Friends & Colleagues
This is the second of two essays on the political implications of our celebrity culture.
HEROES vs ‘heroes’
The famous, celebrities, heroes – we tend to use the terms interchangeably these days. That is the cause of much mischief. For the way that they have become synonyms in our minds reveals just how confused American culture is about what it values - and why. A revealing example was the flap a few years back over Rolling Stone magazine’s banishment from CVS, Walgreen’s and other vendors because it placed a picture of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover shortly after the atrocity. No such reaction was provoked when in the past villains like Osama bin-Laden, Saddam Hussein, Stalin or Hitler glared at us from popular journals like Time, Life and Newsweek. So what’s going on?
Well, we used to think that anyone who was famous and newsworthy should be publicized. Publicized – not promoted. In other words, it was important to know who they were and how they affected our lives because they had become prominent for some obvious reason. The main criterion was not a favorable judgment – just a recognition that they counted. The same could be said for Tsarnaev or Mateen or Cruz. Except that a transformation has occurred in the meaning we attach to publicity. Publicity today is taken to be a valuable commodity in itself. We seem to have assimilated the old Hollywood maxim that “there is no such thing as good publicity or bad publicity; there is just publicity.”
Publicity for its own sake is what celebrity is all about. Achieving the status of a celebrity – by being on a magazine cover, for example – is what most people aspire to. From Hollywood stardom to just a fleeting appearance on the local 10 o’clock news, the dynamic of vanity and gratification is pretty much the same. We stand out, we are exceptional, we are paid attention to, i.e. we have escaped the drab and dreary and humdrum. We envy those who have made it – for whatever reason they have gotten into the spotlight. Gazing longingly at their exalted selves, wallowing in their doings, bedazzled by the glitz – we momentarily stop contemplating our own navel in order to concentrate on somebody else’s navel – a celebrity navel.
So at some level many go so far as to envy the villain. She may be a neurotic wreck hanging onto reality by his gnawed fingernails while considering a sex change. But damn it she’s on the cover ofRolling Stone, or staring at us from the National Enquirer at a million checkout lines –and I’m not! Like the Kardashians. Like Tonya Harding who is being reinvented as a ‘coming-of-age’ proletarian heroine decades after the ‘unfortunate incident’ when a hit man was hired to cripple her skating arch rival Nancy Kerrigan. “I, Tonya” is the modest title pf the film Americans are breathlessly awaiting. What next – “I, Charles Manson”?
Envy is at the essence of the celebrity culture. Fame used to be the deserved reward of those who did something special and praiseworthy. They succeeded beyond the norm – in politics, in the arts, in sports, in war, even at times in learning. The famous earned the praise and attention they received. In the past, a contemporary celebrity like Kim Kardashian would not be famous; she would beinfamous –with all the heavy negative connotations that the term carried. That is to say, she had done nothing commendatory. Indeed, she had behaved in a gross if not immoral manner. These days, the words famous and infamous are conflated into the term celebrity.
The fading of any measure or common standard by which to judge conduct at once encourages anti-social behavior, eliminates a sense of shame, and makes the public unnaturally indiscriminant in its reaction. One example: hedge fund titans who extract billions from gaming the system gain widespread respect – even though their ethics are at the same level as the guy who deals three-card monte on the sidewalk outside Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue. And the damage they inflict on persons and the country is infinitely greater. A Presidential candidate who boasts that he physically assaulted 23 women, often in public, easily transmutes notoriety into popularity to win 50% of the vote from an electorate who are bedazzled by his celebrity. The same for his tax evasion.
The Pentagon sends 17 bemedalled commanders to Afghanistan to follow each other in abject failure, punctuated by strings of lies, yet every one of the generals, as well as those uniformed and civilian superiors who lauded them, has received the acclaim accorded a triumphant warrior. As he is crowned with laurels (another row of ribbons and a promotion), the celebrity General declares that “we have turned the corner.” In truth, that means we have gone around the block 4 times to arrive at the exact spot we started: dealing 3-card monte at Dupont Circle up the street from the Brookings Institution. By the way, Brookings’ new president is Marine General John R. Allen – one of the “Kabul 16” alumni association.
The universe of celebrity has its own compulsions, its own vocabulary, its own venues for disseminating news. Indeed, its own definition of news: what celebrities are up to. Somehow, this is considered more genuine, more real (as in reality show), more people oriented, more democratic than how we imagined and treated the famous in bygone times. Even our highest officials and leaders are infected by the celebrity bug. Magnified and caricatured by the Orangutan.
The celebrity ethos has left its mark even on our sane leaders. Barack Obama relished being a celebrity – as he does today in a jet-setting retirement. At the banal level, his preferred and habitual way of addressing the American people was via talk shows – be it Oprah,The View, Between the Palms, some ethnic themed radio station in Atlantic, or a jazz bash in Chicago. He avoided the televised Oval Office address to the country as somehow less authentic than the popular trendy media. As one staffer explained: “the Oval Office speech is so 1980s.” This despite the simple fact that any one of Obama’s forays into the entertainment realm meant speaking to only a tiny fraction of the audience that tunes in to a retro White House performance – and an attentive one at that. By the end of his tenure, few listened to what Obama was saying – or cared. Yet, the celebrity motif never was questioned.
The point, though, is not to communicate directly to the American people in soberly identifying an issue, explaining its significance and making the case for a particular course of action. Rather, it’s about affirming oneself – about being recognized as communicating per se which, in a way, is taken to be almost more important than the substance of what he is saying. The fact that the President was on The View would be broadcast ad nauseum for the next 48 hours – accompanied by the one or two talking points that White House spun to get reported. That is celebrity communication and that is the effect that the President of the United States, as the nation’s chief celebrity, wants to have. It’s impressions that register, not thoughts or convictions.
We were shown how this phenomenon unfolds when Obama spoke impromptu at the White House of his reaction to the verdict in the notorious Zimmerman trial. That hurriedly organized meeting with the press was a last resort. The President had spent the previous two days giving interviews to a series of Hispanic radio stations – expecting, we are told, that he would get a question about the trial offering an opportunity to say a few well-chosen words. The question was never popped. So a frustrated President had to speak more or less formally from the White House – albeit avoiding that so-1980s format. That is the bizarre world of celebrity governance we inhabit.
Obama demonstrated that penchant for celebrity gab-communication once again on the graver matter of NSA’s comprehensive electronic spying on American citizens. When the scandal broke, the White House pledged a “conversation” with Americans on the constitutional and ethical issues raised. After six weeks of silence, Obama chose the Leno Show for making a few disjointed remarks . These were little more than the by then stale talking points that the administration had been pushing. His strongest assertion was that the government never looks at the content of emails and related communications. It was a lie – as proven two days later by The New York Times in quoting verbatim NSA documents that it in fact it did examine emails for any reference to terrorist related activities or groups. By blatantly lying, Obama implicitly disparaged the issues’ importance while failing to show a decent respect for the opinions and legitimate concerns of his fellow citizens. Insult was added to injury by his choosing for this fabrication the perch normally reserved for self-promoting hams - hardly the proper location from which to explain why he had chosen to repeal unilaterally the Fourth Amendment.
This same mentality that finds the most authentic truth in its portrayal by the image-makers was on display after the killing of Osama bin-Laden. Within days of the event, the White House was in touch with Hollywood figures offering a deal whereby privileged access would be accorded in exchange for a glorified rendering of the decade long drama on the silver screen. The eventual account delivered a congratulatory adulation of implacable American heroes and heroines who brought honor and a just conclusion to the 9/11 saga. It took the liberty of shamelessly embellishing the already airbrushed story that was the official version. The main point is not virtual truth vs actual truth; rather, it is the unquestioned belief that the only reality that ultimately counts is that etched on the national consciousness by those who script our celebrations for us.
Indeed, Obama’s entire career can be viewed as an audacious exercise in scripted production – including his best-selling book, “Dreams From My Father,” which first vaulted him into the celebrity realm. A book largely written by friend Bill Ayres who took a very rough draft and turned into a literate, coherent work.
Celebrity status provides its own legitimation. Once you have been recognized as a public personality, how you got there is forgotten. Thus, the aforementioned Kim Kardashian. Thus, the authors and executors of the disastrous intervention in Iraq sold by deceit and lies circulate freely everywhere – from TV talk shows, to expert witnesses before Congress, to Council on Foreign Relations panels, to prestigious positions at Ivy League universities, to corporate boards, to now back at the highest levels of government. Thus, the bizarre phenomenon of self-declared aspirants for the White House whose disqualifications are glossed over once they manage to inveigle their way onto a few of those interminable pseudo-events we call “debates.”
Thus, the tinsel town mogul David Geffen who uses his mega-yacht to lure the famous into his web – Barack Obama in Tahiti preceded by Javanka who warmed the berth for him in Croatia a few months earlier. Common ground on the star struck celebrity seas. Celebrity itself forges bonds that transcend all else; it makes one feel part of an exclusive elite caste.
Celebrity is an immutable status. There is nothing too moronic, there is no display of ignorance too mind boggling, there is no addled comment too outrageous, there is no lapse of elementary logic that seemingly can jeopardize that standing. Trump is proving that daily.
Tawdry actions simply add to the celebrity – that includes ones of minor criminality. They open a whole new subject for self-observation and voyeurism. Celebrity is a sort of popularly granted mark of nobility that carries a set of irrevocable privileges. And if you don’t have it, all the gravity, depth of thought, articulateness and humanity in the world won’t help you break into the charmed circle.
Our leaders no longer aspire to be viewed as heroes.* A hero is exalted by his fellow citizens because he has accomplished something remarkable requiring exceptional traits of character or competence. A hero surpasses the famous by dint of extraordinary effort and extraordinary achievement. Heroes have something inside them that, under certain conditions, leads them to transcend the normal and the expected. Are our times conducive to the emergence of a hero? Yes – dealing with the grave dangers posed by predatory finance requires a hero, to cite one example. Talking squarely with the American people about how
the country has betrayed its principles and jeopardized its well-being since 9/11 requires a hero. However, those who are habituated to life on the celebrity circuit cannot and never will be heroes. Indeed, they may even have lost the instinct to distinguish between fame and heroism.
Barack Obama’s case is uniquely instructive on this point. Seemingly, he had the makings of a hero. In form, he was dignified, articulate, and cool. His words were high-minded. In terms of opportunity, he entered the White House at the very moment when the nation was shaken to its economic foundation by the great financial crisis. It was a crisis that exposed the Wall Street’s rapaciousness, ruthlessness and utter contempt for the public welfare. In so doing, it exposed as well the bankruptcy of market fundamentalist thinking that denounced regulation in the public interest and exalted private greed. Here was an historic opportunity for a man with the making of a hero to rise to the occasion.
Barack Obama did the exact opposite. He rode to Wall Street’s rescue, gave the malefactors blanket immunity, subordinated the interests of citizens to the corporate elite, and perpetuated the myths that had opened the way to their abuses. It is said that Franklin Roosevelt saved American capitalism. Barack Obama, by comparison, saved American predatory capitalism. Moreover, he failed totally to raise the national consciousness about the proper and necessary role of government to secure the general welfare, to restrain the influence of nefarious special interests, and to guard against the assault on the great social accomplishments of the past century. Today’s Trump-led plutocracy is his bequest to the nation.
Obama had a weakness for the celebrity life-style when he entered office. He saw his priority as making the country feel good about itself, to do so by building comity without regard to its foundations. As he said a few weeks ago, his greatest disappointment was his inability to create a bipartisan consensus. Not to defeat the forces of regression and racism and xenophobia – but bipartisanship for its own sake. The self-indulgent notion that Americans craved displays of unity above all, be it on whatever – even eroding Social Security and MEDICARE, as Obama proposed in 2011 - was the path of least resistance for someone without convictions but with aspiration to be celebrated. Something to talk about before the audiences that pay him $400,000 a pop to inspire them, before the TV audience for late night shows, before a select audience of hedge fund pirateers, before Hollywood stars and Silicon Valley billionaires on mega-yachts and private islands in the South Seas.
A cynic might say that Obama first sought celebrity as a stepping stone to the Presidency, and then the White House as a stepping stone to a lifetime of celebrity.
That is not the stuff heroes are made from. They do not imagine the pinnacle of achievement is sitting in a circle against a backdrop of American flags, holding hands with sworn enemies, and singing Kumbaya.
*David Petraeus. At his retirement ceremony from the Army before assuming the Directorship of the CIA, he was inducted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen into the hallowed ranks of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. That was rarified company for an officer who never saw combat, never won a war, was outsmarted in negotiations with Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki who sent him and his fellow Americans packing, abandoned his own strategy in Afghanistan in order to register short-term virtual successes measured in body counts, and concluded his career by having an unsavory affair with a Major (reserve, married) in Army Intelligence. Soon after, he was invited to teach a couple of courses at Columbia and the City University of New York that was ready to shell out $200,000 to have a celebrity star on its roster. The very model of the post-modern celebrity-hero. Two years later, Petraeus’ “model” Iraqi Army threw down their arms and ran from the ISIS before Mosul.