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.