Thursday, June 21, 2007
It's got to be lonely in that ivory tower.
AVOIDING THE PROLES. I really don't know what to make of this. Two powerful conservative bloggers have recently posted personal reactions to the Forbes list of top 100 celebrities. Both seem to be taking a certain perverse pride in not knowing a lot of the names on it. Here's Ilya Somin from the Volokh Conspiracy:
Looking at Forbes' list... it turns out that there are 26 of these people that I've never heard of, and another 10-15 whom I vaguely recollect but don't really know what they do....
Just as the average American is rationally ignorant about politics because it doesn't interest him much, I am rationally ignorant about Hollywood and pop music stars because most of them don't interest me much (other than the ones who co-star with Randy Barnett, of course!).
The lesson to be learned, if there is one, is that rational ignorance is a universal phenomenon, not limited to the "stupid" unwashed masses. We are all inevitably ignorant about a wide range of topics. Unfortunately, however, popular ignorance about politics probably causes more social harm than academic geeks' ignorance about pop culture.
The highest-ranking celebrity I'd never heard of: Jay-Z, ranked no. 9.
Then there's Los Angeles luminary Patterico, who gets very specific:
I list the names of the people I never heard of in the extended entry. I recognize that Iím particularly ignorant in this area, but Iím still willing to bet that youíve never heard of some of these ďcelebritiesĒ yourself.
People I never heard of:
Larry the Cable Guy
There were several other people whose names sounded vaguely familiar, but who I couldnít place exactly. For example:
Vince Vaughn (I guessed he was a singer, but the wife reminded me he was in the Wedding Crashers and I then remembered him)
Alex Rodriguez (I thought I didnít know who he was, but then my wife said ďHeís some sports guy, isnít he?Ē and I remembered I knew him as a big-time home run hitter when he played for my hometown Texas Rangers)
Emeril Lagasse (I have seen his face on sausages I have bought at the store but didnít know for sure if that was him because I donít know his last name)
Annika Sorenstam (I knew she was some kind of sports babe, but thought her sport was tennis, when itís actually golf)
Hilary Duff (I thought she was an actress, but apparently I was thinking of Hillary Swank. This person is a singer of some sort. But I think Iíve heard the name.)
How about you?
Of the 28 people listed by Patterico, I know 22. And I'm honestly struggling with the statement, implicitly seconded by Patterico, that "popular ignorance about politics probably causes more social harm than academic geeks' ignorance about pop culture."
Whether the statement is true in some absolute sense or not, I can't escape the logic that it would be almost impossible for an "academic geek" to view the question any other way. What we don't know, after all, is obviously less important to us -- and less obviously harmful in our eyes -- than what we do know. In other words, how could Somin and Patterico possibly believe otherwise? There's clearly a huge amount of popular culture they have missed or deliberately ignored. And if Patterico's commenters are any indication, they're not alone.
I have a problem with that. The people on the list have, collectively, a huge impact on who we are as Americans and westerners, for both good and ill. To be ignorant of such a high percentage of them bespeaks a narrowness and rigidity of interests that may be as injurious to political perceptions as an inability to name members of the President's cabinet.
Jay-Z is number nine on the list because he is a cultural archetype of the emerging phenomenon of the rapper as business mogul and social trendsetter. To know nothing of him or 50 Cent suggests a person who hasn't looked much below the surface of the hip-hop gangsta movement that's in the process of transforming American (and European) youth in ways that may prove critical to our future. (And don't claim you've read a book or two about it. If you haven't heard Jay-Z with Linkin Park, you don't know squat about it.)
Others, primarily sports figures to be sure, represent extremely significant accomplishments that don't deserve to be patronized even by 'academic geeks.' Michael Schumacher is possibly the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time. Ditto for Roger Federer in tennis. Annika Sorenstam is almost certainly the greatest woman golfer in history; calling her a "sports babe" actively derides the talent, discipline, character, and perseverance it takes to become the best at anything, which really does include sports in addition to law practice, academic research, and political power. LeBron James may be on his way to breaking the records of Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. I'm certainly no fan of the NBA, but as with the other sports names (including Beckham of World Cup fame and A-Rod of the New York Yankees, for heaven's sake), the only way I can imagine not knowing who he is would be through deliberate refusal to discuss anything with my fellow man but the topics I'm most interested in. I used to rail at the kind of hausfrau who lived with a football fan husband for years without ever learning the first thing about the rules of the game. It struck me almost as an act of malice, her perpetual ignorance requiring more effort to sustain than would a modest learning curve. Now I see that women own no monopoly on that kind of small-mindedness.
Several of the actors on the list are noteworthy for having done some very good work and/or participated in projects that generated social controversies or large popular followings. If you haven't heard of Dakota Fanning, you probably missed an affecting movie called Man on Fire, in which she and Denzel Washington shone. You also missed the aborted release of Hounddog, in which Hollywood suddenly had to reexamine its responsibilities to child actors because of a scene involving implied child rape. If the name Daniel Radcliffe means nothing to you, you're probably one of the few who turned his nose up at the Harry Potter phenomenon, which simultaneously outraged fundamentalists and attracted young people to the reading of books more effectively than a decade of lame public service ads. If you've pigeonholed Vince Vaughn on the basis of a chance encounter with one bad comedy, I have to feel sad that you're probably never going to see his tour de force performance in Return to Paradise, one of the best movies in years about the meaning of personal moral responsibility in the ambiguous modern context.
None of these omissions invalidates an individual person's right to comment on matters political and social, but just how arid and remote is the mindset of a man whose circle of acquaintance includes no old lady fan of George Lopez's TV show, no youngster who forces confrontation with the bizarre persona conveyed by Dane Cook's stand-up comedy routines, no countrified pals who laugh uproariously at Larry the Cable Guy,† no serious sports fan who scratches his head at the Paris Hilton-like self absorption and questionable ethics of golf's enfant terrible Michelle Wie, and no woman or metrosexual open-minded male who gushes enthusiastically about the cooking feats of Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, and Emeril Lagassis?
I would argue that experience of the culture itself -- its highs, lows, and in-betweens in a wide range of human pursuits -- is also an important credential for those who presume to assess where we are as a nation and where we might go from here. In this perspective, our celebrities are not simply the kaleidoscope background of the simple-minded, but a glimpse of potent forces that touch, shape, inspire, lead, and occasionally mislead the people who are ultimately responsible for making decisions in the voting booth. If you know nothing of their interests, and care less, I'm guessing you're darn near as handicapped as the folks who can't name the three branches of the U.S. government.
At the very least, some contact with the popular culture is invaluable in perceiving how it is that the great issues of the day seep into the public consciousness to the extent that they do. If you studiously dismiss sports and television and the movies as perpetually beneath you, I will never listen to a word you have to say about the strengths and weaknesses of the mass media, because these matters are destined to remain perpetually above you.
And if you don't know who Danica Patrick is, you're definitely an old fart and probably a eunuch besides.