Saturday, June 09, 2007

Paris Hilton, je t'aime

On the subway home last night, I overheard people gossiping about Paris Hilton. Hardly an unusual occurrence. As everyone in this media-saturated world knows, her court appearance yesterday didn't go very well. According to news accounts, she was a nervous wreck throughout the proceedings, and she screamed and cried as she was taken from court and back to jail. The people I overheard on the subway were laughing at her situation, but I was unable to join in. After seeing the pain on her face in the now infamous photo of her crying in the back seat of a police car, schadenfreude is the last thing on my mind.

Despite her wealth and fame, I see Paris Hilton as a tragically sheltered person. This is perhaps the first time she has been so boldly confronted with the so-called real world, the first time her parents were unable to protect her from the consequences of her actions. I came to love Paris on "The Simple Life," where she clearly learned to sympathize with the less privileged (as opposed to Nicole Richie, who came across in the show as heartlessly immature). But sympathy can take you only so far. Paris now is learning the much trickier skill of empathy.

She's not in San Quentin. Her environment for the next 40-some days is probably quite comfortable as far as jails go. But that doesn't mean she's prepared for it. When I saw the anguish on her face yesterday, I remembered myself around her age, when I found myself on the other side of the country from my parents and the life I had always known. I was a basketcase in that unfamiliar world, even though it was one I had chosen. I was unprepared to live so independently, and no matter how much I told myself it would all be fine, my body didn't believe it. I sobbed, I trembled, I was nauseated. I think of it all as growing pains now, but then it seemed like the end of the world.

We needn't think of Paris Hilton as alien because she's rich. People are so fond of calling her "spoiled," forgetting that someone else did the spoiling. Her parents gave her every material thing she could want, but did they prepare her to live life as a responsible adult? Is it her fault that she's now struggling so painfully?

We call her "privileged," but clearly there are important things that we less privileged people have that she does not. I've never thought of Paris Hiton as flaunting her wealth, but I certainly see people disliking her because of it. I am not apologizing for her crime: it was real, and she deserves some measure of punishment. (Whether her crime merited 45 days in jail is debatable--particularly in a world where George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are still free to walk the streets and kill thousands.) All I ask for is simple compassion. It's not as much fun as laughing at someone's pain, but if we can't feel compassion, then our sense of superiority is revealed for precisely what it is--resentment and cruelty.


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