National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling. Evoking the name of this young Academy Award nominee has presumably increased the readership of this column by about ten-fold.

That’s the thing about “celebrity.” They love it everywhere, and Washington, D.C. is certainly no exception. Gosling’s inclusion on a panel on Capitol Hill Tuesday guaranteed a room jammed with young, star-struck Congressional staffers, a slim majority being women.

I have no problem with this. I’ve considered Gosling a significant acting talent for years. He is smart, edgy, into indie films, and he was very articulate and poetic in his remarks Tuesday.

Still, I am tempted to pontificate about the less than flattering implications for human nature of this “celebrity” obsession, but that would be a digression.        Better just to suggest that if you have it, use it!

At Tuesday’s forum, the moderator didn’t try to hide the obvious. When introducing Gosling, who was apparently minimizing his celebrity appeal by sporting a full beard, she said, “Now, for the real reason you’ve all come here. Come on, ladies, admit it!”

Gosling was humble and authentic in what he said, talking about a trip to Uganda earlier this spring. But he couldn’t deny the extent to which the impact he had there, at another standing-room-only event in D.C. the day before, and in a day of meetings at Congressional offices, was based on being a movie star.

It’s a tribute to Hollywood’s enormous power and potential to have a transforming effect on society and conditions around the globe. It may be that smart, effective, gutsy and compassionate voices out of Hollywood are replacing a stogy, lazy and “bought” media as the real “Fourth Estate” conscience of the nation. Hollywood may be the only institution really capable of rivaling the political powers that be.

 Gosling accepted an invitation to visit Uganda in April as the guest of John Prendergast, co-founder of ENOUGH, one of four groups who collaborated on Tuesday’s forum to call attention to the plight of 1.5 million Ugandans trapped in “displacement camps” in Northern Uganda.

Their point? With nascent peace talks underway that could bring an end to those conditions, they’re appealing to the U.S. government to add the weight of its credibility to the process. “We are asking for one senior U.S. diplomat to be redeployed to sit in on these talks. The result will be decisive,” said Gosling. Prendergast, Betty Bigombe of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Hollywood actress Melissa Fitzgerald, Laren Poole of Invisible Children and Michael Poffenberger of Resolve Uganda all made the same point.

Prendergast, with a background in the White House and State Department during the Clinton administration, stressed that the issue is bi-partisan, noting that for the last 20 years of war in the Sudan spilling over into Uganda, no U.S. administration, Republican or Democratic, has sent a special envoy to the region. “This is a national, bi-partisan embarrassment,” he said.

If the current talks fail, he added, it will undermine the fragile peace deal between the north and south in Sudan. “The government in Khartoum is keeping the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army alive to intervene if developments in the south of Sudan don’t go its way,” he said.

But the real issue there is the human element, the horrific, unsanitary conditions in the camps. Gosling said, “I visited the refugee camps. I saw 40,000 in one, filled with kids with nothing to do but grow up and die there. They looked at me hoping I could help them. But I couldn’t tell them that I am only an actor, that I pretend to be the people you think I am.

“I had an instinct to protect them, but didn’t know what to do. There are boys there more men than I will ever be. Standing in front of those kids, I felt completely helpless. Everything you hear about conditions in those camps is true. They live so close together that if one gets sick, they all get sick.

“So I have come to Washington for the first time in my life,” he said. Seeing the room packed with Congressional staffers, he said, “You are so young, and you seem to run this joint. All the older people we’ve met with seem to defer to you with questions. You fill me with hope.

“We have the power to get them out of this,” he went on. “If those people knew you are here, considering and respecting them as human beings, they would be deeply moved.”   

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