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Support the Celebrities!

When Robin Williams recently exclaimed that "America is broke, basically, but Bush wants to wage a war that costs pretty much a billion dollars a month," it's possible the antic actorvist got his first laugh in years. Indeed, even if you rely on, say, The Daily Show as your only source of news, you know that a billion dollars only buys about 10 hours worth of limb-ripping humanitarianism and retail liberation.

But while the political pronouncements of many Hollywood celebrites regularly prove that they're at least as out-to-lunch as the "forty-four percent of Americans [who] believe that most or some of the [9/11] hijackers were Iraqi," they have something going for them that the average American doesn't -- namely, they're celebrities.

If you're one of the few million war-junkies who have temporarily forsaken "American Idol" and "Survivor" for "When Free Nations Attack!", then you've seen that Iraq is truly a pop culture desert. Instead of huge billboards featuring celebrities pimping sneakers and make-up, murals and statues of Saddam dominate Iraq's public spaces (or did until recently). Instead of romance novels written by celebrities like Joan Collins, romance novels written by Saddam fill the country's bookstores. If there are Iraqi sitcoms, reality programming and game shows, they're as hard to find in the country as sarin, mustard gas and weapons of mass destruction. The only clips I've seen to date from Iraqi television are droning speeches and shabby musical numbers: it's like some endless telethon for a country crippled with mass-culture dystrophy.

Throughout history, totalitarian regimes have always been marked by a few common traits: sharp uniforms, murderous oppression, and very few celebrities. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Idi Amin all loved the spotlight so much they hated sharing it with anyone else, and Saddam, for all his recent reclusiveness, demonstrates a similar distaste for ensemble pieces. And why not? In the end, what are celebrities but miniature, mostly benign dictators, ruling over their tiny fiefdoms in Malibu and Manhattan, projecting their magnificent omnipotence to servile masses desperate for something to believe in, and fracturing that belief into thousands of harmless pieces?

Of course, unlike fascism or Stalinism or Communism, pop culture is a dynamic hyper-democracy: new stars are constantly being voted in, old ones are constantly being voted out, anyone is eligible for office, and power is checked and balanced in this system in infinite ways. In other words, in any country where there's enough celebrities to support a National Enquirer or E! Online, totalitarianism can never hope to take root. Whenever one faction starts worshipping one star a little too religiously, another faction will arise simply to demonstrate their dissent from that ideal.

Sarah Jessica Parker's latest hairstyle may find its adherents, for a few months, in a few zip codes, but it will never achieve the permanent country-wide hegemony of the Saddam mustache and the Mullah Muhammad Omar beard. Here, we champion individual expression over repressive collectivism, we construct new identities via rampant consumerism, and celebrities are our purest, most potent incarnations of that spirit. Indeed, celebrities emerge as the very index of liberty: we are the freest nation in the world, and the fact that we have more celebrities than any other country is cosmetically enhanced, expensively attired proof of our status as such.

And it's not just on the homefront that celebrities keep us safe from evil despots. Day in and day out, for over 100 years now, Hollywood has been shocking and aweing the world with our most persuasive visions of freedom, affluence, self-indulgence, iconoclasm, rebellion, hedonism, and, most importantly, self-determination. How powerful are such visions? Just ask the Taliban, which outlawed movies, TV, and music, while imposing no such strictures on guns. Just ask Joseph Stalin, who, as Reason's Charles Paul Freund recounts in his essay "In Praise of Vulgarity," "attempted to extirpate every aspect of American culture from Soviet life" and criminalized even the mere mention of jazz.

In the last three weeks or so, we've dropped over 20,000 bombs on Iraq, but bombs will never destroy anti-Americanism with the same efficiency that 20,000 "American Pie" sequels could. Expose a generation of 14-year-old Iraqis to the former and you're more than likely going to inspire at least a few terrorists. Expose a generation of 14-year-old Iraqis to the latter and the worst that you'll end up with are some Maxim subscribers deeply indoctrinated with the notion that life is about drinking beer, watching sports, playing videogames, and ogling women in bikinis.

Why, then, do celebrities inspire so much hatred these days? Many anti-actorvists take care to explain that they don't hate celebrities out of hand: they just hate celebrities who espouse their (liberal) political opinions via newspaper ads, talk-show appearances, and other public means.

But what is this really saying about America? We champion freedom of expression here -- unless you actually have the power to make that freedom meaningful? In the end, it's celebrities' power to reach large numbers of people, more than their ignorance or hypocrisy, that seems to enflame anti-actorvists.

After all, if your argument is merely that celebrities are dumb, then why advocate executing them, like New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy did? Or why organize boycotts designed to destroy their marketability and economic prospects, and thus their power to disseminate their beliefs? The Steve Dunleavys of the world can't stand the idea that diversity of opinion, even in difficult times, isn't just an empty platitude, but an actual possibility in American life, at least if you were once on a hit TV series.

So, go ahead, anti-actorvists! Crush your Dixie Chicks CDs! Boycott Susan Sarandon's public appearances! But while you're at it, drink a toast to Saddam, because that's exactly the kind of thinking he loves: the fewer private citizens there are with the power to express their opinions to the masses, the better.

G. Beato is the editor of Soundbitten.com.

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