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.

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Why are we sometimes so reluctant to enjoy ourselves - even when we're allowed?

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is a profound meditation on the ways we deny ourselves pleasure.

In the sage words of the novelist William Maxwell, “It is impossible to say why people put so little value on complete happiness.” The psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has, for some time, been engaged in investigating this enigma. A recent collection of essays, Missing Out, explored our propensity to attach a greater value to what we have not, rather than what we have. His latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, is a profound meditation on our reluctance to enjoy ourselves as we might and, more crucially, as we are apparently granted the freedom to do.

A good deal of complex thinking and ­reference is compressed into two hundred or so pages. Phillips’s first witness is Oscar Wilde, whose provocatively intelligent statement on political engagement – “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” – sets the book’s terms. “It is, of course, Wilde’s point that socialism interferes with sociability,” Phillips comments. Our ideologies – whether extraneous, as political or moral systems, or internalised – estrange us from our more creative and enjoyable instincts.

If Phillips sees in Wilde an ally, it is because the latter’s epicureanism made him suspicious of all enemies of pleasure, most especially self-inflicted punishment. A mistaken respect for a forbidding authority is, in Phillips’s view, the basis of conscience. He considers this problematic concept through the example of Hamlet, a character with whom Freud was also much preoccupied: “Tragedy is the cultural form in which we are trying to reveal something not about the real horror of life, but about the horror of life lived under the aegis of a certain kind of conscience.” Rather than seeking to actualise a limiting ideal that can never be realised (according to Phillips, this is the tragic norm), Hamlet is unusual in ­exploring, in his self-reproaches, alternative ways of being.

In Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” – a rumination with resonances as wide as the sea – we encounter the line: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” In the Second Quarto, this appears as: “Thus conscience does make cowards.” From this more open-ended version, Phillips launches a stellar exploration of the  politics of intimidation as the basis of our so-called morality.

To be moral by dint of intimidation is not to be moral at all but to be the hapless citizen of a totalitarian system. Much of our behaviour is at the behest of an inner censor, absorbed through our upbringing, whose influence is at best restrictive – a cruel clipper of wings – and at worst murderous. Guilt, Phillips wants to persuade us, is often the fearful reaction to this internalised tyrant’s disapproval, rather than a result of honest remorse. With the terrible phrase “to be ashamed of yourself”, it is worth asking, Phillips suggests, what made the self of whom one is enjoined to be ashamed.

But in Shakespeare’s day, “conscience” also meant “consciousness” – and consciousness can seem to make us cowards, not through intimidation but by exploring realms of thought that break the prevailing rules. Freud appears never to have questioned the call to revenge that Hamlet buckles under. He perceives Hamlet’s procrastination and ensuing self-criticism as no more than the displacement of violence towards his murdering uncle, never considering that Hamlet’s “conscience” may also be a disinclination to obey a dead father’s demand. If, as Hamlet suggests, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” it may well be, as Phillips speculates, that he is attempting to hunt down and bag Claudius’s shabby morality in order to expose it on a public stage. But it may also be an attempt to engage Claudius in a more creative conversation through play (or, to be specific, a play – for Hamlet, as well as being an artist’s protégé, is an artist).

Phillips never quite spells this out but it seems the natural conclusion to his thinking. For the play that Hamlet puts on is surely an unforbidden pleasure, in striking contrast to the highly forbidden pleasure of murder. Wilde provocatively claimed that all art is immoral, but that is so only if “moral” means “doing the done thing”. It is part of Phillips’s point that the forbidden becomes enticing; in an environment of free choice, it may be naturally eschewed.

Phillips would probably demur at being described as a religious writer. Yet he is, I think, in the wider sense, because he explores seriously the great moral themes that play in the theatre of human consciousness. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Genesis myth is evoked. Why did God forbid His human creations to eat of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil? Surely, in His omniscience, He was aware that by forbidding it He was prompting the disobedience that led, in Milton’s epic words, to “all our woe”. But what if all God was doing was describing a consequence – if you do this, then that follows? Maybe the real sin of our “first parents” was in hearing a forbidden in what was only, after all, a health-and-safety warning: the foolhardy sin, as Phillips might see it, of choosing tragedy over contentment and play.

Phillips has said that what he most desires for his readers is that they be stimul­ated into new thoughts. With this supremely thought-provoking book, he roundly succeeds.

Salley Vickers is an author and former psychoanalyst. Her latest collection of short stories, “The Boy Who Could See Death”, is published by Viking

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is published by Hamish Hamilton (208pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war