Coronations, Coups, And Keeping Up With The Kardashians

Jan 17, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 3:18 pm

If you've ever visited the palm-lined neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, you've probably noticed that the rich and famous aren't the only ones drawn there.

Stargazers also flock to this exclusive enclave, seeking a chance to peer into — and fantasize about — the lives of movie stars and film directors.

Call it adulation, adoration, idolization: we humans are fascinated by glamour and power.

But this turns out to be only one side of our psychology. Many of us hate the rich and powerful precisely because they are rich and powerful, and we secretly enjoy when they are toppled from their pedestals.

Take, for example, the incident last fall in which five men robbed Kim Kardashian at gunpoint. Many people were sympathetic to her ordeal, but plenty of others mocked her on social media.

Andrea McDonnell, a communications professor who studies celebrity culture, has a theory about that. She says we love seeing a window into the glamorous world of Kim, but we simultaneously resent her for seemingly rubbing that wealth in our faces.

"Kim Kardashian is someone who made her whole living out of being famous, and employing her fame to make money," McDonnell says. "When that wealth is quite literally attacked in a very confrontational and personal way, our potential empathy for her – even if we are fans of hers – may be lacking."

This ambivalence isn't reserved just for celebrities; it extends to our elected leaders as well. We adore the pomp and circumstance associated with high office, but we pounce at the slightest gaffe.

It turns out these attitudes aren't a modern phenomenon — primatologists and cultural anthropologists also see evidence of them among chimps and early human societies.

The University of Southern California's Christopher Boehm has studied nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes who've had almost no contact with the outside world, and whose lives have changed little over thousands of years. What he found was a deep ambivalence about the powerful. Take, for example, one of the most powerful members of a hunter-gatherer band, the skilled hunter.

"People love this guy, but the minute he tries to turn this meat into power — that is, to keep the meat for himself or give it to his cronies to turn it into power that way — the group will treat him with extreme discourtesy," he says.

Perhaps America's biggest source of reverence and revulsion steps into the Oval Office on Friday. To his critics, he has broken with the precedent of modesty set by many leaders. To his supporters, he is someone who has promised to level the playing field. As a true celebrity president, he exemplifies our contradictory feelings toward the rich and powerful.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

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Welcome to Los Angeles, the celebrity capital of the world. It's a city that conjures palm-lined boulevards, sprawling mansions, luxury cars. At the center of all the glitz - Hollywood. Movie stars aren't the only ones here, stargazers are drawn here too like paperclips to a magnet.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: And point your attention to the left 'cause we are seeing Beverly Hills for the first time on the left hand side. Wow, some big houses down there, right?

VEDANTAM: With the Muzak blaring, a handful of people on a celebrity tour peer out their van hoping to glimpse the homes of LA's rich and famous. The guide points out Gwen Stefani's house, and a clump of bushes behind which she claims is Quentin Tarantino's home. She pulls up near Katy Perry's compound.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: Do I have any Katy Perry fans aboard? (Singing) Fireworks. OK, well, here's her house. Look up to your left, and you'll see the awning - the red awning. You can't really see it's red there, but we are right beneath her house. She actually owns the entire corner here. And look at her view. It's amazing, isn't it?

VEDANTAM: One of the tour's most popular sites is the home of Kim Kardashian - well, sort of.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: Kanye and Kim, they needed a house to have their friends over. And on the left hand side, this is the house they use, rented for 12,000 a month. There's somebody right behind us so I can't stop, sorry about that, but that is the house right there. Has its own little swimming pool. Boy, they had some big parties, too.

VEDANTAM: Tours like this are big business. Andrew Immordino (ph) helps manage the tour company called Star Track. He says not just Americans, but people from all over the world sign up for these tours.

ANDREW IMMORDINO: And they kind of want to just get that little feel and that little taste of what it's like to, you know, see the celebrities' homes and do all the crazy stuff that you see in the magazines and the televisions.


VEDANTAM: But it's more than just wanting a taste of celebrity culture, the glitz and glamour of the swimming pools, the manicured grounds, the storied homes, humans hunger for a chance to peer into and fantasize about lives of luxury and extravagance. This extends to our political leaders, too. We adore the pomp of state dinners and inaugural balls.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

VEDANTAM: We dream of what it must be like when presidents make life and death decisions for a nation.


FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people and their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

VEDANTAM: We fantasize about what it must mean to be fabulously rich and powerful.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Words can't describe how beautiful it was. Everything you saw was breathtaking. And we got to meet his girlfriend Melania, who was amazing as well.


MELANIA TRUMP: Hi, I'm Melania.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Nice to meet you.

TRUMP: Nice to meet you.

VEDANTAM: Call it adulation, adoration, idolization. Humans are prone to suck up to the rich and powerful, but this turns out to be only one side of our psychology. On the other side is something entirely different. Many of us hate the rich because they are rich. We want to see the powerful topple from their pedestals. We enjoy seeing the glamorous fall and fail. The lure of celebrity tours is rivaled only by the popularity of tabloid magazines detailing the rehab trips and broken marriages of those same celebrities.

If a monarchist enthralled by pomp and power sits on one of our shoulders, eventual populist sits on the other - a populist suspicious of power, distrustful of the wealthy, eager to have the high and mighty pulled off their pedestals. The thin line between adoring the rich and powerful and marching them to the guillotine, this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.


VEDANTAM: On a pre-dawn morning, a heist occurred in Paris.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Breaking news this morning. Kim Kardashian robbed at gunpoint in Paris late last night by five men dressed as police officers.

VEDANTAM: The robbers made off not only with Kim K's 20 carat emerald cut diamond engagement ring, but other jewels and cash totaling more than $10 million. The news media was sympathetic to Kim's ordeal.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: A source close to Kim tells "ET" the mother of two is still very, very shaken up, quote, "she thought she was going to die. They put a gun to her head while they were searching the apartment. She was crying, begging them for her life."

VEDANTAM: The sympathy didn't last long, especially on social media. Andrea MacDonald (ph) is a communications professor who's interested in celebrity culture.

ANDREA MACDONALD: There's a tweet here from The House of WTF that says, quote, "Kim Kardashian was held at gunpoint in a Paris hotel. Man will be charged with not pulling the trigger and saving humanity from mediocrity."

VEDANTAM: Or this boast...

MACDONALD: "After years of desperation, Kim Kardashian finally has a reason to be in the news today."

VEDANTAM: There were other snarky comments. Maybe Kim faked the robbery as a publicity stunt. Maybe she faked it so she could disappear for more plastic surgery. Where was the love, the outpouring of concern from Kim's millions of fans? Why, after a brutal robbery, did people turn on her? Andrea has a theory.

MACDONALD: Kim Kardashian is someone who has made her whole living out of being famous and employing her fame to make money and really flaunting her success and wealth in various ways. And so when that wealth is quite literally - it's hacked in a very confrontational and personal way, our potential empathy for her, even if we are fans of hers, may be lacking there because of our own potential envy or distaste for some of her personal presentation of wealth.

VEDANTAM: In other words, as much as many of us like seeing the rich and luxurious world of Kim, we don't like the idea that she's rubbing it in our faces, and so we don't mind when she's taken down a few notches. We do the same with our political leaders. We adore the pomp and circumstance associated with high office, but we pounce at the slightest gaffe. Vice President Dan Quayle was all but drawn and quartered when he urged a little boy to add an E to the spelling of the word potato. And Texas Governor Rick Perry suffered a moment of forgetfulness during a presidential debate.


RICK PERRY: The third agency of government I would do away with, the education, the - commerce. And let's see - I can't - the third. Sorry. Oops.

VEDANTAM: That was the end of Rick Perry's role in the national spotlight, at least under President-elect Donald Trump chose him to lead the department he couldn't remember - energy. Governor Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for president came to a crashing halt when he ended a televised speech with slightly too much enthusiasm.


HOWARD DEAN: We're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico. And we're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we're going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House. Yeah.

VEDANTAM: Goodbye, Mr. Dean. You get the point - we can adore our leaders one moment and skewer them the next. Not long ago, I was watching "All The Way," a wonderful movie about Lyndon B. Johnson starring actor Bryan Cranston. There's one scene that stayed with me. It sums up the contradictory feelings humans have toward people in power. LBJ has just been elected president. He walks through an adoring crowd, and he says this to himself.


BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) Right now we're going to party like there's no tomorrow 'cause there's no feeling in the world half as good as winning. But the sun will come up, and the knives will come out. And all these smiling faces will be watching me, waiting for that one first moment of weakness, and then they will gut me like a deer.

VEDANTAM: It's not a bad analogy, given that so much of our psychology was formed in the ancient past when humans lived in small nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers. Some researchers believe the roots of our love-hate relationship with power lie in this evolutionary history. If we look carefully, we can still find evidence for it today in the forests of Tanzania.


VEDANTAM: Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. To understand the contradictory relationship that humans have with power, we need to go back in time, way back to prehistory, to our evolutionary past. One way to do this is to observe the behavior of a close relative - the chimpanzee. As a young woman, the evolutionary anthropologist Anne Pusey walked deep into the Tanzanian forest. She was there as a student assistant to the great primatologist Jane Goodall. Anne's job was to observe and record chimpanzee behavior in the wild. Sometimes she'd watch the chimps at a feeding location loaded with bananas, other times she'd simply trail them.

ANNE PUSEY: And following them around was pretty tough because it's, as I said, a rugged place, and so you're going up and down. You're crawling through vines, the parts - if there are parts - that the chimps walk on are small, and you often have to scramble through the vegetation. And if they didn't want to be followed, they could very easily lose you.

VEDANTAM: Over time, Anne began to understand how the chimps engaged with each other. Chimps society is very male dominated. The head honcho is the alpha male. He's often the center of attention.

PUSEY: The other males will groom him. He's probably groomed more by - than other males are. And the same, the females pay particular attention to the alpha male as well, partly because they get chased around by him more. So there's certainly probably a benefit to individuals from having a good relationship with the alpha male from their own, you know, point of view of safety and maybe support that they may gain from him.

VEDANTAM: Often, the younger males appear to idolize the alpha.

PUSEY: Some of the males I watched, especially one in particular, just followed the alpha male around. And, you know, he - the alpha male would do a charging display and the little male I was watching would sort of trudge along behind him and kick the same buttress of the tree.

VEDANTAM: But the relationship between the alpha and others in the group is more complicated than it might first seem. Christopher Boehm is a cultural anthropologist who also worked with Jane Goodall observing the chimps.

CHRISTOPHER BOEHM: Basically, if you look at the individual chimpanzees and how they behave around their superiors, it's rather ambivalent.

VEDANTAM: You can see this ambivalence each time the alpha male intimidates the other chimps.

BOEHM: He basically goes crazy. He runs around, erects all of his hair to look as big as possible, uproots trees and throws them, picks up boulders and heaves them in the air, swings aggressively on vines, races around and attacks any member of the group that doesn't show deference by going up a tree in a hurry.

VEDANTAM: What Chris found interesting as he watched the chimps is what happened next.

BOEHM: As they race up the trees they are screaming, which is a fear vocalization, which tells the alpha male I'm scared of you, so it's all deference. But as they get up to the top of the tree, they then stop screaming, and they give another call called the waa (ph) bark. And a waa sounds something like this - waa, but ever so much louder. And the waa call is one of defiance and hostility. And so once they're up in the tree tops and they know he isn't going to take the trouble to come up and punish them, they all start waaing (ph) at him. And this tells him and me that they don't like what he just did because he's basically dominating and frightening them and forced them to run up a tree when they'd rather be on the ground feeding and so on. So in terms of ambivalence, political ambivalence toward the alpha male was pretty easy to identify once you know the species well.

VEDANTAM: In other words, woven into the fabric of adulation and submission are strands of defiance and rebellion. Early humans seem to share this trait. Chris has studied nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes who've had almost no contact with the outside world and whose lives have changed little over thousands of years. What he found again was a deep ambivalence about the powerful. Take, for example, one of the most powerful members of a hunter-gatherer tribe - the skilled hunter.

BOEHM: And people love this guy, but the minute he tries to turn that meat into power - that is to keep the meat for himself and give it to his cronies and develop power that way - the group will treat him with extreme discourtesy. They may criticize him. If it gets too bad, they may ostracize him. If it really gets too bad and the guy is a real despot and is trying to basically take other people's autonomy away, they'll kill him.

VEDANTAM: The great hunter is admired and revered, but if he becomes too big for his boots, he's quickly taken down. In his book, "Hierarchy In The Forest," Chris concluded that early human society was mocked by a remarkable egalitarianism. The roots of democracy, he concluded, weren't in the American Declaration of Independence or even in ancient Greece, they are woven into the DNA of human beings.

BOEHM: Really, humans are somehow disposed to look up to those who are rich and powerful and also to subject them to special scrutiny morally. And again, if you have a leader and you're watching out carefully that he doesn't overdevelop his power, that kind of scrutiny's very important.

VEDANTAM: Our contradictory attitudes about power aren't lost on the rich and powerful. It's one reason handlers work so hard to make leaders and celebrities look down to earth and humble. President Reagan was often shown in jeans and flannel shirt cutting wood on his ranch or saddling up his horses.


RONALD REAGAN: I'm not used to riding with the chest plate on him, and I forget and girth up before I remember.

VEDANTAM: The Kennedys went water skiing for fun and remembered to bring the media along.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: It's a family outing in Lewis Bay, Hyannis Port for the Kennedys. The president, accompanied by his convalescing father, his brothers and a full complement of children, relaxes from the cares of Washington with a day on the water.

VEDANTAM: Beloved leaders aren't the only ones who've learned this trick. In 2011, Vogue ran a puff piece about Asma al-Assad and her husband Bashar. She was the rose in the desert. Together, they were the beautiful down to earth couple, deeply committed to empowering citizens in Syrian civil society. Two years later, the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people. Or consider this - decades earlier, various international newspapers wrote about the domestic life of a well-known leader. Readers learn the interior spaces of his Bavarian retreat were painted in various shades of green. There was a portrait of his mother in his bedroom. He breakfasted on milk, bread, honey, oatmeal and cheese.

DESPINA STRATIGAKOS: They talk about his vegetarianism. They talk about his dogs and how much he loves his dogs and his dogs love him. They talk about how much he loves children.

VEDANTAM: The man was Adolph Hitler. In her book "Hitler At Home," Despina Stratigakos explores how the Nazi propaganda machine created an image of Hitler as a humble man of the people at ease in nature. In 1937, The New York Times Magazine featured a sympathetic glimpse of Hitler living in the mountains, thinking about the destiny of his nation.

VEDANTAM: Shockingly, after this 1937 New York Times article, there is - a absolute puff piece appears on August 20, 1939 in The New York Times again, and that one has absolutely no critical edge to it. It is by a woman who I haven't been able to identify, who talks about the fact that Hitler loves gooseberry pie and how wonderful the tomatoes are on his table. And it appears, you know, just less than two weeks before Hitler invades Poland.


VEDANTAM: Gooseberry pie, a photo of a waterskiing Kennedy, a president grooming his horses like a cowboy. What these images do is say, don't worry, I may be powerful, but I haven't lost touch with you. We're still connected. We're the same. Thousands of miles from the Bavarian Alps, tourists in Hollywood are balancing the twin impulses we have toward the rich and powerful. As the tour winds through the Hollywood Hills, it comes to a stop - a new one.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: And whether you have the new president or you love him, I can just tell you this, this is his house on the right hand side. This is Donald J. Trump's winter estate here in Beverly Hills, right here on the right hand side, the house there. And we're going to pull up the pools right there. It's the tiniest little pool, yeah. And here's the servants' quarters back here.

VEDANTAM: Donald Trump's election has ignited the contradictory feelings we have toward the rich and powerful. To his critics, Donald Trump has broken with the precedent of modesty set by many leaders. He's rich, he's powerful, he's famous and he flaunts it. In the language of evolutionary anthropology, he's the boastful hunter in the tribe. But to his supporters, he's very much a man of the people, someone who's promised to level the playing field, a populist. In the language of evolutionary anthropology, he's a skilled hunter who vows to share the meat. You can be sure of this - as the camera's flash and the motorcades go by, there will be lots of adoring smiles and concealed daggers.


VEDANTAM: This week's podcast was produced by Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman and Chris Benderev. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team also includes Renee Klahr, Rhaina Cohen and Chloe Connelly. We had original music this week composed by Louis Weeks and Nick Dupre (ph).

Our unsung hero today is Neal Carruth. Neal oversees a number of NPR's podcasts, including HIDDEN BRAIN. He's kind, calm, very measured. Thanks, Neal, for being a graceful leader and an enthusiastic supporter of HIDDEN BRAIN. We really appreciate it.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. If you liked this episode, please tell one friend who doesn't know about HIDDEN BRAIN about our show. Tell us on social media whom you've tapped. We're always looking for new people to find our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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