Posh Spice might hope to feel at home in her new life in Los Angeles, but hubris is winding its way into her week as the ratings of her “Welcome to America” pseudo-documentary come in. In the U.K., where I live, this program was billed as a light-hearted, even “spoof” piece about her reputation for excess. But it seems the U.S. audience, or at least its television critics, weren’t quite ready for this. At any rate, whether or not she was joking, Victoria Beckham and her husband have become today’s totems of consumerist overdrive.
At the same time, according to media reports, the well-known environmentalist and anti-war activist, Barbra Streisand, has apparently issued the staff of a London hotel with demands about how they are to treat her while she stays there—including instructing them not to look her in the eye. You have to wonder just why someone who is about to sing to 15,000 people who are paying up to a thousand dollars each might be scared of a little personal interaction with just one of them, but I guess Barbra feels she’s earned the right.
It makes me wonder just who in public life is willing to set an example that imagines simplicity and economic stewardship as an admirable goal. George W. Bush has been no better than Barbara or Posh—indicating long ago that his environmental and foreign policies would be marked by not doing anything that would affect “the American way of life.” When even presidents are afraid to suggest that some moral issues require a tightening of our own purse strings, then we have missed the lessons of two world wars, and have failed to understand the responsibilities of living under rapid globalization.
It may seem obvious, but we need better public discourse than this. Barbra Streisand is not more important than any of us. Posh Spice appears not to know who she really is either. And presidents need to realize that part of their role in today’s world is to endorse the idea that the common good matters more than individual or even national self-interest. Whether pop star or politician, people active in public life should perhaps think a little more clearly about how, at the very least, they are often embarrassing themselves. Bono once said that fame is “a mask that eats the face”—and perhaps the fact that he hardly ever takes his sunglasses off shows that he really means it.
Filmmaker Michael Moore and journalist Mika Brzezinski have both discovered recently what happens when you try to challenge the upside-down celebrity status quo—with Moore being bumped from Larry King Live in favor of an interview with Paris Hilton, and Brzezinski learning just what “values” drive the TV news when she tried to report on Iraq instead of the hotel heiress’ release from prison. Sometimes it seems impossible to do anything to resist the fiasco of much of our popular culture other than turning off our television sets. But, for most of us, that would be a mistake—for one thing, there’s too much good stuff out there in pop culture-land if you look hard enough.
Michael Moore stated last week that his bottom line in life and work was that he hasn’t “forgotten the lessons I learned when I was young … that we will be judged by how we treat the least among us and that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Whether or not you agree with his politics, Moore’s assertions are a far cry from a written contract that prevents you being looked in the eye by another human being. But I can see a reason for a certain kind of looking away—perhaps we, like Bono, need shades to shield us from the glare of celebrity bling, because some of us are increasingly concerned that it’s the kind of brightness that only blinds us to the common good.
Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com