Scientology and Kardashianism: An apologist’s rant

scientologyIt is difficult to constantly have to be the person in the room to come to the defense of Kim Kardashian and nearly intolerable to have to defend Scientology as a legitimate religion. But with every slight against either, I get more defensive about the honor of both. It bothers me that the will to denigrate these pillars of American culture is so terribly ill-informed. By hating the Kardashians, or claiming Scientology is a silly religion, we miss the opportunity for rational cultural criticism. They are not only not the problem, embracing both as legitimate is probably the solution.
Granted, Kim Kardashian is not an artist on par with, say, The Monkees. Similarly, Scientology has failed to embrace institutionalized child rape, misogyny, and genital mutilation in the way more traditional religions have. But the fact that these perceived deficiencies bother us, says way more about us than it does about culture. My complaint, really, is that every attack against Scientology or Kardashianism is a clear reminder of how little we think about our own culture.
My bias: I subscribe to an aesthetic criticism that judges subjects and objects on their own terms. That is, comparing what a piece of culture is trying to do with how well it succeeds. Looking at culture this way puts authenticity at the center of whatever you’re judging.
Kim’s not your problem
Kim Kardashian is trying to be a famous person. Not only has she succeeded but she has done so splendidly. In fact, she might be the most successful famous person of our time. Moreover, she might be the most important famous person of our time. Innovators and geniuses reveal something essential about the world or about our knowledge. They change the way we look at a concept so radically that it is impossible ever to return to the old way of thinking. Kim has laid bare the lie of the price of fame, and we hate her for it. It is as if we enjoyed believing that being famous and being talented were naturally bound together and she spoiled our dreams.
Celebrity is a complicated idea. The cynical view is that it is something manufactured by companies the way Pet Rocks and Coca-Cola are, marketed to the rest of the world based on perceived quality and price. When those two things come together in just the right way, as with Coke, you have a sustainable celebrity, a star. When they don’t align you have a flash in the pan who becomes the subject of a Where Are They Now? special. What’s critical is the outcome isn’t reflective of talent or the authenticity. A good artist can be a bad celebrity. They can have important, meaningful cultural contributions without ever being famous.
A celebrity, on the other hand must be famous. If they fail to remain famous, they are bad at being a celebrity and have their status downgraded.
The more traditional view of celebrity is that some artists are so talented as to deserve special treatment for life. We, as a culture, come to depend on these people. If we happen to tire of them, they cease to be celebrities as if by some sort of vote. Maybe their talent declined, maybe they were the Pet Rock of their artistic genre, or maybe they tricked us into thinking they were good when they hadn’t ever been. The point is, we crave the power to discard the people who fail to fascinate us, or who lack authenticity, or are revealed as frauds or talentless. It is our right as loyal subjects of the culture.
Of the two views of celebrity, the first is a little more coherent, but the second appeals to our sense of the American Dream, where work and skill overcome all things. Every time we hear about Kim Kardashian we are reminded that hard work and skill are sucker’s bets when it comes to prosperity. We’re reminded that doing something well in the hopes of a reward is possibly the worst reason for trying hard. There is a no bridge between talent and recognition, there never has been. Kim has shown us that, rather than with good looks, talent, or even novelty, celebrity can be purchased with cash and a monomaniacal commitment to fame for fame’s sake. She is the first indie celebrity and has inaugurated a dynasty of professional faces.
Paris Hilton was Muddy Waters, Kim is the Rolling Stones. The Stones embodied everything that made rock music commercially successful and then got down and wallowed in it until they were caricatures of rock starts. They embraced their absurdity, claiming their godlike power over culture as well-earned. They were trend-makers because no one ever succeeded in telling them no. They remolded the caricature into the real thing by the force of obtuseness and a total lack of pride or shame, and emerged on the other side as legends. Kim embraces the absurdity of how comically rich celebrities can get for famously flaunting their wealth. Just like the Stones, she does so authentically, with no sense of how it possibly could be offensive to anyone. Once you accept you’re a walking commercial, everything about celebrity seems obvious and predestined and behave accordingly.
Kim’s success against all reason and convention evinces a masterful understanding of how celebrity works. So thorough is her understanding that she mocks the notion that popularity is important to a sustainable career as a celebrity, by refusing to acknowledge what most people think of as a fact. Similarly, Scientology is the open mockery of the traditional belief that you have to be selling the Abrahamic God to make any money in religion.
Scientology isn’t your problem
If you’re not familiar with Paul or his conversion, follow the links. They are Christian links and take the story of Paul seriously. He established nearly all the tropes of every Christian sect and most of the rules, but Paul was late to the Christianity party, not coming on the scene until the Jesus supporters were gaining prominence. According to Paul himself, Post-Resurrection Jesus came fixed what could have been a huge credibility gap by showing up to personally bring Paul up to speed. PRJ gave Paul the lowdown for how he really wanted the religion run, because (apparently) the people he told the first time didn’t get it right. He then told Paul to start preaching. Paul went on to infuse what he still liked about Judaism (he allegedly was a Rabbi) into the Christian community. Paul and his people are credited with writing at least half of the New Testament. As time went on, and the masses got hip to how rich a person could get by claiming Jesus also told them a different story, Christianity exploded. Christians spent the next 2,000 years making a pretty good living torturing, robbing, and beating their way around the world, knocking up against one another and the Jews and kick-starting Islam along the way.
To say the story of Paul, told and witnessed by him alone, is more plausible than the Scientology proposition (that we’re all inhabited by alien souls), offends reason. Every cult takes its power from people’s desire to embrace metaphysics. It tickles the brain to talk about the possibilities but, like any game with no rules, it quickly gets boring. Criticizing Scientology as weird gives other religions a lot more credibility, which is peculiar, given the un-weird religious claim that God wants us to cut off part of every boy’s penis. As a matter of fact, in my totalitarian society, anyone who mocks Scientology as a “weird religion” will have to attend an Orthodox Bris.
Alexander converted to Christianity as a means of consolidating worldwide rule. For the following 18 or so hundred years, no political could long survive without a statement of faith, but somehow Operation Snow White is nefarious. The primary difference between Scientology and Christianity, is so far the former has been less politically effective, mostly because as Johnny-come-lately’s they have literacy with which to contend.
Setting aside the bile, just as with maligned Kim, we have to ask what Scientology claims to do, and how well does it meet those claims. And, just as with Kim, we need to judge it on its own terms. As a religion, it doesn’t seem any better or worse than any other. Some of its practitioners torture and brainwash people, sure. But, from the outside, torture and brainwashing, intimidation, ostracism, blackmail, and shady financial dealings are part and parcel with religion. Leaders and elders with varying degrees of evident sincerity also seem to be the norm. As religion goes, Scientology isn’t better or worse, and certainly no more kooky that the rest.
Whom to troll
It takes no courage to be outraged at Kim, no cultural fortitude to be openly hostile to Scientology. At the bottom, what most of us need is to unpack the assertion that we deserve entertainment, and that there is an equitable way to talk about popular art. We are not owed entertainment. Unless we’re willing to lock ourselves in a room with Proust, there is going to be a cost for access to things we like. That cost is a world where there are things we don’t like. What’s important is that we find a clear way to think about our culture. If we believe it is as simple as chocolate versus vanilla, if we believe that everyone’s opinion has equal weight and everyone’s feelings matter, we have no basis for forming criticism.
But we want to be critical, we want to say this is good for this reason and this is bad for that reason. We can’t do this if in our regular life we’re constantly assuring people, “It’s all good.”