Saturday, February 01, 2014

Scarlett Johansson channels a Baptist minister

One of the odd stories in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, which I understand is tomorrow, is the news about Scarlett Johansson.

There are always stories about the commercials that are going to be on the Super Bowl, or that were on the Super Bowl in the past, or that didn't make it past the censors for the Super Bowl.

It turns out that Ms. Johansson's commercial made headlines for more than being in two of the mentioned categories. It's a commercial for Sodastream, the kitchen appliance that is going to save you big bucks that you would otherwise be spending on soda at the store, like Coke or Pepsi.
Oops--that's how they didn't make it past the censors. Since Coke and Pepsi are big advertisers, no fair mentioning the competition, so it's back to the drawing board for Sodastream.

The big story, though, is the conflict between Ms. Johansson's decision to rake in the bucks--I haven't been able to find out exactly how many--and her role as a spokesperson for Oxfam, one of the leading human rights and antipoverty organizations worldwide.

You see, Sodastream makes its home soda machines in a settlement in the occupied territories in Palestine, so her support of Sodastream puts her in direct conflict with Oxfam, because "Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law."

The story percolated for a few days, with human rights activists criticizing Ms. Johansson, but Oxfam not dropping her as a spokesperson. Eventually, though, she resigned her position with Oxfam, who accepted the resignation.

 This is the only way it could have ended, obviously. Ms. Johansson couched her endorsement of Sodastream in the self-serving language Sodastream itself uses, the humanitarian mission of providing employment for Palestinians, never mentioning the sizable checks that are obviously flowing her way. She sure doesn't come out of this looking good.

 I haven't seen the comparison made, but the parallel that strikes me about this is South Africa and the Sullivan Principles. Leon Sullivan was a Baptist minister from Philadelphia on the board of General Motors, and when anti-apartheid activitists were agitating for divestment of American companies from South Africa Sullivan came up with the Sullivan Principles, a set of standards designed to justify American corporations making big bucks off apartheid.

In the case of the Sullivan Principles, as in the case of Sodastream, humanitarian reasons were trotted out to justify corporate policies: we're a positive force for change, the people need the jobs, blah, blah, blah.

Never mind that the activists on the ground supported divestment as the only effective tactic against apartheid, either in South Africa or Palestine.  Ms. Johansson's "argument cuts no ice with Palestinian groups, who say SodaStream pays Palestinians less than Israelis, or with Oxfam, which says that trading with Israeli companies operating in West Bank settlements legitimates the occupation regardless of how they treat their workers."

 Don't expect this to have any impact on Ms. Johansson's career, but at least we can hope that it creates some greater visibility to the settlement issue in the wider world.

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