Fifty years ago, California Republicans elected the actor Ronald Reagan to be their state’s governor. Decades later, the same party chose Arnold Schwarzenegger for the same job. Four years ago, Clint Eastwood was given a primetime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, where he delivered a televised address to an empty chair. Six months ago, the RNC featured a speech by the actor Scott Baio. That celebrity endorsement was made in support of the GOP’s new standard-bearer, Donald Trump, who rose to fame via tabloid newspapers and reality television. A decade ago, when Trump wed for the third time, his wedding guests included celebrities P. Diddy, Heidi Klum, Shaquille O’Neal, Billy Joel, and Simon Cowell.
Given all that, it’s strange that Meryl Streep’s criticism of Donald Trump and the predictable enthusiasm it generated among Democrats is generating mockery. “This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won,” Meghan McCain declared, as if neither Hollywood Democrats nor the Golden Globes existed when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won; as if Red America doesn’t embrace every B or C list actor who savages its political adversaries; as if America’s unhealthily celebrity-obsessed culture isn’t a fully bipartisan affair. As Sarah Palin told the Anchorage Daily News in 1996, after driving into the city to attend a celebrity appearance by Ivana Trump at a J.C. Penney, we are “so starved for any semblance of glamor and culture.”
Fox News, a network that had no obligation to cover the Golden Globes or the political content of its speeches, repeatedly aired footage of Meryl Streep’s remarks throughout the day, suggesting considerable interest among its viewers. Then one of its hosts, Lisa Boothe, said of celebrities, “Who cares what these people think?”
Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn't know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 9, 2017
Trump cares what these people think. A lot.
On Monday, Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway appeared on at least two television networks to spread various talking points about the Golden Globes. Since the Trump team will be running the executive branch and the military in a matter of days, one wonders how many total hours its members spent on Meryl Streep. Trump will enter office will less experience than any president ever. How did Americans benefit from the fleeting transition hours that he spent with Kanye West? Perhaps the president-elect’s daily intelligence briefings would gain more of his attention if disguised as US Weekly spreads.
Oh, Democrats do lean on celebrity too much for their own good. And as a rule, Hollywood types are not the best source of incisive political commentary. But it’s Republicans who’ve presently made America’s future dependent on the whims of a celebrity-obsessed media hound most famous for hosting The Celebrity Apprentice.
I’m as happy as anyone to criticize actual idiocy from celebrities. But if Hollywood actors deliver remarks that are praiseworthy on substance, they deserve praise. Every American ought to be glad that Streep delivered the core of her message, knowing as we do that A-list celebrities have the president-elect’s attention.
Here is the part of Streep’s speech I’m praising:
This instinct to humiliate when it's modeled by someone in the public... by someone powerful, it filters down into everyone's life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.
Trump’s bullying instinct is undeniable and alarming. And it is a good thing, not a bad thing, for powerful people handed a microphone to reinforce moral opprobrium against it.
For David French, this part of the speech “eloquently stated the moral imperative that the strong not prey on the weak,” but like many conservatives who commented online, this was not enough for him to praise Streep, partly because he conflates the individual actress with edverything he dislikes about the Hollywood left in general (a tactic with as much rigor as that displayed by French’s critics who impute to him every quality they dislike about the conservative movement), and also because of an old Oscar-night clip. Director Roman Polanski, who once pled guilty to statutory rape, won an Oscar for The Pianist. The crowd was clapping, as they do after every award is announced, and the footage briefly cuts to Streep in the audience, who is standing and clapping.
The choice of any actor to work with a man on the run from prison for rape is absurd, the partial standing ovation (including from Streep) is disgusting, and the decision not to tell the audience why the Academy was accepting the award on his behalf is cowardly. These people purport to be our moral betters? Millions of Americans look to them for inspiration and guidance? Talent is obviously no substitute for wisdom, and one can appreciate the art while still being wary of the artist. There are good people in Hollywood, including good, misguided people, but the American film industry simply lacks the moral standing for its many lectures — including Streep’s lecture last night. It’s a shame that more people can’t see the empty moral core behind the glittering facade.
This is a weak argument, as you might expect if you study what is publicly known about Meryl Streep and Donald Trump and ponder the former not having moral standing to criticize the latter. It presumes rather too much about why Streep clapped. And it is a peculiar form of weak argument for a social conservative, of all people, to indulge in a moment of convenience. Using its form, we need only identify one egregious moral failing, and presto, everyone attached to any associated entity lacks standing to condemn moral wrongs! How does French feel about that logic if applied here: “So many prominent Christian denominations covered up or failed to stop serial child rape for decades. There are good people in religion, of course, but Christians simply lack the moral standing for their many lectures, including the Christian who spoke last night against ISIS.”
The worth of a moral statement should not be adjudicated with appeals to subjective judgments about the moral standing of the person making it, especially if that standing is determined by the industry where the person happens to be employed.
A moral statement should be judged on its merits.
Everyone who agrees that Trump is a bully, and that bullying should not stand without being called out, should applaud at least that part of Streep’s remarks, regardless of what cultural tribe they belong to, their opinion of Hollywood’s general morals, or their deep grievances about the film industry’s Roman Polanski apologia. In doing otherwise, cultural conservatives are letting their tribal dislike of Hollywood supersede moral truths that are urgently before them right now.
Moral failings perpetrated by other ideological tribes will always be easy to identify. Every institution and individual will be guilty, at times, of moral failings. And so, the moral fabric of a nation cannot survive if only the morally pure—or only those widely seen as morally pure and employed in morally pure industries—are given public standing to uphold substantively righteous moral beliefs. If and when a public official bullies, I shall therefore applaud every substantively sound denunciation of the behavior, be it levied by a man or woman whose entire life is filled with sin or the ideological adversary who drives me most crazy. Any other posture leads to that W.B. Yeats dystopia where the best lack all conviction.