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Web Letter

I have read a translation of the article in an Argentinian newspaper, and I would like to give an aspect of the adulation of celebrities which I do not think is explicit in Mr. Duncombe's article.

Anthropology has studied the phenomenon of idols from different points of view. It is generally accepted that idols express the ideals of a culture. Duncombe agrees in the particular case of contemporary celebrities, saying that they have everything that the average citizen would like to have: fame, money, power... I would add to this list, impunity. Celebrities can do things that would be impossible for normal people to do. A popular musician in my country, Charly García, can beat journalists, end concerts in the middle of a song, insult the owners of the places where he sings... and he is socially forgiven for... being Charly García. While the normal person sees that, he has fantasies insulting his own boss, but, sadly, he knows he isnot Charly García.

I can agree with Mr. Duncombe about using celebrities as a footstep to politics. But I'm worried about who these "political celebrities" will be. Citing Bono as an example of political concern is not the same thing as promoting Paris Hilton or any other "Homer Simpson type" celebrity. We have to know that Homer can amuse us, but he is not an example to follow.

Sebastián Andrés Guidi

Tandil, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Dec 16 2007 - 5:18pm

Web Letter

Stephen Duncombe's article deserves a citation of CW Mills's book, The Power Elite (Oxford, 1956). In a chapter titled "The Celebrities," Mills maintained that at some point, all celebrities fall into the "Remember Him?" category. The point demonstrates what Duncombe did not demand of his readers: that education, focus, imagination and persistence will serve as an antidote to the celebrity menace that is designed to threaten exactly these qualities and the fruits they will bear. Sadly, Duncombe has abandoned the search for these fruits. He has forgotten that learning is timeless, and that celebrity is only good for a few years.

Mills placed celebrity relatively low in the totem-pole of the power elite, relegating them to the status of flies distracting us from more serious business at hand, but he argued that celebrities do command much American attention and energy, and do comprise an important aspect of the political, social and cultural establishment. Duncombe, aside from acknowledging celebrities as "a waste of time" and "a dangerous distraction" (both of which he is willing to allow his readers to engage in), doesn't say that celebrity is an integral part of this establishment. He says it is part of us, rather than part of that which we would struggle against. His argument rests on the premise that "we need to care" about celebrities if we are to think seriously about politics. Conversely, he doesn't say that we need to think more seriously about politics, or ourselves, over celebrity.

If we think about politics in a celebrity context, we will never see quality politics. Duncombe forgets that looking away from billboards and television sets is all that is required to mitigate their effect, or indeed their existence. Where else to look is an important question, and one with increasingly few promising answers (for instance, Howard Zinn often reminds people of the power of the boycott, but makes no secret of his penchant for Starbucks coffee. Thomas Frank rails against "irritating" pop-culture new and old, but is not opposed to making his love of MC5 known to all). Students and activists should aspire to emulate their teachers, but if their teachers participate in celebrity and over-indulge in appetite, the qualities that make good teachers good are lost behind the illusion that these teachers can be both effective and indulgent in celebrity culture.

Duncombe encourages those struggling to effect positive change (with relatively meager resources) to "share" stage time with celebrities. But it is celebrity, not their spectators, who should demand a share of the spotlight. Indeed, celebrities do not make anything happen for the world beyond the context of themselves, a symptom they pass on to audiences. They, and Duncombe, forget that knowledge is neither good nor bad, it is unbiased and unaffiliated. Duncombe abdicates the ideal of individual imagination to celebrity imagination. He equates political change through manipulating celebrity as "guerrilla warfare," where villages and towns (the integrity of citizens' intelligence) are abdicated for an occasional audience with those who would raze those villages and towns (celebrities). Individual imagination, while sorely lacking in this country, should not be abdicated. It is a stronger force than any other on earth and is the target of the pop-culture Duncombe says we need to entertain.

The proper American celebrities should be the members of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the think tanks, the university presidents, newspaper and magazine editors, Congress, the Courts and so on. These are the people who should be scrutinized with the same energy as celebrities are scrutinized. The people we do not know of, rather than those we cannot help but know, are the proper targets of positive social, economic and political change. They are the people running the show; they put those celebrities on the hook and wait to see how hard we bite. Celebrity, if ignored, will go away much easier than the Bush Administration would if it was ignored. The bait may change, but the hooks will keep dropping.

By the end of Duncombe's article, I learned more than I ever would have about Paris Hilton had I not read it. Indeed, thinking of politics in the context of Ms. Hilton and her kind is not the primary business of politics. Unlike power holders, attention holders will fade away one day.

By publicizing his interest in Paris Hilton, forcing readers' attention into the realm of celebrity and encouraging people to think of activist politics as having a primarily celebrity dimension, Duncombe has only strengthened the position of those he encourages readers to act against. Through Duncombe's article, I for one have been strengthened in my resolve to read more, study harder and denounce more of the television and radio presented in this country. If those who affiliate themselves with these distractions want my attention (however well intentioned they may be), they will have to work harder for it than Duncombe does. The ability to scrutinize and analyze celebrity is more powerful than any affiliation with celebrity ever could be.

Joseph Szczekoski

Fairless Hills, PA

Oct 17 2007 - 12:05am

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