Actor Mark Ruffalo (he plays the Hulk in The Avengers movies, but it wasn’t because of that role) was invited to testify before Congress last year on public policy involving public health, chemistry, toxicology, and epidemiology. He has no expertise in these areas at all. The reason was that he starred in “Dark Waters,” which I wrote about here.
Ruffalo is a 9/11 truther, believing that the U.S. government helped destroy the World Trade Center. That would be enough for me to ding him as an authority on anything, but he has embraced other conspiracy theories as well, like this one.
Never mind: he was presented to the public as an authority on pollution whose opinions on environmental matters have weight. The don’t, and they shouldn’t.
This is a repeat offense. Members of Congress are addicted to the unprofessional and insulting stunt of inviting actors and performers to testify as substantive witnesses on topics that they acted about in movies. As a professional director, I can state with absolute certainty that if an actor is really an expert in something their character was supposed to experience or know something about, 1) that actor is very unusual, and 2) there will still be thousands of real authorities who know a lot more.
Nevertheless, Congress keeps doing this, apparently believing that the public is so naive and gullible that they really believe that because a performer credibly pretends to know what a script-writer prepares to make them sound like the know, they really are experts. Sadly, a lot of the public does believe that. (More sadly, a lot of actors do too)
Sometimes, just being a celebrity activist is enough. Back in 1989, Meryl Streep was invited to testify about the dangers of pesticides. The actress knew no more about the subject than anyone who read general consumption articles on the topic. She’s not a scientist, and her activism regarding pesticides is essentially a hobby. She has no scientific training or education; she acted her way through college, went right into the Yale Drama School, and never looked back. She can, however, act like she knows more than she does. This makes her a powerful, if misleading witness. (Ruffalo’s testimony was called “powerful”)
The Congressional Hearings Digital Collection: Famous (Celebrity) Witnesses goes out of its way not to list all of the most dubious examples of this phenomenon (though you can search for them). For example, Streep doesn’t make its list of samples. Many celebrity witnesses do have legitimate reasons to testify, at least in theory: I do not quibble with calling Michael J. Fox to testify about the need for Parkinson’s disease research, for example. Charlton Heston was head of the NRA when he testified at a 1998 hearing on “Whose Right To Keep and Bear Arms? The Second Amendment As a Source of Individual Rights.”
However, look at these:
- Chevy Chase: 2007 hearing “Using School Wellness Plans To Help Fight Childhood Obesity.”
- Stephen Colbert: 2010 hearing “Protecting America’s Harvest.”
- Kevin Costner: 2010 hearing, “Deluge of Oil Highlights Research and Technology Needs for Effective Cleanup of Oil Spills” The first of three times he testified in 2010.
- Isaac Hayes: 2001 hearing “Religious Discrimination in Western Europe.”
- Kevin Kline: Cloning, 2002, Special Hearings
- Dennis Quaid: 2008 hearing, “Should FDA Drug and Medical Device Regulation Bar State Liability Claims?”
- Robert Redford:1989 hearing “Global Warming and Its Implications for California.
Yes, apparently they cloned Kevin Klein.
Oh! I almost forgot! Elmo testified in 2002 …
…for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations for 2003. Part 7A: Testimony of Members of Congress and Other Interested Individuals and Organizations. He’s listed in the data base as “Elmo (Monster).”
When Colbert testified in 2010, I wrote,
It doesn’t matter what half-baked, foolish logic led to the idea of Colbert testifying: it is disrespectful to those on both sides of a serious and divisive issue, degrading to the nation and insulting to the public. (I would say that it debases the House, but that is obviously impossible). My guess is that Democrats think that a comedian mocking conservative positions regarding illegal immigration—not that it makes any sense at all that requiring immigrants to obey immigration laws is regarded as a “conservative” position—will amuse and satisfy their open-borders base. That does not justify turning Congress into a cheap comedy club…
And they wonder why respect for Congress is at an all-time low! If Colbert is as smart as I thought he was, he won’t risk his own credibility by getting involved with this irresponsible, shameless, silly group of elected buffoons.
Well, he wasn’t as smart as I thought he was. Colbert “testified” (that is, performed), as Lofgren sat with an idiotic grin on her face, and several members on the Committee asked the comedian questions that indicated that they thought he was serious. Then, incredibly, when the stunt was criticized, Stenny Hoyer blamed Colbert! I wrote after that,
Anyone who is not depressed and angered by this stunt had given up hope before it happened. It is absurd to blame Stephen Colbert: he was doing his job, which is to be messenger of satire, and to promote his program. It was Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi’s party, and the U.S. Congress, that abdicated their duty and made representative democracy a joke. No American should forgive this, even if the Democrats had the sense to apologize. As Hoyer demonstrated, however (and Pelosi, whose cretinous comment was, “I think it’s great!”), they can’t even muster the class and common sense to do that.
It’s all very depressing.