Like most people, I know too much about celebrities. Take Paris Hilton, for example. I know about the parties she goes to and the events she attends. I know she has a Chihuahua named Tinkerbell and doesn't wear underwear out on the town. I know this summer she was sent to jail for repeated traffic violations, let out after a few days, then ordered back to her cell, where she claims to have found God and, improbably, a social conscience. Why do we know so much about people like Paris? She is, in historian Daniel Boorstin's deft description of celebrity, famous only for being famous. Given this, why should we care?
It's because we know that we need to care. This celebration of ersatz aristocracy, as paradoxical as it sounds, is genuinely popular culture. People is the most profitable magazine in the United States, and E! (the CNN of celebrity gossip) reaches more than 89 million homes. If progressives want their politics to appeal to a majority of the population--which they should in a democracy--they ignore or misunderstand the popularity of celebrity at their peril. What would it mean to create a politics that speak to this fascination? Instead of bemoaning the narcissism of young people who spend hours managing their public selves on Facebook, we need to see it for what it is: the desire to be someone in our mediated age. This popular desire for recognition demands a change in the way progressives do politics.
Traditionally, the left has had a schizophrenic relationship with celebrity. On one side is condemnation: the attention lavished on celebrities is at best a waste of time; at worst, it's a dangerous distraction from more important issues. In 1927 Walter Lippmann worried openly in the pages of Vanity Fair that America's obsession with celebrity was having a deleterious effect on our politics. "It's no use trying to tell the public about the Mississippi flood," Lippmann complained, "when [celebrity murderer] Ruth Snyder is on the witness stand." The result of this "blazing publicity," Lippmann feared, is a public that knows a lot about nothing and little about what they should.
The flip side of this censure is adulation. Whether it's Angelina Jolie in Africa or Bono drawing attention to global poverty, progressives get giddy when a celebrity shares his or her spotlight with a liberal cause. This response runs deeper than rational appreciation for the media attention these causes are receiving; it's a sign of affirmation: left politics deigned legitimate by our modern gods.
Both condemnation and celebration are politically problematic. They both buy into the central premise of celebrity, that the public exists only as an audience. The stars act while we watch and worship. Recently, however, a new wave of celebrity-savvy activists have been figuring out ways to act upon our desire to watch, tapping into the popular passion for celebrity to open up conversations on progressive causes.
One of these activists is Han Shan, chair of the leadership council of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT). The campaign to end the Chinese occupation of Tibet, probably more than any other movement, has consciously cultivated its relationship with celebrities. Richard Gere, the Beastie Boys and Sharon Stone have all spoken out forcefully, if not always eloquently, about the state of religious and political freedoms in Tibet. A seasoned activist who previously worked with the direct-action training group the Ruckus Society, Shan understands the benefits of linking causes to celebrities. "It's all about profile," he explains, and "celebrities have cachet." "It's assumed," he continues, "that if a celebrity backs your cause, then immediately the public and the media and even policy-makers will sit up and pay attention." This does happen, and the Free Tibet movement is a successful example of this strategy. But, explains the organizer, there's a downside.
Identifying a cause with celebrities can result in a serious issue being dismissed as Hollywood's fad of the day, and a politically clueless celebrity spokesperson can cost credibility (Sharon Stone's name elicits a groan from the SFT activist). But most important, Shan says, "people end up pouring inordinate amounts of resources into securing support of celebrities, rather than doing the real work that would actually advance the cause," like building contacts with reporters and politicians and doing grassroots organizing. Celebrity becomes a sort of magic bullet.
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.