Celebrities Are Not Our Rulers

We are all guilty, at times, of being lazy in our terminology, making statements that upon further analysis cannot possibly be true.  These can take the form of perfectly innocent, if exaggerated, turns of phrase, such as saying that I “hate” chili peppers, when the truth is that of course I cannot possibly hate a plant.  However sometimes these exaggerations provide us with an opportunity to take a step back, question what is being said, and further question the person who is making such an exaggeration as to whether they are worthy of our time, attention, and trust.

Yesterday for example, I read a newspaper article reporting that actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are now engaged to be married.  The article quoted a Hollywood gossip columnist, who breathlessly declared that this wedding was going to be a “state occasion”, the equivalent of the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton last year in the UK.  While it is plainly obvious that this is not the case, it is worth taking apart this rather idiotic observation to see what we can learn from it.

A marriage between two movie stars, however glamorous they may be, is not a state occasion.  This is an incontrovertible fact, for the simple reason that they are not sitting heads of state, nor the offspring of sitting heads of state who are themselves in line to rule someday.  Referring to the impending nuptials of entertainers as a “state occasion” betrays either a profound ignorance of what exactly a “state occasion” is, or demonstrates an intellectual and social laziness that should be corrected.  It is similar to the way that the press often refers to a popular starlet as a “princess”, when in truth she looks more like a member of another profession which starts with the same letter.

The hyperbolic ignorance of much of the so-called mainstream media when it comes to anything beyond a basic reporting of facts, and sometimes not even then, would be laughable if it did not so often cheapen us all.  Anyone who is a fellow Catholic for example, knows how appallingly bad the coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI was on virtually every news network.  It became clear very early on that most of the reporters covering the news, as well as the commentators called to share their opinions about what was taking place, had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

A “state occasion” is something far more important than a social event, such as a wedding between two celebrities, and even if the wedding is a state occasion, whether in the case of last year’s royal wedding, or that of Prince Ranier and Grace Kelly, and so on.  It has to do with both the present personification and the future preservation of a country, in a way which has legal, political and diplomatic importance.  It is understandable that among people who do not remember their history or civics classes in high school that there may be some forgetfulness as to what various terms having to do with forms of government actually mean.  However the press, which holds itself out to be so much better-educated and sophisticated than most mere mortals, ought to avoid making or repeating pronouncements which not only betray ignorance, but provide a false impression to the public.

There is no question that we have always had a kind of organic aristocracy in this country, such as the Virginia planter families in the 17th and 18th centuries, or the New York robber barons in the 19th and early 20th.  However, these are not titled people who are always going to be entitled to some deference because of who their ancestors are.  Otherwise journalist Anderson Cooper, who is a Vanderbilt, would not be interviewing cast members from “The Real Housewives” train wrecks.  Yet these people are not heads of state, simply because they are well-known, or wealthy, or what have you.

The head of state serves as the visible representative of a country, whatever form its government happens to take, and exercises functions on behalf of that country.  While something of a generalization, admittedly, for the purpose of a brief blog post, there is a symbolic importance to the actions of a head of state as acting on behalf of all of the people.  Remember that unlike in the Mother Country, in the United States we do not separate the functions of head of state and head of the government.  In this country, the President of the United States serves both functions; in Britain, the Queen and the Prime Minister have different responsibilities.

In Britain, Prince William is the grandson of the present head of state, and will someday be the head of state himself, according to the laws of that country. His wedding was, therefore, a state occasion.  Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie may be interesting, even powerful people, but they do not represent the United States in any official, constitutional capacity  – and thank goodness for that, if it is not too misanthropic of me to say so.  While it may appear something of a tempest in a teapot to get worked up about the marriage of “Brangelina” – [shudder] – being referred to as a “state occasion”, the truth is that these things do matter.  When we bandy about words in a casual fashion, we not only cheapen the language as a whole, but we also cheapen the meaning of those specific words we are using incorrectly, as well.

What is particularly interesting about the characterization of the Pitt-Jolie nuptials, innocent as such a characterization may ultimately be, as something approaching the dynastic and legal significance of a British royal wedding, is what it tells us about ourselves.  It displays a rather disturbing attitude toward celebrity which has already brought us quite low as a culture, and seeks to diminish us even further unless we push back against it.   We should all be happy that, after years of cohabitation, this influential and popular pair has decided to formally tie the knot.  Yet however momentous that occasion is for them and for their family and friends, holding it up as being an event of national importance is but another sign that our society needs to refocus its cultural priorities away from the flashy, and toward the substantial.

“State Opening of Parliament with Queen Victoria” by Joseph Nash (1851)
Houses of Parliament, London

The Importance of the Important in Social Media

In the Twitterverse and in the Blogosphere, if my readers will forgive my using these rather clunky, made-up terms, there is an occurrence which one can liken to the “You’re a nice guy, but…” speech at the end of a first and last date.  This is the dreaded – again, my apologies –  “unfollow”, when someone stops following your Twitter account or your blog.  Distinctions must be made, however, between unfollows and unfollows, which may not be apparent to those who do not blog or tweet.

If you are following someone who never follows you back, perhaps because they are very prominent, chances are you will not be offended if the prominent individual never interacts with you.  For example, I follow the National Gallery of Art’s Twitter feed, even though I have no expectation that they will ever interact with me on Twitter or read my blogs.  Though truthfully, I would not mind working in their executive level someday, but that is as may be.

If someone prominent follows you first, however, then this is a different matter altogether.  Whether it is a well-known journalist or magazine who likes your blogging/tweeting, or a celebrity who finds you amusing, having that kind of feedback can be wonderfully encouraging for a writer or for a user of social media to meet and connect with people.  It is like an endorsement that maybe you are a decent writer, or an interesting  raconteur, after all.

So when that well-known person or publication stops following your blog or your social media account, it can inevitably feel like a rejection. “What did I do wrong?” is the inevitable question you ask yourself.  And even if there is a legitimate, non-personal reason as to why the other has moved elsewhere, it still feels like a punch in the gut – or indeed, being told that you are not suitable dating material.

It is interesting to note that because of contemporary social media, we can actually experience these sorts of feelings, which used to be limited to those of our immediate acquaintance.  Our grandparents might have written a letter to a prominent person, institution, or publication and never had a reasonable expectation of receiving a reply.  Nor would that recipient necessarily have even been aware of our grandparents’ existence, unless of course they were prominent people in some way, themselves. Yet today, in part because of our celebrity-obsessed culture, if we interact with someone of prominence, we can feel as though we have a connection which we do not, in fact, have.

Last evening for example, I was watching a documentary about Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and various events she had to attend, including her annual garden party at Buckingham Palace. Although around 2,500 ordinary people were invited to the event, only about 100 would have the opportunity to be presented to the Queen herself.  The rest would have to make do with watching her do a walk-about in her back yard, before retreating to the royal tent to meet with fellow aristocrats, diplomats, and politicians, with whom presumably she would be more familiar on a personal level.  One of those in attendance who did manage to be presented to the Queen was surprisingly effusive about it, and how gracious and beautiful the Queen was in their few minutes together; the rest were disappointed to some degree, but got over it.

Another event was a visit to a county seat, where the Queen stopped in to a daycare center to meet with the staff and some of the mothers.  This was far more informal, as the children continued to play around the monarch, kicking balls and making noise as toddlers tend to do.  Most of the women shown were informally – that is, sloppily – dressed, and did not seem to care much that the Queen was there.  Indeed, some of them even said so after she had left, meaning the opportunity was wasted on them.

Most of those reading this pages, I would hazard a wager, are not celebrities or particularly prominent people.  Like me you are ordinary people who try to do the best you can each day with the talents and abilities you have been given, but still like to make time to read and to reflect on things for at least a few minutes each day – given the general length of the blog posts I write, you could hardly be otherwise.  I do not make a living from my writing, nor do I have any reasonable expectation of doing so: for me, it is something I feel called to do, but not something meant to be a full-time venture.

Perhaps for those of us who do write and try to actively engage with others on social media, and hope to be read more widely as I mentioned yesterday, when a prominent person takes an interest we are a little more aware of something beyond the “coolness” factor of it.  A connection like that could lead to positive and helpful feedback to improve our writing, and maybe even the chance to do a bit more writing for a wider audience.  When that connection is lost, an avenue for reaching a potential growth feels lost as well.  Those who do not write at length or often may not understand this, but if you have ever tried out for a sports team or competed for a role in a theatrical or musical performance and been cut after having made it to at least some higher level of selectivity, that is perhaps the closest analogy I can provide.

In the end, however, no prominent group or person owes us anything, if they voluntarily choose to interact with us via social media, and then for whatever reason choose no longer to do so.  One of the dangers of social media is a sense of over-familiarity which we would (hopefully) never attempt in real life, but which the relative safety of social media allows us to engage in.  One does not embrace or touch The Queen upon meeting her, unless one wants to be considered a bounder.

And who knows? Perhaps at some point a change of heart will occur, or another possibility may open up.  That would be the better way to deal with the realization that you are not, in fact, as important as perhaps you thought yourself to be – what a good lesson that is for all of us to learn.

The Queen takes a stroll in the back yard