“South by Southwest” — usually referred to by the initials SXSW — is a group of technology, film, and music festivals and conferences held each spring in Austin, Texas. Each year it hosts an extremely diverse range of panels, speakers, and performances, but the keynote address or interview usually features a key figure in the tech community.
Last year it was SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, co-creator of PayPal, founder of Tesla motor sports, and the inspiration for Robert Downey’s portrayal of Iron Man.
In 2012, it was legendary rock star Bruce Springsteen. In 2011, Seth Priebatsch, founder and CEO of the mobile-gaming platform SCVNGR. In 2010, an interview of the CEO of Twitter, Evan Williams. In 2008, the keynote was an interview of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
One of this year’s keynote speakers is . . . Chelsea Clinton.
She is “expected to speak about the Clinton Foundation’s health programs and Millennium Network.”
This is SXSW Inc.’s festival, and they’re free to invite whoever they like.
But the news that Clinton will follow astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson illuminates two of the most annoying aspects of our era of celebrity politics. The first is politics’ ability to infiltrate all aspects of life; even a technology conference, now embracing the theme of “social good,” must include a speaker whose presence and message will inevitably be interpreted through the lens of her mother’s presidential ambitions. The release helpfully notes, “She has also worked as a correspondent for NBC News.” This was what the Baltimore Sun television critic called “awkward and failed attempts at imitating a network correspondent . . . I won’t revisit all the tricks the NBC News producers had to use to try to make her wretched work only semi-painful to watch.”
The second is our political celebrities’ handlers’ insistence, and our acquiescence to the notion, that they’re worth listening to on all topics, including those far from their stated area of expertise, and celebrating of them relentlessly. We all had to pretend that Chelsea Clinton deserved to have her first job in journalism be that of a prime-time network correspondent. Now we all have to pretend she deserves the keynote-address slot at SXSW, as if these weren’t all efforts to suck up to her mother in case she becomes president in January 2017.
If you are a key Democratic-party figure, you will be saluted and celebrated relentlessly, even in ways that are so off-base they’re ridiculous. Men’s Fitness named Barack Obama one of the 25 fittest men in America twice . . . while he was still a smoker. Hillary Clinton received 19 awards in the year after she left the State Department, including the Helen Keller Humanitarian Award, The Elton John Foundation’s Founders’ Award, and the Michael Kors Award for Outstanding Community Service. From 2005 to 2008, the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album went to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama again. Really? Those were the single-best spoken word performances in the country four years running? Better than all those other nominees, like George Carlin, Steve Martin, Maya Angelou, Bob Newhart, David Sedaris?
If we must award politicians for transparent reasons, can we at least put them in a different category, so the rest of the world can compete on fairer terms? Could a conference include “Way Too Long Keynote From Political Speaker We Want on Our Side” or “Best Political Speech by a Politician We Really Liked Already”?