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Celebrity Worship And The Death Of Critical Thinking

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Forbes Magazine, the once dour and sober organ of business, has released what it calls its Celebrity 100 Power List. The rankings are judged not only upon money, earning power, and potential, but also on the person's ability to generate "buzz."

For the second time in his totally unremarkable career as an actor, but highly successful career as a "star," Tom Cruise has topped the list. While his measly $67 million in earnings put him at almost poverty level when compared to folk like Oprah and Steven Spielberg (Numbers three and six on the list, respectively) his off-screen antics of jumping up and down on Katie Holmes, impregnating a couch (did I get that backwards?), talking out his ass about mental illness, slandering fellow celebrities, and preaching from the bible of L. Ron Hubbard have made him the most bankable star in the land.

That could explain his behaviour over the past year. Here we thought he was slipping the rails, but it was all a carefully planned strategy to keep him in the public eye. Goodness, he hasn't been number one at Forbes since 2001; what's a body going to do? Apparently, anything possible that will make people talk about him.

There is a wonderful moment in one of the Harry Potter books, The Chamber of Secrets, where one of the characters lectures Harry on the travails of being a celebrity. "It's a lot of hard slogging," he says, "not just books signings and photo shoots. You've got to be prepared to do the hard work" In his case, that meant tracking down and taking credit for the exploits of other witches and wizards so he could write a series of best-selling books that would catapult him to fame. It's interesting that Rowlings wrote this book long before she was famous, and does very little if anything in the way of celebrity "work," letting her work speak for itself. That's the whole problem with this celebrity stuff right there in a nutshell.

It is to the point now that we no longer know why someone is a celebrity. Do we celebrate Tom Cruise for his amazing ability to bring a wide range of characters to life on screen? Or do we celebrate him for his remarkable ability to play Tom Cruise all the time?

Who or what is Paris Hilton besides the daughter of very rich people who has enough money to buy her way into anything she wants? The only reason we care about her is that she wants us to and she spends her parents' money to ensure that happens. If, heaven forbid, I were a cynical person, I would say that she has mapped out her "career" from the beginning.

First she was the enfant terrible of the jet set crowd: that caught the eye of the gossip columnists. After playing that role for all it was worth, she started to shed her "party girl" image to take on more serious tasks like her roles in The Simple Life and House of Wax (or whatever that movie she just made was called, it doesn't really matter; she can now add actress to her resume). Now she's a recording star, or about to be one, and hitting the talk show circuit to let everyone know.

But it's all really about selling Paris Hilton and maintaining her place in the sun for as long as she can. Pretty soon her debutante looks will start to wilt, melt, or there won't be any places left to tuck the extra skin left when it all starts to sag, and she'll have to retire quietly on the arm of some worthy wealthy type who will keep her in what luxuries are required by a Hilton spawn.

The last time we were so obsessed with celebrities was in the pre-war depression era. It was the golden age of the studio system in Hollywood; actors were owned by the various movie studios and people like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were the conduits that fed the public the latest information. But it was all carefully orchestrated and the public never knew anything that they weren't supposed to.

Those days seem positively innocent compared to what happens today. Instead of just two ladies with gossip columns, we have whole cable channels devoted to the doings of the celebrity crowd. Star leads the pack, but even stations that used to have pretensions to seriousness, like A & E (The Arts and Entertainment Network), have succumbed to being ratings whores. They now show scintillating documentaries like Child Stars 2: Growing Up In Hollywood and Biography Home Videos where "stars" such as Danny Bonaduce (Danny Partridge of the old Partridge Family) show home videos of their current life and work.

Admittedly that’s the low ebb of the tide, but still the wave doesn't crest much higher with the higher end shows. From all the variations on Entertainment Tonight to the plethora of glossy magazines to ink space given over in newspapers and bandwidth on the Internet, it is possible to spend an entire 24 hours completely immersed in the un-real world of celebrity.

This article itself is no less a part of that world in spite of its critical tone. The phenomenon of celebrity worship makes for great copy no matter what your attitude. Just as much as anyone else, I'm taking part in the feeding frenzy. If I were as truly disdainful of the whole thing as I said I was, I wouldn't even deem it worth of comment, would I?

The thing is, it can't be ignored. Not because of all the press and flashing lights that drag your eye to it, but because so many eyes are dragged to it. Is there anything wrong with it aside from the obvious that people of dubious talent and abilities are being foisted on us and passed off as gifted? Oops, I think I just stumbled on something there without even noticing.

"People of dubious talent and abilities are being foisted on us and passed off as gifted." Yeah I know you can read, and I just quoted myself, which is probably unforgivable, but it's an important point. What is this doing to our standards or our abilities to make judgments on aesthetic matters? If you keep thinking of Tom Cruise, Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, Brad Pitt, and the rest of that ilk as the epitome of creative endeavours, how does that skew your abilities to make judgments on what is good and bad?

For culture to progress or evolve, new ideas have to be generated that challenge and stimulate the audience. Risks have to be taken on the part of the artist and the audience to go places they haven't been before or a culture will stagnate by simply replicating the same product over and over again.

Pop culture is a phenomenon of the past century and as it has flourished, people have drawn dividing lines on all sides of the argument over what constitutes art and what doesn't. While it may seem elitist to some people to distinguish between different types of music or art, there is a distinction between what it takes to create something original and what it takes to perpetuate a formulae for success.

Where is there room for the new ideas that develop a cultural identity beyond the transient world of pop culture in all of this? I'm not talking about going to see productions of 200-year-old operas at the Met either, because in some ways, that's just the pop culture of the elite, educated, and moneyed class, and it's not the culture of North America, either.

If we only measure success by the ability to make money and generate buzz and that those who are successful at doing this are the ones with talent, nothing will change. Unless we start learning to judge things on their merits, we will continue to encourage the current trend towards striving for mediocrity. Nothing risky, nothing that will make people think, and nothing that, heaven forbid, causes them to feel.

If celebrity worship was the innocuous thing it was of the past, it could be dismissed as harmless. But now that it has become such an all-pervasive monster that it is an industry all unto itself, there is no escape from it. It so dominates the way we think and the way we judge that its full impact may not be realized for another generation. By then, I really doubt it will be possible to reverse the process and critical thinking will have gone the way of the Dodo.

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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.
  • http://nicholasstixuncensored.blogspot.com/ Nicholas Stix

    It is to the point now that we no longer know why someone is a celebrity. Do we celebrate Tom Cruise for his amazing ability to bring a wide range of characters to life on screen? Or do we celebrate him for his remarkable ability to play Tom Cruise all the time?

    Someone remarked that a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous. Tom Cruis eis a movie star; Paris Hilton is a celebrity. The term has replaced “star,” and that is a linguistic and normative impoverishment of the media.

    Who or what is Paris Hilton besides the daughter of very rich people and having enough money to buy her way into anything she wants? The only reason we care about her is that she wants us to and she spends her parent’s money to ensure that happens. If, heaven forbid, I were a cynical person, I would say that she has mapped out her “career” from the beginning.

    First she was the enfant terrible of the jet set crowd that caught the eye of the gossip columnists. After playing that role for all it was worth, she started to shed her “party girl” image to take on more serious tasks like her roles in The Simple Life and House of Wax (or whatever that movie she just made was called, it doesn’t really matter; she can now add actress to her resume). Now she’s a recording star, or about to be one, and hitting the talk show circuit to let everyone know….

    Who is “we,” Kimosabe? I don’t care about Paris Hilton. The only reason other people care about her is that they want to. That’s a tautology, but there is no deep reason for anyone caring about her. She’s not even pretty. I suppose people care about her solely because she is rich, and they are wallet-sniffers. That reflects not on her, but on the suckers.

    “People of dubious talent and abilities are being foisted on us and passed off as gifted.” Yeah I know you can read, and I just quoted myself, which is probably unforgivable, but it’s an important point. What is this doing to our standards or our abilities to make judgments on aesthetic matters? If you keep thinking of Tom Cruise, Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, Brad Pitt, and the rest of that ilk as the epitome of creative endeavours, how does that skew your abilities to make judgments on what is good and bad?…

    They’re not being foisted on us; people are gobbling them up. The sad thing is, today people have more choices and examples of excellence than ever. Turn on Turner Classic Movies at any time of the day or night; it is a standing reproach to today’s Hollywood. At any time of the day or night, you can turn on a cable channel and watch one of the best TV shows or movies ever made: The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Combat,! China Beach, Citizen Kane, The Godfather I & II, The Philadelphia Story, The Quiet Man, Gone with the Wind, etc.

    What is this doing to our standards or our abilities to make judgments on aesthetic matters?

    Helping them! People who prefer Brad Pitt or George Clooney to Fredric March, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Ronald Colman, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, et al. are aesthetically inferior. No sinister “pop culture” is at fault.

    Where is there room for the new ideas that develop a cultural identity beyond the transient world of pop culture in all of this? I’m not talking about going to see productions of two-hundred-year-old operas at the Met either, because in some ways, that’s just the pop culture of the elite, educated, and moneyed class, and it’s not the culture of North America, either.

    You have now left yourself with nothing. New excellence will come form immersion in old excellence. That means “two-hundred-year-old operas,” Greek tragedy, High Noon, etc. “New ideas” don’t come from a vacuum. One of your problems is that you think in the nihilistic terms of “pop culture,” rather than excellence. The Golden Age of Hollywood (ca. 1925-1945) was pop culture, but it was also a time of excellence. Those crude, tyrannical, foul-mouthed studio moguls knew more about artistic excellence in their fingertips than a whole Ivy League of today’s pop culture theorists and all the graduates of NYU Film School put together.

    new ideas that develop a cultural identity beyond the transient world of pop culture in all of this

    Are you looking for great works of art, or for a religion? Entertainers and artists don’t give you a cultural identitiy. I’m not sure anyone can do that, and I think you’re confusing culture with religion. My cultural identity is American, derived from a few centuries of American history and documents like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. As a son of Socrates, it is also derived from Greek philosophy, not to mention English and German philosophy. My religious identity is Jewish.

    Any “new ideas” will merely be semi-literate repackaging of old ideas. No one is going to come along that is deeper than Plato, Socrates, Thomas Jefferson, et al.

    Maybe you need to stop worrying about pop culture in the first place. Devote yourself to excellence, tell the world about it, and those with a lick of sense will do likewise. The others you can forget.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Terrific piece, Richard. I agree that being a celeb is “hard work”–so hard that it seems well nigh intolerable. How can you have a normal life or normal interactions in that kind of zoo-like atmosphere? Not to mention the stalkers, the sycophants, and all the rest.

    There are instances where celebs do use their influence to reveal the “run of the mill” problems they do have and how they overcame them. Some, for example, have spoken out about their mental illness, loss of a child, and other struggles, which can be inspiring and comforting to us “normal folks.” We all shit, bleed and die, and no amount of fame and fortune can change that.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    You’re overreacting. Nobody beyond the age of 13 thinks of Tom Cruise, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, or Brad Pitt as “the epitome of creative endeavour.” They’re big stars, every era has them, and so what?

  • http://bacalar.blogspot.com Howard Dratch

    Richard. Fine piece. Celebrity should be saved for those persons who the world should celebrate for what they have done to make the world better, adding to our knowledge or understanding. Hmm. Sounds like the Nobel Prize.

    Perhaps you should continue to question whether we want or need celebrities or if “worthies”are far more worthy of our lists. I can think of writers, scientists, researchers — but who (I have been away too long) is Paris Hilton? I assume she owns hotels but you are surely right to question her as worthy of constant celebration. Also what is “buzz”? Being seen in the right watering holes? Generating paparrazzi in droves?

    The world is complex enough without having to think that mediocre talent suffices to make the Top 100 of whatever.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Richard,

    Very enjoyable piece. Sharp analysis. But you made mentions of the roaring twenties in your piece. In that culture, the stockbroker was king. But a funny thing happended on the way to Wall Street and Broad… The stock market crashed. In the terrible thirties, no man would admit to having been a stock broker lest he risk being strangled.

    Times change. Cultures undergo radical changes when radical events change them, particularly events that are beyond the ability of the big shots who think they run society to control or understand.

    Methinks we are headed for such an event or series of events soon in our day…

    We live in interesting times.

  • duane

    Rodney says: Nobody beyond the age of 13 thinks of Tom Cruise, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, or Brad Pitt as “the epitome of creative endeavour.

    It ain’t the kiddies buying up the gossip mag crapola that litters the supermarket checkout lines. It’s the middle-aged women of middle America, the same ones who go apeshit over American Idol and Bachelor and all the other junk on TV.

    When I logged onto my startup web page, the first thing I saw was Beyonce Knowles, just above a headline about Japan and North Korea concerning missile tests. The American booboisie is perfectly comfortable with stories about the latest exploits of Brad and Angelina leading the news segments on radio. It’s escapism.

    I don’t think Richard is over-reacting at all.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    The fact that lots of people traffick in trash doesn’t neccessarily mean they buy into it or worship the people involved or let celebrities do their thinking for them — although some do. Lots of people I know watch tabloid TV or “American Idol” or Fox News or whatever, and a LOT of them are perfectly objective about it. People have been bitching about celebrity culture for decades now. I find Richard’s thinking on the matter exceedingly conventional and lame.

    You know, the word booboisie was coined by a rabid anti-Semite, and I’ve always thought it had a whiff of Dachau to it.

  • JR

    In an age of specialization, those who devote all their time and energy to manipulating the media in pursuit of fame have a distinct advantage over those distracted by artistic and intellectual efforts.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    JR,

    Could that be why so many kids who graduated from my high school got into the advertising business? I can write jingles just like they can.

  • duane

    I think it was Mencken, actually, Rodney. And thanks for the implied comparison.

  • http://chromatius.blogspot.com/ Chromatius

    I think the difference is, once celebrities were usually actors, musicians, sports people – who had acheived celebrity through their efforts, skills etc.

    Now it’s people who look like other people, or get chosen to appear on some reality TV show like Big Brother.

    I’m not sure that’s accidental – the complete arbitrariness of celbrity adds to its allure. It reminds me of the arbitrary exercise of monarchical power under absolute monarchies. The sheer arbitrariness of the monarchs pardon or patronage gave it a divine quality – like the lightning stike of the divine intercession on earth.

    I think we see a similar pattern in modern capitalism, particularly the growth of what gets called ‘crony capitalism’ (previously corruption and nepotism).

    It doesn’t matter any more who gets rich or how, as long as some do – what matters is the distinction itself.

  • http://chromatius.blogspot.com/ Chromatius

    (#7, #10) Now there’s an old tune – Mencken and anti-semitism – ask Gore Vidal about that catchy number.

  • http://chromatius.blogspot.com/ Chromatius

    #11 cont. Apparently a significant proportion of UK schoolkids believe they’ll find fame and fortune through relaity TV. Can’t remember the figure, but around the 40% mark I think.

  • http://fidelity.squarespace.com/welcome/ Felicity

    I think the pivotal word here is ‘entertainment’. What is one man’s entertainment is another’s nonsense or trash. It isn’t dangerous to our health, it will not shrink our brain. Some works might put us to sleep, but never to death.

    I am frequently amused by people trying to make a point & pulling up all the classics of yesteryear to try and make their points, but they fail to mention (or remember) that for every film that went on to become a classic, there were five hundred or so that did not. “Marijuana”, follow up to “Reefer Madness”. Yes, they took themselves very seriously when they warned this was a plant with it’s roots in hell.
    And what of the wonderfully exploitative work by genius producer Jed Buell, Harlem on the Range? A film using an all black cast of buckaroos? This was his second to bring diversity (sic) to the audience; his first Being Terror of Tiny Town using an all midget cast.
    And the wildly popular Three Stooges. Talk about staying power. Forty years of it to be exact.

    I have to agree with Rodney Welch here. It doesn’t take a double digit IQ to see that *the* entertainment today is based in voyeurism. But to say that’s a new thing is wrong. Hollywood and Follow the Stars mags have been on shelves for decades and so far I see no major changes in the intellectual levels of the nation. Movie goers want to go to a movie just to enjoy their time there. They don’t want to have to ‘search’ through every movie looking for it’s inner meaning. Nor do movies always have to carry a message or lesson. Sometimes it’s just nice to put that all away with the laptop and briefcase and go laugh yourself silly.
    True, light-hearted movies need not be light-headed, but they can be and there’s still no harm done. Just ask Mel Brooks. He’s done them all.

  • duane

    Chromatius, your comment on the arbtrary nature of modern celebrity reminds me of The Babylon Lottery, a short story by Borges, where the citizens fates are determined by a secret lottery, and in which participation is mandatory. Their fates are handed to them, whether they deserve them or not.

    Rodney and Felicity claim that celebrity and entertainment are nothing new. Well, yeah, I think that goes without saying. But the point doesn’t cut much wood. It’s like saying that there’s nothing new about air pollution.

  • Nancy

    Really excellent piece, this, and many good points, especially the author’s contention that fame & fortune are not being bestowed on those that necessarily deserve them for talent, brains, or other capabilities besides having an effective PR team. The shame is, the public is/are (?) being hoodwinked into throwing their hard-earned and often scarce cash after undeserving, untalented frauds – the same sort of scam carried out by televangelists like Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker (of course, here we get into the subject of Some People Are Too Dumb Even To Be Protected From Themselves) – and the ignorant are being encouraged to mindlessly confuse shallow notoriety & noise with achievement & talent. That, in my mind, is the sin.

    No harm in silly lighthearted movies; I decline to see Schindler’s List – too heavy – but I delighted in Wong Foo. As for “booboisie”, I don’t care who coined it, it’s a great word & exactly fits.

    No, I agree: it’s a pity the likes of TomKat & Bennifer et al can’t be somehow zeroed out, and worthier parties celebrated instead.

  • SFC SKISFC SKI

    I have been living in Europe for the better part of 18 years, and American pop culture holds no fascination for me. In the middle of my seconfd tour in Iraq, I wonder at our preoccupation with celbrity and all the other trivia that Americans apparently clamor for in lieu of real news.

  • Nancy

    Most Americans are incapable of critical thinking, imo by design of our leaders both political & economic, who would much prefer a population of mindless consumers who don’t think too much & hence are easier to control. Critical thinking used to be taught in high school, ‘way back in the stone ages. I haven’t seen it taught anywhere – even in colleges – lately, unless by accident or it’s going under another name.

  • http://insiderealestatejournal.blogspot.com Mr. Real Estate

    And Atlas Shrugged, then he invested millions into some zany idea by a couple of producers to make a show called American Big Brother Idol, a show about the lives of the contestants from the show American Idol, with live cameos by houseguests Paris Hilton, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Tom Cruise and Ron Hubbard, who get into a *big* fight over the last Twinkie in the house. Hey, it could happen.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Well, you can do something about air pollution, Duane. You can’t change people, though, and you can’t change mass taste or even elevate it, really. You can offer choices for people who want something more, I guess, but that’s about it. Vulgarity is something of a general characteristic of a civilization, I think, and absolutely true of an economy like ours. When you have a mass, you’re going to get mass taste, right? This is a fact toward which I seem to become increasingly indifferent and unconcerned, and I’m not sure why I shouldn’t be, although I’m sure there are a lot of people who can tell me why I should be. I think I’m more concerned about people who babble cliches out of one side of their mouth and then decry the death of “critical thinking” out of the other — which, by the way, doesn’t have anything to do with this article at all, does it? To have “critical thinking skills” means a certain skepticism, a certain distrust of the last thing you heard, an ability to recognize real from fake. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy popular culture, or recognize its value.

  • duane

    Rodney: Well, you can do something about air pollution

    I hope you’re right. In theory, yeah, but even there, people will be people.

    … you can’t change mass taste or even elevate it ….

    That is a problem. As you point out, the indulgence of our bad taste is permitted by our economy. In a way, that’s just a sign of economic health, having so many affordable ways to satsfy our recreational needs. But what deserves bitching about (although I won’t be able to fix it) is the way the TV, movie, and music businesses send their messages to our kids and young adults, targeting them like they’re launching homing missiles at their impressionable brains. Saturation bombing with junk. These ad execs are smart, and they use their college-educated brains and creative talents to peddle crap. And the crap sells. Something ain’t right. I’m not sure how to assign cause and effect, but there is a correlation between the increasing skill levels of marketers and their ubiquity and the general decline in taste, civility, and knowledge among the US populous. Now, excuse me while I go shoo those darned kids off my lawn.

  • hollowlaugh

    Very good. Just the part about J.K.Rowling which needs addressed. I think that she was writing a secret confession into that book revealing that that is what she was doing, taking material that was already out there and putting it together. She is probably the most derivitive of best selling authors that we have seen in popular culture, but I think that says a lot about how people HAVE lost their capacity to think critically…and to be aware of literature that has gone before. Only in contemporary times would someone not be able to see Rowling’s ‘heritage’.

  • Rachid

    “Who or what is Paris Hilton besides the daughter of very rich people who has enough money to buy her way into anything she wants? The only reason we care about her is that she wants us to and she spends her parents’ money to ensure that happens. If, heaven forbid, I were a cynical person, I would say that she has mapped out her “career” from the beginning.”

    Pure RESPECT