Politics & Policy

An Awful Enthusiasm

Trump waves to supporters in Washington, D.C. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Toward the separation of celebrity and state

Unless you’re a pretty hardcore architecture nerd, you’ve probably never heard of Hermann Eggert. He was a turn-of-the-century German architect who designed the 1913 town hall in Hanover and, perhaps most important, Frankfurt’s wondrously efficient Hauptbahnhof, the busiest train station in Germany. It handles some 450,000 passengers a day, not too far behind Paris’s Gare du Nord, Europe’s busiest train station.

The Europeans love their trains, but as station managers, they face nothing like the Japanese challenge: Shinjuku Station in Tokyo sees some 3.6 million souls pass through its doors on an average day — more than the entire sum of daily passengers on the London Underground. Shinjuku Station, even more so than Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnhof, conforms to the famous, frequently cited, and even more frequently ignored advice given by Metro de Madrid boss Manuel Melis Maynar on the subject of building efficient transit systems: “Design should be focused on the needs of the users, rather than on architectural beauty or exotic materials, and never on the name of the architect.”

Never? Well . . . 

The ‘starchitect’ is almost always and everywhere the enemy of the public good, but American public planners have a terrible weakness for celebrity architects and public grandiosity.

The “starchitect” is almost always and everywhere the enemy of the public good, but American public planners, keenly aware that despite its many charms Philadelphia is in reality no Paris, have a terrible weakness for celebrity architects and public grandiosity. Add in corrupt and inefficient U.S. municipal institutions and you end up with our current perverse situation: American cities frequently spend much, much more than their European counterparts on transit projects, but get a lot less for it.

Despite some technical problems, Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnhof opened five years after ground was broken; New York City’s Second Avenue subway line has been under construction since 1919, and no one knows when it will be fully operational. As Stephen Smith points out in Bloomberg View, the first two miles of the Second Avenue subway will cost $5 billion, and New York will spend at least $3.8 billion on a single subway station, designed by celebrity architect Santiago Calatrava. “If New York could build subways at the prices that Paris and Tokyo pay, $3.8 billion would be enough to build the entire Second Avenue subway, from Harlem to the Financial District,” Smith writes.

And if we expected form to follow function — or if we were simply to acknowledge that the world already has one Sydney Opera House — then Calatrava’s downtown subway station might seem to us superfluous. You be the judge.

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The Calatrava subway station is right down the street from the famous Frank Gehry high-rise apartment building next to City Hall, and there is perhaps no one better suited than Gehry, the definitional celebrity architect, to illustrate why celebrity is a poison in public affairs. Gehry’s apartment tower at 8 Spruce Street is an ornament to the New York skyline; its undulating surfaces and sheer scale make it a striking counterpart to such nearby landmarks as the Woolworth’s building. On that epic scale, Gehry’s playful postmodernism is perfectly suited for lower Manhattan. It isn’t suited at all to the Mall in Washington, and it isn’t suited in any way to a memorial for Dwight D. Eisenhower, who is, barring George Washington, probably the American president least likely to come to mind when meditating upon the words “playful postmodernism.”

But Gehry nonetheless was chosen to design the Eisenhower monument in Washington. That particular debacle is the result of celebrity multiplied by celebrity: When the time came to choose a committee to oversee the commissioning of the Eisenhower monument, the powers that be named Billy Crystal to it, along with Jerry Speyer and Jon Corzine. Crystal is a comedian, Corzine a financier who misplaces the occasional $1.5 billion, and Speyer is a real-estate developer who collects modern art made of garbage. They all have their virtues, to be sure (well, not Corzine), but none of them makes an especially good fit for the soldier who insisted on being buried in a standard-issue wooden army coffin wearing no medals or insignia. But these sorts of monuments aren’t really about the person they purport to honor; they are about the self-aggrandizement of the people who commission such monuments and oversee their development.

#share#Celebrity isn’t the enemy of the public good only, or even most significantly, on questions of taste. Minus the hypnotic power of celebrity, there would be no Donald Trump presidential campaign. Trump is a real-estate developer with a spotty record and a long history of the worst sort of crony capitalism, but he is famous — terribly famous. What is he famous for? He was transformed from a minor business figure little known outside of New York City into a nationally famous figure because of a tabloid divorce case that revealed him to be a man willing to betray his family in the cruelest and most callous way, and by a series of embarrassing business bankruptcies, most notably that of the hideous Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, the Mount Everest of bad taste. This celebrity he deftly parlayed into a reality-television career. It doesn’t matter why he’s famous, only that he is famous. My comparison between Donald Trump and Paris Hilton is not offered tongue-in-cheek. Paris Hilton is a little less morally objectionable than Donald Trump, but their careers have been quite similar.

A great many dumb issues and empty crusades make it to the forefront of the public political consciousness because of celebrity.

A great many dumb issues and empty crusades make it to the forefront of the public political consciousness because of celebrity. The anti-vaccination movement is celebrity-propelled; the phony pay-inequality crusade is a creature of celebrity (N.B., Emma Watson: The movie that made you rich wasn’t called Hermione Granger and the Sorcerer’s Stone); global-warming hysteria has been sustained by celebrity much more than by science; Lena Dunham’s daft and illiterate political pronouncements would not echo very far beyond Maison Premiere if she were just another rich private-school kid from Manhattan instead of a famous rich private-school kid from Manhattan.

As a fairly committed theater-goer, I like actors as much as the next guy, but I also endorse the traditional social ranking of them alongside prostitutes and tinkers, a few degrees inferior to mule-drivers and emancipated peasants.

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Politicians and those in their orbit have a weakness for celebrity for the same reason they have a weakness when it comes to men of great wealth: They get a taste in the course of their careers, but not the whole Happy Meal. Politicians and pundits get to be a little bit famous; most Americans don’t know what John Boehner does or why they ought to care about the wreckful career of Barbara Boxer, but they are on television, and that’s something. A great many of the wise men on television know very little about the subjects about which they make pronouncements (I myself have been invited onto cable-news shows to speak about events with which I have almost no familiarity), and television is its own power and its own advocate. But cable-news celebrity isn’t very much like real celebrity — the lightning bug and the lightning, to borrow from Mark Twain. Similarly, politicians and ex-politicians don’t generally starve to death, and some, such as the Clintons, cash in on their political connections with extraordinary success and rapacity, but political-guy money for the most part isn’t very much like genuine rich-guy money: the hundreds of millions to billions enjoyed by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the cleverest Wall Street players. That’s one reason for Trump’s political pungency: His wealth and his celebrity constitute the two commodities that the political operators covet most intensely. If you naively believe that Trump’s campaign is somehow independent of the usual political operators, take a look at who is working for him and who has taken his campaign to heart.

#related#In this way as in so many others, the obsessions and the interests of those who make policy are far removed from, even alien to, those of the constituents on whose behalf they allege to act. New Yorkers don’t need subway stations that are architecturally noteworthy so much as they need clean and safe stations that are not used as toilets by vagrants or as staging grounds by vast rampaging rodent hordes. Sight-seeing tourists be damned, New York City needs trains that run on time with a good deal less human stink. Americans need basic civics and economic education and a reinvigorated appreciation of our constitutional order, not the dotty and destructive enthusiasms of Whoopi Goldberg or Sean Penn. Barack Obama’s model of executiveship — president as celebrity — has proven unproductive, and the answer isn’t a bigger and different kind of celebrity.

Celebrity on a large enough scale becomes a phenomenon with its own financial and cultural interests.

Celebrity on a large enough scale becomes a phenomenon with its own financial and cultural interests, indecipherable to those on the other side of the event horizon that surrounds a sufficiently dense concentration of fame and wealth. (Taking that literally provides the plot to William Gibson’s novel Idoru.) We already have a celebrity-based religion, Scientology, and a celebrity-based political faction, the Clintons. This does not seem to me desirable.

Some years ago, I heard a rumor — impossible to confirm, given the NSA levels of secrecy involved — that a celebrated old-school WASP social club had rejected the application of a famous billionaire, a celebrated mogul of the sports and film world. Why? Because he was famous. Rich guys are welcome, but he was the wrong kind of rich guy.

That may be an overreaction to the phenomenon of celebrity, but given a choice between contempt and awe, contempt is the more republican choice.

 — Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.


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