It is customary to be dismissive of celebrities when they use their bully pulpits to promote certain causes, especially those with political implications. But say what you will about Angelina Jolie, the actress, she should be admired for taking advantage of the media's hunger for any news of her comings, goings and musings to shed light on a genocidal situation that the world seems unwilling to do much about.
She says of the slaughter going on for about three years in the Darfur region of Sudan in Africa: "If people are aware of the facts, I believe many will be driven to action." She has spoken to Congress and, most recently, to People magazine and the "Today" show. But that does not dilute her message; indeed it only magnifies it.
A series of unrelenting commentaries on Darfur by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was awarded the Pulitzer Prize earlier this month. But I dare say that more people may hear about Darfur because of the full-page advertisement that Jolie placed in a national publication last week and the rally Sunday in Washington that attracted George Clooney, Russell Simmons and Joey Cheek, the Olympic speedskating medalist who donated his winnings to Darfur relief efforts.
According to the United Nations, more than 3.4 million people in the Darfur region have been affected by the conflict. The Sudanese government, using its oil revenues, has been accused of sponsoring Arab militias called the Janjaweed to rid that agrarian area of its black inhabitants, most of them civilians. More than half the population has been killed or forced into exile. According to UNICEF, more than 1 million children are now in refugee camps.
What does the Sudanese government have against the civilians of Darfur? Call it a scorched-earth policy aimed at an area where armed rebels are known to reside.
On this, human rights activists and Washington politicians, including President Bush, agree: What is happening in Sudan, as in Rwanda 12 years ago, is genocide. But the politicians haven't coughed up the money that would, among other things, help support an effective multinational peacekeeping force to protect Darfur's civilians. Nor have they used their influence to persuade the U.N. Security Council to do something besides endlessly talk about why it won't do anything.
So what can regular folks do? Educate themselves. Host forums in houses of worship and community centers. Support organizations like UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders. Express concerns to elected representatives. The Save Darfur Coalition, the primary sponsor of the Washington rally, says it collected 650,000 postcards to be sent to Bush.
College students, as they did more than two decades ago in the campaign to abolish apartheid in South Africa, have successfully persuaded a number of institutions - from the University of California to Harvard - as well as cities like Providence, R.I., and states like Illinois and New Jersey, to divest, removing their investments in foreign companies doing business with Sudan.
The actual money involved may be relatively insignificant to multinational gas and telecommunications firms, but the negative publicity may yet persuade them to use their influence with the Sudanese government to end the genocide.
The point is to do something now and not wait until, some years down the road, people like Clooney or his pal Don Cheadle, who played the lead in a 2004 movie about the hotel manager who saved hundreds of people from certain death in Rwanda, release a film that we can watch in darkened theaters while munching on popcorn, shaking our heads in shame.