I promise this whole column will not be about Justin Bieber.
But the 19-year-old pop music superstar, who was already not having a terribly great month, unwittingly stirred a rather improbable ruckus the other day that can serve as a proverbial “teachable moment” for us all.
In Amsterdam, amidst the European leg of his current tour, Bieber visited the Anne Frank House and signed its guestbook thusly: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”
(“Belieber” is the official term for a Justin Bieber fan. As if you didn’t know.)
Of course, to a normal, mentally balanced human being, those are just about the most innocuous, uninteresting three sentences one could possibly write, scarcely requiring any further comment. Contemporary teenager expresses affection for an historical figure roughly his age, dreaming that, had they occupied the same time and place, she might have liked him back. End of story—if, indeed, this could even be called a story.
However, as Bieber’s every action has become the object of acute fascination by a not-insignificant gaggle of followers—admiring and despising—for whom a sense of proportion is not a strong point, this utterly harmless episode has ballooned into a controversy on the strength of the perceived lack of humility on Bieber’s part in presuming to speculate about Anne Frank’s tastes in music.
It’s an exercise in silliness—a demonstration of the spectacle one becomes when one is prepared to be offended by absolutely anything. However, although Bieber meant no disrespect in his sweet nothing of a guestbook message, we can nonetheless wring some small semblance of meaning from it by reflecting upon the pitfalls of a practice that long foreruns the Biebs—that of ventriloquizing the thoughts of those long past.
Touring bookstores across the United States in 2005 to promote his biography Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Christopher Hitchens regularly advised against historians and biographers assuming more than they could possibly know about their respective subjects. To theorize what a particular historical person might have thought about a given subject, Hitchens argued, is beyond the competency of even the most learned student of history, and should be avoided at all costs.
(Hitchens granted himself one exception: That in seeing Sally Hemings for the first time, Thomas Jefferson must surely have thought, “Maybe there is a God after all.”)
We all like to claim our favorite historical and literary authorities as corroborators of our most deeply-held views, figuring that the collected writings and opinions they churned out while alive license us to infer what they would say about things now, if only they weren’t dead.
Certainly Jesus Christ has fallen victim to this practice over the last few centuries, becoming an unsolicited spokesman for believers and nonbelievers alike. (My favorite example: Max von Sydow lamenting in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, “If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”)
Men such as George Orwell and Abraham Lincoln have proved especially malleable in recent years, welcomed as moral leaders of pretty much every ideological movement currently in business. Then there was the recent hilarity of the chairman of “Gun Appreciation Day” saying unironically that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would oppose gun control “if he were alive today.”
Quite apart from the practical difficulties of conjuring imagined opinions of the dead to make a point about the living, there is a far more troubling matter: The implication that our convictions are only as valid as the individuals who might share them.
To wit: Suppose it were demonstrated that King really would oppose an assault weapons ban, say, or that Orwell would find President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program appalling. So what?
The case for or against a particular policy ought to stand or fall on its own merits, with the identity of its supporters and detractors a distantly secondary consideration.
I refrain from smoking cigarettes because medical science has demonstrated that tobacco causes cancer—not because Adolph Hitler recommended that I do so.
I was in favor of a right to same-sex marriage both before and after President Barack Obama gave it his seal of approval. The arguments for and against did not change just because the president did, much as the case for abolishing slavery did not hinge on President Lincoln’s personal endorsement.
Do not depend on the reputations of others to determine what is right. Have the nerve to think for yourself, as if your own opinions and powers of reason were as legitimate as anyone else’s.
Be a belieber in your own self-worth.