Justin Bieber is a glorified Furby. Why do we expect him to have views on the Holocaust?

We need much more of a Henry VIII-style attitude to celebrities – less adulation, and more “amuse me minstrels and if you’re very, very good I might not have you executed”.

 

As a Jew and a descendent of Holocaust victims, I’m a kind of a very minor stakeholder in Anne Frank. So did Justin Bieber’s misplaced, slightly clunky, maybe self-absorbed, maybe just awkward comment about hoping that Anne Frank “would have been a belieber” ‘offend’ me? Not particularly. Trying hard to be offended ... still trying. Nope, it just won’t come.

It’s slightly crass and it made me cringe. But it baffles me that anyone would be shocked by a teenager blurting out silliness. There was even something quite sweet about Bieber’s comment. He was clearly moved by the story of Anne Frank. He just had a childish way of showing it. Sort of like a puppy pooing on the carpet then wagging its tail excitedly, as if to say, “Look at what I did! Aren’t I clever?”

So when Twitter found this flopsy puppy of a young Canadian guilty of being the Worst Person Ever, I was left shrugging. Why, I found myself asking, do we suddenly expect entertainers to be thinkers?

Bieber is 19. For a variety of misbegotten reasons, he has a Twitter following bigger than the entire population of Canada. He makes a grotesquely good living out of singing and dancing. Why this means his “views”, trite or otherwise, apparently matter is beyond me. It seems that the parents of his fans are so thrilled about their kids listening to music by someone who doesn’t swear or do drugs that they’ve decided to let him raise them. Suddenly a not-too-bright teenager’s naïve take on the Holocaust is subject to the same analysis as a speech made by a world leader.

Kim Kardashian faced a similar Twitter outrage explosion last year when, during a critical moment in the Israel-Hamas conflict, she tweeted, “Praying for everyone in Israel”, which was quickly followed up by a redemptive, “Praying for everyone in Palestine and across the world!” It’s easy to get snotty about the ponderances of such a nonentity (albeit a famous one). But why anyone would ever look to a reality TV star for an intelligent insight into one of the world’s most complex political situations is baffling. Even more puzzling is why anyone would get in a disappointed huff when she proves to be more garden gnome than Noam Chomsky.

Celebrity worship has reached a point where we expect glorified Furbies like Bieber and Kardashian to morph into divine sayers of worldly truths, purely because of their popularity. I expect that the vast majority of “beliebers” listen to Bieber’s music, enjoy it, and couldn’t care less about the guy’s opinions.

When I was a teenager, I practically worshiped Yeah Yeah Yeahs lead singer, Karen O. I was a confused queer girl with low self-esteem and she was a gutsy, punk goddess. So when, in a recent interviewwith the Guardian she claimed never to have been into “the whole feminist movement or anything like that” it upset me to think how much of a blow this would have been to the 17-year-old me.

The same goes for Morrissey, another musical hero of mine, who’s constantly dropping great opinion turds. As it happens, I found the former Smiths frontman’s assertion that wars are “heterosexual hobbies” a lot more offensive than Justin Bieber’s Anne Frank faux pas. If you grant a celebrity role model status, you’re nearly always doomed to be disappointed.

The ludicrous idea of attaching importance to the political views of entertainers can be traced back through the garishly self-righteous Sting/Bono brigade to John Lennon.

“Give Peace a Chance” was seen – and still is by some – as some kind of Ghandian insight but it’s more like something Saatchi and Saatchi would have come up with if they’d been hired by CND rather than Margaret Thatcher. It’s a slogan worthy of yoghurt or toilet cleaner. It’s not profound.

Similarly, Justin Bieber isn’t paid vast buckets of cash to be smart and insightful. Can’t we just let him be thick and carry on making horrible music? I think we should take a more Henry VIII view of entertainers. Without knowing him personally, I think it’s fair to say that the Eighth would have had an “Amuse me minstrels and if you’re very, very good I might not have you executed,” kind of attitude. Singers are there to make pleasant throat sounds, actors are there to pretend to be other people. Kim Kardashian is there to do absolutely nothing. Let’s leave it at that.

 

Justin Bieber performing recently at the O2 in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.