Why do we dismiss the opinions of stars when
we  hang on their every move?

What is it about celebrities? We scrutinize their personal lives insatiably, report what they wear and where they shop. We follow their sexual and personal relationships, exploit their images openly and surreptitiously and read the tea leaves of their slightest predilection in every human realm save one - their thoughts on the social and political arrangements of the nation. When they venture opinions on these subjects, pious debates appear in the media - "Should celebrities speak out?" Media whisper campaigns converge to herd them back onto the commodious reservation where they are used solely for the serious business of selling products. This soft taboo against celebrities expressing political opinions leads me to speculate why the intellectual component of their lives has been deemed so unsuitable for public consumption.

It is because celebrities-with-ideas create problems for two critical (and married) social classes: the corporate media conglomerates and the political class. The former use celebrities shamelessly to leverage cross-selling and cross-promotion of products. Celebrities make films and television shows that are sold again as DVDs, VHS cassettes and home theaters. Magazines cover the movies, fashions and ancillary habits, report on celebrity events, print stolen photos of their intimate moments, print leaks, gossip and innuendo and use every ounce of leverage available to bring consumers to advertisers through celebrity exploitation.

 The political class is quick to round up celebrity endorsements, appearances at fund-raisers and public rallies, and is eager to craft its image by sharing the attention and glamour celebrities afford.

Both classes exploit celebrities, and in so doing, acknowledge that charisma and popularity are a currency that can be spent in counterproductive ways if it is not channeled and controlled. This becomes clearest when celebrities "speak out" on issues of the day.

The corporations - media or otherwise - want consumers to admire and emulate celebrities or, odds are, they won't buy the products merchandised by their images. Opinions add a level of complexity and risk to the business of selling, because customers with different opinions might buy other products. This makes vendors extremely nervous.

Politicians have an intimate knowledge of the power and importance of media.

They spend the preponderance of their time gathering money to pay for it, and it is critically important for them to control how they are perceived and what is discussed there, lest the process escape them and be exploited by their opponents. As differences between the two parties disappear, uppity celebrities become a threat to their class when they oppose the carefully manufactured conventional wisdom that keeps both parties in power. When this occurs, both parties conspire to juggle platitudes about "fine performers" and "precious democratic rights" while elbowing them offstage to return to "what they do best" (selling, performing and acting). The message they transmit to the public by doing this is to say, "These people are not good at this, nor are they doing what the people want." They imply that public policy should remain the sole province of the political class (which is doing such an unquestionably fine job with it). While the scythe of this implication is used to cut down celebrities in a public manner, the deeper intention is to threaten average citizens who have the temerity to examine their own affairs and speak out.

The celebrities are people doing what the rest of us should be doing - taking an active and engaged interest in public life. This is a worthy and inexpensive pursuit to emulate. The whisper campaign to silence them admonishes the rest of us to know our place, and it is something we should not stand for. Unless we are prepared to admit that we are an entirely superficial people, we should express as equal an interest in the intellectual lives of celebrities as we do their physical beauty and debate their arguments on the merits.

When you hear a good actor speaking out, remember that you are listening to a person who has won the limelight in the most venal, competitive, throat-cutting mud-wrestle outside of Hussein's regime. This person did not get to the top and stay there by being stupid, careless or indiscriminate in his or her observations and strategies. Compared to some who buy their way into office, or sell their services to those who buy the office for them, there are often better reasons for listening to celebrities. They have ample time to read and study. They travel a lot and consequently meet and inspire many more "regular folks" than most politicians. They do not represent special and vested interests. They directly support as many industries, intentionally and by exploitation (and at less cost to the voters) than the political class, and their success depends on intimate knowledge of human emotions and desires.

Would celebrities be speaking out if the media and political class were articulating public debate fairly and accurately? The fact that they are stepping forward in the face of criticism and contempt and perhaps risking not being re-hired by corporate masters is their gift to us. The least we can do is acknowledge it respectfully. After mining their bodies and personal lives for every grain of interest or utility to us, the least we can do is consider what they think. Having said that, I'd rather watch Susan Sarandon speak her mind any day than watch George Jr. lie for the oil "bidness" and obliterate 50 years of treaties and international agreements.

But what do I know? I'm a celebrity.

[Published in the 4/27/03 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle]


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