celebrity culture and politics

The five “most popular” stories on CNN today are:

1. “Judd: How a $10 net can stop a killer” (actress Ashley Judd endorses anti-malaria nets.)

2. “Basinger: I didn’t leak Baldwin phone message” (a domestic spat between two formerly married actors)

3. “Dern: ‘Ellen’ kiss put me out of work” (one actress kissing another actress causes a scandal)

4. “Commentary: The hypocrisy of repeating the ‘w-word'” (about the Don Imus affair)

CNN is a news channel. The dominance of entertainers is striking, although perhaps not surprising in our era. People turn to actors, singers, and comedians for advice on serious issues–such as malaria–and for cases and controversies that can provoke debate about everyday issues. Some good may come of this, for instance, if Ashley Judd is correct about malaria nets and if people act on her advice. But there are serious dangers.

First, it seems unfair and arbitrary that physically attractive people with (some) talent for singing and acting should be able to influence social norms and political opinions. But that unfairness may be unavoidable. In a country of 300 million people, most leaders start with arbitrary advantages. It’s just too hard to rise from anonymity to national leadership within a few decades of working life unless one has a leg up. That’s why most of our political leaders are the children or spouses of former presidents or presidential candidates–interspersed with a few billionaires and an occasional general. It’s not clear that being the son of a president and grandson of a senator is any worse of a qualification for leadership than, say, starring opposite Morgan Freeman in “High Crimes.”

But I think celebrity culture is worse than merely unfair. It’s pernicious because celebrities are admired for what we assume are purely individual talents and successes. In truth, movies are group productions; and actors and singers are coached and taught by others. All human achievements are at least somewhat collaborative. But stars are prized for what they say and do apparently on their own, not for leading or inspiring colleagues or sharing tasks with others.

Celebrity culture is also pernicious because everyone knows that you don’t have to be ethical, wise, or well-informed to be famous. You can achieve celebrity without even the pretense of virtue if you and your talents are attractive enough. In contrast, politicians at least presume to have good ideas and high personal character. Ever since the word “politician” entered the English language, it has provoked cynicism. (“Get thee glass eyes; / And, like a scurvy politician, seem, / To see the things thou dost not.” Lear, IV. 6.) But the cynicism arises because of a gap between promise and reality. Celebrities promise nothing but entertainment.

Further, celebrities are rich. They attract attention because of their consumption–their clothes, houses, and travel. Some celebrities are nothing but rich. Nonetheless, they are treated as peers of musicians and actors who might actually have talent. That indicates that central to the definition of a “celebrity” is conspicuous consumption, which is bad for nature and the soul.

Finally, the modern celebrity culture erases distinctions between public and private life. Some performers lead dignified lives out of the public eye and expect us to pay attention only to their work; some politicians and tycoons lead personal lives that fascinate the tabloid press. The problem is not that movie stars and singers have too much prominence, but rather that we treat most prominent people (regardless of their fields) like the winners of a high school popularity contest. They seem interesting because of their personal behavior, especially as it involves sex. This cannot be good for the culture. It is bad for politics if we expect our political leaders to act like celebrities.

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