Today’s celebrities are not like yesterday’s. And we are poorer for it.
So says George Packer in a New York Times op ed. We worship celebrity, he explains because we are burdened with overwhelming inequalities and a lack of opportunity.
Packer defines celebrity:
What are celebrities, after all? They dominate the landscape, like giant monuments to aspiration, fulfillment and overreach. They are as intimate as they are grand, and they offer themselves for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion. But in times of widespread opportunity, the distance between gods and mortals closes, the monuments shrink closer to human size and the centrality of celebrities in the culture recedes. They loom larger in times like now, when inequality is soaring and trust in institutions — governments, corporations, schools, the press — is falling.
Packer is correct. We do not live in an age of widespread opportunity. He doesn’t say it, but in the Age of Obama opportunity and enterprise have been overtaken by a politics that emphasizes, as I have suggested, “bread and circuses.”
We believe that hard work is not rewarded, so we settle for non-stop entertainment.
Why would people not lose faith in institutions when the institutions seem more interested in increasing their power than in serving the people?
In the old days, the distance between the individual and the celebrity was narrower. We aspired to improve ourselves; we sought out role models; we worked hard at our tasks; we believed in just rewards. We weren’t stymied by bureaucratic overregulation, brainwashed by schools or fed the party line by the press. And we did not witness people being receiving extravagant rewards that had no real relation to their contribution to society.
The old-time celebrities come from a bygone era. Do you remember them:
The “stars” continued to fascinate, especially with the arrival of TV, but they were not essential. Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Perry Como, Joe DiMaggio, Jack Paar, Doris Day and Dick Clark rose with Americans — not from them — and their successes and screw-ups were a sideshow, not the main event.
Today, celebrities are everywhere. People who would, in the past have been business leaders are now elevated to the rank of celebrity.
Packer offers an illuminating list:
Our age is lousy with celebrities. They can be found in every sector of society, including ones that seem less than glamorous. We have celebrity bankers (Jamie Dimon), computer engineers (Sergey Brin), real estate developers/conspiracy theorists (Donald J. Trump), media executives (Arianna Huffington), journalists (Anderson Cooper), mayors (Cory A. Booker), economists (Jeffrey D. Sachs), biologists (J. Craig Venter) and chefs (Mario Batali).
There is a quality of self-invention to their rise: Mark Zuckerberg went from awkward geek to the subject of a Hollywood hit; Shawn Carter turned into Jay-Z; Martha Kostyra became Martha Stewart, and then Martha Stewart Living. The person evolves into a persona, then a brand, then an empire, with the business imperative of grow or die — a process of expansion and commodification that transgresses boundaries by substituting celebrity for institutions. Instead of robust public education, we have Mr. Zuckerberg’s “rescue” of Newark’s schools. Instead of a vibrant literary culture, we have Oprah’s book club. Instead of investments in public health, we have the Gates Foundation. Celebrities either buy institutions, or “disrupt” them.
No one can aspire to the wealth and influence that these celebrities wield, so everyone is left with the unenviable task of picking up the crumbs that the rich and famous throw at the masses in grand gestures that resemble noblesse oblige.
Packer has grasped the salient point, but he should have taken it a step further and asked who is in charge of public education and who dominates the marketplace of ideas.
Packer suggests that ordinary people are diminished to the point where they can only participate vicariously in these “celebrity monuments” by purchasing a trinket with the celebrity’s name or signature affixed to it:
The celebrity monuments of our age have grown so huge that they dwarf the aspirations of ordinary people, who are asked to yield their dreams to the gods: to flash their favorite singer’s corporate logo at concerts, to pour open their lives (and data) on Facebook, to adopt Apple as a lifestyle. We know our stars aren’t inviting us to think we can be just like them. Their success is based on leaving the rest of us behind.
George W. Bush’s signature legislative achievement in the field of education was the No Child Left Behind Law. Now, in the age of Obama, celebrities like the president have been leaving everyone behind.