Watching the three minutes of the Paris Hilton sex tape available online and any three minutes of her new reality show, The Simple Life, it’s clear that at least one aspect of the TV show is real–that too-blank-to-be-believed stare of hers. The fisheye she gives the camcorder during sex with Rick Solomon is the same one she gives Farmer Leding when he tells her she’s got to get a job.

Hilton was already the sort of media phenom you can’t look away from–a platinum blond party machine with permanent money–and the revelation of the sex tape last month confirmed her status as the It Girl who isn’t kidding. And how about those demographics? From the pages of Vanity Fair to the amateur porn section of your local video store…that’s about as wide as it gets.

The Simple Life is a classic fish-out-of-water comedy. Hilton, heiress to the Hilton Hotel fortune, and her pal Nicole Richie, heiress to Lionel Richie’s fortune, are dropped, sans money or cell phones, into Altus, Arkansas, population 817–the heart of the heartland that Springsteen and Chevrolet idealize as the cradle of American values. The premise, of course, is that Hilton and Richie are vapid bimbos who have no idea how everyday folks live. Too rich, hot, and decadent for post-9/11 America, they’ve been sent out for a Maoist-style reeducation in the sticks.

In episode two, we see the dissident debs milk a cow, haul feed, and shovel manure. They screw up a la Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory, treat themselves to a soak in the farmer’s hot tub, and get canned by dinnertime, but the most riveting moment is when Danny the dairy farmer hands over their day’s pay: $42 apiece. Hilton’s Little Orphan Annie eyes focus at last: they got up at 5 AM to shovel shit for this guy and he hasn’t even paid them minimum wage! Like any American, she’s pissed.

What’s more fascinating than how different the heiresses are from their hosts is how much they have in common with them. Hilton’s favorite lunch is a McDonald’s value meal. Richie, at a barbecue with the local Clems and Clydes, has no more to say to them than they do to her. In fact many of the locals seem just as nonverbal and directionless as the visitors. Say what you will about the girls, but the locals signed on for the same reason they did: to get famous. And as for Richie’s recent heroin bust and Hilton’s ubiquitous sex tape–well, in America, drugs and homemade porn are hardly the sport of kings.

Hilton isn’t the first socialite to fascinate the public, and the fall from grace is always the heart of the story. In 1926, Ellin Mackay, heiress to the Comstock Lode mining fortune and a chronicler of socialite life for the New Yorker, shocked the city by marrying Jewish songwriter Izzy Baline (aka Irving Berlin) and was disowned by her family. Edie Sedgwick’s self-destruction in the 60s has been a cottage industry for decades.

But ever since 9/11, America has been wringing its collective hands over people like Paris Hilton. Empty celebrity, money, and shallow pop culture are supposed to be passe. We’re supposed to be entering an age of integrity, of getting serious. Our heroes are supposed to be firefighters and soldiers. Maureen Dowd wrote in early 2002: “Will we still be amused when Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend’s pooch chomps down on one of her Manolos? Will we still want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger play a firefighter who loses his wife and child in a terrorist bombing? Will we still crave luxury and pampering or will that seem frivolous? Will we stop staring at the stock tables and get into volunteerism? We pore over box-office receipts and ratings to see how our taste in entertainment has changed.” Certainly California answered the Arnold question.

Dowd wondered if we would truly change, but never why we should. After all, doesn’t Osama bin Laden live in the sticks, reject the material world, and see his lifestyle as spiritually superior to his decadent past–and ours? Why do we want to be more like him?

America has always had a big, loud, unapologetic pop culture. We play baseball during wartime and rock music at presidential inaugurations and run movie stars for political office. There’s no better poster girl for that than Paris Hilton. She’s living proof that the terrorists haven’t won, that we haven’t shown their fundamentalist hatred proper respect.

Let’s say The Simple Life teaches the girls a lesson and Hilton tones it down, starts wearing panties, buys her way into the Ivy League. Then what? George W. Bush dried out and look where he ended up. A Paris Hilton with politics on her mind and permanent money could be trouble. New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine, a former Wall Street financier, spent about $60 million of his own money to win the country’s most expensive senate seat in 2000. Using the estimated $360 million Hilton pile, Paris could buy five of those. Or run for president a couple times.

And then there’s bin Laden, another rich boy, who now uses his estimated $300 million fortune to fund his own pet political project, Al Qaeda. In a world where money is power, I prefer an idle ruling class. When Ted Turner made his billions, he bought a wrestling league. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, has spent millions of pounds trying to sail around the world in a hot air balloon. We need more superrich citizens like these.

America’s interest in Paris Hilton is pretty harmless. It’s when the Paris Hiltons get interested in us that we should get worried.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Brian Gubicza.