By Joseph Brean for National post
European politics can seem distant. You have to squint and, lately, the first thing you often see is Anderson. As ever, you can hardly help it
When he moved into Spanish Harlem in the 1980s, Philippe Bourgois was an improbable resident, a post-doctoral anthropologist from Stanford via Paris living in a “rat-infested tenement” with his wife and baby. He nearly got himself killed with his academic confidence. He once embarrassed a crack kingpin who could not read by calling out in front of a crowd of junkies and fiends: “Yo! Big Ray! Check out this picture of me in the papers!”
But he survived to become a top medical anthropologist of marginalized communities, and years later the theories he developed there — about structural and symbolic violence, and the ways people can be blinded to the injustices they suffer when the world is stacked against them — are an inspiration to a similarly improbable intellectual, a leading voice in a new European political movement, the Canadian actor and activist Pamela Anderson.
She describes Bourgois, whose 1995 book In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrioapplied French neo-Marxist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “cultural capital” to the lives of drug dealers such as Big Ray, as an inspiration for her views of everything from Greek debt to British nationalism and France’s anti-austerity protests by Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests, whose street riots Anderson has said are nothing “compared to the structural violence of the French and global elites.”
“Waves of political change are sweeping across Europe, fuelled by anger and economic injustice and the elite institutions that have failed to protect its people. The disenfranchised have turned to populists to solve their problems, and Britain can now look forward to Donald Trump visiting them in June,” Anderson said with a poignant raise of her eyebrows, in a video posted April 26. “We should understand Brexit not as a rejection of Europe, but as a rejection of its political class.” From this side of the Atlantic, European politics can seem distant. You have to squint and shield your eyes. And lately, when you do, the first thing you often see over the horizon has been Pamela Anderson. As ever, you can hardly help it.
She has been everywhere, palling around with renegades, political jesters, Marxists, eco-feminists and anti-capitalists. She advocated for Julian Assange in his strange diplomatic limbo in London, and more recently for the Swedish programmer and internet privacy and security activist Ola Bini, imprisoned in Ecuador over alleged links to Assange. She calls British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “a politician whose integrity I absolutely and unconditionally admire,” and she has hinted at her closeness with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yanis Varoufakis, the dashing motorcycle-riding economist and former Greek finance minister who has recently partnered with American Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to launch a movement toward a global “New Deal” called Progressive International, has described Anderson’s recent involvement in European activism as “absolutely disarming and charming and wonderful.”
In this, he was referring mainly to her role as his partner in DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, which aims at a universal basic income to remedy the evils of capitalism and unrestrained economic growth. Other luminaries in that movement include the musician Brian Eno, the filmmaker Ken Loach, and the linguist philosopher critic Noam Chomsky, none of whom have the star-wattage of Anderson.
If Steve Bannon exemplifies American right-wing influence on Europe, as an inspiration for the Trumpian rise of nativist movements in the messy age of Brexit, then Anderson is every bit as influential on the left. She draws bigger crowds, concerned about social inequality and climate change. She and Bannon are like perfect opposites. Depending who is looking, both are caricatures, proxies for deeper fears of fascism, sexism, and other monsters of the modern psyche.
For the social justice and eco warriors of Europe, Anderson is an obvious pick as a standard-bearer. She may once have been the classic all-American blonde, but lately she has cultivated a Continental glamour, more Gucci leather than Ralph Lauren cotton. And she has adopted Europe as a resident more than a tourist, living for the past couple of years in Cassis near Marseille on France’s Mediterranean coast with her footballer boyfriend Adil Rami, free of the gleeful mockery that Americans like Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow endured when they moved to London and started acting British. As a poster girl, Anderson is on familiar ground. It is as as a political public intellectual that she is a curiosity.
Of course there has always been the animal rights work, the PETA stunts and baby seals. But lately she is engaging with high philosophy and its urgent connections to debt crises, social inequality, market structures and political strategy, armed with what she calls an intellectual “secret weapon,” the general assumption of her stereotypical bimbo stupidity.
In the days of Baywatch, Europeans saw things a little differently than North Americans. Germans especially had a crush on David Hasselhoff that Anderson, the pride of Ladysmith, BC, was never going to quite match. But she was the primary eye-catcher, the defining visual image of a sun-drenched foreign paradise.
To the Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat, she offered a historic glimpse of political possibility. In a joint interview with Anderson, he said that growing up in the former Yugoslavia as it collapsed into war, the job of lifeguarding a Californian beach looked like “the embodiment of the ‘end of history.’”
This was the early 1990s. European Communism was collapsing. A new dawn of liberal capitalism was promising to be so successful and personally liberating that nothing could ever replace it. The future was idealized. To Yugoslavian kids in a post-Communist society on the margins of the European project, that meant living like CJ Parker and Mitch Buchannon, barely dressed in red swimsuits, bathed in affluence and beauty.
Horvat, a former member of Zagreb’s hardcore punk scene, is Anderson’s friend and a prominent ally in DiEM25, which he and Varoufakis founded in 2016.
Horvat and Anderson make a striking pair in their frequent public appearances. It would be too easy to call him the Tommy Lee of political philosophy. He comes off more like his friend Slavoj Žižek, with the same manic air and unkempt image, like a garrulous modern Socrates in black jeans and an old gym shirt.
In an interview in Jacobin magazine with Anderson and Horvat, he drew attention to one evocative piece of graffiti painted in Nantes during a climate protest in December, which reminded him of the Situationist International, a mid-century European protest group that brought the bizarre artistic sensibilities of Dada and Surrealism to Marxist politics.
“Revolution on sale,” it read, in French. “Pamela Anderson Presidente!”
Horvat noted that Anderson’s first Playboy cover was in 1989, the same year the philosopher Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay, later a book, about the “end of history.” But history was not kind to this catchy thesis, let alone Horvat’s teenage projections of it on to Anderson’s red one-piece. Communism ended, but history didn’t. History is still just one damn thing after another, with no endpoint or goal. Today, capitalism may be ascendant, but it has its own discontents and they are getting louder, in Europe especially. Anderson’s political activism is focused on those very areas where history seems especially in flux.
There is new talk of a “European Spring,” a metaphor that was originally European, about Prague in 1968, but more recently has been associated with failed uprisings against Middle Eastern and North African dictatorships. European politics feels more revolutionary these days. There is history to be made, and Anderson has found herself a place in that process.
She is in a proud tradition. The rise of the woman public intellectual in Canada coincided with the suffrage movement, according to Sylvia Bashevkin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto who studies the political engagement of women.
There were two main arguments for granting women the vote, she wrote in ”Navigating Gendered Spaces: Women as Public Intellectuals.” One was a “forthright” claim for equal rights, the other a more strategically maternal suggestion that “women would clean up the polity in the same no-nonsense way they cleaned up their homes and cared for their families.”
Nellie McClung, for example, “merged maternal feminism with a direct critique of what she portrayed as the sordid, grubby world of party politics.”
That initial breakthrough set the stage for the women who followed, such as Ursula Franklin, who saw women’s rights and anti-militarism as “two sides of the same coin,” Naomi Klein, who railed against globalization, and Irshad Manji, who urged a feminist rethinking of Islam.
But Anderson’s star is rising in a different sky.
“The visual dimension of contemporary communication flows arguably has presented the greatest opportunity as well as the greatest risk for women intellectuals,” Bashevkin wrote. “Those seeking to raise their profiles via newer visual media risk being trivialized and dissected along the lines of body image, hair, clothing, and so on.”
This image consciousness is an especially grave risk for Anderson, just as it was once her biggest opportunity, as when she was discovered on a Jumbotron, and became famous in Playboy. But Anderson has turned that risk on its head to her own immense advantage.
In Calgary this week for a comics expo, she said of her reputation as a sex symbol, and all the sexist connotations of vapidity and ignorance that go along with it: “It’s kind of a secret weapon. When someone doesn’t think you’re intelligent but then you form a full sentence, you’re a genius.”