Improper Use of Celebrity

Posted: April 12, 2014 in Culture, Industrial Collapse, Media
Tags: , , ,

I heard the title phrase — improper use of celebrity — uttered recently in relation to celebrity feuds that fuel the paparazzi and related parasite press. It was one high-profile celebrity (is there any other kind?) admonishing another to behave himself because it is a mistake to air petty grievances publicly and thus fan media flames. That seemed to me a worthy corrective, considering how little self-restraint most people practice, especially overtly dramatic public personae who run increased risks of believing their own hype, and accordingly, entitlement to publicity, whether good or bad. We all know too much already about the childish antics of media whores who, among other things, throw tantrums with impunity compared to the general public.

rant on/

The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media just issued a public relations piece about a new Showtime multipart climate change documentary called Years of Living Dangerously. I call it public relations because, like all good PR, it appeals to prurient interests (look at the beautiful people doing beautiful people stuff) and instructs credulous readers far too much about what to think, lest anyone form opinions without the guidance of the infernal marketing machine. Rampant name-dropping with bullshit glamor-shots showing a few famous people (all filmmakers and actors, laughably relabeled “correspondent”) getting their green on precedes the risible assertion that celebrities function as proxies for the average person despite the average person having absolutely nothing in common with the wealth, overexposure, travel, command of attention, heaping of accolades, and enjoyment of fawning deference that characterize celebrities. Drawing focus to climate change and (one might hope) swinging discussion away from deniers (who champion controversy over truth) are cited as precisely the reasons why celebrities are perfect for this documentary. The PR piece further examines (albeit briefly) celebrity activism and provides links to studies on the social science of celebrity (gawd …) before admitting that some backlash might ensue. I guess I’m fomenting backlash.

As PR, the piece is certainly well written, despite its unabashed star-fucking celebrity worship. Further, celebrities have legitimate interests in politics, culture, climate change, and collapse, just like anyone else, even though exorbitant wealth enables them to behave as supranational entities like so many stateless multinational corporations. So why not use their fame to influence people, right? There You GoWell, we’ve already been down the primrose path of celebrity spokespersons occupying positions of influence, speaking from well-crafted scripts, and selling out issues and policy like commodities. Some celebs even understand those issues, though that’s no guarantee of wizened leadership. Consider Arnold Schwarzenegger’s undistinguished tenure as California governor. I have never lived in California to know first hand, but my dominant impression of Schwarzenegger’s leadership style was unapologetic political theater, with incessant catchphrases from his movies functioning as entertaining drivel misdirection matched against his inability (or anyone else’s, for that matter) to solve intractable problems. Curiously, his name is connected as a backer to Years of Living Dangerously, with a whole section of Yale’s PR piece devoted to charges of hypocrisy over his being a loot-and-pollute industrialist once removed through partial ownership in an investment company. Indeed, such conflicts of interest and hypocrisy are flagrant among celebrities who jet around the globe to movie sets (jet-setting?) then jet off again to have themselves filmed bearing witness (in flyovers, it seems, taking a spurious god’s-eye view from above the fray) to ecological devastation. I hesitate to raise this objection because ideological purity doesn’t exist, and as demonstrated in this lengthy blog post, charges of hypocrisy are hard to make stick after even modest analysis. But still, those who most enjoy the fruits of our passing Age of Abundance might pause to consider how it looks when they throw support behind undoing the same disastrous institutions that rewarded them so handsomely. It may not be quite the same as saying we must all now accept austerity (typically, you first! — as in Harrison Ford confronting Indonesian officials?), but near-universal austerity is inevitably where we’re headed anyway.

These are not my principal reasons for whining and ranting, however. My main reason is that by putting rich, celebrity “correspondents” at the center of the story (perhaps they put themselves there, I can’t really know), they adopt an approach similar to too-big-to-fail and too-rich-to-prosecute, except now it’s too-famous-to-ignore. The MSM, revealed as ugly-sister handmaidens to corporate and political power, has failed completely to engage the public sufficiently on climate change, but by putting pretty, loquacious celebrities on display and in charge of rude issue awakening, the documentary falls to the level of clickbait despite whatever intentions it may possess. So although nominally about climate change, it’s really about celebrities waking up to climate change. How lovely! But this is a life-and-death (mostly death at this stage) issue for all of humanity, not just entertainers. Further, what do celebrities qua celebrities bring to the discussion? Nothing, really, except the empty glamor of their fame, expert line delivery, and ability to improvise dialogue (wait! I improvise dialogue all day long!). Maybe I shouldn’t sniff at that, considering how journalists (now climbing into celebrity ranks for all the wrong reasons and too often themselves at the center of the story, both of which undermine journalistic credibility) and politicians have failed so utterly to address social issues effectively. No matter that it’s the job of journalists and government policymakers to bring to light the harrowing news that we done done ourselves in. I warn, however, that if James Cameron or any other instigator behind Years of Living Dangerously believes their project to be a game changer, he or she has seriously misunderstood dynamics that shape public opinion. For centuries, we’ve been assiduously ignoring Cassandra-like warnings from far more authoritative scientists and blue-ribbon panels such as the IPCC. Why would that change now by mixing in celebrities?

And why on earth would earnest celebrity response to recognition of imminent disaster brought on by climate change be to put on a show (the Little Rascals response) with self-serving celebrity spin? Or for that matter, why succumb to notorious solutionism, hopefulness, and the ironically dispiriting happy chapter? The answer is that they have not yet processed the true gravity of our multiple dilemmas and reached the fully foreseeable conclusion after delayed effects are taken into account: we’ve totally and irredeemably fucked. But I guess that wouldn’t sell DVDs, now would it?

/rant off

  1. Brian Miller says:

    I had a similar response to the trailer for this series. In it Don Cheadle is packing in LA to go to a small Texas town, where a local meat packing plant has closed because the extended drought has decimated the cattle herds. He has a voice over where he explains why he is going to Texas. He wants to find out why in a small town in Texas people are looking to their religion to explain the drought. Because in LA, as he relates, everyone blames climate change for every weather related phenomenon.

    And, I thought, I doubt it buddy. What you mean is that your gilded cage celebrity crowd is talking about climate change. The average Joe is just trying to make it day to day, clinging to whatever tether line helps them make sense of the world. A small Texas town has very little room for either elites or well educated people who might be informed about climate change. That is just the natural social structure of an isolated small town.

    So my take away, which may be unfair, was celebrity vanity project riddled with class based assumptions.


  2. witsendnj says:

    “I guess that wouldn’t sell DVDs, now would it?”

    Nope, it wouldn’t. I have lost track of celebrity environmentalists – and climate scientists – who are complete hypocrites. Not that we all aren’t, but not all of us pretend to be saving civilization by selling books and dvd’s, or doing research, when we all know what we would have to do to even slow down catastrophe, which is STOP. Starting with the shall we say overly prolific reproductive capacities of authors from Edward Abbey to Paul Gilding to David Suzuki, Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges, to the proclivities of others to fly around in airplanes all over the world documenting the collapse of the ecosystem – which is unconscionable given that we all know flying is one of the worst things we can do to the environment.

    Meh. People do what they do.

  3. Brutus says:

    I fully agree that we’re all complicit by virtue of our living and breathing. Arguments that excuse the worst options and behaviors, though, stick in my craw more than just a little.

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