Siege of Paris
The creepy populism surrounding high-profile defendants.
There is a huge trapdoor waiting to open under anyone who is critical of so-called "popular culture" or (to redefine this subject) anyone who is uneasy about the systematic, massified cretinization of the major media. If you denounce the excess coverage, you are yourself adding to the excess. If you show even a slight knowledge of the topic, you betray an interest in something that you wish to denounce as unimportant or irrelevant. Some writers try to have this both ways, by making their columns both "relevant" and "contemporary" while still manifesting their self-evident superiority. Thus—I paraphrase only slightly—"Even as we all obsess about Paris Hilton, the people of Darfur continue to die." A pundit like (say) Bob Herbert would be utterly lost if he could not pull off such an apparently pleasing and brilliant "irony."
And now here I go, clearing my throat as above before deciding to do something I would have never believed I would do, and choosing to write about Paris Hilton. Choosing to write about her, furthermore, not just as if she were some metaphor or signifier, but as a subject in herself. At some point toward the middle of last Friday, it seemed to me, one was being made a spectator to a small but important injustice. Those gloating and jeering headlines, showing a tearful child being hauled back to jail, had the effect of making me feel sick. So, you finally got the kid to weep on camera? Are you happy now?
I don't mind admitting that I, too, have watched Hilton undergoing the sexual act. I phrase it as crudely as that because it was one of the least erotic such sequences I have ever seen. She seemed to know what was expected of her and to manifest some hard-won expertise, but I could almost have believed that she was drugged. At no point did her facial expression match even the simulacrum of lovemaking. (Kingsley Amis, a genius in these matters and certainly no Puritan, once captured the combined experience of the sordid and the illicit by saying that, even as he wanted a certain spectacle to go on, he also wanted it to stop.)
So now, a young woman knows that, everywhere she goes, this is what people are visualizing, and giggling about. She hasn't a rag of privacy to her name. But this turns out to be only a prelude. Purportedly unaware that her license was still suspended, a result of being found with a whiff of alcohol on her breath, she also discovers that the majesty of the law will not give her a break. Evidently as bewildered and aimless as she ever was, she is arbitrarily condemned to prison, released on an equally slight pretext and—here comes the beautiful bit—subjected to a cat-and-mouse routine that sends her back again. At this point, she cries aloud for her mother and exclaims that it "isn't right." And then the real pelting begins. In Toronto, where I happened to be on the relevant day, the Sun *filled its whole front page with a photograph of her tear-swollen face, under the stern headline "CRYBABY." I didn't at all want to see this, but what choice did I have? It was typical of a universal, inescapable coverage. Not content with seeing her undressed and variously penetrated, it seems to be assumed that we need to watch her being punished and humiliated as well. The supposedly "broad-minded" culture turns out to be as prurient and salacious as the elders in The Scarlet Letter. Hilton is legally an adult but the treatment she is receiving stinks—indeed it reeks—of whatever horrible, buried, vicarious impulse underlies kiddie porn and child abuse.
I cannot imagine what it might be like, while awaiting a prison sentence for a tiny infraction, to see dumb-ass TV-addicted crowds howling with easy, complicit laughter as Sarah Silverman (a culpably unfunny person) describes your cell bars being painted to look like penises and jokes heavily about your teeth being at risk because you might gnaw on them. And this on prime time, and unrebuked. Lynching parties used to be fiestas, as we have no right to forget, and the ugly coincidence of sexual nastiness—obscenity is the right name for it—and vengefulness is what seems to lend the savor to the Saturnalia. There must be more than one "gossip" writer who has already rehearsed for the day that Paris Hilton takes a despairing overdose. And what a glorious day of wall-to-wall coverage that will be!
Stuck in my own trap of writing about a nonsubject, I think I can defend my own self-respect, and also the integrity of a lost girl, by saying two things. First, the trivial doings of Paris Hilton are of no importance to me, or anyone else, and I should not be forced to contemplate them. Second, she should be left alone to lead such a life as has been left to her. If this seems paradoxical, then very well.
Perhaps to compensate for its ridiculous decision to put her on Page One on Friday, the New York Times report shifted from the sobbing, helpless child to the more portentous question of another "high-profile defendant." It cited an even more acid piece of creepy populism, in the form of an order from Judge Reggie Walton, who poured his witless sarcasm on those who had filed a brief in support of Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Would such "luminaries," sneered Walton, be equally available for other litigants? It's not his job to arbitrate such a question, and he seems not to understand the law, but if his words mean anything, and from a federal judge at that, they appear to mean that to be a public figure is to risk double jeopardy in the courts. No doubt Judge Walton will relish the coming days in which he can order Libby to report to prison. One hopes that his moral superiority, and his keen attention to public opinion, remain as untroubled and secure as those of Sarah Silverman. It seems that this is now the standard. How splendidly we progress.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Paris Hilton by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images.