Everyone likes to laugh at celebrities. Part of it is the pleasure we take at the mighty brought low. Part of it is that celebrities are often ridiculous people — arguably you'd have to be a ridiculous person to tolerate being a celebrity in the first place.
But not every bad thing that happens to a celebrity is funny. Not every anti-celebrity rant is amusing. Just as we have to discipline our tendencies towards schadenfreude when free speech is on the line, we should temper our enjoyment when a pretentious celebrity encounters the criminal justice system.
This week's example: singer Fiona Apple. Apple was arrested on drug charges in Texas and later rambled about it at a concert:
The "Criminal" songstress said that "most people were very nice to me," but she had some stern words for a few who she said were less kind.
"There are four of you out there, and I want you to know that I heard everything you did, I wrote it all down with your names and everything you did and said stupidly thinking that I couldn't hear or see you," she continued.
Apple did not name either the jailer or the four individuals, but threatened to make the latter group "famous anytime you ask."
She described the antics of the four people she alluded to as "inappropriate and probably illegal," but did not offer further details.
Apple then announced that she had ripped up the piece of paper, but not before she "encoded" the information she had written down. She said she would "hold that secret forever … unless you're interested in being a celebrity."
This is annoying on numerous levels. First, as a criminal defense attorney, let me say: Ms. Apple, for your own good, please shut up about your arrest, because it makes it harder to defend you, and might be used against you. If, by any chance, there was any legal defect in the way you were stopped, arrested, searched, or questioned, you've just made it harder for your lawyer to do something about it.
Second, the statement is incoherent. It's not just regular-person incoherent, it's even singer-songwriter incoherent. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am all for speaking out against police misconduct. But that's not what Fiona Apple is doing. She's not saying "this is how they mistreated me, and it's wrong." She's doing a cutesy stream-of-consciousness bit about how maybe she'll name cops and maybe she won't and how maybe she'll make them famous and maybe she won't, conveying not a message about police misconduct but a message about . . . hell, I can't say what. It's incoherent.
But Apple's irritating articulation is merely an occasion for eye-rolling; the response of law enforcement is a concern. Hudspeth County Sheriff's Department Public Information Officer Rusty Fleming responded to Ms. Apple with a snide letter and follow-up snide media appearances:
First, Honey, I’m already more famous than you, I don't need your help. However, it would appear that you need mine….
Two weeks ago nobody in the country cared about what you had to say, — now that you’ve been arrested it appears your entire career has been jump-started. Don’t worry Sweetie, I won't bill you…
Next, have you ever heard of Snoop, Willie or Armand Hammer? Maybe if you would read something besides your own press releases, you would have known BEFORE you got here, that if you come to Texas with dope, the cops will take your DOPE away and put YOU in jail…
Even though you and I only met briefly in the hallway, I don't know you but I'm sure you're an awesome and talented young woman and even though I'm not a fan of yours, I am sure there are thousands of them out there, and I’m sure that they would just as soon you get this all behind you and let you go back to what you do best—so my last piece of advice is simple "just shut-up and sing."
Now, if Fiona Apple had complained about a restaurant or hotel or something — if she had used her fame to abuse someone less powerful than she is — and a spokesperson had written back like this, it would be awesome, if somewhat sexist. But she complained, however fecklessly, about mistreatment during a drug arrest by police, who have vastly more power than she does, no matter how much money or fame she has. That changes the complexion of the response entirely.
First, the department's defenders may say "well, Ole Rusty isn't a cop, he's just a civilian spokesperson." True. But the fact that a sheriff's department sees fit to hire someone like Rusty Fleming as a spokesperson, and to tolerate communications like this, speaks volumes about how they view their relationship with the public and with the media.
Second, buried in the "shut up and sing" is not just a clean hit on a bizarre and self-indulgent on-stage statement from a celebrity. "Shut up and sing" also contains within it the too-common attitude of law enforcement towards civilian criticism and complaints. Here at Popehat we write about how cops react to attempts to file complaints about police officers, how cops abuse the legal system to frustrate the use of new technologies to document misconduct, how cops make bogus claims of being "threatened" to prevent citizens from recording them in the course of their duties, how cops think that expressions of fidelity to constitutional principles are evidence of criminality, how cops react to critical satire with criminal investigations, and how cops — when they think nobody is listening — react with fury and contempt to being questioned. Our cultural attitude toward celebrities is only part of the context of "shut up and sing"; law enforcement entitlement and casual brutality is the other part of the context.
Third, Rusty's letter is a smirking and triumphalist cheer for the immoral, ruinous, ruinously expensive prolonged failure that is the Great American War on Drugs. The War on Drugs does not merely cost us billions of dollars. It does not merely cage people for consensual individual conduct like possession of a piece of vegetation. The War on Drugs is violent. More specifically, it's brutally violent against values that are supposed to be at the heart of America, like due process of law. Adhering to the War on Drugs means never having to say you are sorry for criminal justice system abuses that, in a nation not cowed by drug war propaganda, would shock Americans into action.
So: if you must, enjoy Rusty's letter to the extent it takes a swipe at celebrity entitlement. But if you do, bear in mind that ugly and contemptible things lurk beneath its surface. They letter, though seemingly lighthearted, contains a dark message: civilian, OBEY.