Here’s the plot: last week, Lena Dunham, an actress best known for starring in the popular dramedy series Girls, wrote an opinion piece “5 Reasons Why I Vote (and You Should Too)”. Its irritatingly digestive bullet-point style notwithstanding, the article’s main point was that women should mobilize to elect Democrats because the Republicans (“backwards, out-of-touch, downright freaking unbelievably anti-women’s health politicians”) are in the business of dictating women’s sex lives through their opposition to the contraceptive mandate). In other words, it was a simple Get-The-Government-Out-Of-My-Bedroom argument that we’ve all heard a gazillion times.
Then came a retort from an expected retorter: Kevin D. Williamson, columnist for the National Review, tore Miss Dunham to pieces. Since Dunham had made one single point worth noting (Get-The-Government-Out-Of-My-Bedroom), Williamson’s one corresponding rebuttal was:
“Those of us who have been working against various mandates imposed by the Affordable Care Act are as a matter of fact attempting to extricate ourselves from involvement in Lena Dunham’s sex life, the details of which we would gratefully leave to her own idiosyncratic management. It is the so-called Affordable Care Act that has involved us in subsidizing birth control, abortifacients, surgical abortions, and who knows what else, for the strong, powerful, self-actualized American woman who cannot figure out how to walk into Walgreens, lay down the price of a latte, and walk out with her own birth-control pills, no federal intervention necessary. The very conservative editors of this magazine are in fact trying to make it easier for them to do so with over-the-counter birth control. I suspect that Miss Dunham does not know very many conservatives, so allow me to pass along the message: We really, truly, sincerely do not wish to be involved in your sex life.”
Perhaps the reader would be interested in a more dispassionate and nuanced elaboration of the counter-argument to the famous Get-The-Government-Out-Of-My-Bedroom scream? Watch Fr. Robert Barron’s YouTube video.
That said… the above mentioned interaction seems to raise an interesting question: how highly do we tend to value celebrities’ publicly expressed opinions on policy matters?
The “Harry Potter” star, actress and model Emma Watson recently delivered a speech in the UNGA about the contemporary meaning of feminism. Leonardo Di Caprio stood at the same podium a couple days ago and talked about climate change. Angelina Jolie has been very adamant about publicly expressing views on the Bosnian conflict and the wars of Yugoslav seccession. George Clooney has frequently made speeches about the humanitarian situation in Sudan. Celebrities seem to be so eager to share their views on issues of global politics (and engage in activism of the sort) that there exist specialized PR agencies helping them find causes for which to campaign. In short, activism is obviously the latest fashion trend in Hollywood.
Here’s what I think about it: there are two related conclusions that could be made about the merits of the celebritizing of activism.
For one, we can all agree that none of the views and opinions expressed by activist celebrities on complicated policy matters contains a very innovative point or an original perspective. Therefore, as far as the concept of a speaker’s “weight” goes, they have none – not because an acting career makes them stupid, but because they lack the typically high level of expertise required to be able to convincingly and credibly argue major policy issues on TV. They are given air time solely because of their unrelated celebrity status and, because televised speeches often promote the speaker as much as the cause itself, the celebritizing of activism carries with itself the danger of establishing incompetent laymen as intellectual authorities (which would be a travesty, because it is bad enough that today Snooki sets the standards of sex appeal or that Rihanna is an icon of style).
For another, the scornful reactions of guys like Kevin D. Williamson (who, presumably, has more intellectual weight than an average celebrity) to the jottings of Lena Dunham does not seem very rational. I possess less than an argument, but more than an intuition to claim the following: Lena Dunham’s listicle “5 Reasons Why I Vote” will not have any effect whatsoever on the election of Democratic candidates in battleground congressional constituencies during the 2014 US Midterm election. The sorts of souls that articles of this sort can manage to convert are those of unreflecting morons, and that demographic will be easily swayed by either side in this year’s midterm election.
Why, then, does the very conservative editorial board of the National Review seem to lose sleep over Dunham’s publications? The true source of their concern might be a result of long-term predictions – predictions that are not about the long-term growing soft power of celebs, but about something much more important: the conservatives’ long-term ability to prevail in the culture wars. The Hollywood elite is intrinsically conformist and its endorsement of a specific ideology is not itself a “game changer” in the ideological war – it is a signal that its outcome appears settled. And that intuition, I believe, is what truly pisses off conservative public intellectuals.