As anyone who knows me well is acutely aware, my biggest pet peeve is society’s obsession with celebrity. I rail regularly, to all who will listen, against our celebrity-obsessed culture. I have spent what seems like hundreds of hours of my free time reading every available treatise that tries to explain the psychological, sociological and financial reasons for the current state of our celebrity-industrial complex. All academic explanations aside, it is a very sad state of affairs. We are witnessing the dumbing down of our nation. Oh, we Canadians are quick to believe we are smarter than our U.S. neighbours, but it cannot be argued that their popular culture has not been adopted as our own. We have become a society of spectators rather than participants. Of passive watchers as opposed to critical thinkers. Observers rather than readers. We willingly open our mouths like baby birds to have the mama bird of entertainment regurgitate trivial pablum into our systems to satiate our desire for celebrity. Sadly, however, it seems there is never enough, with the result that we have moved beyond the Paris Hilton famous-for-being-famous type of fame, past the Warholian 15 minutes, and reached a point where such is our desperation for a constant diet of celebrity that an entire genre of television programming has sprung up, seemingly for the sole purpose of manufacturing new celebrities.
The result of this lowering of the pop culture bar is best captured in two medium that would appear, at first blush, to be at opposite ends of the high-low culture spectrum: Chris Hedges’ brilliantly intellectual and articulate 2009 critique of our post-literate society, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, and the October 3, 2012 episode of Comedy Central’s South Park. Of course, neither Hedges nor the South Park creators were the first to sound the alarm, but they are, each in their inimitable way, perhaps the most poignant on the subject in recent memory. And they are writing today, essentially after the bar has already been lowered beyond what could have been imagined even a generation ago. Of course, there were some particularly astute observers of human nature who warned of this but we didn’t pay heed. Aldous Huxley foresaw this future in the 1930s, albeit his vision involved a totalitarian dystopia where the citizenry had no free will, as opposed to our democratic system where we choose to squander our free will. But rereading Brave New World today one can’t help but be amazed at Huxley’s prescience vis-a-vis a populace driven by pleasure and entertainment to the exclusion of all else. Likewise, the historian Daniel Boorstin in his 1960s dissertation The Image, Warhol in the 70s, and the sociologist Neil Postman in the 80s (Amusing Ourselves to Death) certainly warned about this long before we ever envisioned our popular culture could become so banal and vapid.
In Hedges’ book he explores how only a tiny minority of our society is truly literate, and how without realizing it, most Americans (and I would posit Canadians too) are so focused on trivial entertainments that they know nothing of, and pay no attention to, the real issues facing our society. A virtue has been made of not knowing. We are so desirous of constant spectacular stimulation from the entertainment industry that we are voluntarily and without concern giving up knowledge, rights and privileges. We are allowing the power elites to run things as they see fit because to actually be involved would require time away from being entertained and instead we would be compelled to think. To stop focusing on the banality of celebrity lives would force us to critically examine our own. Whether it is fear or laziness, the overwhelming majority simply don’t wish to do so. In his opening chapter, Hedges illustrates how the dangerous preoccupation with spectacle and celebrity has allowed the line between the real news and the entertainment storyline to be blurred beyond recognition.
In the recent South Park episode, the rotund fifth grader Eric Cartman, one of the 4 young protagonists in the cartoon series, is inadvertently turned into a reality tv star to rival the lowest form of the already low genre. The show uses as its jumping off point the highly rated new reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, about a 6 year old girl and her clearly uneducated, poor and proud of it, overbearing momma who is intent on making her a star. The adults’ language and diction in Honey Boo Boo is so difficult to comprehend that the producers found it necessary to have subtitles for them even though the family are white Americans whose first language is English. The saddest reality is that there is little difference between the real Honey Boo Boo on…wait for it…The Learning Channel (!!!) and the spoofed Honey Boo Boo on South Park. In the South Park episode Cartman is initially appalled and ashamed at being turned into the reality tv character Fatty Poo Poo, only to discover his real embarrassment is about having lost in the tv ratings war to Honey Boo Boo. There is much talk in the episode about shamelessness. Parker and Stone, South Park’s creators, have hit the nail on the head. It is clearly the absence of shame that is a prerequisite for anyone to seek to be this kind of celebrity. It is a similar shamelessness that causes one to eschew knowledge and literacy, and an understanding of the community around them, to devote themselves to paying attention to the goings on of these pseudo celebrities.
At risk of sounding like Chicken Little, the fact is that when I was growing up, and in generations previous, a desire for material success meant studying to get good grades, hard work, determination and years of effort. Even those who wanted fame and fortune as musical icons or tv and movie stars understood that at least a modicum of talent was necessary, and even then it would still take many years of hard work peppered with a lot of rejection if they ever hoped to break through.
The sad effect of our reality tv culture and the fetishization of fame and celebrity is that today’s generation of kids do not grasp the concept of paying their dues, hard work, or perseverance. They see knowledge and education as irrelevant to their quest for success and confuse fame with talent and entitlement. They expect that they will simply be discovered by talking their way onto a reality tv show, or failing that will easily develop a reality web series of their own. Look at how young people use Facebook to narcissistically turn the everyday minutiae of their life, every photo, every thought, into their own personal reality show focused on themselves. In fact, there are several recent studies in North America that show the thing preteens value above all else- including money, knowledge, sex, happiness and family- is fame.
The media elites, driven by ratings and profit have long ago forgotten the public trust of the airwaves. Current events and issues of the day are now mere fodder for more entertainment. History is scoffed at as being irrelevant because it happened “before I was even alive”. Most middle class children today are growing up with a level of affluence and entitlement unprecedented in our history. They are bombarded daily with more input from more media than any generation before, and yet the content of this input is less substantive than ever. And the media through which it is filtered has given up any pretext of even trying to be educational and informative. The entirety of the media is more than ever given over to a focus on style over substance, entertainment over information. In the rare instances where information is given (i.e. politics) the source is most likely biased to such an extreme that any information gleaned will be one-sided or delivered in a way so as to surreptitiously sell that outlet’s particular bias. Or real events about real people are covered with such sensationalism that the true story gets lost in the mix.
We must stop looking to popular culture to manufacture false prophets.The religion of celebrity worship must be replaced with an atheism that instills in our children the ability to examine the celebrity culture gods with a skeptical eye, while at the same time developing in the children an understanding of true worth.
We cannot rely on the media gods to do the right thing. And it is too late to turn back the clock. But all hope is not lost. As individual citizens and as parents, we can take positive steps to ensure that our children understand why they should not look in the direction of celebrity for guidance and salvation. We need to teach them about role models truly worth emulating. For the coddled majority of my children’s generation, this learning is significant as it will provide some grounding in reality, and hopefully a sense of civic responsibility as well as a desire for substantive knowledge. To the children living in situations of poverty, abuse or neglect, shaping their understanding of who ought and not to be a hero and/or or role model will provide them with real hope as opposed to false illusions.We owe it to them, to ourselves, and to the future of our nation lest we awake in 20 years to find out that the the movie Idiocracy was not comedy but prophecy.