There are, to my mind, few select moments when celebrities do things that really stand out for me in terms of personal integrity. When Justin Timberlake dressed up as a huge tofu block on SNL, for instance, I thought, “Now there’s a man who hasn’t let the hype obliterate the fun.” Maybe I’m just enamored with all those willing to make total fools out of themselves. On a more serious note, I admire Angelina Jolie’s recent public statements regarding her double mastectomy. The posted responses to her op-ed only highlight the shallowness of all those wondering, “Will she still be sexy?” But, after all, isn’t “not being dead” really the absolute baseline for sexiness? (Don’t answer that). At the very least, if being on display is the nature of celebrity, these two examples work to buck our expectation that the famous should be (always already) flawless.
Then there are celebrities who continually perform the role of antagonist to the public goodwill. And this brings me to Justin Bieber. Specifically, that moment called “Justin Bieber meets the Holocaust.” The story is, by now, well-known starting with his surprise visit to the Anne Frank House Museum while on tour in Amsterdam. “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber,” he wrote in the guestbook. Posted on the Anne Frank House Facebook page, Bieber’s comments have since sparked international outcry, with celebs and commoners and commentators jumping the bandwagon of defense or damnation.
On the one hand, and to put it bluntly, I think his comments betray a naive and ignorant boy with an embarrassingly limited knowledge of history. That being said, and unlike Timberlake and Jolie, the Beebs is currently still a teenager and so I tend to give people in this category plenty of wiggle room for being as ridiculous and self-involved as ever, if only to say a big thanks to those who put up with me at that age.
Alas, there’s the boy, and then there’s what the boy said. And what he said had the stink of truth:
As some have pointed out (included Frank’s step-sister), if Anne Frank had been a teen today, she in all probability–and much to the chagrin of her parents–would have been a belieber. Frank was a young girl who was, like most young girls, gaga over celebrities. Hollywood was alive and well on Frank’s radar, even when she was in hiding. Frank’s diary, with its allusions to Garbo and others is, in fact, more a testament to a young girl’s coming of age, than it is a testimony to the extent of the Nazi brutality. (Arguably, the latter is something that Frank only experienced after her diary ended.)
The problem I see with much of the public demonization of Bieber is that it works primarily to preserve an idolization of Frank. Both demonization and idolization are the flip sides of a common impulse–dehumanization. To dehumanize is to depict a person as other (and usually less) than human. Dehumanization is the third of eight stages of genocide. Dehumanizing terms like “cockroach” and “vermin” have attended every recorded genocide in history.
We usually find it easier to connect the dots between demonization and dehumanization. And yet, it is idolization–in this case, turning Anne Frank into a cherubic icon of purity–that proves to be an insidious form of dehumanization in my mind. For when we stop thinking about her as a hormonal teen with dreams and aspirations and crushes, and elevate her to sanitized and sacralized spokesperson for the Holocaust, we actually learn very little about the systematic destruction of European Jewry, very little about the nature of discrimination and perpetration, and very little about ourselves. I think we do these teenagers–Anne Frank and Justin Bieber (and indeed ourselves)–a supreme service when we remember their humanity.
This brings me, perhaps, full circle to my sincere appreciation for those moments–little things like pop singer Timberlake taking the piss out of himself or, much more seriously, sex object Jolie openly sharing her choice to remove her breasts in order to spend more years with her six children. These are moments that call us to remember certain people as people. They are, above all, humanizing moments.