The heroism of Kim Kardashian
In the good old days it used to be normal to mock celebrities — not just serious actors and talented musicians but people who are basically famous for being famous — when they decided to get involved in politics. Who wants a millionaire telling him to "Imagine no possessions"? It took three decades, but eventually even Hanoi Jane admitted that sitting on that anti-aircraft gun was a dumb idea. The stupidity is bipartisan. I still have no idea who or what Clint Eastwood was talking about during the 2012 Republican convention.
Things have changed. For two years now the White House has been occupied by the guy who tried to rig the soapbox derby against Alfalfa in the 1994 remake of The Little Rascals. This means that we have no choice but to take celebrity political activism seriously.
Who would have guessed that the lamprophonious voice of truth rising above the moronic din in 2018 would belong to Kim Kardashian?
I am not a dedicated student of America's second most famous family, but I think one can say without prejudice that Kim Kardashian is probably the least likely serious advocate for criminal justice reform imaginable. When it was announced in April that she had secured the release of Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old Tennessee woman sentenced to life in prison for taking calls on behalf of drug dealers, I dismissed it is a one-off publicity stunt meant to promote the release of a new line of couture workout pants or perhaps an album by her husband.
But the story stuck with me. Johnson, a divorced mother who lost her son in a motorcycle crash, was pushed into the drug trade after being fired from FedEx in a desperate attempt to pay off her gambling debts. Here was someone who was not a danger to the public, who was at best only partly complicit in crimes that are regarded as commerce in other parts of the country. The commutation of her sentence by President Trump was a rare moment of hopeful news.
I am now convinced that Kim Kardashian is, as Christopher Hitchens once said of Paul Newman, one of those people who "goes to the boring meetings too." In an appearance on a podcast that debuted Wednesday, she announced that she is taking up the case of Chris Young, a man sentenced to life in prison after being caught in possession of marijuana and cocaine in 2010, when he was 22 years old. It was not just her evident passion, which people who appear in front of cameras for a living are good at manufacturing, that made me think she is worth taking seriously. It was the extraordinary length at which she spoke, the specificity of her knowledge, and the not-at-all showy decision to introduce her new campaign on a not especially well-known internet radio program rather than on Good Morning America or in an Instagram post.
On the merits, Kardashian is absolutely right. There is nothing just about a life sentence — for any crime. If the offense in question is serious enough that it demands permanent expiation, administer the death penalty. There is no justice in a system that requires someone who is barely an adult to spend the rest of his life behind bars because he smoked or snorted substances enjoyed casually by millions of fratboys and finance bros.
But she is also, I think, right as the messenger here. Somehow a person who has done nothing to convince any of us that she is anything but a vacuous reality television personality is more convincing as an advocate of decency and good will than some vegan indie rocker who donated to Bernie Sanders before the first debate in 2015 or an actor who has spent 30 years pretending to be a sincere reader of The Nation. The Kardashian brand is money, not performative wokeness. Kim's total lack of interest in liberal meliorism is the best proof of her sincerity.
It is interesting to consider what President Trump's role in all of this might be. According to Kardashian's interview on "Wrongful Conviction," she is regularly in touch with Jared Kushner, who apparently shares her convictions about sentencing reform. Why was the president willing to brush aside his own views — to the extent that they are coherent or realizable — and the policy of his administration in favor of mercy for Johnson earlier this year? It probably has something to do with the fact that he knows who Kim Kardashian is and what her audience is — i.e., the same as his.
There is something deeply weird about a world in which the star of the video for Fergie's 2016 single "M.I.L.F. $" is playing Leonore to a nation of Florestans. There is also something oddly heartening about it.