First published on Bogpaper, December 2013
Of all the minority groups in our country today, none suffer the same level of prejudice as celebrities. If any other group were treated as badly as celebrities currently are, there would be outrage. And how these gentle souls are victimised in our society is indeed outrageous. They are mocked and abused. They are subject to withering disdain and contempt. They are treated as second class citizens. Why? Simply for having opinions about democratic politics.
The man in the street – ordinary and hard-working – has a much easier time of it than any celeb. He can opine on this or that as he sees fit; he can disseminate his ideas freely; he can question government policy to his heart’s content. What is more, he will be treated with decency and courtesy as he does so. This decency and courtesy are not extended to the celebrity. Witness Question Time [a BBC panel discussion programme where politicians and celebrities take questions from the audience].
Over the years many celebrities have ventured on to Question Time, wanting nothing more than to express their opinions on topical issues just like ordinary folk might: comedian Russell Brand; singers Will Young and Charlotte Church; number whizz Carol Vorderman; City trader Nigel Farage to name but a few. Without exception, both on the show and afterwards, these celebs have been lampooned and derided for doing no more than speaking their minds about which peaceful activities they would like other people to be prevented from doing. We have become inured to such things, but imagine if a builder, factory worker or shop assistant were to be ridiculed in the national press, and in homes and pubs across the land for talking about politics; ridiculed for merely expressing their opinions on what the punishments should be for various voluntary exchanges to which they are not party. Imagine if instead of a popstar or an actress, it were a welder or a waitress being laughed at and bullied for asking for a tax on this, or a subsidy for that to be introduced. There would be uproar, would there not?
There are two main justifications for this appalling treatment of members of the celebrity community. First, their wealth means they are out of touch with us common folk. Second, they aren’t experts on the subjects they talk about.
Being out of touch with ordinary, hard-working folk is a serious charge in democratic society. Put simply the idea is that if you are wealthy you can’t possibly understand issues facing those who are not wealthy, therefore your opinions on democratic issues must be worthless. Another victim of this prejudice is, of course, the elected politician. The elected politician lives the life of luxury in his ivory tower, etc, so he doesn’t know what it’s like for ordinary folk. In response he will go to great lengths to convince hard-working folk that he does understand their problems, that he does empathise with them. And, as he is able via taxation, money printing and legislation at both local and national levels to make wishes come true, the elected politician will be given the benefit of the doubt. Not so the celebrity. He only has his own money at hand – money he got through his own labour. Money that is, that he got “selfishly”. Hence, his every action will be viewed with suspicion, will be seen as an extension of his selfishness. His actions will invariably be interpreted uncharitably as motivated by greed. He is rich because he is selfish; he is selfish because he is rich. He cannot win. By contrast, the elected politician has our best interests at heart. Indeed, precisely because he is an elected politician he must have the “public interest” and the “common good” at heart. The elected politician is not greedy, he is ‘concerned’. He is motivated not by mean self-interest, but by ‘compassion’. And if a few bad apples misbehave, well, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Their individual transgressions are swiftly forgotten. And they are always individual transgressions, because it would be wrong to run the risk of tarring all elected politicians with the same brush. To do so would be to question democracy itself. And for the democrat – liberal as he is – that is unthinkable.
Now, what about the charge that celebrities aren’t experts on matters political so they should keep silent about such things? Well, the most obvious point to make about this is that it’s a terribly strange charge for members of the public in a democracy to make. The position that only those who are experts on politics should be given a hearing should be anathema to citizens of a democracy. After all, the rationale of the democratic system is that the average man or woman is perfectly capable of understanding political matters. Or rather, though ordinary hard-working folk can’t be expected to understand all the higher and finer points of policy, they are perfectly able to recognise those who can and then vote for them: every citizen is knowledgeable enough to recognise an expert. Naturally one becomes more expert at a thing the more one practices. Elected politicians therefore come to know far more than non-politicians about politics, they are political experts par excellence. But then we should ask, why bother to carry on having elections? Why not just have elected politicians – the highest political experts – decide amongst themselves who should rule? Clearly they must be better suited to the task than non-politicians are. Hence if only experts are to be taken seriously, some form of dictatorship seems in order. As I said, for democrats, this seems terribly strange.
Even if we take “not being an expert” in the loose, everyday sense of “not knowing what they’re talking about” problems still abound. For one thing, why should being dim-witted bar men from engaging in democratic life? Why should not having the first clue what you’re talking about disqualify you from attempting to band together with your fellow folk in order to force various measures on unwilling non-aggressive parties who happen to live in the same country as you? Bearing in mind that it would violate the democratic principle of equality of political power to make the right to vote dependent upon passing some sort of intelligence test, unless we want to rehabilitate eugenics, we must carry on as we are now.
From this we see that it is hypocritical and misguided to treat the celebrity with political views as badly as he is treated in democratic society today. In truth, the celebrity is as capable as you or I of deciding how total strangers should be allowed to live their lives, what sorts of peaceful activities they should be allowed to engage in, and just how much of their own money obtained through peaceful voluntary exchanges they should be allowed to keep.
To say that they aren’t is worse than prejudiced. It is anti-democratic.