The Weekend Essay
Britney, Harry, Anna and Me
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, March 9, 2007
Chançon sans paroles
James Madison didn’t have Britney Spears and Harry Potter in mind when he worried about the tyranny of the majority. His concerns oriented more toward the danger of political blocs acting like mobs by force of numbers. Madison’s solution: the Bill of Rights as a legal check, and the multiplication of political factions for civic balance. Great for the polity. But what about majorities outside the political process, where market forces apply but the Bill of Rights doesn’t, where most of us spend our lives and sustain the cultural swarms and smarms of Nielsen ratings and Hollywood IQs, where careers and counter-trends are made, mangled and spat out on whims, where the narrow aperture of what makes a news cycle and how long it makes it for is a modern Crock Inquisitor? Tyranny in those cases is so alive in the United States, so bouncy, that it provides a full-frontal view of American society’s Achilles’ hells (no, not heels): love of judgment, the need to conform, the comfort of mobs. It’s a story as old and treaded over as “The Scarlet Letter,” “Main Street,” “The Crucible” and “The Human Stain.” If those are refined examples, lost for the most part on dozing English majors and faithful choirs, the themes behind those works have been on display for the last few weeks with the vengeance of the Furies. The people involved — Britney Spears, Anna Nicole Smith and Daniel Radcliffe, the 17-year-old star of the Harry Potter manufacturing co. — are either dead or rich, famous and seasoned enough in public-lynching theater to handle it. But it doesn’t diminish the luridness of the spectacle, or what it says about those who pile it on. And the society they pile it on.
Pounce it on is more like it: Should Britney Spears have been partying so much? Should she have shaved her head? Was that an unshaven hair under her left armpit? Was her bikini wax Brazilian enough? Should she have gotten so many tattoos? Shouldn’t she be wearing underwear more often? Should she be having sex at all now that she’s a mother, sexuality and parenthood being mutually exclusive in American morals? Should Harry Potter’s child star have appeared naked on stage, nightly, for ten minutes, with a naked girl and at times a naked horse, with whom he simulates sex (the simulation is with the horse; not sure about the girl)? Should he be smoking on stage? Should he be bumped off his role in the remaining Harry Potter movies so a more wholesome Potter can insure Warner Brothers’ investment? Should Anna Nicole Smith have had the tackiness to die so early in life and deprive a run of paparazzi and stop-loss clinics their rightful due? Should she be made to apologize? Shouldn’t the coroner own up to her tattoo geography? And if O.J. Simpson had anything at all to do with Anna Nicole, shouldn’t he be indicted for her murder, or at least shipped off to Guantanamo without charge so we can be done with his compulsively obscene resurgences?
I’m underestimating the variety and vileness of the questions that got asked in all these cases, not to mention the rhetorical nature of the questions: it’s not to seek answers that little bimbettes on chat-shows and wishful lynchers of call-in shows ask the questions, but only to nail down the splinters on their soapboxes. The day Britney Spears had her drop-ins at that tattoo parlor in Los Angeles, a KABC television reporter went on a rampage of rhetorical question marks on the air, all the while doing what dishonest reporters (and our own Lord and Savior president) do so well—attributing to “some” or to “others” claims that Britney is “out of control” and behaving “inappropriately,” two of the favored terms of our authoritarian culture. The same undercurrent if not the very same words have informed many a stupidly parental reaction to Daniel Radcliffe’s naked romps on a London stage.
This is no defense of the rich and famously dead. I’ve never cared for any of these characters, real (in the case of Britney) or fictitious (in the case of Harry Potter and Anna Nicole). I’ve usually found them duller than Indiana in winter. The Harry Potter series strikes me as children’s equivalent of Stephen King: you read those books for the stories, not the style (which is to say that I don’t read either, having no heart or time for anything badly written). As for Britney, I confess that, sadly, I’ve never followed in every middle age American male’s indulgence in psycho-sexual fantasies involving her; I like my porn honest and authentic, sans silicone, piercings and touch-ups. The average check-out girl at the local supermarket is vastly more interesting than anything Britney could dish out, especially when she opens her mouth: like great athletes who talk, she shatters the illusion of being more than the parts of her sum. And Anna Nicole? I never saw her Playboy spreads until after she died, and the business about silicone and touch-ups applies here, too, though on more than one occasion I mistook her appearances on E! for A&E repeats of CSI (the lab scenes).
Nevertheless it was the popular assault on these three creatures that finally turned me in their favor: the more the tabloids piled on the dirt on Anna Nicole, the nobler she seemed. The more the gossipers lynched Britney’s night life and day daze the more I rooted for her to ditch rehab and party all she wants. Every time she was reportedly out one more night, my esteem of her rose. (Her child? Worry about the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands of children abandoned to the vagaries of foster homes and child services bureaucracies and abusive parents before getting on Britney’s case). The point being that celebrities ought not be slaves to our fantasies or scapegoats for our failures. But they are, because the live-and-let-live ideal of American lore is bunk. The judgmental in American culture is a third rail of individualism: stray from the tracks at your own risk. Daniel Radcliffe and Spears will survive it. But what they’re sustaining at the moment is a mega-projection of what, I suspect, millions of non-conforming students sustain (and sometimes don’t sustain, given adolescent suicide rates) in schools, out of celebrity’s glare, what anyone in their invisible community risks sustaining the moment something unusual, out of character, allegedly immoral, happens, or the moment they flirt too lustily with the original. “The respectability of the Gopher Prairies, said Carol, is reinforced by vows of poverty and chastity in the matter of knowledge,” Lewis writes in “Main Street.” “Except for half a dozen in each town the citizens are proud of that achievement of ignorance which it is so easy to come by. To be ‘intellectual’ or ‘artistic’ or, in their own word, to be ‘highbrow,’ is to be priggish and of dubious virtue.”
And of course the lynching mentality’s greatest consequence closes the circle. It’s not limited to those places outside the political process where only market forces and cultural swarms apply. It boomerangs back to the political process, honed and fanged for business. I don’t see a difference between the mob mentality that judges a pop stars’ “right” to shave her hair or drink all night and a mob mentality that judges, say, the Dixie Chicks’s patriotism or a university professor’s right to call the president a war criminal; it’s the same mentality that manages to reelect a president who needed only stiff up vague fear and liberal hatred to overcome four years of leadership more dismal, dishonest and destructive than any president’s. In other words, the vulgarity of popular judgments may have limited exposure on E! and in People magazine. But if Tocqueville was making his way around the United States in his hybrid today, he’d give those judgments more attention than those thickening up the Congressional Record and OpEd pages. The body politic’s bile ferments where we least assume it does, although it does stand to reason that mindless mobs drill in culture’s vast wastelands.