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Prof. Gopal on Celebrity Philanthropy

August 30, 2011

I just got around to reading this piece in the Guardian on Oprah Winfrey and celebrity philanthropy by South Asian professor Priyamvada Gopal.  I found her critique to be a bit too harsh.  Overall, I was discouraged that Prof. Gopal declined to acknowledge the importance of celebrity philanthropy in magnifying awareness of the causes it supports – even if the motives of the celebrity could be questioned.

Prof. Gopal’s main critique seems to be that “billionaire benevolence is closely tied to the big neoliberal political manoeuvres of our time,” or that celebrities give away money within a capitalist framework from which they stand to gain a lot.  Sure – but isn’t that true of all billionaires?  What is the alternative?  Limiting philanthropy towards a more socialist state?  I’m not sure that’s a realistic option in our times, and I don’t know that it would help the people that Prof. Gopal professes to care about.

We all know Oprah uses her own inspirational story of ‘pulling herself up by her bootstraps’ as a model for all – it may be unrealistic, but it’s her model of philanthropy, and she has done some impressive work based on that model.  For example, I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by the celebration of the ‘Morehouse Men’ supported by Oprah’s scholarships during the finale of her show.

I can be as cynical as the best of them sometimes, but on this one, I side with those celebrities and billionaires that put their money where their mouths are – Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey – pledging huge amounts of money for change instead of sitting on their wealth and ignoring the needs of so many.

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