Barack Obama did not bring us to this first circle of hell on his own. He was aided and abetted by 1) an education system with a relentless propaganda agenda, 2) a media oligopoly that has completely abrogated its First Amendment responsibility and 3) a celebrity dominated culture that is largely a product of the first two. (KTE Prologue)
III. The Culture of Celebrity
“ All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.” -- Marshall McLuhan, patron saint of politicians
In today’s segment of Know Thy Enemy we look at the culture of celebrity and its contribution to pop culture.
Pop culture is defined more by what it is not – neither high culture or folk culture – than what it is. But an operative definition is “a commercial culture based on popular taste.” Think Andy Warhol’s soup can art:
Clearly the man who predicted that “in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” knew a thing or two about the endurance of celebrity culture.
In 1968 when Andy made his famous prediction, “celebrity” was still a subset, rather than the defining aspect, of pop culture. And although it was considered “low” culture at the time, to designate it as such today would elevate it to an unfounded level. Even in an era where everything from poverty to death has been assigned its own “culture” it still seems oxymoronic to talk about “celebrity culture.”
Whatever it is or isn’t, the celebrity element of pop culture dominates the landscape. To many, especially the young, its appeal is so compelling they would do anything to be famous. Anything, that is, aside from actually working for it. The Celebrity Dream has largely replaced the American Dream for this generation; and unlike the original, which contains a significant “work hard” component, the Celebrity Dream requires only that you be discovered for your own fabulosity.
This new version of the American Dream reads like a narcissist’s Craig’s List ad: “Deserving swan, trapped in pond with ducks, ISO fame, fortune, and a really good agent.” It’s like the American Dream, only delusional.
How did this mindset come to replace the Horatio Alger story? As is the case with most of life’s unfathomables, it’s complicated.
Our Human Fascination With Fame
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. -- African Queen.
There are any number of interesting theories as to why people are fascinated with the rich and famous. Regardless of the reasons it’s a given that human nature is drawn to both celebrity and train wrecks. That programming directors discovered how to present both, simultaneously, for your vicarious enjoyment in the comfort of your own living room is the genius of modern media. Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, People magazine, TMZ, Gawker, gossip blogs and every reality show ever produced all owe their existence to our dual obsession with celebrity and schadenfreude.
The sport of celebrity voyeurism has replaced much of what use to pass for popular entertainment. That’s no big deal in itself – after all, why should I care if millions of people want to spend their time, effort and money immersed in the lives of “familiar strangers” to the detriment of the real people in their lives? I wouldn’t, if it ended there.
But it doesn’t. When people captivated by the fake lives of famous people use the same criteria to select the President of the United States as they do to decide who to follow on Twitter we all have a serious problem. Especially when you consider the criteria that factors into their decision process: physical attributes (including age, sex and ethnicity), a reliance on scripted, overhyped background creds and a phony narrative carefully crafted by handlers and PR hacks.
Again, discriminating enough if you’re just looking for some celebrity Facebook “friends” and celebrity tweeters to bolster your own sense of worth; but it’s quite unnerving when the same criteria is used as the basis for selecting the man entrusted with the nuclear suitcase. So to belabor the point: you should care about the legion of moronic celebrity-obsessed people out there because, just like you, they have the right to vote.
The Usual Culprits
I doubt that anyone seriously disagrees with the premise that outrageous, narcissistic celebrity behavior is a bad influence on society and that emulating it is a bad idea. The question is why has it become so prevalent; both the behavior and the idolization? Previous generations of young adults seemed to have left the siren’s song of fame and celebrity behind by the time they were 21 or so, and moved on with their lives. Today, in addition to teenagers, the crazed fans are just as likely to be well into their 20’s or even (gulp!) 30’s. Why the arrested development?
The education system has contributed on two fronts. First, it really is cranking out stupider people. After years of dumbed down curricula we have produced a generation or two of citizens who learned very few critical thinking skills but did learn how to absorb spoon–fed platitudes, bromides, politically correct factoids, half-truths and lies. As such, they are great vessels for “received information.” In other words, they are the perfect low information citizen. LoFos are citizens who tend not to recognize logic fallacies - which they wouldn’t be able to rebut even if they did - but respond well to emotional appeals, sound-bites and bumper stickers.
Secondly, remember education’s self-esteem movement? Well, there’s nothing as merciless to self-delusion as reality –something that most people who’ve hit their 20’s and 30’s have had at least a fleeting introduction to. Some may still harbor vestiges of unearned self esteem, but for many others reality has intruded and caused some structural damage to their sense of specialness. These victims of identity theft experience a sort of “reverse transference” paradox by associating with other people they consider special – and who’s more special than celebrities? Fan culture reflects some of the famous person’s “specialness” back onto the idol worshiper. A weird, yet effortless, way to recover some of that old self-lovin’ feeling lost in the tug-of-war with reality.
So look back to 2008: we have a huge group of idol worshiping receivers who probably didn’t bother to vote at all in previous presidential elections. But now, marshaled by the Obama Hope and Change army of celebutards, bombarded with social media messages from people way-cooler than they could ever hope to be anymore, they are ordered to get out and vote for the coolest (black) human being ever born on this planet. Who could ignore these marching orders when they came directly from Ben, Kim and Scarlett?
Which brings me to the media. As principle purveyor of both entertainment shows and “news/information” formats, no entity is more influential in crafting our social milieu. Here is their contribution:
First, they not only tolerate the bad behavior of celebrities, they revel in it. They reward miscreant behavior by covering it 24/7 in all major print and electronic outlets. This naturally assures more of the same, because as any PR hack knows, “the only bad publicity is no publicity.”
However, media’s major contribution to the unraveling of civilization was the industry’s consolidation into Big Media. In 1983, 90% of American media was owned by 50 companies. By 2011, that same 90% was controlled by just 6 corporations.
The new Big Media cartel has given us a huge number of outlets, all controlled by a few corporate entities. This serves to give MSM the illusion of programming diversity without actually having to present any content with different points of view. Obviously this creates a concern from a journalistic standpoint - as the right wing has been arguing for years, and the left wing has been denying. Arguably, an equally concerning societal issue is the corrosive influence of a single-view non-news programing; a constant onslaught of celebrity driven entertainment reflecting liberal, anti-conservative values and mores.
“This power is so concentrated, ubiquitous, and artful, that to a degree unmatched in former mixtures of entertainment, it dilutes influences from family, schooling, and other sources that are grounded in real-life experience, weakening, their ability to guide growing generations.” — Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly
Indeed. But in the entertainment business, you give people what they want, and the growth in the number of young, dumbed down, LoFo viewers did not go unnoticed by media moguls who cater to such demographics.
Concurrent with the industry consolidation heaping huge debt on the books of the remaining media companies, the internet began pulling the eyeballs of the most desirable 18-34 demographic away from network programming and, more importantly, the associated advertising revenues. Big Media needed to build a better mousetrap, and they needed to stock it with stinkier cheese to lure the mice back.
The search was on for cheap programming that could generate big viewership and hence big ad revenues. Game shows, reality shows and talking heads - all cheap to produce – hit the drawing board by the gross.
When Who Wants to be a Millionaire launched in 1998 to instant high ratings it became the template for everything bad to come for the next 15 years. “Millionaire” demonstrated how easy it was to create your own in-house celebrity (Regis Philbin, up till then a little known 3rd rate host/sidekick dating back to the 60’s, became an “overnight” celebrity). Scripted “reality” game shows like Survivor followed, creating new celebrities every season, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A similar model was used to boost on-air journalists to celebrity (hence, more eyeballs/ad revenue) status. Cross marketing them on network entertainment programs gave them more exposure; and remember, that’s pretty much all it takes to be “famous” and once famous, you’re a bona fide “celebrity.”
The public’s and media’s obsession with celebrities even launched a mini-industry of incestuous “celebrity mongers:”
Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Oprah--who not only live off others' celebrity but also, through their publicity-making power, confer it and have in time become very considerable celebrities each in his or her own right.
I would add designated political baggage and water carriers like James Carville, Paul Begala and Karl Rove to that list as well. Which brings me to the role of the political class in pop celebrity. The newly ordained talking head journalist celebrities needed “serious” guests to interview; and who’s more serious, or desirous of air time, than politicians? Their celebrity status was elevated considerably by being on TV regularly, thus raising their profile with voters. It was love at first sight. Now in addition to being law makers by day they’re on TV every night and we’ll never get rid of them.
But still the demand for celebrities to idolize was unfilled. Reality shows like American Idol were cranking out celebrities every season, but they couldn’t keep up with demand. Similar shows also searching out new talent proliferated. But America still needed more celebrities to follow on Twitter, so people famous for being famous (e.g. Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie) got their own reality shows. Next, people related to people famous for being famous (e.g. the Osbournes) got their own reality show.
And then reality shows jumped the shark: can’t sing, can’t dance? Not related to anyone famous? No problem, we still have plenty of openings for minor celebrity wannabes in the following job categories: chefs, fashion designers, CEO’s, junkies, artists, meteorologists, climatologists, bounty hunters, hoarders, foreign dictators, brides, dog trainers, pawn dealers, duck hunters, chubby pre-pubescent beauty pageant losers, and trashy men and women with no identifiable talent other than a willingness to share every aspect of their trashy lives with a huge audience (and who isn’t?). We can turn anyone into a celebrity!
Where once upon a time America had talent, we now have man-made disasters like the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo keeping the world safe for democracy.
Sadly, the eyes of the “look at me, I’m special” generation could only watch and weep: vicariously enjoying the specialness of the “Jersey Shores” gang and the “Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Most of this generation was left to cash in their designated 15 minutes via YouTube, Sexting, blogging, Facebook and Twitter. Because apparently they’re nobody without the affirmation of strangers.
Celebrity Worlds Collide
What happens when various celebrity worlds collide? Well for one thing, you end up with a Kardashian President.
When the world of entertainment, media and politics all began to orbit around the same sun – celebrity – it was inevitable that America would eventually elect an American Idol to the presidency. Entertainment, media journalism and politics have been mashed up and homogenized into a whole new animal: Infotainment.
Members of the infotainment class attend each other’s parties, shows, celebrations and fundraisers; private jetting between D.C., LA, and New York to preach the tenets of Global Warming, lobbying for cap and trade and to voice their opposition to the Keystone Pipeline.
They’re special, this new class, and they do special things. Like ex-presidents handing out Golden Globes,
First Ladies announcing Oscar winners,
movie stars conducting foreign diplomacy missions (so sorry to hear about your little pal biting it, Sean),
and journalists drafting talking points for the White House.
Mergers of this sort, between entities with very different cultures, are often a little rough at first, frequently ending up with the worst rather than best from each culture. That’s certainly the case with the new Infotainment enterprise: so far it seems to have inherited entertainment’s exhibitionism, media’s hype and politics’ BS. And it appears the various operating divisions are still a bit dysfunctional after the merger: our media entertainment division no longer entertains so much as it distracts; our media/journalism division no longer informs so much as it entertains, and our political division no longer governs so much as it participates in a reality show – complete with scripted crises and pre-designated winners and losers.
But hey, America’s got Celebrities! So we’ve got that going for us.
As Dostoyevsky noted in The Brothers Karamazov:
"So long as man remains free, he strives for nothing so incessantly and painfully as to find someone to worship."
And Joseph Epstein noted:
“If contemporary celebrities are the best thing on offer as living gods for us to worship, this is not good news.”
Indeed. But I worry more about the "So long as man remains free” part. It’s not as if idolatry doesn’t have the potential to enslave. And it’s certainly not as if this sort of thing has never happened before:
“As these leaders vied for political control, they bought off public approval through welfare provisions of bread and occasional wine as well as huge gladiatorial competitions. The policy has since become known as ‘Bread and Circuses.’
Despite the speeches of Cicero and others, over time the people of Rome lost interest in governing themselves and were content to slip quietly into their role as subjects of an emperor.”
Next Week: What Does it Take to Beat the Enemy?
NOTE: This is part of the “Know Thy Enemy/ Beat Thy Enemy” series --
Cross-Posted on Patriot Action Network