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A Culture Of Idols

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There was an interesting question posed in today’s Toronto Globe and Mail by their Television critic John Doyle. In his analysis of the media coverage of the Michael Jackson trial he said that the real story had been missed. The fans behind the man.

He posed two questions. First, why are people are so obsessed with him to the point of treating him like the leader of a cult? He described some of their behaviour during the announcement of the verdicts and it was disturbing. The woman who released a white dove for each non-guilty being the most extreme of the “We love you Michael” placard carrying crowd.

Secondly he asked are they versions of us? He recounted attending a premiere for a Hollywood movie and being more fascinated with the onlookers then the stars. Waving signs avowing undying devotion to people who they are never likely to meet or know beyond the second hand reports of the tabloid press or carefully worded statements issued by their publicists.

The phenomenon of impersonal adoration stretches far and wide through contemporary life. Sports figures, rock stars, film and television personalities, and other public figures are all idolized to various degrees. Notoriety, instead of deterring, seems to only add to the fascination, one only need to look at Madonna and Dennis Rodman to see mild examples of that.

These people are set apart from us through their associations with things that we consider glamorous or their ability to do something better then the normal person. Professional athletes play the same games that most of us have at some point in our lives, but at a level far beyond our abilities. Because they are “better” than us we award them respect and honour their achievements by putting them on pedestals.

When I was an actor I remember working with a director who commented that Bruce Springsteen, and by implication all stars, was the modern equivalent of a shaman. He could walk into any room anywhere and immediately become the centre of attention. In a stadium full of 60,000 people he only has to walk on stage and he is the focal point for all that energy.

I believe this is not a reflection of talent but rather power given to these people by us through their being a point of attraction. We have invested certain positions in society with power. Actors, rock stars, television personalities, business leaders and politicians are designated as important through our acquiescence. If we did not respond they would have no actual impact.

These tendencies are exploited by all concerned. From advertising agencies to political advisors there are those whose sole function is to constantly remind us of how important these positions are. These label promoters have seen their importance increase ten fold in our world where style has supplanted substance. When judgements are made on appearances those who fall into familiar categories come out ahead every time.

In pre-Christian times most civilizations had a wide pantheon of gods and goddesses to draw upon. Each one of them reflected an emotion or an aspect of life. The human attributes of the deities provided the material for plays and stories that entertained the masses. In our monotheistic society, with no other idols to worship, we have created secular icons.

They are larger then life but still human and have been reduced down to one dimensional representations symbolic of an emotion of sentiment. Saddam Hussein is evil. Pamela Anderson is lustful. They are used to make moral points and to exemplify what is good and bad in society. The actual veracity of the point or opinion is irrelevant, because the symbol has its own meaning.

When an idol’s shine dims there are two possible reactions that can occur. Commonly the person completely disappears from the firmament. But there are the rarities who will hang around after the lustre is gone. Sometimes enough pity has been generated by the means of their downfall to elicit a type of sympathy vote, but I think the real reason is something else.

When there is a large investment of emotional energy into someone the prospect of turning your back on them is nest to impossible. Having deluded themselves into believing in their objects infallibility rejection would be tantamount to rejecting themselves. Just as bad, if not worse, their turnaround would make them look so foolish that the ridicule faced from loyalty would be minor when compared to the lose of face in admitting your were mistaken.

Although there may be a little of the former in Michael Jackson’s case I believe the majority of those who are hanging on fall into the latter camp. If they denied him now they would be denying themselves. I do not believe that any person who’s character allowed them to identify that deeply with someone for what they do has the strength of will to admit their own fallibility.

It is not so much a matter of whether or not these people are us, as Mr. Doyle asked in his article, because there is no denying that they are an accurate reflection of a pattern of behaviour that is prevalent in our world. What we need to ask is to what extent are we like them. I am not surprised in the least that the media would ignore the story of Mr. Jackson’s fans. To go there would force them to analysis there own role in the creation of and sustenance of the star system. They are not about to bite the hand that feeds them.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • ruby

    Nancy, you wrote

    “our sub-level emotional responses don’t draw a distinction between alpha by celebrity as opposed to alpha by any other acclimation”.

    I’m just wondering if this is your opinion or a known fact. Just curious…

  • Nancy

    Well, I guess if you’re going to justify idolizing such as Paris H., one could postulate that it takes a certain kind of skill to squirm around in 6″ high heels and a negligible bathing suit, writhing on the floor and rubbing up against a hose and a car while opening your mouth wide enough to ingest a giant hamburger, without laughing fit to choke. Or inspire others to reactions other than laughing fit to choke.

  • A herd of Ganesha worshipers?!! So that’s why the ground is shaking!! To be honest Aaman I must confess to blinkered Western eyes when it came to that. Surrounded by reminders of only the big three one tends to only think of them in context of cultural influence in North America.
    Come to think of it since this problem is pervasive the world over, including non monothestic societies like India, the point seems to be losing validity when applied universaly.
    But since some of the first founders of European colonies in the Americas were Puritans seeking escape from graven images and icons, whose to say how deeply ingrained those beliefs have rooted here?
    People other places can come up with theories that explain away irrational behaviour based on their societies, I can only speak about what I think I know.

    In the meantime, gotta go, dodging elephants can’t be done sitting down

  • Nancy writes: “People probably went berserk over Narmer or Huangdi 8,000 years ago when they paraded back from battle with the tribe down the road.

    Reply: No doubt! But, even in the earliest days, those folks celebrated kinsmen or conquerors that had “skills.” [Now, admittedly, mass beheadings and impaling people on pikes is a learned skill, but it is a skill.]

    Today, we will “celebrate” anyone who gets in our line of sight, regardless (seemingly) how they got there.



  • In our monotheistic society, with no other idols to worship, we have created secular icons. – fair point in one sense, yet in another, you completely and wilfully, for the purposes of your argument perhaps, ignore the manifold pluralisms of Western society.

    Duck! I see a horde of Ganesha-worshippers coming yr way:)

  • Nancy

    Actually, as primates/homonids we’re hard-wired emotionally to follow & submit to anyone able to demonstrate ‘Alpha’ status, which would include celebrities, since our sub-level emotional responses don’t draw a distinction between alpha by celebrity as opposed to alpha by any other acclimation. And yeah, archeology records celebrities/stars/idols as far back as records exist. People probably went berserk over Narmer or Huangdi 8,000 years ago when they paraded back from battle with the tribe down the road.

  • gypseyman writes: “Secondly he asked are they versions of us? He recounted attending a premier for a Hollywood movie and being more fascinated with the onlookers then the stars.

    Reply: That would certainly be my view if (long, long chance) I would ever find myself in such a circumstance. The thing about this whole “fame” idea to me is not so much that we have “stars” – we have always had “stars.” It’s that it no longer requires actual talent or skill to be one. It only requires a skilled publicitist. That is what disturbs me most.

    Watching Turner Classic Movies as I do, I have seen newsreels of movie premiers in the 30s and 40s. They were truly mob scenes with 250,000 people not unusual. We have always “worshipped” at the feet of talent. Now, however, fame is defined not by talent or skills but, apparently, by how many times you can appear on TV. That, friends, is not my definition of talent.