Albion Monitor /Commentary

Fortune's Wheel

by Alexander Cockburn

Clinton topped the 1996 gossip columns, showing that politics is intertwined with celebrity culture

Some lighthearted tidings at the turn of the year: "Changes in celebrity culture move at a glacial pace, but in 1996, there was the sense that a major changes had occurred. Neal Gabler, author of Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity, said that the Balkanization of celebrity culture is ending. The barriers between the fashion world, the political world, the theatrical world ... they're coming down. 'In fact,' Mr. Gabler told The Observer, 'they've become one world.'"

This was Frank DiGiacomo, in The New York Observer's end-of-year rankings of who stood where in the gossip columns. Answer: Bill Clinton stood tallest, with 339 mentions in 1996.

Plummeting from 11th position in the number of gossip cites in 1995 was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now down at 126 cites for 1996, a ranking he shared with Uma Thurman, Ralph Lauren, Colin Powell and Bridget Hall. At time of writing, Newt's future hangs in the balance with his astrologer phoning to say her crystal is too cloudy to call.

One can forgive DiGiacomo. Journalists always like to write that something is happening for the very first time. But Gabler should know better. Politics, theater and fashion have been cohabitating ever since Socrates and Alcibiades threw those wild parties back in the 5th century B.C. Aside from anything else, theater and fashion shows tend to contain a higher than average number of beautiful girls and boys, and politicians nourish higher than average libidos, furnaces for their incandescent self-esteem.

Any politician or government with brains will keep a close eye on the theater or Hollywood because that is where the national mood and sense of identity or disillusion are expressed. The fashion industry is part of the troika for similar reasons. What does Gabler think Camelot was all about, back when JFK hung out with the Rat Pack and wooed Marilyn, and Jackie shopped with Cassini?

Move on to Ronnie and Nancy, and the ties are even closer.

The missing player in this eternal collusion between politics, acting and fashion is astrology. I'm not big on the idea, endlessly touted by the volkisch Right, that the Enlightenment is over, but it did seem to me a significant moment on the history chart when it became public that the Reagans based many of their decisions on astrological prediction. Mind you, between Mrs. Quigley and the Heritage Foundation, I'd back Mrs. Quigley anytime. It recently emerged that Margaret Thatcher was equally keen on astrological counsel.

Behind the politicians, the stars and the models stand the astrologers, the true secret government of the country.

The bottom line on '96 is ... they're gaining on us

Now for some more serious tidings.

"So, despite America's enduring ability to provide many citizens the opportunity to get ahead, the rich really are getting richer, and the poor really are getting poorer." This was Michael M. Phillips on the front page of The Wall Street Journal for Dec. 23. According to Phillips, in any 10-year period, roughly 60 percent of Americans change rungs on the ladder, some clambering up and some sliding down, the same way America's celebrities glow, flicker, die.

These mobility rates haven't been shrinking, but they haven't been growing either. And the folks down at the bottom are making less, while the you-know-who's are making more. In the 1970s, the average male in the bottom 10th, aged between 30 and 44, had earned $131,850 over the previous decade. Adjusting for inflation, this average male earned only $108,690 in the 1980s, a drop of 17.6 percent.

But in case you think I'm going to inflict the dread word "underclass" on you, here's a bracing quote from Thomas Carlyle:

"One of the ominous characteristics of this reforming age, (is) the Custom of addressing 'The Poor,' as a permanent Class, assumed to consist ordinary of the same individuals. Just as in Jamaica I might address myself to 'the Negroes.' Now if this have a sound foundation in the fact, it assuredly marks a most deplorable State of Society. The Ideal of a Government is that which under the existing circumstances most effectually affords Security to the Possessors, Facility to the Acquirers, and Hope to all. Poverty, whatever can justify the designation of 'the Poor' ought to be a transitional state -- a state to which no man ought to admit himself to belong, tho' he may find himself in it because he is passing thro' it, in the effort to leave it."

The bottom line on '96 is ... they're gaining on us. The rule-waggers, the freedom-eroders. Ruth Conniff had an excellent column in the December Progressive on this theme, specifically on the lunatic crackdown on kids. There was the girl in Texas suspended for carrying a bottle of Advil in her backpack. The Advil violated the school's zero-tolerance drug policy. Drug-sniffing dogs sussed out the honor student's Advil in her locker in gym class.

There was the 11-year-old in South Carolina suspended for carrying a dull-edged knife to cut chicken in her lunch box. When she asked her teacher if she could use the knife, the teacher turned her in to the cops. She was arrested at the schoolhouse door.

How stupid can you get? Probably, in 1997, even stupider.

© Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Albion Monitor January 3, 1997 (

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