SYNDICATED COLUMN: Die, Celebrities, Die

Lena Dunham and Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker festival

No-Talent Hacks Suck Up Millions, Degrade Culture

I hate celebrities.

Not in the particular. Many rich and famous people got that way by working hard, being talented and getting lucky.

Let me take that back. I do hate them in the particular.

Since two out of three of the required ingredients for success in our society, talent and luck, are beyond our control, it follows that no one deserves wealth or fame. But that’s not how we treat celebrities.

We worship them.

They’re in a class above, like gods. We fawn over them and gossip about them.

We’re even sad — really, truly grief-struck — when they die!

Like a dysfunctional relationship, all the love flows unidirectionally, from us to them. Insulated in first class, consulting with their private bankers and safe behind the guardbooths of their gated communities, they don’t care about us; they don’t know about us. They don’t give a crap and are, therefore, the sane ones.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with noticing achievements — when they result from moxie and grit. A person who, through effort and will (not luck or talent or some other accident of birth), transcends the norm to do something amazing, is worthy of celebration. The average passerby who runs into a burning building to save someone is a hero; a firefighter who draws a paycheck, received training and consciously chose the job is not.

Trouble arises when, as in America today, what a citizen has achieved by her own effort and courage is dwarfed by the tsunami of adulation she receives. Why do cable news anchorpeople end interviews with military generals by thanking them “for their service”? As with the firefighters, joining the army is a job. They chose it. There is nothing admirable about such service; to the contrary, they have enlisted as professional assassins in an institution that hasn’t engaged in a justifiable killing in three-quarters of a century. But even if you don’t feel that way (which means you do not live in Pakistan), these desk jockeys don’t fight. The biggest dangers they face are paper cuts and office politics. Thank them for their service? Screw that.

TV generals are celebrities. They are famous because The System has somehow elevated them above all others; we pay attention simply because they are famous.

At this writing, the gatekeepers of the media have decided that it is time for you to care deeply, not about something you should care about (homelessness, climate change, the class divide, mass species extinction, bands that are good but that you’ll never hear about), but the imminent birth of the Royal Baby of England to Prince Bill and Princess Kate.

“The royal couple can’t do anything else but wait,” we are told. Also: “the world [is] waiting.” Royal baby hype, when you think about it — but who has time? — is a Dagwood sandwich of absurdity. We’re not British and we really really really didn’t/don’t want to be. Even in the U.K., only a few dozen psychotic “royal watcher” dorks are paying attention. And the main takeaway — that “the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s baby will one day be Head of the Armed Forces, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, head of state of 16 countries and possibly if the role is maintained in the future, Head of the Commonwealth which covers 54 nations across the world and two billion citizens” — is belied by existence of one Prince Charles, age 64, still no closer to the throne since Queen Liz refuses to kick off. Poor Chuck! “I’ll run out of time soon. I shall have snuffed it if I’m not careful,” he confided last year. Once he too was a Royal Baby.

The Royal Baby is the ultimate celebrity — before having drawn a breath, (s)he has been dubbed Someone You’re Supposed to Know and Care About, and thus guaranteed a life of ease.

One almost longs for a miscarriage.

Everywhere you look, celebrities cash in — like that Los Angeles billboard icon Angelyne, for being famous for being famous. I wish they would all die. I wish the idea of celebrity would die.

Like Lena Dunham, who created the HBO show “Girls.” If Hades, God of the Underworld is reading, I would happily trade her in for the late investigative journalist Michael Hastings. Lena drives her burning car into a wall, Michael comes back, it’s all good. (Oh, Lord, now I’m doing it — intimatizing celebs as if I knew them, calling them by their first names.)

So Random House, which routinely rejects brilliant manuscripts by authors who would have been thrilled to have landed $35,000, bought her upcoming collection of “personal essays about sex, mortality and food” for $3.5 million.

Dunham is 26. Maybe she can write, but there’s no way to tell that from her show, which has the distinction of being the only truly dreadful show HBO has ever aired — awful writing, lame acting, insipid plots. Why is Random paying her one hundred advances for one book? Why did HBO sign her? Why does The New York Times cover her show so relentlessly?

Well, as The Guardian notes: “Dunham’s parents are both well-known members of the art world and the girls of Girls are all children of famous parents. Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna) is the daughter of playwright David Mamet, Jemima Kirke (Jessa) is the daughter of former Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke and Allison Williams (Marnie) is the daughter of newscaster Brian Williams.”

As with the Royal Baby, heredity more than makes up for lack of talent.

Magazine covers: they run what sells, what sells is what’s famous, what’s famous is celebrity. The covers make the celebrities even more famous. Which makes everyone else more obscure.

Take, for example, the Clinton family.

To Guantánamo, ideally.

First there’s Bill, whose presidency stands as a memorial to squandered opportunity: screwed up healthcare, sucked up to Republicans and got himself impeached after pushing through two significant policy changes — NAFTA and “ending welfare as we know it” — that screwed millions of Americans. Oh, and didn’t leave behind a single new social program despite presiding over the Internet-fueled Biggest Boom of All Time.

Unlike, say, Jimmy Carter, Bill hasn’t done much as ex-president either. Yet he’s making bank as a speaker: $13.4 million in 2012 alone.

What does Bill have to say that’s worth so much money? Nothing. I’ve seen him speak several times. He’s pretty boring. “The work he does around the world has given him a very unique perspective,” claims Vancouver-based communications exec Norman Stowe. “Not just a former president’s perspective, but also the very unique perspective from his philanthropic work.”

Bullshit. People pay to see Bill because he’s famous. Now he’s famous for earning a lot of money for speaking. Which makes more people want to pay him.

Clinton collected $500,000 for yapping at ex-Israeli President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday party. Assuming he would have lived through them, Peres could have had 100 first-rate experts on a variety of important subjects speak to him for the same amount.


Now his wife Hillary is cashing in on the lecture circuit. Hillary Clinton’s main accomplishment is having married Bill. And putting up with him. And daughter Chelsea isn’t far behind. Three famous Clintons with nothing to say, no accomplishments to point to, $100 million richer just for being famous.

Does it matter? You bet. Celebrities suck the air out of the room, depriving more important issues, and the people who advocate for them, from media attention and thus an audience. They collect money, as with those book advances, that would do society a lot more good in more hands. By attracting so much attention, by being so insipid and famous at the same time, they warp our values and our politics.

What to do instead? Quentin Tarantino has it right. He plucks talented actors out of obscurity and elevates them. Christoph Waltz’s brilliant turns as a sadistic SS officer in “Inglorious Basterds” and as a dangerous dentist and bounty hunter in “Django Unchained” rate as some of the best performances in cinema of the last few years.

Thank God, no one is putting Waltz on any magazine covers. Yet.

(Ted Rall’s website is His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)


15 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Die, Celebrities, Die

  1. Holy shit — the acid is just burning my face off!! In a word: BITTER!!! Whew!!!

    That said, I couldn’t agree more. But, you kind of went off the rails with the Clintons. Yes, Bubba is overrated, but becoming President of the U.S. is a pretty big achievement in and of itself, no matter that when it came to the job he screwed the pooch. (Meaning, Monica. Za-zing!)

    A better example would have been the pathetic level of grief displayed when James Gandolfini died. I would say Gandolifini was overrated, but I’d probably get beat up for it. Nonetheless, this guy basically WAS Tony Soprano, and it’s hard to see anyone else ever being that role. Literally, he was made for it. His other performances in movies were decent, passable performances that we some version of Tony Soprano — either amped up (Killing Them Softly) or toned down (The Man Who Wasn’t There). Daniel Day-Lewis he wasn’t.

    But about his passing, if I had to read one more comment like these ….

    “I feel like I lost a member of my own family …”
    “I went to my local Italian restaurant and ordered the Gabagool in honor of Tone ….”
    “I’m so sad, I’m re-watching the entire series ….”
    “He was such a great guy, a famous person you could have a beer with …”

    …. I think I would have puked blood. The disgusting attempt to out-grief one another over a person that they never even met, much less knew, was gross.

    NEWSFLASH: James Gandolfini was not your friend, he was not your family. You didn’t know him and he didn’t know you — nor would he have wanted to. Celebs always say the most creepy thing is when people come up to them and act as if they know them from their characters. Well, you don’t. They’re just people doing a job, so treat them as such.

    Good piece. Peoples’ priorities are so fucked up and this celebrity worship is at the top of the list when it should be at the bottom.

  2. Ted,

    The human being is, as far as we know, the only animal that can plan into the distant future. A cat can sit by a hole in the wall for three hours, not moving a muscle, because it is aware on some level that a mouse will, at some point in the future, come out of the wall. But that’s not really planning like a human can plan.

    But even humans are rubbish at planning. Look at how many people don’t have retirement accounts. For some, it’s the unavoidable result of not being able to save, but for a lot of people, it’s because they had to have an Escalade (Why? Because the ads convinced them they did). They had to have a two-week vacation every year to a different location. Etc., etc.

    Anyone with any experience at all in how human beings consume things should be able to agree with the following: Anything that is wildly popular will, in five years, either turn out to be pointless garbage that you’ll feel like a dope for having wasted your time on (Debbie Gibson, the Harry Potter books, most television shows) or something worth enjoying over and over (The Sundays, the Travis McGee stories, a very few television shows). There is, of course, the gray area between: the occasional delightfulness of watching crappy TV, reading lousy books, going through the drive-thru at McDonald’s for food that barely qualifies as such.

    And that’s really the lesson here, Ted. I know to avoid Royal Baby Coverage, JK Rowling’s latest book (talk about miscarriages), and the newest sandwich roll-out at the fastfood trough station. Why? Because I see the people who get joyously excited about these things. I know that I wouldn’t want them as friends, I wouldn’t want them as neighbors, and I’d sooner shoot myself in the face with a shotgun than talk to them for more than five minutes.

    So use celebrity as a marker buoy. Here there be dragons. Avoid it for now, circle back in three, four or five years, and give thanks that, when you reach the end of your days, you will actually have led a life worth living, and not the empty stupor that these people went through for decades.

  3. “The human being is, as far as we know, the only animal that can plan into the distant future.”

    @alex: First off, you have no evidence of that. Secondly, you’re engaging in reverse-anthropomorphism. You’re taking a human behavior, only possible because of civilization, and then casting that behavior upon animals in an effort to devalue them and elevate humans. If there’s anything that’s “as far as we know”, it’s that animals probably don’t have a need to plan into the distant future. Maybe they do, but for the most part the live in a linear fashion based up day-to-day survival. It’s not relevant to demand they behave as humans do, just to declare humans “special”.

  4. Squirrels store nuts for the winter, chimpanzees use tools, and there are many other animals that do similar things. While we write this off as “instinctual behaviour”, how do explain humans hoarding or collecting things? Is it possible that some humans have remnants of these instincts, or that the animals can think logically?

  5. Whoops! – off base a bit as to Ted’s original posting here – Yes – I also get a bit irritated at the excessive attention given to some stars and celebrities. For God’s sake, look at the Kardashians and the Jersey Shore crowd – what does this say about our culture and values?

  6. OMG. I was just saying yesterday how Christoph Waltz is probably one of the best actors I have ever seen. He was the only good thing about Inglorious Basterds. I thought he was great in Carnage too. You’re that much cooler for noticing, Mr. Rall.

    I always approve of ripping on the Clintons when it is done so factually…There is some kind of Bubba magic though. People really listen intently to him. I was infuriated when he defended PRISM.

    Celebrity worship really comes down to how malleable most people are and our primitive brains that trick us into believing that people we see are important to our survival. Evolutionarily speaking, we don’t understand that we don’t really know celebrities. There is no prehistoric precedent for video.

    I’m just as disgusted when people obsess over famous people, but I won’t pretend that I hate the idea of celebrity. Some actors and musicians are great people who do great work and I think they deserve their success and I really hope they are happy.

  7. @rikster: Yes, many animals do seasonal planning. Woodpeckers, foxes, wolverines, etc … all prepare food stores to get them through the tough season. I would call that short term planning or seasonal planning.

    What Alex was saying was they don’t do long-term planning, and he used the human concept of “retirement” as an example. Well — obviously animals don’t retire. They have no concept of retirement and likely never will, making it a weird sort of reverse-anthropomorphism on Alex’s part to use is as example to diminish their thinking.

    But — we really have no way of knowing for certain if animals engage in long-term planning. What about beavers? Is building the complex ecosystem of a dam (which is a marvel of engineering) an example of long-term planning? The argument could be made that is is. What about lion prides expanding their territories? We have no way of knowing that they plan ahead to expand, if say their pride reaches a certain size.

    Either way, it’s a poor argument on Alex’s part. One I don’t like because of the inherent superiority it applies to humans.

  8. ex,

    That wasn’t alex’s point at all…he was saying we are supposed to shine when it comes to planning and yet we do not. I’ll go further though. Humans ARE special. Just how special? Well plenty of healthy disagreement there. We have are sentient and have great potential. Most animals simply react to their environments, letting themselves be shaped. We can shape our environment like no other animal though few of us really do. We are still animals and there’s nothing wrong with that. We aren’t universally special or divinely inspired either. Most people do not give animals enough credit for what they can do, but we can reasonably conclude that humans stand out in some way.

  9. Retirement is just one kind of long term planning. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that animals just don’t have any reason to plan long term…

  10. @Jack: You didn’t add anything to Alex’s ignorant statement, and didn’t refute anything I said. To the contrary, your typical notion that humans are sentient, and animals are not — well, nothing more needs to be said about your total ignorance on the topic. I’ve no need to engage you or Alex further, since you’ve not even the most basic understanding of animal behavior. I suggest you skip the NASCAR (or whatever typical entertainment you digest) and read at a minimum five or six books on Ethology before embarrassing yourself further.

  11. Jack,

    A while back I told ex to put up or shut up on an issue that was under discussion at that time. I had grown tired (ha ha) of his, frankly, unbalanced, hysterical and hostile comments, and of his cherry picking of minor details to derail the actual discussion topics. And again, we come to an example of the same thing.

    Humans are (as I said before) the only animals that we know of (which is not to say that other animals don’t plan far into the future, just that I was not aware of any such information) which engage in long-term planning for the future. I said it as a prefatory comment about another issue altogether: that humans, even though we can plan for events that are far, far off (planning for retiring being one of the most common events we all share, thus, one we can all understand as being necessary, thus, the best example I could think of), we are terrible at making the best choices for our own futures.

    That point — that we’re terrible at making good choices for our own futures, even though we do possess the ability to do so (look at how many people are not going to be able to retire because they simply never saved enough to begin with or spent their money on big-ass cars, giant houses, etc.) — went back to Ted’s original post. Celebs suck the joy out of everything. Some person is getting a massive payout for what will be, I strongly suspect, a crappy book about something trivial and silly. And the hordes of idiots are all abuzz with excitement over it. The hordes will buy the book, consume her television series, twitter about it endlessly, facebook it to death and back, and so on.

    A little of this is fine. We all need our harmless bits of fun. But, for a lot of people, that previous paragraph describes their entire lives. A perpetual loop of meaningless experiences done because, well, everyone else is doing it. And, as I said to Ted, the only benefit we can draw from this as thinking beings, is to use it as a warning: look at the people who watch this show, read this book, listen to this talk show person. Would I want to interact with this person? That’s how you plan for your future.

    I don’t know if ex’s behavior is the result of an imbalance in his medications. I don’t know if it’s something he does in the same vein as the sort of humor Andy Kaufman used to engage in. I just know that he isn’t worth refuting because he isn’t interested in a genuine discussion. I tried several times to have a genuine discussion, and it just seemed to wind him up more and more into full-tilt crazy.

    Do what I do, just ignore him. Even when he seems lucid. Just ignore him. Because he isn’t here to contribute. He’s here to get attention. Maybe if we ignore him for long enough, he’ll grow bored and wander on to some other distraction. Plenty of flies out there for him to pull the wings off of.

  12. Cherry picking and derailing is right. I’ll add ‘hijacking.’

    About the ARTICLE:

    Some of us just don’t have much ‘moxie and grit.’ My brother seems BORN with those. I’m inclined to dismiss those as ‘talent’ or ‘luck’ if every other useful quality is simply ‘talent’ or ‘luck.’ I do what I can to make up for lower ‘moxie and grit’ with undesirable, unrespectable ‘talent.’