As an avid consumer of entertainment news, I have found myself wondering how celebrities fit into the theoretical framework we have studied in this class. What would Emerson say about today’s most infamous icons? Would Shklar regard them as citizens? In this post, I will run through several key points of our curriculum, and note where celebrities fit in. I welcome feedback and suggestions for how to further this critique.
Civic Republicans or Classic Liberals?
I don’t think many would disagree that celebrities are classic liberals. Although many of them publicly support philanthropic causes, their ultimate priority is to themselves. We are often shocked when celebrities reveal themselves to be devoting their earnings to people other than themselves, like Lady Gaga’s recent statement about how the majority of her earnings support her father. They are not working on behalf of the community, they are working for Oscars, for Tonys, for Grammys and Emmys and Golden Globes. Some may argue that they work on behalf of saving the arts, but let us not forget why they want the arts to be saved: so they can continue to work.
Shklar would likely not be able to deny that celebrities are citizens, though she may be tempted to group them with the “idle” bunch that she discusses, who do not work. This critique may apply to “old money” celebrities, including heiresses such as Paris Hilton, who do not need to work in order to have earnings (though Hilton considers herself a businesswoman). However, celebrities do earn, and for the most part, they have the right to vote, so despite the frivolity of their work, they would be citizens by Shklar’s standards.
Emerson, on the other hand, would cringe if he knew how celebrity culture functioned today, for the name of the game is always recognition. There is no silent church, no retreat into nature; the only escapes that we see celebrities engaged in are a retreat to either a vacation home in the Hamptons or St. Barts, or to rehab. There is no exploration of the self, unless Emerson would count yoga. They do not subscribe to his credo from Self-Reliance “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” for their self-esteem is rooted in ratings and money brought in. Everything is about property and ostentatious displays of wealth.
Breaking the Law
It’s no secret to any of us that celebrities often see themselves as above conventional laws and morals. Just a few examples: Alec Baldwin was recently kicked off an American Airlines flight after refusing to turn off his phone before takeoff, Miley Cyrus has been far from subtle recently about her drug use, and Brooke Mueller was just arrested for cocaine use. Despite their knowledge of the rules, celebrities engage in illegal or simply disruptive activity, with full awareness that not only can they get caught; their transgressions will be aired to the entire public through the media. In some cases, like Baldwin’s, they deflect blame to others.
Lincoln would roll over in his grave. Although celebrity misbehavior does not always call the people to arms to break the law together, it does set a supremely negative example and indicate to people that disregard for the law is acceptable if you are powerful enough. He declares in his Lyceum Address, “by such examples . . . the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice.” When they act as though the law does not apply to them, particularly for the reason of self-satisfaction – not even for the purpose of trying to change a law – they are showing a prime example of the detachment of people from their government.