YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Diana Took Celebrity Into Policy Realm

September 03, 1997|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — This column is about land mines and Princess Diana. But to put the relationship between them into the proper perspective, it's worth dwelling first for a moment upon a recent issue of People magazine.

Last weekend, on the day Diana died, the supermarkets across our nation were featuring a special edition of People, with an absurd cover that listed "the most intriguing people of the century." Among them were Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King Jr., Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Diana and (her picture larger than all of the others) Elizabeth Taylor.

That single cover epitomized the celebrity-obsessed values of our age. The magazine managed to lump together a president who led this country through the Depression and a world war, the leader of a civil rights movement that changed the lives of tens of millions of Americans and a few entertainers whose accomplishments, while notable in their sphere, were not even in the same universe.

In other words, in the inexorable logic of celebrity, face and image are the great equalizers. With a spurious, contrived adjective like "intriguing," you can demean great achievement by reducing it to nothing more than the work of a rock star or talk-show host.

It was one of the distinguishing characteristics of Diana that she seemed to understand the great gulf between celebrity and accomplishment, at least to a greater extent than did the magazines and tabloids that fed off her. If she sought out the coverage she knew would come anyway, at least she sometimes did so with larger purposes in mind.

On Monday, an international conference opened in Oslo to consider a ban on the production, use or export of land mines, the devices that kill or wound about 25,000 people a year, most of them civilians.

A year ago, support for this treaty was slim. In recent months, however, a surprising number of countries have switched positions and endorsed the idea.

The largest share of the credit for this change goes to the nongovernmental organizations that campaigned against the use of land mines and to the Canadian diplomats who led the way in organizing support for the treaty. They are the ones who worked hardest and longest on banning land mines. In an ideal world in which accomplishment counted for more than celebrity, they would be on the cover of People magazine.

But Diana also helped considerably. She lent her name and face to a cause that otherwise might have been written off by television producers and magazine editors as too serious, too boring, too lacking in popular appeal. Given the personality-crazed world we live in, hers was an invaluable contribution.

Her interest in the subject was relatively recent. Last January, Diana paid a visit to Angola on behalf of the British Red Cross. In an amputees' center, she met with victims such as Adriana Paulino, a 23-year-old soldier who had lost both legs to a mine. "I don't know who she was," Paulino later told reporters. "I am just very happy that she came to talk with me. I want people to know what happened."

She was promptly attacked by officials in London; at the time, the British government was opposed to the Canadian-led effort for a total ban on land mines. The junior defense minister Earl Howe called her a "loose cannon."

Diana, undeterred, followed up with a trip to Washington last June to campaign for the international ban on land mines. And she paid a three-day visit to Bosnia for the same cause last month.

Was her work the single, decisive factor in winning support for the treaty? Probably not. The British government eventually switched to support of the Canadian effort, but the main reason was the electoral victory of the Labor government, which had already supported a ban on land mines at the time of Diana's visit to Angola.

In the United States, the Clinton administration two weeks ago suddenly announced, with some significant reservations, its support of the Canadian effort. The American change of position was probably timed to the start of this week's Oslo conference.

But it is worth noting that the White House action came not long after Diana's Bosnia trip, and that President Clinton is not only a celebrity himself but the sort of person fascinated with other celebrities. Maybe Diana's work made a difference.

Celebrity support has limits. It doesn't help settle disputes over the details. For example, the Clinton administration still is trying to carve out an exemption from the land-mine treaty for the Korean Peninsula. You'd think there would be a way to defend against a North Korean invasion without land mines, but the Pentagon has been balking.

So, too, the reach of celebrity goes only so far. A few important countries like Russia and China aren't taking part in the Oslo conference. Perhaps moral suasion, Canadian diplomats or some Russian and Chinese celebrities can eventually persuade Moscow and Beijing to join in the land-mine ban.

A leading French legislator suggested Monday that if the global ban on land mines passes, it ought to be called the "Princess Diana Treaty." That would seem to be an appropriate memorial for a woman who seemed to recognize there is a world beyond celebrity.

Los Angeles Times Articles