Can Batman Save Congo?
Ben Affleck as an expert witness might be the least of the problems at a Congressional hearing
Nicole Kidman has done it. So has George Clooney. And Julia Roberts, too. Celebrities are regular guests at U.S. Congressional hearings. Now the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs has scheduled a hearing on the security situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo—and future Batman actor Ben Affleck is listed as one of four witnesses.
The announcement generated some emotional commentary on Twitter and blogs.
Inviting Affleck has rubbed many people who care about the Congo the wrong way, especially because not a single Congolese is invited. It smacks of a cheap publicity stunt. But in truth it’s almost certain that nothing meaningful will come of the hearing—and this is not Affleck’s fault.
Getting celebrity activism right
Despite what you may read on Twitter, Ben Affleck is actually pretty knowledgeable about the Congo. He founded the NGO Eastern Congo Initiative. He has been to the region several times.
Of course, photo-ops in war zones don’t make you an expert, but at least two actual experts contacted by War is Boring both give Ben Affleck high marks for his engagement.
Kate Cronin-Furman, editor of the Wronging Rights blog and a PhD candidate researching justice and accountability after mass atrocities argues that Affleck is “the rare celebrity who has gotten involved in advocacy in a careful, productive way. He educated himself on the issues, hired good people on the ground and doesn’t run his mouth on stuff he doesn't know about.”
Cronin-Furman is normally one of the snarkiest commentators on the Internet when it comes to misguided policies on mass-atrocity prevention. Her endorsement carries some weight.
Laura Seay, assistant professor at Colby College with extensive research experience in eastern Congo, agrees in an email to War is Boring. “Those criticizing Affleck would be well advised to view his testimony from two previous times he testified about the DRC before Congress.”
“What we see in that testimony is someone who clearly understands the issues at hand, who has a smart staff that has briefed him well and, more importantly,” Seay adds, “who isn’t afraid to admit when he doesn’t know the answer to a question.”
The problem, Seay argues, isn’t Affleck but the hearings themselves. “Congressional hearings have very little impact on the direction U.S. policy takes on most issues,” Seay says. “Most members of Congress have made up their minds prior to most hearings and little can be said in these fora that will change those views.”
“Hearings are mostly for show,” she continues. “They make Congress appear to be ‘doing something’ without actually accomplishing anything.”
Witnesses get invited because they’ll support a certain party line … or simply because they’re available. Since committees seldom have the funds to pay the travel costs of witnesses, hearings tend to be filled with D.C.-based professionals, Seay says.
When it comes to Africa, “there are very few members of Congress or staff who have any meaningful knowledge,” Seay points out. Many so-called “experts” have never actually been to the countries they talk about in hearings, she claims.
This is also the reason that no Congolese will be present. Congress won’t pay for the plane ticket and other organizations know that the cost is not worth it, because the hearing won’t change policy.
Getting Ben Affleck as a Congo expert is actually an improvement over the normal state of affairs for Congress. He’s unlikely to say anything extraordinarily stupid—and he has already fueled more interest in the hearing than any other expert could.