Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Culture of Celebrity

What does Achilles have in common with Jon Gosselin? What do Jewish prophets have in common with Hollywood actors? And what do Christian saints and martyrs have in common with Paris Hilton and Balloon Boy?

According to Johann Hari, they are all celebrities. Link here.

Which leads us to ask: Who is Johann Hari and why doesn't he know how to draw the most elementary conceptual distinctions?

Moral distinctions are different. Strangely enough, Hari argues that contemporary celebrities are less noxious to our cultural atmosphere than are Jewish prophets and Christian saints. He largely prefers Madonna to the Madonna.

He does however grant that something is wrong when celebrities become actively involved in public policy debates: "... we should drop the mad idea that they should provide us with political guidance."

But how do you glory in the innocuous nature of celebrity-worship and declare that they ought to shut up about politics?

And why is there no harm in emulating people who earn money while apparently not doing anything resembling work? In a time of financial turmoil the example of celebrity tells us that we can solve our economic problems by winning the lottery or making of ourselves a sufficiently compelling spectacle.

People become celebrities without making any significant personal sacrifice. That is their appeal. That is the reason people want to be like them and do not want to be like Christian martyrs.

A martyr gains fame more than celebrity.A martyr who refuses to trade his faith for his life gains a stature that will forever escape Britney Spears.

People whose celebrity involves being constantly exposed in tabloids, whose most significant activities are shopping and partying are not on the same level as prophets and other wise people.

Johann Hari would do well to keep his trendy anti-religious bias to himself. Unless, of course, he and his fellow co-anti-religionists want to extol the virtues of the world's great anti-religious leaders, great men like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung.

We should understand that you can be famous without being what we call a celebrity. A celebrity is, as Daniel Boorstin said, known for being well-known. By contrast, a great leader is famous for having accomplished something.

Renee Fleming is famous, but she is not a celebrity. She may have been profiled on "60 Minutes" but she allows her work to speak for her. She does not need to have herself splashed across the tabloids. People will want to hear her sing even if she has not made a spectacle of herself at a night club.

As Hari notes, famous people are role models. In the best of circumstances celebrities should not be. You might say that celebrities enjoy more infamy than fame, but the more important point is that if you mistake fame for celebrity you are more likely to drop out of school and turn into Levi Johnston. Fate that I would not wish on anyone.

Hari believes that we should not disparage the cult of celebrity. But doesn't it matter who our role models are? Do parents want their daughters to grow up to become like Paris Hilton or Michelle Obama or Laura Bush?

As opposed to famous people, people who attain celebrity are basically involved in entertainment. Through the medium of tabloids they make their lives into entertainment, into diversion, into distraction.

A society without entertainment would be very dull indeed. Yet, celebrities should be considered anti-role models, exemplars of what can happen when too little talent meets up with too much money. We should look at celebrity and think: There but for the grace of God, go I.

Christian saints do not entertain. They offer living witness to the power of their faith. Prophets do not entertain. They offer words of wisdom and occasional predictions about the future.

Saints, prophets, and heroes earn their fame. To become a celebrity nowadays you do not have to sacrifice very much beyond your dignity. And, from what we can see of celebrities, most of them did not have very much of it to begin with.

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