Opinion: Should celebrities share their political opinions?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Kanye dons a MAGA hat, Lebron draws on Malcolm X in an interview – what commonality holds in the conjunction of these two events? As events, of course, either can only be described in terms of radical difference, insofar as an event appears as the fact of its singularity, its existence not as process but as event. Nonetheless these events – irreconcilably separate though they may be – are strung together under a certain process, namely, antiblackness. 

The question is the role of celebrities in politics. Apparently, there would be two answers to this question: that celebrities do, on the one hand, or do not, on the other, merit our political respect. Of course, as with all simple dichotomies, either of these responses would be incorrect.  

Celebrity is itself an obscure category. The New Oxford American Dictionary is helpful: “a famous person.” Then, a definition of famous: “known about by many people.” 

Who are these celebrities – in our society, who is most known? Donald Trump may be the first to come to mind. We quickly encounter a problem. Perhaps the question of celebrities in politics should not, in the first instance, be taken to regard figures like Kanye West and Lebron James, but figures like Donald Trump.

But Donald Trump in what sense? Of course, the man would, likely, have been considered celebrity even before he was the celebrity, i.e. the president. Yet it was not only with the presidency that Donald Trump has exerted political influence. 

Perhaps there is something distinguishing Donald Trump from Kanye West and Lebron James. Indeed, the commonality to be drawn between the three names is precisely the distinguisher: wealth.

Trump’s wealth is of a different kind. Trump’s wealth – as opposed to West’s or James’ – is of a nature that its role in politics was only ever seriously drawn into question after it had already amassed political distinction. Trump’s wealth faces questions of impeachment. On the other hand  – West’s and James’ – questions of desert, of legitimacy.

All three could be said to have obtained their wealth through entertainment. Why, then, is Trump’s wealth so much more potent?

Trump’s wealth is of a distinct character to the others: Trump’s is a wealth that is already political, whereas neither West nor James can claim a similar lineage. 

In fact, in terms of hyper-wealth, neither West nor James can really be said to be in a family lineage. Trump – by which I mean Donald – was born into his name. Both West and James had to somehow obtain theirs. What lineage do West and James claim wealth in?

“Rap Or Go To The League” (2 Chainz, 2019). 

Perhaps the distinction can be drawn out materially with reference to the recent news. Trump – by which I mean political celebrity – is in the position of being able to render the political impediments largely obsolete. In a vacuum – of course, politics never occur in a vacuum – Trump would have in 2017 paid the same in income taxes as someone making $7,500 in the single income tax brackets.

Why not add two more words? Namely, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Both of these figures, according to the article linked above, regularly paid more than $100,000 in income taxes. Obama cannot be said to come from a lineage of political celebrity in the same way either Bush or Trump can. Yet neither can Bush and Trump quite be equated; what differentiates the political celebrity of Trump from that of Bush?

Perhaps these two belong in entirely different categories: Bush, a political-celebrity, Trump, political celebrity. The difference of a political-celebrity is twofold. One, the definite article “a” acts upon “political-celebrity” to confer this category descriptively onto the man George. Two, the bar striking political to celebrity operates akin to the bar of the signifier, namely, as the logical coordinates through which a meaning must pass before assuming its meaning as a meaning. 

I will explain this second difference before returning to the first. In the expression of language, a meaning is arrived at only through compounding dimensions of mediation. The first of these mediations is the concrete position of a signifier in relation to other signifiers. If you need an example, look at these words and notice that, prior to your reading and conceptualizing them, they are already arranged in a certain order regarding one another. In the same way, political is the grammar which precedes any meaning to Bush’s celebrity: Bush’s celebrity is always already understood through the logic of the political. George Bush’s role in politics is thus not an object of debate in this discourse. 

The first of the differences, the addition of a definite article before Bush’s category, is less important than the absence it draws attention to. There is no definite article attributing political celebrity a place of identity with Trump. The reason for this is that identity is always already a falsity, whereas Trump truly is the same thing as political celebrity.

This can perhaps be clarified by repeating another point of diversion through this discourse. Trump has, throughout, been meant in at least two senses: as the man Donald and as the concept political celebrity. Although these are first articulated through different signifiers, what I mean by each of them here is exactly the same: Trump is political celebrity, political celebrity is Trump.

Donald Trump is president of the United States Federal Government not in spite of his celebrity but precisely as his celebrity, as the logical endpoint of political money, as the inevitable culmination of a logical structure which far exceeds the man Donald himself. 

Before attempting to name this logical structure, we should trace a few emergences in this discourse. A conception of politics as celebrity. A conception of celebrity as money. A conception of money as politics. Structures of demarcation wherein this triad is rendered increasingly obscure the further removed one is from practical access to the meanings of these terms – i.e. politics, celebrity and money. A general denial of history wherein this triad and the exclusion of access to its effective (and affective) apparatuses are rendered invisible and inevitable.

Yet, these apparatuses of dominion are not inevitable, and thus we return to West. More recently than the MAGA hat, West has tweeted a historical reminiscence of the Haitian slave revolution, the too-often hidden dimension of the French revolutionary years in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. West is, in his assertion of the relevance of the Haitian revolution, in fact in vein with an important trend emerging from the undercommons of this settler society, a vein emerging as well in the act of Lebron James endorsing “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in an interview.

What trend is this? In a word: remembering. Not simply in the sense of recollection but also in the sense of radical difference. Being recollected here are not the narratives dominating the social discourse of white settler society – recollected here are instead the narratives bracketed out by the dominant discourse. Re-membering: reconceiving the most basic notions of a society.

This Re-membering is an important politics to be endorsed by these celebrities, precisely because these are the celebrities bracketed out from the internal levers of the American political apparatus, for example, the types of engagement through which Donald Trump is able to lower his tax price to $750. Re-membering demonstrates the ways in which a society is only ever meant to work for certain members. Re-membering challenges the very notion of what it means to be a member in a society.

This is particularly important on the so-called American landmass today. The power apparatus which claims hegemony over this land, namely, the United States Federal Government, was founded in genocide. What Re-membering does is evaluate our presupposition that these genocides ever stopped. 

Native folk live primarily in resource-deprived reservations –and we should already question this grammar, i.e. to reserve; who, and by whom? People of Afrikan descent are disproportionately housed in the American concentration camps – the geographic loci of the prison-industrial complex. They are disproportionately murdered by a militarized police force, disproportionately deprived – politically, economically, resourcefully, etc. – by antiblack legislation, for example, redlining laws.

All this amounts to a question of the question. To ask whether celebrities belong in politics is already an antiblack question. The political and the celebrity occur in the same processes, they are cohered in money. It is already a politics of antiblackness that the celebrity and money of Trump confers upon him a relation to the political that it does not confer upon West or James. 

What is really in question here is what in fact underlies every question, namely, the historicity which provides any given question with its conditions of enunciation. The answer to whether celebrities belong in politics is thus a descriptive and not a normative answer: celebrities both do and do not belong in politics. Following the internal logic of settler society, the features of celebrity are conferred upon the epidermal layer of the subject called celebrity. 

Specifically, of white celebrities, their position in politics is not often brought into question until after they have shown themselves to be intractably corrupt, and even then, Donald Trump is still in office. For a black celebrity – i.e. a widely known person whose skin is codified in the dominant discourse as black – access to political power is overwhelmingly already foreclosed. The logic of antiblackness demarcates certain bodies as outside the historical narrative of who belongs, i.e. whose life it is worthwhile to address. 

Trump would not have become president were he black. The question we should be asking under conditions of settler colonialism is not whether celebrities belong in politics but precisely whether politics belong. Prior to evaluating the dichotomy of Trump-Biden, we should mercilessly interrogate the triad of Politics-Celebrity-Money – specifically the ways that this triad represents a unity of possibility in whiteness but a series of foreclosures in blackness, and the ideological mystification that renders this system of antiblackness natural. 
Our first question of an institution built on the genocidal exploitation of the nonwhite other should always be this: why does this institution still exist?

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