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The Next Politicized Celebrity

From the Scrapbook.

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook has a weakness for politicized celebrities, especially since there are so many of them. These days it’s difficult to turn around without bumping into a Rock the Vote event (Madonna), or rally for gay marriage (Kathy Griffin), or snarky video about Sarah Palin (Matt Damon). Switch on The View and there’s Whoopi Goldberg commiserating with Julia Roberts/Alec Baldwin/Janeane Garofalo about evil Republicans. 

The Next Politicized Celebrity

Kerosene Photography

The Scrapbook has mixed feelings about all this: Some of the celebrity perspective is so idiotic—Rosie O’Donnell/Charlie Sheen’s belief that the Bush administration engineered 9/11, Woody Harrelson’s crusade for hemp—as to be entertaining; but we concede that a certain amount of it is creepy (David Letterman on Willow Palin), appalling (Margaret Cho on Laura Bush), and even dangerous (Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine crusade). And our delight at the spectacle of Lady Gaga trying to talk about federalism, or the Dixie Chicks explicating the First Amendment, is balanced with fond memories of the days when movie stars and pop singers tended to keep their political opinions to themselves. Every four years some might show their colors at the national conventions—Lloyd Bridges is a Democrat! Irene Dunne is a Republican!—but with a few well-known exceptions (Ronald Reagan, George Murphy), they tended to keep America guessing about whether they liked Ike or went all the way with LBJ.

The latest issue of Rolling Stone, however, strongly suggests that the process is now straying into reductio ad absurdum territory. There on the cover is the 16-year-old Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber, and inside writer Vanessa Grigoriadis conducts a wide-ranging interview with the 16-year-old Bieber. We keep mentioning his age, by the way, because it seems a reasonable assumption to The Scrapbook that most 16-year-olds, even in Canada, don’t possess much knowledge about the recent past, or the wider world, and haven’t thought very much about politics or foreign affairs. This is certainly true of young Bieber, whose insights are fully as banal as you would expect, and whose convictions appear to be all over the map. 

Fans of traditional social conduct will be gratified to know that he doesn’t “think you should have sex with someone unless you love them,” but patriots will be disappointed to learn that he would never become an American citizen because “Canada’s the best country in the world.” Of course, devotion to one’s homeland is laudable—although not necessarily for the reasons cited by young Bieber: “We go to the doctor and we don’t need to worry about paying him, but here, your whole life, you’re broke because of medical bills.” Pro-lifers will be intrigued to learn that he is opposed to abortion—“It’s like killing a baby?” he tells Rolling Stone, complete with interrogative tone—but when asked about abortion in the case of rape, Bieber is more or less incapable of grappling with the concept (“I guess I haven’t been in that position, so I wouldn’t be able to judge that”). 

The Scrapbook’s favorite passage, however, occurs when Vanessa Grigoriadis asks Justin Bieber a hypothetical question: If he were old enough to vote (and if he were a U.S. citizen), which political party would he support? In times of yore, the smart celebrity would deflect such a loaded inquiry—I vote for the candidate, not the party, etc.—in order not to alienate fans. Such restraint barely exists these days, but our suspicion is that Justin Bieber’s agnostic answer is based not so much on discretion as on the average 16-year-old’s knowledge of the world outside recording studios, concert arenas, and the editorial offices of Rolling Stone: “I’m not sure about the parties,” he admits, “but whatever they have in Korea, that’s bad.”

Which Korea, he didn’t specify.

High-Speed Rail to Nowhere

President Obama’s high-speed trains hit another bump last week. Florida’s governor has now agreed with Wisconsin’s and Ohio’s that the president’s dream would be a nightmare for taxpayers in his state.

As Stephen F. Hayes reported in these pages two months ago (“Railing Against Big Government,” December 20), Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Ohio governor John Kasich both said “thanks but no thanks” to the offer of federal stimulus funds to be used as a down payment on the build-out of high-speed rail service. Both of the incoming governors had in fact come out against the project in their successful election campaigns last fall. 

As Hayes noted, Walker in particular was highly vocal on the campaign trail about the obligation Wisconsin taxpayers would incur to cover shortfalls and operating costs for the $810 million line that would have connected Madison and Milwaukee. It was a foolish undertaking, he thought, for a state with a $3 billion deficit and on a route for which there was little demand for better rail service. 

Kasich, for his part, turned down $400 million in stimulus money to connect Ohio’s three biggest cities—Cleveland, Columbus, and -Cincinnati—with high-speed rail. “There was little public enthusiasm for the project,” Hayes noted, “which wouldn’t even have allowed an Ohio State fan to travel from Cleveland to Columbus and back on game day. And, as in Wisconsin, Ohio would have been on the hook for operating expenses and cost overruns.” A happy outcome for taxpayers? Not so fast. The depressing postscript was that while both governors wanted to see the stimulus funds returned to the Treasury, thereby lowering the federal deficit, the Obama administration simply redirected the funds to states like California, which are friendlier to the administration, taxpayers be damned.

Last week, Florida governor Rick Scott also rejected federal funds for high-speed rail connecting Orlando and Tampa, a decision that could send up to $2.4 billion in stimulus money back to the federal government. Scott said that the red ink in President Obama’s budget—and the higher taxes the White House is proposing—would hurt the business environment in Florida. As Hayes noted on this magazine’s website, the decision came after Scott’s administration conducted a feasibility study to determine whether such a rail would be cost effective. It came back with the unsurprising conclusion: No, it wouldn’t be.

An independent study conducted for the Reason Foundation by Wendell Cox found that Florida taxpayers would almost certainly be on the hook for additional funding for the project—potentially a lot of money. Bob Poole, a transportation expert with the Reason Foundation, served as a campaign adviser to Scott. He told The Weekly Standard that funding shortfalls were almost inevitable. “Historically, 90 percent of high-speed rail projects have had cost overruns.”

In a statement announcing his decision, Scott listed three specific reasons for rejecting the money:

• First—capital cost overruns from the project could put Florida taxpayers on the hook for an additional $3 billion.

• Second—ridership and revenue projections are historically overly-optimistic and would likely result in ongoing subsidies that state taxpayers would have to incur (from $300 million-$575 million over 10 years). .  .  . 

• Finally—if the project becomes too costly for taxpayers and is shut down, the state would have to return the $2.4 billion in federal funds to D.C.

Despite this well-deserved rebuke from three governors and counting, the Obama administration’s new budget proposes an additional $53 billion for high-speed rail, one of the administration’s keys to “winning the future.” In his State of the Union, Obama pledged to make high-speed rail available to 80 percent of Americans in the next 25 years. As he did when Wisconsin and Ohio said no to the high-speed rail boondoggle, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, predictably, has promised to redistribute the money not spent by Florida to more politically compliant states.

The administration should, instead, heed Scott’s admonition: “Let us never forget, whether it is Washington or Tallahassee, government has no resources of its own. Government can only give to us what it has previously taken from us.”

Michael RamirezMichael Ramirez

Those Who Can’t . . .

A high school teacher in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was suspended this month when it was discovered she was blogging disparagingly about her students. Natalie Munroe referred to her students, though not by name, as “out of contol” and “rude, lazy, disengaged whiners.” She didn’t name the school she worked at, but the website had her picture on it under the name “Natalie M.” ABC News reported:

When asked if it ever crossed her mind that someone from her school would see her blog, Munroe replied, “No, not really, not ever, in fact, it was up there for over a year, nobody found it. .  .  . I was writing it not about anyone specific, they were caricatures of students that I’ve had over the years. .  .  . It was meant tongue and cheek for myself and my friends, it was not for mass consumption.”

Frankly, if it were just a matter of the “insensitive” comments, The Scrapbook would probably promote her rather than suspend her—for her clear-eyed assessment of the character defects of a typical high school student. What disturbs us is this: How did a 30-year-old graduate from education school not know that a blog with her name and photo on it on something called the “World Wide Web” would eventually be discovered? On second thought, we think we know the answer.

Sentences We Didn’t Finish

"There are three things you need to know about the current budget debate. First, it’s essentially fraudulent. Second, most people posing as deficit hawks are faking it. Third .  .  . ” (Paul Krugman, New York Times, February 18, 2011).

Articles We Found Easy to Put Down

"President Barack Obama’s proposed budget this week raised a key question about how he governs: Can he lead without getting out in front?” (“Is Obama failing to lead, or leading in a new, crafty way?” Steven Thomma, McClatchy Newspapers, February 17, 2011).

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