Monday, October 31, 2011

The Cult of Celebrity

What is the harm in celebrity worship?

Celebrities.  Rock stars, movie stars, sports stars, even political stars.  We are all encouraged to follow their every move.  And more and more, news outlets cater to our need for celebrity news.  CNN has moved to an almost all-tabloid celebrity format at this point.  It is easier than reporting real news.

And the tabloids, which are nothing but celebrity news, are now considered serious news sources.

We are bombarded, daily, with celebrity news and gossip.  And we are all expected to have serious opinions about celebrities - whether O.J. is guilty, or whether Brad should marry Angelina or whatever.  And for many folks, following celebrities is a major part of their lives and their daily activities.  People turn over their whole lives into being "fans" - and you've seen these idiots, too, camping out, outside a hotel, just for chance to see their star.

What is going on here, and is this healthy for you and your finances?

Answering the latter question first, I think not.  Being obsessed with our celebrity culture is a distraction and a means of getting you to take your eye off the ball, in terms of living your own life.

And chances are, the poorer you are, the more you obsess about celebrity.  Think about it.  Who buys those magazines at the checkout counter with all the lurid celebrity gossip?  Demographically speaking, the dumb and the poor (which is a redundancy).   Who watches all those celebrity-driven TeeVee shows every night?  Not busy people with things to do, that's for sure.

The cult of celebrity is a distraction - and a distraction designed to get you to think less about your own life and more about someone else's.  After all, our lives are pretty drab and uninteresting in comparison to celebrities, right?  Following the lives of celebrities allows an ordinary schmoe to participate vicariously in the lives of the "rich and famous."

And you might argue, "Well, what's the harm in that?  It provides some entertainment and relief to a person whose life is, in contrast, pretty dull!"  And that might be a good argument.  After all, human beings have been following celebrities for as long as mankind has existed - first as legends and folk heroes, then leaders, kings, and even daring bandits and villains.  Today, however, we follow the lives of just about anyone - even people whose sole source of celebrity is being a celebrity - what I call a "bootstrap" celebrity, such as Paris Hilton, who has no real claim to fame as a celebrity other than being a celebrity.

The harm, I think, is that when a person gives themselves over to celebrity-following, they are basically abandoning their own lives, in part.  Most of us will never be celebrities - and that is a good thing, too.  Most celebrities, it seems, end up having tragic ends, no matter how well off they are.  But by saying that the life of Michael Jackson is more important than your own life, I think it lessens, not enhances your own existence.  You end up doing things not in your own self-interest, over time.

And it is no coincidence that today celebrities hawk products through product endorsement deals or sell their own lines of clothing or whatever.  They encourage you to become part of their lives, by spending money.  And of course, the demand for so-called luxury goods is driven, in part, by the desire to be like them - to have some of the same sizzle and pizzazz as our celebrities.

You may recall, sales of white Ford Broncos peaked, after O.J. was arrested in one, after a long Police chase.  Yes, people really are that stupid.

Even minor celebrities have something to sell.  Land a plane in the Hudson, and you immediately get a book deal and make a few million.  No offense to the pilot, but I am not sure that is a book I'd even check out of the library, much less spend $20 on.

Perhaps in the past, celebrities were a form of role models, and perhaps served some greater good.  Celebrities were the people we elevated above ourselves - people we felt were better that us, or were leaders, warriors - people who were brave, just, and kind, and of course, good-looking.  Today, however, celebrities are pretty much all horribly bad role models.  Part of being a celebrity today is to be in re-hab or to get arrested, or to commit other foul acts, such as dog-fighting.  Part of this, no doubt, is due to the wide latitude we give celebrities.

Part of me, however, wonders if much of it isn't scripted in advance.  After all, many minor celebrities never appear on the radar screen, until their messy divorce, DUI, or drug bust becomes public.  And if you are a has-been celebrity, one way to get back in the limelight is to stage this sort of fall-from-grace, followed of course, by a redemption and tearful press conference.  And the inevitable book deal, of course.

Even our politics today is celebrity driven - not only in terms of which celebrity supports which candidate or cause, but in making candidates and politicians into celebrities - celebrated more for their antics and posturing (and sound bites) than for their actual views or actions in office.  Conservatives like a tough-talking politician who tells those liberals "what for".  Liberals like politicians who make withering indictments of conservatives for their views.  Neither group notices that both types of politicians are pretty much the same - more concerned with getting re-elected and in redirecting money from the treasury to their own special interests.  The real story is never talked about.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Of course, in the old days, our politicians (Royalty) were our celebrities. And there is some aspect of human nature that we, as ordinary slobs, like to see our leaders ensconced in riches.  The king may be exploiting the peasants, but, hey, look at that robe he's wearing!  Pretty cool, eh?  Even back then, the cult of celebrity distracted the peons from what was really going on.

We even have tech celebrities today, such as the late Steve Jobs.  We are told that he was a genius of computing - much as people laud Bill Gates.  But the reality of technology is that it is a collaborative effort, and the person at the helm of the company is often little more than, well, a celebrity.

I guess there is a human need to elevate one of our own above ourselves, and then to laud them and hail them with riches.  You may recall, back in the 1980's, a guy called the Bhagwan, who started a religion, commune, cult, or whatever, and whose followers bought him 93 Rolls Royces - before he was deported for making fraudulent statements on his visa application.  His followers hoped to buy him a total of 365 cars - but never got around to getting them all.  It is odd, that they would want to live in relative privation on this commune, and then shower their leader with riches.  But I think it speaks to a fundamental aspect of human nature.

And in this regard, it should not come as any surprise that people living below the poverty line will send off money to televangelists, like Jim and Tammy Fay Baker, who lived in the lap of luxury.  Not only were parishioners not outraged by the antics of the two leaders, they expected them to live lavishly.  After all, only a loser religion would have an impoverished spiritual leader, right?  We want our Popes and Imams to be above us - to be celebrities.  No one would respect the Pope if he wore a plain black clerical outfit.  In retrospect, it is amazing this Jesus thing went anywhere at all.

And no one would respect the Queen, if she appeared in sensible slacks and shoes.  We want our leaders to be above us - often literally anointed by God.  Or in the case of some emperors, Gods themselves.

So what is the harm in all of this?  Again, following celebrities ends up taking time away from your own life - and makes you a passive spectator of life, rather than an active participant.  Rather than taking an interest in your own life, you substitute the lives of others.  And, in most cases, the messages you get from celebrity-worship are messages that are contrary to your own self-interests.

Be your own celebrity.  Take more of an interest in your own life - as boring and bland as it might be - but of course, not falling into the opposite trap of making your life into a drama.  The common denominator of celebrities is this - while you may follow their every action and move with breathless detail on TeeVee and in the magazines, they do not similarly follow you - or even each other.   The people who are ON TeeVee rarely, if ever, watch TeeVee.  They simply do not have the time, and their lives are too important to waste being passive consumers of media.