Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Venn Diagrarm: Which Circle(s) Capture Your Life?

A couple of Facebook friends recently brought to my attention some somewhat 'controversial' remarks made by the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, in which she complained about the viciousness and lack of empathy that are easily afforded by the anonymity of the internet.

Her comments became 'controversial' - and I use quotes here because this particular controversey exists completely within pockets of the US; I had not heard anything about it, at all, here in Paris until my friends commented - because at one point, she compared her personal situation to the stress of the battlefield.

You come across [online comments] about yourself and about your friends, and it's a very dehumanizing thing. It's almost like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanizing thing, and then something is defined out of it
For context, the remarks were made at the recent "re/code" conference at a resort in Palos Verdes, California, an annual event where the movers and shakers in technology and media convene to discuss the impact of digital technology.  Participants typically include Sergey Brin (Google) or Reed Hastings (Netflix), or Steve Jobs (when he was alive).  It's a bit odd that Paltrow was invited, but it's their conference.

One of my friends linked to the response from the spectrum that it's incredibly narcissistic and solipsistic - and not to say stupid - to compare the tribulations of internet mean-ness to the real violence a soldier faces.  This is the camp of, inter alias, Senator John McCain, who of course, famously was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict for many years.

Another friend posted comments from the website The Daily Beast, which rose to the defence of Paltrow for making her claim, which, if analysed carefully, actually contains a kernel of truth.

Two things should be completely obvious to everyone. First, communication in our culture has taken on not just the rhetoric of war but the psychology of battle in a particularly degrading and modern sense—totalistic, hate-soaked, viciously othering, and massively xenophobic. Second, it is not bad to say this is so. Instead of a virtual punch in the ovaries, Paltrow should get a round of applause. 
I don't necessarily agree with his conclusion that language has become meaner or more vile. And I truly do not agree with the us of a "word" like 'othering' (as Professor Higgins would say, I ask you sir, what sort of word is that?) If you look at the print media of 100 years ago (take a look, for example, at HL Menken), it was, to put it mildly, unkind. A quick look through the archives of political cartoons in the days of Thomas Nast make Doonesbury look like a pillow fight by comparison.

The author does, however, have a point, and I think it is this.

What has changed is less the tone and more the immediacy. The omnipresence.

And the anonymity.

100 years ago, if the popular press printed nasty things about Charlie Chaplin, it was only once a day, and you had to pay your five cents to get the tabloid. And the person making the attack signed his name.  Thus, in attacking Chaplin, Chaplin could fight back if he liked.

Now, it's 25 hours a day and free. Any idiot with a cell phone can "tweet" about whomever they want. And there are no consequences for the attack.  THAT is the difference. And it is not an insignificant one.

With respect to this particular incident, let me just say that I like Gwyneth Paltrow. I've always thought her movies were pretty good (well, not all of them, but many). I think she is a fine actress and an attractive woman. I also pay little to no attention to what she says when not on screen, just like any other celebrity, musician, or athlete. I honestly do not care - at all - what their opinions on anything unrelated to their movies, their music, or their performance on the field last night was. She is a very good actress; I think as an intellect, less so.

In this particular case, her comments comparing her own life with a soldier's are, in my opinion, laughably out of touch with reality. I do not know many rich and famous people, but I do know a few. They are, as you and I are, human beings, and as such from time to time like to imagine that they face difficulties and challenges in life. Which, I suppose, they do. No one rides for free, as the old song goes. Even a fabulously wealthy, attractive person who has just about every comfort that can physically be had.

But the trials and tribulations they face, and their tether to "reality" - so far as I experience it - is to say the least, loose.

It's all relative, of course. Paltrow is upset that people tweet vicious things about her. I worry that my company may decide to let me go. I have a friend (the one posting the second point about this, in fact) who worries about complicated medical problems. My sister is concerned about the resources that the State of California provides that will allow her to provide a quality education to her students. People I know are out of work and wonder how long it will be until they can find a new job, and worry about how they will live if it is too much longer.

Are these fears all equal? I don't think that they are.

I've never been famous, so it's a bit of a projection, but I would say that if I were, I could deal with the comments. I've never cared very much what other people think about me, and particularly, total strangers. I would, I suppose, be concerned that my son would be hurt to see terrible things said about his family by people he's never met, and would be somewhat bewildered by it. THAT is the price of celebrity, however.

As I said, no one rides for free. Famous people like being able to get a table at any restaurant in the world whenever they want. The BEST table, in fact. We tried for more than a year to get in to one of the top restaurants in New York before doing so. I never hear celebs complaining about that. They can get boutiques in Paris to close their doors to everyone else for private shopping sprees - and in fact, are offended when not offered such special care (cf Oprah Winfrey a couple of years ago when she tried to get such a situation at a LV store here).

ALL of that has a price, and that price is anonymity. It's part of the bargain. I don't excuse the attacks which are, if you think about it, really bizarre psychological acts - lashing out in a visceral way against a celebrity one never has met, but thinks that one 'knows' because one sees so much about thin slices of their lives.

It's cruel and twisted. But I would suggest to Gwyneth Paltrow and others that that's the deal. You want the fame and the adoration; you get the calumny and the vitriol that come with it


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