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Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2007

Spielberg as himself in China-lobby role

LOS ANGELES — Has the U.N. Security Council gone Hollywood? Suddenly it's all action on the Darfur, Sudan, nightmare. Maybe the United Nations got hit with a touch of " E.T."!

For years the U.N. basically sat on its hands as the fierce and unforgiving government in Khartoum relentlessly chopped up rebellious populations in Darfur like cattle into hamburgers. The accumulated body count is said to number well more than 200,000 — many of them civilians — with virtually no end to the carnage in sight.

Now there may be. Early last week, the Security Council authorized the gradual deployment of 26,000 U.N. troops, mostly from African nations, to Sudan to try to reverse the tide of violence. Troops alone are no magic bullet; the key to peace is a political deal between Khartoum and Darfur. But a start has now been made.

Several players behind the scenes contributed to the dramatic troop movement. One is Ban Ki Moon, the quiet but hardworking new U.N. secretary general. And certainly the decision by China, one of the Council's five veto-wielding permanent members, to back Ban was central.

Until recently, China has been imprisoned by its own near-hysterical obsession to meet the voracious energy needs of its economy and its 1.3 billion people. To stay on Sudan's good side as it became its No. 1 oil customer, China reiterated — again and again — its long-standing foreign-policy approach of "noninterference in the internal affairs of other states." In effect, Beijing's bottom line had been that Darfur was an issue for Khartoum and for no one else — and that everyone else should stay out of it.

Reasons why China decided to vote for U.N. troops could be numerous. The most entertaining one may be the entry center-stage of Hollywood super-talent — and superpower — Steven Spielberg, an artistic adviser for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

With fellow celebrities such as Mia Farrow, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon raising eyebrows over his role as an Olympics adviser even as China was in effect helping block outside intervention in Darfur, Spielberg finally sent off a carefully worked missive to none other than China's President Hu Jintao.

Referring to the World War II "genocide, which in Hebrew, we call the Shoah," Spielberg urged Hu, in the spirit of the Olympics, to embrace the "entrance of U.N. peacekeepers to protect the victims of genocide in Darfur."

China hopes for a highly successful summer Olympics — China's first ever. Hollywood wants the good feeling of being seen as a shining champion of fashionable human rights issues and other causes of current conscience.

Unlike some notable cause-shoppers, though, Spielberg does not ordinarily go in for lecturing sovereign states on the deficiencies of their policies. But as the prominent director of remarkable films like "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) and "Munich" (2005), Spielberg was under growing pressure from the Hollywood holier-than-thou crowd to speak out. In fact, Mia Farrow had even taken to calling Spielberg the "Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games."

If the acclaimed director had any reluctance about lecturing China in a public letter, it may have been due not to any failure of moral courage but rather to a welcome measure of self-reflection and necessary moral humility. After all, a number of past Spielberg films have been shot on locations where the morals of the political authorities could not be rated enormously superior to those of the Sudan government.

For example, the year 1983 in Sri Lanka saw the outbreak of a relentless bloody civil war on the island, but in 1984, there was Spielberg, undaunted, filming "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

Just two years before the 1989 Tiananmen Square tragedy (and many years after the brutal implementation of China's one-child per family policy), there was Spielberg again, blithely filming "Empire of the Sun" in Shanghai.

The year 1997 heralded another Spielberg moral doozy. Vieques Island in Puerto Rico was chosen as a location for the movie "Amistad," which plots a slave-boat mutiny. At the time of the filming, the Puerto Rican independence movement, which views the U.S. as a craven occupying colonial power, had been fighting to halt use of the island as a practice bombing target by the U.S military. But Spielberg went there anyway.

Of course, moral consistency is something found only in the movies. And Spielberg is anything but the most unctuous of Hollywood's human rights advocates (probably Richard Gere merits that award for his pet Tibet project). So the acclaimed director should not be condemned for grandstanding, and indeed the letter certainly added to the rapidly mounting pressure on China.

But it's hard to believe that this filmmaker of nuance — whose own "Munich" trafficked in shades of moral grays instead of simplistic blacks and whites — doesn't cringe when Hollywood celebs take the high moral line and start lecturing others about what is right and wrong.

Veteran U.S. journalist Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is an internationally syndicated columnist.

Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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