Saturday, July 25, 2009
How Celebrity Trumped American Politics
The 20th century however saw a radical transformation in American culture as media technologies including radio, film, rapid nationwide magazine and book deliveries and eventually television and the internet, reshaped American culture from a local culture to a national one, defined by the subjects of those media titles themselves. In the process Americans went from being individualists to being collectivists.
The media technologies that enabled a single radio talk show to speak to a national audience, a single movie to play in theaters to 50 million Americans, or a magazine to instantly determine what is on the mind of most Americans, created an unprecedented ability from a single point to influence an entire nation. And those who held the microphone, the printing press and the camera, were the ones in the best position to issue their message.
American's individualism was largely due to its localization. The majority of Americans lived in rural areas. Identity was a matter of local communities. People did not for the most part think globally, they thought locally. Their sense of self was rooted in real everyday things. Their dreams were focused on personal accomplishment, rather than intangibles.
As the influence of a collective media voice could sound with the same identical tone from town to town, generations would grow up being shaped in identical ways from town to town. And the shaping would be done by the human gods who would serve as the unifying force of the various mediums, talk show hosts, broadcasters, gossip columnists, movie stars-- in other words, celebrities.
The theater, artists, actors and musicians, had always tended to the bohemian, experimenting and testing cultural limits. But not since the French Revolution had they ever been given the leeway to define a culture, and in the process destroy it. As America turned yearningly to the entertainment industry to be entertained, morals plummeted, radical politics reigned, and the product was continually refined to be ever more centrally controlled and ever more addictive.
Today America's movie, music and publishing industries are in the hands of a small number of very powerful corporations that maintain very tight control over their products, limit competition and put across the same message over and over again. For anyone who laughed at the idea that the entertainment industry could take over America, is probably not laughing after the 2008 election, when politics crossed the fatal line into being entertainment.
But America had been sliding toward that abyss for a long time now, as each Presidential candidate had rock and roll theme songs, campaigned by visiting national talk show hosts, and tried to recruit celebrities to campaign for him. In the 19th century politics had been a compelling national spectacle. Crowds gathered to listen to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Spirited national conventions were real battlefields. People understood and debated the ideas that would define their lives. Even the tragedy of the Civil War was the product of a nation that was highly interested in politics.
Image had trumped substance. Politics became entertainment to compete for the attention of a public that only wanted to be entertained. Serious debates gave way to buzzwords in order to score points with a public that had too short an attention span to follow a serious discussion. It became easy to predict a national election by betting that the more boring candidate would lose.
What the political establishment failed to understand is that the more politics became dumbed down, the less democratic it would be. And the more it became about entertainment than serious issues, the less it would be in the hands of politicians, as opposed to celebrities. When charisma is your only real political requirement, any con man or scoundrel can play. And in such a system, the democracy of a republic, gives way to the lowest common denominator of the mob.
Today America has come full circle, ruled over by a man with no actual qualifications but charisma, completely unfit for the job, and incapable of doing more than giving an endless parade of hollow speeches, full of plagiarized words. Driven by a media frenzy, Americans go mad over the love affairs, weddings, divorces, adulteries and funerals of celebrities-- the way commoners once went mad over the lives and deaths of kings. The way people in third world dictatorships go mad over the deaths of their rulers.
That latter fact alone, especially when combined with the Camelot cult of personality, should have revealed that sooner or later a celebrity would rule over America. The culture of celebrity is a culture of ignorance, a slave culture in which millions long to be famous, ready to humiliate themselves, lie, steal, betray and even kill in order to be famous. The eye of the camera is the gateway to immortality, to joining the pantheon of undead gods, Elvis Presley, Marylin Monroe, John F. Kennedy, James Dean, Charles Manson, John Lennon, Walter Cronkite, Abbie Hoffman... right down to Barack Obama and the latest winner of American Idol.
Names have become totems, and celebrity has become the national currency worth having. The only meaningful experience occurs within the media. And that collective vision has bred the intellectual and moral decline of America into a nation incapable of paying attention to what really matters, to being happy through meaningful self-achievement and functioning as individuals, rather than drones in the great hive of the media experience.