Mr. Affleck goes to Washington

ImageForeign Policy broke the story earlier this week that actor/director/Mr. Jennifer Garner/honorary-Ivy-Leaguer Ben Affleck is scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Congo on Wednesday.

And while young staffers and interns are positively brimming with excitement, not everyone is thrilled that Affleck is going to be walking the hallowed halls of the Senate office buildings.

He’s part of the worldly-actor trio (which includes George Clooney and Matt Damon) who have garnered (pun intended) a great deal of attention for humanitarian issues. Critics think that celebrities advocating on the Hill are a mere distraction and a ploy for politicians to stroke their own egos by summoning Hollywood’s biggest and best.

There are two major factors that critics are pointing to when dismissing Affleck’s legitimacy as an expert witness on the Congo. 1) He’s an actor, and 2) he directed a movie – Argo – that misrepresented the role that foreign governments played in helping six American diplomats escape from Iran unharmed during the hostage crisis.

First of all, just because you’re an actor doesn’t mean you’re an uneducated dimwit. Affleck may not have graduated from college, but he’s been publicly discussing issues related to the Congo for years. He even co-founded the Eastern Congo Initiative, an American non-profit that tackles humanitarian issues in the Congo, back in 2010. The ECI not only advocates on behalf of people from that region, but also supplies grants to local organizations to help victims of sexual violence, to help provide children with healthcare, and to facilitate peace amongst communities.

Second of all, Argo wasn’t a documentary. It was a scripted movie, and Affleck didn’t even write the script. While it was wrong for him to not at least draw attention to the fact that certain key facts were changed for the sake of storytelling, it’s not a reason to discredit him from talking about a foreign policy issue ever again.

Affleck’s creation and support of ECI doesn’t make him the leading expert on the Congo by any means. There are scholars and practitioners who’ve been studying this conflict day in and day out for several years. And those experts will be testifying before the Committee, too. They can call out Affleck if he says something wrong or stupid. The Committee isn’t just going to take what Affleck says and blindly follow his policy suggestions. His testimony, along with the other expert witnesses’ testimonies, will be taken into consideration. 

But Affleck’s presence will be enough to get a great deal of media coverage, and in turn, a great deal of public knowledge about an issue that may have otherwise gone relatively unnoticed outside of the human rights’ community. The average American probably has no idea how many hearings take place on Capitol Hill, let alone the issues that are being discussed. Most people probably know nothing about the issues the Congo is facing, but maybe this hearing will capture their attention. Sure, there’s fan fare. Sure, the media is only hyping this up because an Oscar winner is showing up. But is that so bad as long as it draws awareness to the plight of the people suffering in the Congo?

Also, I hate to break it to you, but the testimony offered by these folks – even the scholars – isn’t always revolutionary or particularly high-brow. Nor is it coming directly from their own knowledge. They all have talking points, regardless of whether they are a famous actor or the head of an international think tank. About half of their testimony is pre-written and vetted by their own advisers prior to stepping foot inside the room. All of the experts are prepped. Affleck will be no different.

One of the more interesting aspects of the attack on Affleck’s Senate appearance is the way certain news outlets have reported it. The Washington Post insinuated that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s sister committee in the House of Representatives refused to let Affleck testify on the same issue because a source quoted “The meeting would be inappropriate given the wide offering of other experts available to speak on the issue.” What the Post failed to explain, but Foreign Policy did explain, was that the source was actually an aide to a Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – and that Republicans may have simply refused to allow Affleck to testify based on clashing “philosophical” views.

Politics. It’s all politics.

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