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Monday, June 11, 2007

Teachable moments in class war history: Paris Hilton in and out of jail

Despite complaining about the media obsession with covering her case, hypocrite Hilton gave an interview to Barbara Walters from jail. It seems she called home from jail just as her mom happened to be chatting it up with the world famous journalist, an old family friend (such is the elite life, I suppose). Mom quickly arranged an impromptu interview.

Perhaps taking a card from the President's playbook, she urged "the public and the media [to] focus on more important things, like the men and women serving our country in Iraq". Showing yet again how out of touch she is with reality, Paris attempted in her own fumbling way to divert our attention with an appeal to patriotism just when public opinion has significantly turned against the war. Nice try, Paris, but we don't believe you. Backasswards and self-serving though her appeal may have been, the gross inequalities revealed by her treatment seem to resist even the most tried and true ruling class diversionary techniques. That signifies a rupture in the typical functioning of the elite propaganda system and therefore represents an opportunity for anarchists. Indeed, in this case, aided by the paparazzi and celebrity press - the red-headed stepchild of the mainstream media - regular folks forced the re-incarceration of a wealthy heiress, and that is to be celebrated.

But all is not well with Paris. It turns out that she has been refusing food and water because she's afraid that a guard will take a picture of her on the toilet with a cell phone camera and post it on the internet (a fate actually visited on many poor women in Sheriff Joe's jails a few years ago, a point that provides more than a little irony given Arpaio's offer to house Paris in his internationally condemned Tent City). Nevertheless, she reassures us, she's a changed woman now: "I used to act dumb. That act is no longer cute. Now, I would like to make a difference...God has given me this new chance."

Whatever. I won't hold my breath waiting. I'm still hoping she gets shivved in there. Barring that, I'd be satisfied with putting her in the general population so she can at least see what it's like for regular folks in jail. In all likelihood, they'd be the only regular people she's ever met that weren't expecting a tip. Still, despite her claims to the contrary, even in jail personal growth eludes Paris, who can't help but wallow in her totally unexceptional punishment, crying "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" when the judge's decision to send her back to jail was announced. Proving that her willful naiveté runs in the family, Paris's mommy fell to her knees in shock! The shock was probably only compounded by the sudden forced cancellation of Paris' "freedom party" at her mansion.

Speaking of privilege (and how can't you when talking about Paris Hilton), it's worth knowing that Paris' billionaire grand daddy gave the maximum allowable contribution to the very Sheriff who let her out of jail early. This sheriff has a history of soft treatment of celebrities that run afoul of the law. Money talks, Paris walks. But not this time, perhaps.

Now, if only folks can take their justifiable outrage and turn it towards a broader critique of the prison system. So far, the story is so outrageous that it's hard to ignore the class implications of just who goes to jail and who doesn't in this country. Nevertheless, most the analysis I have seen merely reinforces the hard-line "do the crime, do the time" argument.

Still, some inmates have had some practical advice for her. One inmate in Joe's jails, doing four months for her own DUI advised, "This is not where you want to be. They try and break you down but you gotta be strong." Another prisoner offered this: "If you're gonna drive, don't go over 70 so that they catch you if you're on probation." Another said, "Be cool to everybody, don't run your mouth a lot."

But the problem with Paris getting out wasn't so much that she got out early. Lots of people get out early in California's jails since they're so over-crowded (200,000 early releases since 2002). Being rich certainly didn't hurt her, at first, and Paris clearly expected special treatment (and is still receiving it since she's being housed in a special section reserved for cops, the rich and celebrities - a teachable moment of its own). Nevertheless, the point that should be made is that more people ought to be getting out of California's prisons, and that far too many people are going there in the first place. It's precisely Paris' specialness - rich, white - that threatens to bust through the typical bullshit that passes for debate on prisons and jails in the US. With more than 2 million in prisons and another five million behind bars in jails (that's 1 in 32 people!), America's prisons are filled to bursting with the victims of a brutal class war that not only generally passes folks like Paris by, but directly benefits them.

Given that it treads so dangerously close to issues of class and privilege that they would much rather ignore, the media and elites are working hard to recuperate this issue. Indeed, in true fascist form Sheriff Joe worked that angle hard in a recent article, pushing class antagonisms not to open opportunities for liberatory dialog, but rather to reinforce the overall class system of policing and imprisonment. "Now she's going home with some Mickey Mouse bracelet. That never would have happened here... I am totally against bracelets. I think it's a cop-out. I'd love to stay in her mansion," he said, upon hearing of her initial release. "I've got 10,000 people in the tents," he bragged.

Always room for one more, right Joe?

Likewise, J.R. Dieckmann of the Conservative Voice has decried Paris' early release as well, priming us with a class appeal against a "a spoiled rich, no talent, celebrity who believes her money places her above the law" but offering up this explanation for her exit:
California has a “three strike rule” for felons. Two slaps on the wrist, then you go down for the count. But because of County jail overcrowding by criminal illegal aliens [my emphasis], most offenders serve only 10% of their sentence, the rest is commuted to probation or electronic monitoring. Misdemeanor offenders sentenced to 10 days are usually out in one. No one serves their court ordered sentence in Los Angeles and criminals know it. Brief jail time for a crime is merely a break from the stress of life on the streets.
Likewise, some on both the left and right are already decrying the Paris fiasco as a distraction from real issues. Rick Orlov, columnist for the LA Daily News admonishes us for falling for what he considers a ruling class ploy aimed at diverting us from more important business.
Every politician in the state - except, maybe, Sheriff Lee Baca - should be thanking Paris Hilton.

It is fairly amazing how a 115-pound celebrity suddenly became the 800-pound gorilla of public policy. She has become the queen of distraction politics with an early jail release that has become the focus of a wrathful public spotlight.

Forget the threat by the feds to pull funding from Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital.

Never mind the LAPD turmoil over the May Day melee at MacArthur Park.

Ignore the lack of success in finding Osama bin Laden or passing an immigration reform bill.
Sure, these are all very important issues, but the Paris spectacle shouldn't be reduced to just mere celebrity-obsession or ruling class plot. Nor should we be so sure about who it will benefit.

Paris, unwittingly for sure, has opened a window through which many Americans can vent their hatred of the rich and celebrity, of special treatment and the increasing bifurcation of this society into two distinct classes, even if they are each further divided within themselves (with richistan at the top and race and gender divisions at the bottom). In this sense, the Paris obsession is in fact quite different from the usual celebrity fare.

Though accused of celebrity worship and slagged off by the mainstream media, the celebrity press and paparazzi echoed the class resentment of its readers. CBS News blogger Brian Montopoli reflected the general disgusted tone of the more responsible corporate mainstream newsmedia, which itself was practically overwhelmed by the demands of its customers for class war Paris Hilton coverage.
[T]he nature of the Hilton coverage has been downright embarrassing. Instead of looking at the reality of the situation – and segueing into a discussion of the loopholes, double standards and arbitrariness one often finds in the legal system – most media outlets are pandering to news consumers' class resentment.
As if the growing class resentment wasn't newsworthy?! What Montopoli is missing is that most Americans aren't surprised by the "loopholes, double standards and arbitrariness" of the legal system. They're tired of it.

Reflecting this, celebrity sites like TMZ.com featured regular and humiliating video of her and features on Rev. Al Sharpton's sermon's on inequality in the justice system as well as other pieces on unequal treatment in jails. And gossip sites like Perezhilton.com posted sarcastic articles highlighting her sister's tear-filled shopping trips to "[drown] her sorrows away by hitting up some boutiques in Malibu" while her sister sat in jail.

Bypassing the main media apparatus, the message boards, too, were full of quite vigorous denunciations of not just Paris but the system she represents. On a Sioux City Journal message board, Greg Thatcher wrote, "She is no better than the rest of us and if she thinks that she is maybe this will help her to see that she can't just do whatever she wants and get away with it! The rich get richer and the poor get poorer and when they get away with things like this it makes you realize how off balance things really are." Another poster on the same board, momof2, wrote
She thought that money would be able to get her out of serving the term!! I am glad that she is back in jail serving her sentence. They have medical facilities in jail for a reason, if she would have been in her home, she would have have her own soft bed, beauty supplies, maids, and tons of other stuff. She deserves everything the judge has given to her. Hollywood stars have gotten out of hand!
On a Yahoo message board, Em answered the question of Paris' release from jail with
I knew she would never serve much time in jail. I think it is a joke- how can anyone call house arrest (especially for her in her mansion) a punishment? I wish I could buy my way out of anything with my millions... :)
Even when they used the logic of "do the crime, do the time," in this context folks - unlike Joe Arpaio - were hoping to hold the system accountable to its own professed logic in order to force not consistent treatment (because that would have led to her release like so many others) but rather exceptional treatment upon someone viewed as a class enemy.

Right now, America is united against wealth and inherited privilege. In a real sense, the Paris brouhaha reflects what Rightwingworld.com columnist Dennis Lennox calls "anti-rich sentiments". Public outrage has forced the administrators of so-called justice in this country to put one of its own back in jail despite the standard calculations that would have let her and many others out. This runs against not just the traditions of privilege but also the general standard of treatment. And that's why it's a victory for all those of us outraged and opposed to wealth, power and privilege.

This is a moment that anarchists would be remiss to let pass us by.

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Anonymous e.v. said...

great post! best paris hilton anlysis yet! e.v.

Mon Jun 11, 07:14:00 PM 2007  

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