Taking Celebrity Seriously
Nonetheless, Shan does see one enduring benefit of aligning a political movement with celebrities and pop culture: it offers what he calls a "stepping stone activist experience." A person may show up at a rally because the Beastie Boys are playing, but she or he just might stay to make calls and stuff envelopes. Celebrity, Shan laughs, is "a gateway drug, of the best kind."
It's exactly this sort of gateway that longtime activist Patricia Jerido is trying to build with her progressive networking site, GoLeft.org. Prominently featured on its home page this summer was a curated list of news stories, briefs about an action staged by the NAACP in Detroit, another Republican politician denouncing the war and...Paris Hilton's jail stint. When I ask, why Paris? Jerido responds, "Because that's what people are talking about. Republican defections make the news, but Paris in jail makes it into popular culture."
"We need to be talking about her too," the founder of GoLeft elaborates, "using her as a starting point to move to the conversation we want to be having about who gets sent to prison and who gets out, about money, wealth and access." Carmen Van Kerckhove, who runs the website Racialicious.com, calls this sort of thing a "teachable moment"--an approachable opening into larger, thornier issues like the inequities of the criminal justice system. In fact, Van Kerckhove points out, two such moments are opened up when politics and celebrity intersect. The first is the issue itself, and the second is how the mass media handle that issue. Both can be opportunities for political conversation.
By paying close attention to pop culture, GoLeft's Jerido explains, "I can get language or a line to use that I ordinarily wouldn't think of using...it broadens my thinking on how to talk to people." For example, "when Paris was first released after serving only a few days there was a lot of conversation about the unfairness of it all, and that's something we can use as progressives--it becomes a very effective language for framing how we do prison work." Activists frequently speak their own distinct and sometimes off-putting dialect, full of esoteric acronyms and political assumptions. Like it or not, in our highly individualized, broadly dispersed and multicultural society, celebrity is our lingua franca; everyone knows Paris.
Understanding celebrity means looking beyond the stars themselves and questioning why we are so fascinated with them. One answer immediately comes to mind: they have what we don't and wish we did. Celebrities have money and beauty, but they also possess something far more important: recognition. People see them, listen to them, know about them. In psychoanalytic cant, the public's fascination with celebrity is the sublimation of our own desire to be recognized.
In present-day politics citizens are barely noticed. We're recognized only, and briefly, as a vote or campaign contribution. From parties to advocacy groups, politics has increasingly become the business of professionals. This is the "downsizing of democracy," as political scientists Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg call it. People crave recognition--if they don't find it in their lives they'll find it vicariously through the stars. Progressives need to tap into this desire, "upsizing" democracy by creating political organizations where popular participation is recognized and publicized. And by spotlighting the contributions of everyday citizens, we might, just might, be able to turn the public's attention away from celebrities and nudge it back to where it belongs: the people themselves.
The Huffington Post recently began to include celebrity news feeds from People and US Weekly, alongside its political news and blogs. Some progressives may roll their eyes at such frivolity, but taking celebrity seriously is merely applying the first rule of guerrilla warfare: know the terrain and use it to your advantage. The topography on which we fight today is the ephemeral ground of fantasy, desire and spectacle. To wish it were different is not an option; to learn how to use it is a political necessity.