Op-ed: Whitney, We Have a Problem

By Jim Morrison

Originally published on Advocate.com January 24 2013 6:00 AM ET

I guess we’ve secured all our civil rights. We can’t get fired from our jobs just for being gay. Everyone has affordable health care. Syria is just fine. Tea Party dead-enders aren’t screaming about tyranny and the Second Amendment, and thousands of dogs and cats aren’t being abused, abandoned, and euthanized daily. North Africa is calm and safe. Aaron Swartz is still fighting for free speech in the digital world. I’ll stop before I use up my allotted space.

I guess these and all the other pressing issues are solved because just about every question I’ve been asked over the last week has been a variant of “What did you think of Jodie Foster’s speech?”

Huh? Welcome to the celebritocracy.

I didn’t watch the Golden Globes. I probably won’t watch the Oscars. I just have no desire to watch all the mutual and self-congratulatory back-pattery. It’s totally OK if you do, and you certainly don’t need such approval from me. But our collective, constant obsession with celebrities and the ascribing of importance to their lives, attire, and random utterance — all while the real Rome burns around us — is turning our polity into a farce. Except it’s not funny because it diverts our critically needed attention from issues we can no longer afford to blithely ignore or let someone else handle.

I will admit that I was asked about it so often, I found a friend who DVRed the moment. Yes, I was annoyed. Annoyed by her taking a swipe at other celebrities’ comings-out. I was baffled by the hilarious simultaneous demand for privacy and naming of her children before an international audience. It was hard not to think of the many public figures who recently came out far more gracefully and so effectively used the capital they’ve earned to affect positive change in the field of LGBT civil rights. You don’t need me to name any of them. Hiding your sexuality behind the guise of “privacy” sends a message of internalized homophobia and creates a double standard. That just being homosexual is to be less-than.

The celebritocracy is superficiality, but writ large. In this case it diverts us down the meaningless rabbit hole discussion of celebrity versus privacy (the hilarity of those two words even being in the same sentence) and away from the far more important — and political — discussion of sexuality and equality. People who earned their real and metaphorical capital precisely and desperately seeking public attention indeed owe the public something in return when the day comes when they are so desperately needed. And many give that. But they are not our voice, or a substitute for our own involvement and engagement.

Who is your congressional representative? Your senators? Who are our Supreme Court justices? How many are there? Would you be more quick to recognize the name or face of Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj than Antonin Scalia or Tammy Baldwin? How about 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, who tragically died last week? In the celbritocracy the immense and historic importance of Aaron Swartz is eclipsed by the Jodie Fosters. That’s what pissed me off, not her idiotic noise. The deaths of thousands in Syria are barely audible background noise to the baffling coverage of some nonsense of a football player named Manti T’eo. Can you tell your friends more about the status of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or the Kardashians? You get the idea.

Our own LGBT organizations aren’t immune either. A quick look at this year’s GLAAD Media Awards yields, no kidding, a nomination for Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a show featuring a man (Honey Boo Boo’s uncle Lee Thompson) who, after discovering he is HIV-positive, noted he turned in his ex for HIV nondisclosure (his ex is now serving a prison sentence for that). Was GLAAD was too busy searching hard for big-name, big-network blockbuster TV shows to nominate rather than discuss the scary and important issue of HIV criminalization? (Full disclosure, I was hoping for a nomination for an episode of my show, For & Against, which discussed HIV criminalization and activists such as Sean Strub who are fighting it. But, alas, we were not on the list. Oh, well. I’m not hurt.)

There were, to be sure, some other well-deserving nominees, but mostly in print and digital journalism. I expect more from an organization whose raison d’être is the depiction and discussion of LGBT people and issues in the media. And I blame the celebritocracy. Is the price of admission to it, and the millions of dollars in donations that flow from such membership, for those gays with power to eat their young? If so, is GLAAD (or any of us) any different from GOProud or the Log Cabin Republicans, who similarly throw the real issues under the bus in exchange for access or acceptance?

My point is not to spring a “gotcha” question on anyone. It’s not to fault anyone for liking TV or films or pop culture. It’s not that GLAAD doesn’t do great things. It does. Nor is it to suggest that everyone must be thoroughly informed on everything. After all, we live in a republic, where our elected representatives govern in our names. And, after all, that’s why I love making For & Against, to tell people about things they might not be paying attention to. Yet that notion of a republic assumes that its citizens take an active role and be informed at some level. In a year when our very civil rights are before our nation’s highest court and legislatures local, state, and national, I submit that these things deserve far more of our attention than the muddled and mildly insulting speech of a rich movie star. It’s time we all checked out of the drug-like stupor of the celebritocracy and checked in to our democracy. Because it needs us.

JIM MORRISON is the host of Here TV's For & Against.