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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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