Ah, celebrities. It’s not enough that they are rich, famous, beautiful, and have servants who do their shopping for them. No; haunted by a sense of their own triviality, they feel compelled to pose as activists, to share their deep thinks, which are almost always relentlessly conformist woke platitudes.
Indeed, so common is this phenomenon that it has become cultural background noise, a mildly irritating hum that can usually be ignored. Only extreme cases of hypocrisy or stupidity rise above the drone — like Joaquin Phoenix dribbling on about artificially inseminating cows and stealing the milk from their babies for our coffee, while denouncing himself as a scoundrel. That speech was so incoherent that it was almost funny and nearly worth watching. But it was also boring and tedious, so not quite.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
It did, however, provide plenty of low hanging fruit for people who like to have a go at preposterous “Hollywood liberals”. You know, newspaper columnists, Right-wing bloggers, Fox News hosts. And fair play: such confused ramblings deserve mockery. Yet even as conservatives mock Hollywood types who hold forth on things they plainly know nothing about, they strain very hard at producing their own celebs to hold forth on things they plainly know nothing about.
I had cause to reflect upon this recently after reading a pearl-clutching piece in The Guardian about CPAC. Now that may sound like a machine to help you breathe while you sleep but it is actually more like comic-con for US conservatives. CPAC is decidedly short of celebrities, although they did manage to get the President and his daughter to turn up. So to make up for the shortfall in Right-wing famous people, the organisers had invited climate sceptic teenage YouTube phenomenon (?) Naomi Seibt to attend; The Guardian described her as the “anti-Greta Thunberg”.
What is an anti-Greta Thunberg, I wondered? Is this actually a thing? The Guardian seemed to think so, and described with some horror this 19 year-old’s doubts about man-made climate change, and her connections to some think-tank I had never heard of, but which the paper seemed to think I should be worried about.
To me it was reminiscent of when I lived in Moscow in the early 2000s and totally obscure acts from the West would turn up to play. The Russians were so starved of actually famous bands that weren’t Deep Purple or Uriah Heep that some of these no-hit wonders became quasi-famous; there was one band in particular called Brazzaville, whose leader had once played on a Beck album or something. Brazzaville played Moscow clubs a lot and appear to still be doing so to this day, even though nobody has the foggiest idea who they are.
Anyway, I Googled about and found that Naomi Seibt has a YouTube channel with a mighty 72.8K subscribers, and a handful of videos including such classics as VON PRINZESSINNEN UND NANNYSTAAT (caps not mine). Amazing stuff I am sure if you speak German, but not exactly “influencer” levels; compare such numbers to, say, Moriah Elizabeth, a young woman who stays in her house all day repairing damaged squishy toys and making videos about it. She has over 5 million followers.
Yet nonetheless there Naomi Seibt was, at CPAC, in The Guardian and also on Fox News, where she was interviewed by Dana Perino, Bush’s ex-press secretary. I saw a slightly awkward yet highly articulate teenager, speaking excellent English, who was repeating things she had heard from adults, while being condescended to by an adult. So maybe she really was like Greta Thunberg.
But as the interview continued, I felt the same way I do when I see Thunberg: concerned that this type of exposure is not good for a vulnerable young person. I thought about the insults lobbed at Thunberg, and worried that Naomi Seibt would become the target of unhinged Twitter shitheads who would see it as their divine mission to destroy her life.
May Naomi’s brush with the limelight be brief, and may she return to a normal life in whichever German town it is she inhabits. Yet even if she does, the apparent craving of the folks at CPAC for a Greta of their very own, only saying the opposite things, is striking. It was the Right, after all, that produced the first movie star president and the first reality TV show president. As much as they deride Hollywood liberals, so too there is a not so secret yearning that hopelessly uninformed celebs will one day mouth their platitudes instead.
This schizophrenic attitude was perfectly encapsulated by Big Hollywood, a site started by Andrew Breitbart which has since been subsumed into the site that bears his name. Breitbart had worked on the Huffington Post and wanted to create a conservative version, where hitherto closeted Right-wingers in Hollywood could post blogs and begin a cultural revolution.
But it was difficult to get famous Right-wingers to blog, so mostly you got articles attacking Hollywood liberals for their vacuous political statements, while the vacuous statements of Jon Voight, the co-star of Midnight Cowboy father of Angelina Jolie, were quoted again and again as if he were a conservative oracle.
Another problem is that since openly conservative celebrities are so thin on the ground, when they beclown themselves, there is nowhere else to go. For instance, if Joaquin Phoenix gurns and gets sad about baby cows at the Oscars, it doesn’t really matter. There are plenty more Hollywood liberals where he came from, and few are as inarticulate or weird.
But when James Woods — a very good actor, who has appeared in many fine films — comes off as an angry crank on Twitter, or Clint Eastwood talks to a chair at the Republican National convention, well, it kind of sticks in the memory, because that’s your lot. Kanye West turning up at the White House in a MAGA hat does not help the situation. It just looks even weirder.
Similarly, the pro-Brexit celebs — Ringo Starr, Roger Daltrey, Michael Caine and Morrissey — are all legends in their fields, highly regarded for their work. But when grouped together like that, it just looks odd. And lonely. And somehow disappointing.
It’s even worse, however, when celebrities emerge from within. For instance, the last time I thought about CPAC was when the organisers invited Milo Yiannopolos to speak, only to disinvite him almost immediately when his comments about paedophilia were dredged up. It was always obvious that the Milo story was not going to end well; he was a lonely, needy figure, with few defenders, and aside from his skills at owning the libs, he did seem like a strange guest for a CPAC convention. But then he was gone, and it was back to Jon Voight and James Woods again.
I had a similar presentiment about Jordan Peterson, who is obviously a much more serious and thoughtful person than Milo, but who similarly found himself fighting a lone war on all kinds of things that he hates, while being obviously vulnerable, and definitely working far too hard. The pressure took its toll, and now he not only suffers poor health but has retreated to Russia to recover — which is not a sentence I ever expected to write.
Thus it seems that being a conservative celebrity can be bad for your health, and frequently for your career. I doubt that they bring that much satisfaction to conservatives either. This sense of settling for ersatz copies, for a less popular version of the thing everybody else has, cannot be very enjoyable.
How much more effective it would be to reject cultural cringe entirely, to double down on denouncing star power, to really mean it when you denounce uninformed celebs, and not just the ones that disagree with you.
And yet it seems that the desire to have your opinions echoed by famous people who know nothing very much is a human need, that cuts across the political aisle. So it is that even in these polarised times, we can still find something to unite us.