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. The most recent example is the flap over Rolling Stone magazine's banishment from CVS, Walgreens and other vendors because it placed a picture of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover. 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 - but 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. 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 dictum 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 the local 10 o'clock news, the dynamic of hope 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. That's what it's about. We envy those who have made in - for whatever reason they have gotten into the spotlight. Gazing at their exalted selves, wallowing in their doings, bedazzled by the glitz - we momentarily op contemplating our own navel in order to concentrate on somebody else's navel - a celebrity navel.
So we envy Tsarnaev. He is in prison and will be kept there for the rest of his life - but damn it he's on the cover of Rolling Stone. And I'm not! That's just not right. Envy is at the essence of the celebrity culture. Fame used to be the deserved fate 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 be infamous -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 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 thought about and treated the famous in bygone times. Even our highest officials and leaders are infected by the celebrity bug.
Think of President Obama. His preferred and habitual way of addressing the American people is via talk shows - be it Oprah, the View, some ethnic themed radio station in Atlantic, or a jazz bash in Chicago. He avoids the televised Oval Office address to the country as somehow less authentic than the popular trendy media. As one of his staffers explained: "the Oval Office speech is so 1980s." This despite the simple fact that any one of Obama's forays into the entertainment realm means speaking to only a tiny fraction of the audience that tunes in to a retro White House performance.
The point, though, is not to communicate directly to the American people in identifying an issue, explaining its significance and making the case for a particular course of action. Rather, it's about affirming himself - about being recognized as communicating per se which, in a way, is taken to be more important than the substance of what he is saying. The fact that the President was on The View will be broadcast ad nauseam for the next 48 hours - accompanied by the one or two talking points that 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 ideas.
We were shown how this phenomenon unfolds this week when Obama spoke impromptu at the White House of his reaction to the verdict in the 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.
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 closure 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 compulsive belief that the only reality that ultimately counts is that etched on the national consciousness by those who script our celebrations for us.
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 notoriety.