Saturday, December 17, 2011

Kardashian Nation

When you think of the 1% you don’t think of Kim Kardashian.

When the Occupy movement denounces the 1% they never mention celebrities. For the most part they denounce people who work for a living, who have earned their wealth.

In some cases there is a disconnect between the success of a corporation and the benefits gained by its executives. Just yesterday the New York Times CEO resigned. Or was she fired?

Her performance was dismal. If you had invested $10,000 in New York Times stock when Janet Robinson was named CEO your investment would now be worth around $1,800.

For her failure Robinson was rewarded with a $4,500,000 consulting contract.

One understands why the Occupiers would be up in arms about the Times’ gross corporate malfeasance.

But the Occupiers are not going to occupy the New York Times. Their outrage is highly selective, and politically motivated.

Nor are they going to occupy Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Their ire is directed mostly against Wall Street bankers. They studiously ignore the outsized wealth of hyperrich celebrities.

Perhaps they understand something about today’s American cultures. People love their celebrities. People need their celebrities. For what reason, we will soon see.

Examine the strange case of Kim Kardashian.

I will confess that I know next to nothing about Kim Kardashian. Not because I ignore all celebrities. But, I had to draw the line somewhere and Kim seemed a better place than most.

If I am now going to break my vow—made only to myself—never to write a word about Kim K, you can blame it on David Goldman, aka Spengler. In a recent excellent column on celebrity Spengler trotted out the example of Kim Kardashian.

Some celebrities begin as singers or dancers or actors. Somewhere on their resume they can boast an achievement or two.

Not so for Kim K.

True enough, Kim did have a famous father. Robert Kardashian became famous for being the best buddy, sometime defense attorney, and perhaps even partner in covering up a crime, of O. J. Simpson.

Thus, Kim bore a less-than-reputable name. She doubled down on disrepute by trying to become a porn star. Following in the footsteps of Paris Hilton she catapulted herself into the public consciousness by making a now-infamous sex tape.

More recently Kim K tried to redeem herself by living out every girl’s dream: she married a professional basketball player.

From what I hear, the marriage has not worked out very well. Still, Kim has lived out a compelling drama. And, despite what everyone says about being famous for being famous, the real secret to being a celebrity is making your everyday life into great theatre.

As of today, Kim’s story might be entitled: From Porn Star to Bride. It’s a neat trick if you can do it. Tell me it doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart… or something.

If you want your fame to rest on public exposure, you need to continue to involve yourself in grandiose public dramas. It helps if you have accomplished something first, like singing a great song or acting a great role, but celebrity is not about talent.

When it involves singers and actors celebrity shows the drama of talent degraded. Think Lindsay Lohan.

In those cases a celebrity crack-up feels mostly like justice. Hyper-rich young stars and starlets earn too much money for doing too little. So they make their lives into public spectacles and waste themselves and their fortunes.

Such is not the case of Kim K. She had no talent and no success to squander. She belongs to the class of pure celebrities, those whose wealth is most clearly unearned.

In Spengler’s analysis a culture of celebrity is the opposite of a meritocracy. Might we not want to call it a demeritocracy.

If wealth is not distributed according to talent or work, then it is being distributed, as Spengler says, arbitrarily.

In one sense it’s unjust. She is not more deserving than him. In another it feeds hope. If it can happen to her it can happen to anyone. But, in the end it’s a counsel of despair.

Worshipping at the altar of celebrity will make you depressed. It will demotivate you. People who do not believe that merit and hard work are rewarded will cling to the hope that they will be given a fortune for no good reason at all.

Spengler explains that celebrity culture defines an important part of America’s current ethos: “Unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when millions of star-struck  kids set off to study science … the vast majority of Americans stare uncomprehending at the number nerds who build software companies or trade at hedge funds. Quantitative faculties at top universities would shut down if Chinese and Indian students stayed at home. Whether the success story involves a popular figure like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or hated figures from Wall Street, most people simply cannot imagine themselves doing what they do, the way the coal miners’ kids of the 1950s could imagine themselves as rocket scientists.”

Regardless of whether celebrity culture is responsible for this state of affairs, it is surely feeding it.

Most importantly, it represents what happens when you overthrow the work ethic and replace it with an aesthetic. If you live according to an aesthetic, what matters is whether your life makes for a good and moving story. And it can never be a good story if you behave yourself with dignity and integrity. It cannot be a good story if you earn you wealth the old fashioned way: by working.

People adhere to the celebrity culture because it seems to be telling them than anyone can be rich. You need not have talent and you need not work very hard. You don’t even have to contribute to society.

Of course, there are other ways to get rich without working. You can win the lottery. You can inherit wealth. You can confiscate someone else’s wealth.

Still, the largest cultural problem in America today is not the 1%. It’s the fact that America elected a celebrity to the office of the presidency. Spengler calls Obama “the definitive celebrity.”

In his words: “Nonetheless people need a success story with which to identify, and the arbitrary elevation of undistinguished individuals provides a proxy. Very few people can imagine themselves founding a biotech company that applies quantum mechanics to molecular processes, but anyone can imagine becoming a celebrity who is famous for being famous. The definitive celebrity who is famous for being famous, of course, is Barack Obama, the one-term senator from Illinois without a single accomplishment to his name — not an article in a law review, not a piece of legislation — who levered himself into the presidency.”

It’s not good news.

1 comment:

David Foster said...

The heavily-advertised state lottery programs also contribute to this phenomenon, by implicitly asserting that getting rich is purely a matter of luck.