Why we love to hate celebrities

‘One World: Together at Home’ is a weirdly complacent name.

There is a classic Simpsons episode in which young Bart falls down a well. Local celebrities, with the aid of guest star Sting, decide to band together to do something about it. Their magnificently useless contribution is to band together to perform a song in which they ‘send their love down the well’. ‘We can’t get him out, so we’ll do the next best thing, go on TV and sing, sing, sing.’

I am surely not the only person who thought of this scene when Gal Gadot, Will Ferrell, Sarah Silverman and others performed a rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. This ill-fated enterprise has been buried in a pile of scorn already, so there is no need to dwell upon it, but the sound of multi-millionaires burbling ‘imagine no possessions’ in the comfort of their palatial homes was understandably antagonizing.

Now, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and friends are coming together to perform a ‘virtual benefit concert’ for Global Citizen and the World Health Organization called ‘One World: Together at Home’. You can appreciate why these legends of television are doing this event from their separate homes. There is coronavirus, sure, but there is also the knowledge that one room would not be large enough for three such ample egos. 

It would be churlish to be too disdainful given that the stars are raising money for relief workers, but pious words about the concert serving ‘as a source of unity and encouragement’ cannot help but raise the hackles. Since Live Aid, celebrities have vastly overstated their ability to be a force of change in the world. Remembering Freddie Mercury’s vastly charismatic 1985 performance, the stars see themselves as people who can raise the spirits of the men and women of their age and channel their impulses into idealistic directions. That much of the money that was raised was funneled into buying arms for the fantastically ruthless Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam often goes unmentioned.

Of course, that kind of ludicrous mismanagement is not something that Fallon and friends are about to recreate. While a lot of money has been wasted around the world on diagnostic tests and ventilators that have turned out not to work, there is a slim chance of the funds from this event being seized by psychopathic autocrats. 

I should be happy they are doing it. God knows nurses need the cash. But hearing well-fed calls for unity amid the storm of domestic and international dishonesty, ineptitude and arrogance that has characterized the COVID-19 crisis sticks in the craw. ‘One World: Together at Home’ is a weirdly complacent name as well, not just because so many truckers, shelf-stackers, sales assistants, construction workers, police officers et cetera are out of work, but because some countries, like Japan and South Korea, have thus far done a good enough job of containing the virus that they have not had to lock down half as much as Europe and the United States. 

Besides, you get the creeping, spiteful suspicion that being at home seems far more like a pleasant lark when you have an enormous house, garden and swimming pool than when you don’t. You get the creeping, spiteful feeling that all these celebs are short of is attention. The more you think about it, the more you wish they had set up a GoFundMe, turned off their cameras and shut the hell up.

In truth, there is something a little childish and hypocritical about my contempt for celebrities. My apartment is palatial compared to the homes that many people in poor countries have had to shelter in. Perhaps I should think a bit less about how privileged the stars have been and a little more about how privileged I am.

My friend Madeleine Kearns writes about celebrities’ awful habit of issuing ignorant opinions with a grand authoritativeness that obscures their total lack of qualifications. Vexing, to be sure, but what are my qualifications? I have no more credentials than Sean Penn or Bono. All I can say in my defense, perhaps, is that I make no bones about being in the ignorant opinions business, while their proclamations piggyback on their success in other realms of life. (I believe I am right about most things, of course, and that they are wrong, but this is at least partly a question of taste.)

Yet in a weird way, hating celebrities is what unites us for a moment. When this concert was announced, everyone on Twitter was scoffing. ‘I’d rather get the virus than watch this,’ said the anti-war leftist Spectator writer Michael Tracey. ‘HAVENT WE SUFFERED ENOUGH,’ said Emily Zanotti of the liberal conservative outlet the Daily Wire. ‘This is like pouring a Coke a Pepsi and a Shasta into one glass,’ said the laconic novelist Walter Kirn. (OK, I don’t know what this one means. Is it bad? I kind of assume so.) Political, class and national boundaries were crossed as thousands of different people set aside their personal differences to come up with the most creative insults possible.

What these poor celebs combine is a fantastic level of material wealth with a fantastic dearth of self-awareness; stupefying levels of mushy self-righteousness with a stupefying absence of irony and wit. Does it matter? No, not really. Poor old Jimmy Fallon and Gal Gadot were not the ones who hushed up the initial research into coronavirus, or who downplayed its dangers, advised against wearing masks and neglected to stockpile resources. None of them are even vaguely to blame — unless Billie Eilish secretly invested in bushmeat. But it feels so good to insult them. It feels so cathartic. For a moment we can focus all of our hostile energies onto someone else, someone whose social status is so far above our own that we can do so without feeling bad about it. 

If that is how celebs can bring a wounded people together again then perhaps they are heroes after all.

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