The Cult of Celebrity

I hope you’ll forgive the remonstrance evident in the last post. Thirty years on, bad memories still linger with the good. If some residual bitterness remains, I’ll have to own up to that and redouble my efforts to get over it. After all, every time I sit down to write, I feel my greatest obligation is to write from a pure heart. That’s not to comment by any means on the actual state of my purity, but only to say that I try to cleanse myself so that the writing, at least, has a better chance at purity.

In any case, let’s get on with the point at hand: celebrity. One might wonder why a writer would be concerned with our country’s unabashed love of celebrities, other than to rail against the fact that he’s not one of them. Here I ask you to give me the benefit of the doubt, if only for the sake of my argument in this post, that I have something other than that on my mind.

I’d like to take the American Revolution as my starting point. I do that because it’s not only the beginning of our great experiment in liberty, but also because I believe its highest ideals are ones we could build upon today.

Let me ask a question. Who were the public’s darlings during those heady times? And before you go all silly and say popular singers, actors or authors of vampire novels, think carefully about this (hopefully you’ve already done your homework). You’ve surely come to the conclusion that the stars of the public’s entertainment—or its sexual proclivities—are almost completely absent in Revolutionary times. The truth is (with few exceptions) that people in those days became famous for actually achieving something remarkable, usually over the course of many years or even a lifetime. The greatest hero from that era, George Washington, earned his reputation through sustained courage, intelligence, perseverance, humility, personal suffering to achieve public good, and irrepressible love of country. Pick any celebrity of today and see if those qualities fit. And as an exercise in absurdity, pick any celebrity who’s “famous for being well known”—reality show denizens, perpetrators of erotic escapades, sit-com “stars,” and apply the same comparison.

Who was well-known during our Revolution and shortly after? Let’s arbitrarily pick ten. Washington, John Adams, Franklin, Madison, Abigail Adams, Patrick Henry, Phillis Wheatley, Noah Webster, Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark), Thomas Paine.  Now think about the ten most prominent or talked about people in our country today. You’ll find the President and who else? Athletes? Film stars, in or out of rehab? Perfume-selling celebs? Sex symbols? Fantasy writers? Individuals caught up in scandals? Embattled dotcom potentates? If you think I’m being too cynical, check any recent list of top ten searches on Google or Yahoo. Then compare that list with what you might find in 1776 and the decades shortly thereafter. You may be surprised but somehow I don’t think so. (Not every well-known early American was a paragon, of course—I’ve already mentioned Hamilton in that regard [though he was absolutely invaluable to the country—Jefferson called him “a colossus”], and others like Aaron Burr and Benedict Arnold also had their flaws. Even our arbitrary ten are not blameless, though in the main they were men and women of exceptional character.)

It’s obvious what I’m getting at but the reason why might not be. It seems to me that when you look at early America, it’s so clear that the inhabitants at that time had leadership. In all the chaos of social change, war and nation-building, intelligent and often visionary individuals were there to provide guidance. In our own troubled times, who is guiding us? It seems we pay far too much attention to entertainment figures, charlatans and “famous for being famous” people who are incapable of leading us anywhere but into more confusion. I’m not the first one to say this and I won’t be the last. We’re at a loss for heroes and settle for lesser ones when greater ones are at hand. When Princess Diana and Mother Theresa died around the same time, who got all the U.S. press coverage? Who were all the tears for? With a man of the intelligence and integrity of a Colin Powell around, why did the nation turn to George Bush?

Apparently, we don’t put all that much faith in leadership nowadays. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding of the idea of freedom that inclines us to devalue leadership like we do and pursue our own private goals. Then we look to celebrities for clues as to what success or the good life could look like. They’re not just entertainment figures—please be clear about that, patient reader—according to the amount of media coverage and public interest they generate, in effect they’re the role models of the twenty-first century.

Moreover, the commercial nature of American society—Calvin Coolidge famously quipped that “the business of America is business”—has encouraged the milking of this “cult of celebrity” for billions upon billions of dollars: think of the money generated by the appearances celebrities make (on screen, in concert and in person), the clothes they wear, the products they endorse, the recreational and performance-enhancing drugs they use, the resorts they haunt…if you don’t think individuals and corporations are fleecing an entranced public for every penny they can, you’re not looking at the country with your eyes fully open, and I say that respectfully. Why do we reach for our wallets and purses so willingly? Simply because these are the people we look to for a vision of what the good life might look like. Yet as we see and hear about every day, these gods of the current American mindscape have such clay feet! And all the while, our souls languish and we as a nation remain unfulfilled.

It’s undoubtedly true that we have a spiritual longing, as we’ve heard said time and again. However, there’s no shortage of people coming along to help fill the gap—another type of celebrity—though almost always manifesting an undercurrent of materialism. In one of my books I called this Oprahfication—seeming to minister to the soul but in fact continuing to lubricate the celebrity culture and the treadmill of acquisition. This is an insidious trend, regardless of the good intentions of the people who give it impetus, because it has the effect of lending respectability to the cult of celebrity (and “stuff”) by associating it with spirituality, love of books, charity work, achieving personal goals and so on. And when one of these pastoral individuals shows up to speak somewhere—TV personalities, televangelists, self-development gurus, etc—the line to gain admission is a mile long and all abuzz. So not only are we spiritually thirsty, but we’re going to the wrong well to drink.

I don’t mean to be overly harsh here. As I said, good intentions often do play a part. It’s just that too many of these people who think they’re doing something positive don’t see the “big picture” that I keep talking about. They are themselves enmired in the culture and can’t really understand the larger consequences of what they’re doing. (The fact that they’re rich and getting richer must make them feel they’re doing something right.) Yet the effect they’re having is to succor the disenchanted and give them the belief that sponsoring a child, learning to believe in themselves, empathizing with a celebrity in recovery, reading good books or sending money to the TV church are acts of atonement and deliverance while all the while the wheels of the twittering machine (see Paul Klee’s painting) keep right on turning. Thus people are co-opted. Nothing changes. Our hunger remains.

When I’m writing a novel, I find my characters often agonizing over a decision about what to do in a certain set of circumstances because there’s no one to guide them. They have to struggle through on their own because friends and acquaintances are operating under the same handicap and are of little help, and the culture itself provides neither a direction nor an effective plan of action other than to keep playing the same senseless game everyone else is. My characters who do have a sense of purpose and direction are rare and usually find themselves outside the confines of the culture—Meelahnee the Native American woman, Jennifer Knox’s artist aunt in the woods of Big Sur, or Sammy the mentally retarded guy living at Albemarle in the mountains of Montana. These characters are unusual in that they have an unshakeable sense of who they are and what they’re doing. They’re grounded. The fact that one’s an Indian, one’s an old lady and one’s slow goes to show that those tinged with outsider status may be more likely to find a truer meaning of self and life than the mesmerized mainstream. Or so I truly believe, and I say that from experience.

I didn’t actually create those characters, by the way. They jumped up out of the writing and carved a role for themselves, quite to my surprise. And more than that, I came to admire, even love them. “If I could be more like that,” I sometimes found myself thinking at the time of writing, “I’d be a lot closer to what I think a human being could be.” The fact that such people are not typically respected but are near the bottom of our society says something, I think.

Who are celebrities but people who cater to our fantasies about what “success” might be like? That suggests that the reality of our daily lives (as well as the content of our imaginations) is somehow wanting. Why is that? What’s missing that so many people are motivated to strive toward the examples set by these almost-mythical beings we call stars to feed their hungry souls? This is heartbreaking. Are you not heartbroken when you see how it’s come to this? How long can we as a nation keep genuflecting before this opéra bouffe before we stand on our feet again? Is there nothing more satisfying we can do with the freedom we’ve been given? How can we be leaders of the world when we can’t even lead ourselves?  Why do I write? Do I have to stand in front of you and jump up and down, reader? This is why I write!

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