Today’s Celebrity is Yesterday’s Aristocracy

Submitted by Mike Spindell, guest blogger

Andy Warhol, said in 1968 that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Forty-Three years later the remark has become ubiquitously prescient. The world is awash in a celebrity culture and America is at the acme of this “culture”. From one perspective this is merely the harmless fluff that people use in order to distract themselves from the depressing things their lives have offered. It is the triumph of “kitsch” over substance in the business of being famous. This has been true throughout mankind’s history. The lives and activities of the powerful have been followed by the masses with avid interest and have been the fodder of discussion around what served as the ancient’s water coolers, perhaps the public wells. Without a doubt in ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh’s comings and goings were constant conversational topics. Today, in a much different context, the American multitudes avidly follow the lives of the powerful, rich and famous, via innumerable outlets including Facebook and Twitter.

The question I’m broaching here is if this is a historic human trait, are there negative aspects of it that threaten the functioning and stability of our society? My own answer is that I’m not sure one way or another, but I am concerned about what I see all around me and perhaps would like the writers here to talk me down, so to speak. Now one might rightly ask what does this have to do with the law and the other topics we treat here on a daily basis. Only this week we have had news bulletins and stories about the sentencing of Michael Jackson’s doctor to four years in prison. On that same day no doubt there were dozens of news stories that had greater effect on our lives, yet every network paid much attention to it on their nightly news. At the risk of offending Michael Jackson fans, the death of this once famous “Pop Star”, self titled “King of Pop” if you will, was hardly worth the attention paid to it, when issues of economic collapse, wars, revolutions, genocides and famines raged throughout the media frenzy. Yet, I must say that the media knew their audience and this story catered to that audience. I understand the need for, and I myself have need of distraction from the woes of the world, so it is not as if I hold myself apart from the indulgence. Frequently instances of self loathing come to the fore as I slavishly behold the spectacle that our media creates for us surrounding people and issues that embarrass our attention, as they play out before our wide-eyed gazes.

If I mention Kim Kardashian, most of our highly astute readers and I have a vague notion of whom she is and how famous she has become. Yet probably, like me, you have absorbed a certain set of facts about her, while never watching her TV shows, nor reading articles about her. Yet other than being the daughter of one of OJ’s lawyers and the subject of  a viral porn video,  Kim is a person of shallow thought and little accomplishment. At this point in her life she has a TV show and an extensive Wikipedia page:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Kardashian , which is larger and more detailed than Professor Turley’s page.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Turley . My guess is that she is a hell of a lot richer from her celebrity, than the Professor is from his own celebrity and TV appearances. I don’t have to convince any of you that celebrity gazing is a rampant phenomenon, growing rapidly with the spread of computing devices. Given that it is a long time human preoccupation though, is the expansion of it by today’s burgeoning technology dangerous?

I stated previously that I’m uncertain as to this trends danger to our society and I am, but let me give the basis of my uncertainty. Being in my late 60’s I’ve obviously been around for awhile and have seen the world change from what was science fiction in my youth, to reality in my dotage. The natural human tendency of the aged is to decry the ever changing present, in favor of the glowingly remembered past. Knowing this tendency in older folks, my confusion stems from the possibility that I am just viewing the expanding role of celebrity in our world, through the lens of my own inability to adjust to it. While I think I know myself well, I am as capable as the next person of self-deception and so in fairness must allow for it. My prevailing belief, while acknowledging my possible error of age, is that this upward trend of celebrity-gazing is quickly allowing our society to be distracted and ultimately taken over by an American version of Aristocracy. As with such Aristocratic advantage in the past, our new Aristocrats will continue to control/rule our lives for their personal benefit. Here are the reasons that persuade me.

First, celebrity distracts us from the world around us and its ubiquity blurs our focus on how the world is run and how we the 99% are being cheated. This distraction becomes one of desire for a rich lifestyle and the possibility of our achieving it. This is the American Dream after all. The abused child Norma Jean Baker can grow up to become the most desired woman in the world, Marilyn Monroe. She can marry an athletic icon; a distinguished intellectual playwright and even have sex with a President. Despite the tawdriness of her end, she remains an icon of achievement and therefore a role model to be copied. This week the TV music competition the “X Factor” had a night of Michael Jackson songs and on four occasions referred to this self-medicating, putative pedophile as the “Great Man”, an inspiration to us all. I think it is possible that within a hundred years religions may be founded based on worship of the miracles wrought by “Great Men”, celebrity Gods like Michael, or Elvis another drug abuser.

Celebrity confers an air of gravitas to people whose words and deeds bespeak the opposite. What do Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have in common besides a presidential nomination battle? They made appearances on the covers of Time and Newsweek, in stories that treated them with seriousness and gravitas. Celebrity gives a person instant credibility with the public. The wit who said “I don’t care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right” wasn’t wrong. Publicity grants celebrity, which bestows gravitas on even the infamous. With the air of gravitas celebrity bestows and millions from a giant corporation, it becomes possible for a “B” movie actor off limited intellectual prowess, to become a man considered by many Americans to be our greatest President.  http://www.gallup.com/poll/146183/americans-say-reagan-greatest-president.aspx

Another effect of celebrity is that it really does diminish and destroy our common and individual moral and ethical values. When a football star like Tim Tebow, bestows praise on Jesus for his game victories, isn’t his devotion really a trivialization of his God? The idea that the Creator (or co-creator) of this incredible universe cares about the result of a football game, or a player in it, is beyond sacrilege. Yet celebrity holds Tebow up as a righteous young man of great moral fortitude. This goes beyond religion and into other areas of achievement. Thus Donald Trump, a man of inherited wealth who has gone into bankruptcy three times, can write instruction books on how to get rich. George W. Bush, a failure in business and a man of no known self achievement can become President simply based on his family name. Once attaining office this man can then use a great tragedy to hasten the destruction of our countries hallowed, if often ignored, constitutional traditions.

The idea that fame itself, or fifteen minutes of it, is a desirable achievement is also a destructive force that affects our people and our country. I see parents whose children have been killed hours before, sitting and primping for TV interviews exploring their grief, my stomach churns and I wonder how it is possible for them to perform an interview. I then realize of course that the desire to be on TV will cause people to do anything, no matter how degrading or humiliating for their chance of fleeting fame. We hunger to be the “celebrity” we see on TV and we have redefined the notion of celebrity into an achievement that may be little more than brief notoriety.

If achievement is redefined into achieving celebrity status, then it makes sense to shoot John Lennon, for instance, because you can become an immortal via murder. Lee Harvey Oswald’s fame will always be tied to that of JFK. Now this was true in the past with John Wilkes Booth, but the difference is Booth was probably seeking revenge rather than notoriety. Mark David Chapman was seeking fame in Lennon’s death and he achieved it. However, examples are replete with those who’ve achieved celebrity via less vicious routes, yet were willing to take shortcuts to fame even if it entailed actions that were bizarre or humiliating.

I began with a quote from Andy Warhol, who in one sense I appreciate and in another sense loathe. He is to be appreciated by my lights, in that in his pursuit of his art career he demonstrated equal prescience to that of Marshall McCluhan,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan  in understanding the direction Culture was heading towards with the development of mass media. Warhol used his understanding and intelligence to market himself as an artist and to create a commercially successful brand. He was a supremely self-involved cynic, who used his art to recreate his dystopian vision of the world in his work. He became a celebrity among celebrities and in the process helped generate the current state of celebrity in our culture. As a creature of this culture I can’t hold myself above it, but I can feel pain at what we’ve become. Is this the ravings of an old fogy, or do you the reader sometimes feel the same?

11 thoughts on “Today’s Celebrity is Yesterday’s Aristocracy

  1. Great article Mike. I would agree that the so-called reality TV shows and “stars” are an example of the world being turned upside down. However, I must disagree with you on one point. Now that I have turned 60, I cannot agree that the word “dotage” is appropriate in your case! :)

  2. “I am just viewing the expanding role of celebrity in our world, through the lens of my own inability to adjust to it. ”

    Yes and no.

    After 60 some years you have acquired the benefit of hindsight and wisdom. You also now have the time to seriously contemplate both the past and the present in an attempt to validate the future and your concern is not so much for yourself (all those “me” thoughts of our youth) as it is for those who are beginning the climb.

    Will they waste time on the celebrity of others? Will they fail to see through that celebrity to the reality of the individual? Will the generations following ours make the same mistakes we made and be fooled by the same kind of fools who fooled us? Will they fail to see the difference between the celebrity of a Hitler and the celebrity of a Gandhi?

    My experience over these last 66 years is that yes, some will and no, most won’t.

    I don’t think it’s any worse than it was when the bards were going from town to town singing the praises of the King or writing plays to defame the Queen’s enemies. There’s just more people and, thanks to today’s technology, more ways to hear about them.

  3. Mike,

    Today, in a much different context, the American multitudes avidly follow the lives of the powerful, rich and famous, via innumerable outlets including Facebook and Twitter.

    The question I’m broaching here is if this is a historic human trait, are there negative aspects of it that threaten the functioning and stability of our society?

    One of our founding principles is to have a society based on law, not on celebrity, in the sense that no one is above the law.

    We know that not to be the case. We know that there are people who are “too big to jail”, because they are celebrities of one sort or another.

    In that sense celebrity is bad to the degree that it undermines our founding principles, including equal application of the laws.

    But I too appreciate the accomplishments of many celebrities of many types and am glad we have them.

    As a creature of this culture I can’t hold myself above it, but I can feel pain at what we’ve become. Is this the ravings of an old fogy, or do you the reader sometimes feel the same?

    Sounds like an “All Along The Watchtower” moment.

    Would that everyone had a few of those from time to time.

    Why don’t we just remember that with authority comes responsibility. The more we have of the one the more we should have of the other.

    So long as we do that in our personal world, that others do not should not make us get down on ourselves for not saving the world.

    ‘No reason to get excited,’ the thief, he kindly spoke
    ‘There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke’
    ” (All Along The Watchtower, Dylan)

  4. “Today, in a much different context, the American multitudes avidly follow the lives of the powerful, rich and famous, via innumerable outlets including Facebook and Twitter.”

    Can’t think of no better example of that statement,when it was announced that,Donald Trump will be moderating the next Republican debate.

    Not Jim Lehrer,but Donald Trump,WOW!!

  5. I am in amazement that the Prosecutor was able to secure a conviction in the Jackson case…Last man holding the bag so to speak….Jackson turned into a freak and the side show was not amusing…Just like Kim Kardashian…I don’t care really how you spell it…

  6. It amazes me that people watch TV shows about people you would not want to spend 5 minutes with in real life.

    And, if he were alive today, Warhol might say Herman Cain was famous for 999 minutes.

  7. Humphrey’s home town paper, StarTribune has a gossip writer hot on the trail of the wedding of the .02 of a century. Apparently Kris has hired a high powered team of litigators and is charging fraud. There may be scripts from the ‘reality’ show involved.

    As little as I care about that traveling freak show disguised as humans this action might actually be fun.

  8. “As little as I care about that traveling freak show disguised as humans this action might actually be fun.”

    Frankly,

    I agree it will be fun of the schadenfreude variety. Humphrey’s no doubt was as much into the celebrity seeking aspect of this, as an aged NBA bench player seeking further career options. However, he fell in with a gang of sharks, who he simply was no match for and so he is paying the price of his folly. His upside is that he is generally seen sympathetically and with some good lawyers and management might come out ahead in this. I smell a ghostwritten book deal and perhaps his own “reality show” detailing his attempts to put his life together after this “tragic betrayal”.Part of my horrified amusement with all this is that I’ve only read the headlines of this story and yet know so much about it. In the end, beyond the folly of human greed and grasping for fame, there is no there, there.

  9. I was watching the 3 am news shows, GMA, Today, and The Early Show this morning, clicking each in turn, not getting the whole of many of the stories but also getting enough that I did not miss any. It used to be that the first hour was ‘hard’ news’ and then the first half hour. Today, with the Japanese nucleur plant situation releasing more radiation, the news was about Gingrich et al, first of course, and then Sandusky and the people’s court missing woman case (not that she was missing but all sorts of other ‘info’, i.e. rumors, gossip, and innuendo, (oh and Robin Roberts and lawyer Dan Abrams had wonderful “impartial” things to say about the man from Aruba and the missing woman.)
    I guess Japan, Iraq, Afghanistan, our troops, the economy, the senate, etc can nevr catch fire with the news people. Gossip and celebrity has become their beat and they smile and laugh about that a lot.
    (Re: the stories about the guy back from Aruba, and Jackson case, et al. Why do we need courts anymore? These people are pronounced guilty by the media. They have no concept of the concept of innocent until proven guilty.).

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