September 25, 2008

Nobody Cares What Madonna Thinks About Sub-Primes

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Election season is in full swing, and the Obama-Palin gladiatorial deathmatch has finally reached the home stretch. In a little less than six weeks, we should (hopefully) know who the 44th President of the United States will be, and people are starting to get visibly freaked out by the possibility of the wrong guy winning. (Or, more specifically, the wrong guy winning and croaking, leaving the reins of government in the hands of some lady who shoots polar bears from a helicopter. But I digress.)
Public awareness of the election is at near-historic highs, and everybody has an opinion, including — as always — that venerable sub-section of society with the means to make sure everybody knows what they think: Celebrities.
Famous people — specifically actors, musicians, athletes, etc. — have always voiced their opinions on issues of national import because, hell, why not? Paul Revere was a colonial proto-celebrity and, in the days before mass-communication, he still managed to get everyone all in a huff over the Revolution; legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, protesting the Vietnam War, refused to join the U.S. Army even after he was drafted; John Wilkes Booth, an actor and a Confederate, was so pissed the South lost the Civil War that he shot Lincoln.
The population at large has responded to these public figures’ forays into the realm of national affairs differently depending on the situation — sometimes with agreement and sometimes with disgust. People, however, always seemed to at least consider these moments thoughtfully before making judgment. Jane Fonda has been reviled by a large cross section of Americans since the Vietnam War, but it’s because people vehemently disagree with her politics and her actions — not her celebrity status — that she’s regarded so poorly. Things, I think, have changed.
As cliché as it might be to say that we’re in the midst of a culture war in America, it is a fairly accurate assessment of our country’s political climate. From Newt Gingrich crafting the “Contract With America” up to Sarah Palin burning books and gunning down baby seals with an AR-15 or whatever, the last 15 years have shown America to be a deeply divided society.
In this highly charged political climate, there’s the perception that a line’s been drawn in the sand between a red and a blue America, and politicians just looove to exploit this cultural rift. There’s nothing, for example, that Republican candidates love more than to frame elections as Us-Versus-Them endeavors: “The Democratic Party is nothing more than a coalition between San Francisco socialists and Limousine Liberals! Blah blah blah, Tax You To Death Anti-Freedom Terrorist Communists Barbara Streisand Jane Fonda George Clooney AAAAAARRRGHH!!!”
I don’t mean to suggest the left is innocent of taking the same sort of rhetorical liberties. I just think it’s interesting that right-leaning individuals make such a big stink about Hollywood celebrities voicing their opinions when, in the end, nobody really cares what people like Sean Penn and Tim Robbins think.
“But, Peter,” you might say. “These celebrities wield a huge amount of influence over the social discourse because they are soooo famous!”
Maybe. Maybe not.
Even so, I tend to believe that the typical American understands celebrities aren’t experts and that, when they voice their opinions, those listening have already made up their mind. What chance is there, really, of an undecided voter seeing a news clip of Madonna protesting the war in Iraq — with that stupid faux-English accent — and suddenly experiencing a political epiphany?
More to the point, why shouldn’t people be able to express their beliefs whatever their status in society may be? When the arguments are compelling, maybe the public will take notice and reconsider the issues: When Kanye West boldly stated that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” it might have been received poorly, but it helped to raise some important lingering questions about race in America.
By the same token, when celebrities make asinine or conspiratorial assertions, people probably won’t care. Freshman year, a couple of my hall-mates went to a guest lecture conducted by one of the guys from the hip-hop group, Dead Prez. Afterwards, they excitedly recalled how the rapper postulated the government’s involvement in the creation of the HIV virus. They weren’t excited because they were intrigued by the presentation, but because, “DUDE! That was fucking ridiculous!”
Those who present celebrities’ pontifications as the “big problem” with America’s political discourse are missing the point. The beauty of the society we live in is that people are free to voice their opinions and, at least some of the time, the better one’s gain traction.
So chill out, and let George Clooney say what he wants to say. It’s not like he has anything else to do anyway. After all, do you really want to see an Ocean’s 14?