A few months back, I had the opportunity to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, about identity politics and public policy. I was asked at one point what I thought was the best way to make a difference in the world. It’s a pretty lofty question and is generally met with platitudes about being the change you want to see and advocating to the best of your ability and generally caring.
My answer, though? Become famous. Yes, I truly believe—and I think there are plenty of examples that show—that the path toward access and ears of the general populace is through fame. We live in a society that values celebrity to great measure. Consider this exercise in cognitive dissonance regarding celebrity: The people who can most afford shit are most likely to get it free.
One of my favorite movies is Love, Actually. And there’s a hilarious scene where rock ’n’ roll legend Billy Mack (played by Bill Nighy) is performing a surprisingly unsurprising reworking of one of his hits into a Christmas song, and the hosts for the talk show ask him if he has a message for the kids. He says: “Hiya, kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs ... become a pop star, and they give you them for free!” Hilarity and drug reference aside, it’s oddly true.
That’s what celebrity does. It can get you in a room where people will listen to you for no other reason than your celebrity. And nowhere is this more visible than in the recent case of Kim Kardashian being effective in her advocacy for the release of Alice Marie Johnson, a nonviolent drug offender serving a life sentence, despite the efforts of many, many groups who’d taken up the cause to no clear resolution.
There are many entirely valid criticisms of Kardashian—her clan and the culture that celebrates and makes rich and famous people with no discernible talents, gifts or skills. Kim K. and her family are culture vultures with an affinity for blackness that often seems more about profit than respect. Kardashian is married to Kanye West, a man who is so far gone from where he started that I wonder if his early career wasn’t a ruse to begin with.
Does Kim K. deserve to be famous? Not really. Not by any measurable standard. And she’s not alone. There are tons of reality-TV-made famous people whose entire celebrity would vanish if TV went dead.
But since she is famous, the least she can do is have a positive impact on ... something. Donald Trump is a deplorable human being. Anyone who supports him is doing so despite every single fact that suggests he has no business having ascended to the highest office in the world.
With his entire lack of decorum or consideration for fact, diplomacy or couth, Trump seems to respect very little of the political world, but one thing he’s always shown is how much he enjoys being famous and having famous friends. He respects celebrity in ways that make no sense, but in as twilight zone a world as we live in, it seems like being famous in this version of America can help get shit done.
Kim K. discovered the story of Alice Marie Johnson on Facebook, and it moved her to action. Her fame, and presumably her husband’s affinity for Trump, got her an audience with the president of the United States of America, and less than a week later, a mantle she took up got results. Sylvester Stallone called up Trump to tell him that Jack Johnson deserved a posthumous pardon, and that shit happened.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I also think that President Barack Obama’s not having done either of those things is a significant factor. Trump seems to hate Obama enough that he’s willing to try to undo everything he did (or didn’t do). Celebrities might want to take note of shit Obama didn’t get accomplished and head their asses right to the White House. Trump will fuck around and end police brutality just to spite Obama.
In a recent move that baffled the ever-loving shit out of me, Trump wanted to meet with the NFL players who kneeled during the anthem, a group he referred to as sons of bitches, so that they could point out to him people who should be pardoned because of unfair treatment at the hands of the criminal-justice system. There is even talk of a pardon for Muhammad Ali, who, if he also weren’t famous, might not have Trump’s attention. (It should be noted that Ali doesn’t even need a pardon, since his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.)
This is bizarro world. But that’s what celebrity can do. The POTUS is not immune from the cult of celebrity. He loves a photo op as much as anybody. But it turns out that maybe he’s listening if he deems you worthy enough of your fame.
I have no idea what Trump’s end goal is. I’m not sure there is one. Maybe he will end up changing the criminal-justice system one prisoner at a time despite appointing Jeff Sessions to head the agency helming it.
Trump wanted to meet with Meek Mill about prison reform. Meek was convinced that it was a bad idea, and on its face, it seems like that’s probably true. But considering what we know about Trump and his penchant for listening to folks he deems valuable to society, maybe, if you’re famous, catching an audience with Trump isn’t the worst idea. Maybe he only really listens to people he thinks other people consider famous.
Obviously, this is a simplistic reading of his actions, and I’m not going to trumpet the virtues of Kim K., either. I think, in this circumstance, what she was able to do is great, and I hope she uses her platform and access to effect more change that benefits communities she’s benefited from a million times over, which, according to some interviews, is her goal.
This shouldn’t be how positive change happens, but the truth is, people care about famous people, and if that helps get things done, then I can only hope that more famous folks take advantage of that access and help push the needle for social change.