start or some of these programs that are really helping kids. This is the greatest country in the world; is it really that much worse if you pay 6% more in taxes? Give me a break. Look at what you get for it: you get to be American.”
Is Damon a rich celebrity? Yes. Should his opinion mean more because he has a high profile? Maybe not, but in a time when people who aren’t lobbyists or wealthy donors have a hard time being heard by those in government who are supposed to represent their interests, it’s what we’ve got.