Jolie-Pitt, Trump and Bono Walk Into a LSE Classroom: why dedication and commitment isn’t expertise

27 May 2016, 0607 EDT

Oh man, I really didn’t want to write about Angelina Jolie Pitt  (AJP) and her damn LSE appointment. When I heard the news it just made me feel tired. But there has been an interesting/frustrating  debate emerging and I just can’t keep my yap shut- even on maternity leave. In his post on the topic, Dan Drezner asks us to all calm the F down; he assures us that policy schools have always been opportunistic and brought in pretty unqualified but interesting folks to teach (well, he sort of says that). The Aidnography post, Why you should be critical of Professor Angelina Jolie Pitt’s LSE gig does a great job of putting the appointment into the broader context of hollywood obsession with poverty/global race relations/the corporate university. Just today, Laura Shepherd brings much more nuance to the debate in her Disorder of Things post. She acknowledges a loooong list of reasons we might hate the idea of Jolie Pitt as Professor, but argues that ultimately its not fair to focus on her beauty/celebrity and bypass her experience and cred.

I haven’t actually read many critiques that focus on AJP’s beauty or celebrity- or at least not exclusively. For me, the frustrating thing has been the undue focus on whether AJP is sincere/dedicated enough. Those that support AJP argue that her long-standing dedication and commitment is currency for expertise, while those who oppose AJP try to undercut her ‘true’ dedication, arguing that her likely narcissistic motivations make her unqualified to teach gender and war. The arguments boil down to: ‘she’s sooo amazing and how could anyone do such difficult and important work and not have some expertise to offer’ VERSUS ‘these roles satisfy her own ego/image and she probably doesn’t even recycle.’  To be honest, I could give a flying F about AJP’s dedication. Donald Trump believes he is dedicated to securing America; clearly, dedication does not equal expertise. So let’s move on to experience.

Shepherd reminds readers that AJP has been special envoy and ambassador and been on 50+ field trips. I’m sure there is a whole host of other honors, roles, trips, and experiences AJP has had; however, offering these details as evidence that she deserves more credit and that she is, indeed, some form of expert is an epic stretch.  Here are 3 reasons why we cannot read AJP’s cv as relevant Professorial experience and 1 argument about why, ultimately, the ‘real’ argument is about whether enlightenment, neocolonial, patronising awareness raising looks better when done by AJP, Bono, or Trump. 
Sooo experience. First, special envoy and ambassador posts have often been given to high profile, rich, privileged people- not because they are experts, but because they are high profile, rich, privileged people. These posts don’t necessarily say much about her expertise, but they say a lot about her privilege and the way that institutions have tried to leverage/reproduce this privilege. Second, let’s get serious about her field trips. I’m not going to get into some debate about how long/tough/dedicated trips need to be in order to be ‘legit’- but I feel quite confident that her short trips taken in between making movies and attending awards shows are not a vehicle to expertise. These trips might make her an expert on 1) short trips to places that are generally difficult to travel to 2) listening to very difficult stories 3) photo opportunities (I know that last one will make AJP supporters roll their eyes, but I’m ok with that). I’m not saying visiting refugee camps isn’t difficult, or that these experiences didn’t move AJP- but I’m saying lots of drop-in publicity tours/awareness raising tours does not an expert make.

Third, even if we take her travel and roles as legitimate qualifications for lecturing on war, I’m not sure how her experience or roles make her a gender expert. If this is the bar for ‘ gender expert’ then I would assume Bono could also teach about gender and war, since both have seemed to engage and push gender issues with about the same amount of rigour. Finally, for me, the real issue isn’t if she is ‘legit,’ an expert, has enough experience, is dedicated, is ‘just’ a celebrity, or is beautiful. The real question is whether having white, western woman ‘raise awareness’ about the ‘plight’ of the ‘other’ is ever anything but neo-colonial, patronising and ego satisfying. While attending another top university (some might say, THE top university) I took a class from a very rich female former ambassador and, I can tell you with 100% certainty, it was all kinda colors of white-saviour/let’s hear about my amazing contributions to the world/enlightenment logic on steroids. Having this kind of ‘knowledge’ poured into some of the ‘top’ minds reproduces elitism and, ultimately, provides the following take home message: rich people should try to help poor people (or at least think about them) once in a while (mostly because it feels good)- all the while ignoring structural hierarchies/forms of oppression/global systems of exploitation.