I was living in Prague during the second half of the Bush administration because I thought becoming an expatriot would make me a better writer.  It did not.  However, while I was not becoming a better writer, I spent a lot of time in bars, killing the brain cells that contained the next Great American Novel and learning what foreigners hated about my country.  It was an enlightening experience and one that I would encourage all Americans to have at least once.

Prague is a strange, beautiful city that has been conquered several dozen times, and therefore, its citizens are of a peaceful, cantankerous disposition.  In all the times I tipped my elbow there, I never once saw a Czech man get into a physical altercation.  The Czechs don’t like to fight with their fists unless absolutely necessary.  This does not mean they are cowards.  Not at all.  They just know what their strengths are and play to them.  A citizen of the Czech Republic would much rather insult your country, your mother, and your soccer team (in that order), and reduce you to a blithering pool of insecurity than waste his time dirtying his clothes with your blood.  They are a verbal people, and they know how to turn an insult.  On the other hand, they are also a mumbling culture, so it is sometimes difficult to know when you’ve been insulted.  I once asked an elderly local why the Czechs always spoke under their breath, and he looked at me like I was an idiot.  “You ever had tongue cut out by KGB?” he asked.  “No,” I said.  “Me neither,” he said.  And then he mumbled something I couldn’t understand.

I couldn’t sip a Pilsner in Prague without eventually being approached by a local who wanted to know what was wrong with my country.  I seldom had an answer for this, so I simply bought them beers and listened to their opinions on the subject.

The conversation always started off with George W. Bush, of course.  This is not a political blog, and I’m not interested in getting into a debate on the subject of whether or not Bush was a good president.  However, I can say with absolute certainty that no political figure in my lifetime has been more reviled by the citizens of foreign countries than Mr. Bush.  I once knew a French woman who couldn’t say his name without spitting afterward.  True, the French are a little on the, ahem, expressive side, but still, no one wanted to face her in a public debate.

However, Bush was despised by people at home and abroad for a variety of reasons, so this criticism was nothing new.  What really interested me was the second person that was brought up when listing the reasons why they hated America.  Almost without fail it was Tom Cruise.

It must be said here that I have disliked The Cruise for quite some time.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved Top Gun and Risky Business when I was sixteen as much as the next sexually-repressed, testosterone-charged boy, and over the years I have enjoyed numerous other Tom Cruise movies, but at some point I began to grow sick of his smug face appearing on giant screens all over the country.  Still, I’d never really thought of Tom Cruise as the representation of everything wrong with America until I started talking to the Czechs.

Actually, the Czechs didn’t have a theory about it either, just an intense hatred.  Whenever they were asked what pissed them off about American culture, they fumbled around for a few minutes, passing over things like McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Congress, eventually settling on Tom Cruise.  They couldn’t place their finger on it, but he represented something rotten in our culture.  The first couple of times it happened I sort of shrugged it off, but after hearing his name bellowed by unshaven drunks all across the city I decided to give the matter some thought.

Here’s what I came up with: Foreigners hate Tom Cruise because he is a very charming, very handsome egomaniac, and our culture has chosen to elect him as our ambassador to the world.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, “I didn’t vote for that guy to represent me.”  But in a way you did.  I did.  We all did.  Do me a favor.  Go to Tom Cruise’s IMDb page and count how many movies he’s made that you’ve seen.  Go ahead, we’ll wait…

Finished?  Was it more than you thought?  It certainly was for me.  I’ve seen twenty-four Tom Cruise movies.  Twenty!  Four!  And I don’t even like the guy.  He is a blockbuster machine thanks to American culture.  We created him.

Tom Cruise is a charming man, but he is not a very good actor.  Whenever he’s playing a character that requires more than a smarmy smile (Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky, etc.), he looks like one of those male betta fish when you hold a mirror up to its tank: nervous, angry, and absolutely in love with itself.  Tom Cruise is Marlon Brando without the intellect or talent.  Everyone knows this, but it doesn’t make any difference.  Would we rather have Steve Buscemi or John Malkovich as our leading man?  Sure, in a theoretical world.  But Buscemi and Malkovich just don’t fill the theaters like The Cruise.

And what’s so bad about Tom Cruise, anyhow?  Is he really such a terrible pop culture ambassador?  Well, yes, actually.  Besides the fact that he’s a mediocre actor and has a weird nose (looks like it’s made of Silly Putty or something; what’s up with that?), he also has such an enormous ego that he actually believes the Scientology muckymucks when they tell him that he’s on a higher spiritual plane than the rest of us because they want to feed off his celebrity.  In fact, every time Tom Cruise has tried to speak without a script in the past five years, he ends up sounding like he’s one step away from getting himself a pair of Nikes, starting a cult, and hopping on the next comet.

So are the Czechs right?  Is Tom Cruise evil incarnate?  No, he’s America incarnate.  That’s the problem.  American culture has voted, and this is what we’ve come up with.  Charming egomania.  Is this really what our country is all about?  Of course not, but it’s what our cultural democracy has decided to put on a pedestal.  Can you blame other countries for wanting to take him down a peg?

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

May 2008

“I hate Paris Hilton,” he said, while chewing on a mouthful of Corn Nuts. “She has absolutely no redeeming qualities, and if there is a hell, I hope she burns there for all eternity after dying in a painful knife-juggling accident.”

I was on a bus to the airport when the man sitting next to me made that statement. We’d been talking about a wide range of topics: professional tennis, Billie Holiday, reality television and serial killers, just to name a few. I forget the man’s name (it was one of those three-letter monikers: Dan or Jim or Tom), but I do remember that his favorite serial killer was Jeffrey Dahmer. This stuck out in my mind because we talked about his interest in Dahmer less than five minutes before he declared his hatred for Paris Hilton. His demeanor had been affable and somewhat excited when talking about a notorious murderer who killed 17 people and made their skulls into ashtrays, but his voice dripped with venom when he began to discuss a blonde hotel heiress who hangs out with two yappy, annoying bitches (her Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, and Nicole Richie). Cannibalism he could understand, but The Simple Life was unforgivable.

I would estimate that about 73 percent of America currently shares Dan’s/Jim’s/Tom’s feelings toward Paris Hilton (if not his affinity for crunchy, high-sodium snacks and postmodern psychopaths), and I would never try to dissuade them. In fact, I can’t think of a single reason to like her. By all accounts, she appears to be a completely vapid human being, contributing absolutely nothing positive to the world whatsoever aside from pornographic fast food commercials and the occasional beaver shot.

On the other hand, I can’t really think of a reason to hate Paris Hilton, either. She has never done anything harmful to me personally (e.g. kicked me in the testicles) or to society in general (e.g. passed a law legalizing testicle-kicking). She hasn’t advised little girls to join the KKK or expressed a desire to punch newborn kittens. In fact, aside from a few traffic violations, the worst she can be accused of is pathological narcissism and bad manners, both of which are essentially endemic in Hollywood. Therefore, it would seem logical that we as a society would have no feelings about Paris Hilton at all.

But that’s not the case. Not since Yoko Ono yodeled her way into the zeitgeist has there been such a despised celebrity icon in Western culture. This is because there is absolutely no guilt involved in hating Paris Hilton. As Dan/Jim/Tom suggests, she has no redeeming qualities; hence, there is no glass ceiling on how much we are allowed to loath her.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that Jeffrey Dahmer has no redeeming qualities either. However, hating serial killers does not serve a purpose in our culture. We are not expected to glorify or idolize serial killers (which, of course, is (at least partially) why we often do); senseless murders are considered evil by definition. Celebrities, on the other hand, are constantly demanding our adoration. They flood our radio stations and dominate our televisions. They have perfect skin and perfect bodies. They are talented. They are charming. They are everywhere, all the time, and they are supposedly better than us in every way.

Except for Paris.

She is none of these things. She can’t sing. She has a lousy personality. Unless you’re into freakishly tan anorexic women, she is not very attractive. And she is such a horrible actress that even her homemade porn movies are stick-a-fork-in-your-eye boring.

It’s not just that we like to hate Paris Hilton; it’s that we need to hate her. She represents everything we secretly despise about celebrity culture but are not allowed to express.

If you want proof of America’s dysfunctional, passive-aggressive relationship with celebrities, look no further than the check-out line at your local supermarket. Every King Soopers and Safeway in the country has the same collection of entertainment magazines near the cash register. Half of them have covers that display beautiful, air-brushed photos of Cameron Diaz and Vince Vaughn aside gushing, pseudo-clever headlines, such as “Just Diazzling” or “InVINCEable!” and the other half are out-of-focus, unflattering tabloid photos of the exact same celebrities passed out on the sand in California like beached manatees. Sometimes, I see middle-aged mothers acquiring both types of periodicals at the same time, and I’m always amazed by their schizophrenic aesthetics. Do they a) adore Cameron Diaz, or b) detest Cameron Diaz?

Of course, the answer is really c) all of the above.

We want celebrities to be inhumanly attractive and glamorous, but we also need to know that they’re fat, disgusting sluts just like the rest of us. However, it’s difficult to properly express hatred for the very same people you’ve been socialized to admire. For instance, even if you can’t stand Tom Cruise’s smarmy smile, it’s impossible to completely separate him from the romantic, devil-may-care pilot in Top Gun or the pants-less teenager who won our hearts in Risky Business. To over-simplify the point, Tom Cruise symbolizes something more than Tom Cruise.

That’s why Paris Hilton is the most important celebrity in the world at the moment. She has never established an identity beyond the spoiled, vain media whore that she appears to embody; therefore, she serves as a type of resentment lightening rod for the general public. Instead of denouncing her as the bane of American culture, we should be thanking her for providing an invaluable service to a celebrity-saturated generation. She’s kind of like the pop culture version of Che Guevara. (I have no idea what that means, but I still think it might be true.)

Of course, not everyone agrees with my brilliant cultural analyses. When I finished explaining my theory to Dan/Jim/Tom at the departures gate at DIA, he threw away his empty Corn Nuts bag and smiled at me. “I understand what you mean, and it all makes sense,” he replied. “But nothing you just said changes this one, simple fact: I hate Paris Hilton.” And then he boarded a plane to Dallas, and I never saw him again.

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