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A nation of way too many celebrities

by Jack Gordon

America today faces a crisis unprecedented in its history. Yet we have heard not a whisper of it from any candidate or commentator concerned with the 2006 midterm election. History will record the bipartisan conspiracy of silence on this issue as the great scandal of our time. Compared with it, the revelation that President George W. Bush and Alfred E. Neuman were one and the same person will rate barely a footnote.

I speak of a crisis that threatens our very identity as a nation, our common frame of reference, or true and constant preoccupation, the glue that binds us together as a coherent society.

That glue is celebrity worship. And the danger in question is the awful celebrity glut of the early 21st century. We already have passed the tipping point. There now are entirely too many celebrities for any human being to keep track of.

It will not be global terrorism that brings America to its knees, or global warming, or legions of cybersex-crazed congressmen marching out of Florida. The day of destruction will arrive when even the editors at People magazine throw up their hands in despair and quit attempting to distinguish one famous person from another or to remember why any of them were famous in the first place.

“American Idol” alone may bring them to grief. “Go ahead,” People’s editors will cry, “you try to sort out Clay Aiken from Kelly Clarkson. You remember which has become a closer personal friend to Paula Abdul. You figure out whether it was Simon or Fantasia who fathered Anna Nicole Smith’s love child.”

Andy Warhol warned that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but he did not speak of the terrifying consequences. He failed to anticipate the multiplying effect of cable television - 75 channels full of crocodile hunters, myth busters, ride-pimpers and kitchen redecorators, all demanding recognition and each capable at any moment of magnifying his or her celebrity status exponentially, either by having sex with Paris Hilton or by punching her out in a bar.

Neither did Warhol foresee the recycling machine of reality TV programming, thanks to which nobody’s 15 minutes ever expire. Just when you thought it was safe to forget Bruce Jenner or Joey Lawrence or Robin Leach or Rod Stewart’s ex-wife or the guy who played Peter on “The Brady Bunch”, here they are again on “Dancing with the Stars,” or “Ice skating with the stars,” or “Help! I’m trapped in a ‘Survivor’ Clone That Passes Me Off as a star!”

It is sobering, for anyone who fancies himself an informed citizen, to stumble upon “Entertainment Tonight’s” Mary Hart promoting “new developments” in an ongoing celebrity sex scandal and realize not only that one was ignorant of the scandal but that one never heard of the celebrities involved. Alison Clinton will submit to a staged-for-TV lie-detector test to support her denial that she committed adultery with Sara Evans’ husband. Who the hell are these people? And who, or what, is Cojo?

In the 1940s, an American GI in Europe could prove to sentries that he wasn’t an enemy spy by recognizing Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Joe DiMaggio, and maybe a dozen movie stars tops. In the 1960s a person who could name the keyboard player for the Doors was an outright cultural wonk, qualified to write for Rolling Stone. In the 1980s, maybe it made a difference who was married to Rod Stewart, I don’t know. But today, just to decipher the major headlines, you must understand at minimum that somebody named Sara Evans is a star (as defined by “Dancing with the Stars”) and that Alison Clinton is Evans’ allegedly anorexic former nanny.

In politics, journalism and sports the story is the same. Thanks to free agency and fecklessness, professional athletes no longer play for the same team long enough for us to fix them firmly in our minds. By the time you’ve gotten used to the idea that Daunte Culpepper is the Vikings’ franchise quarterback, off he goes to warm a bench in Miami.

Journalism? There was a time in this country when a citizen who could tell Walter Cronkite from Dan Rather was practically home free. It wasn’t as if we were seriously expected to distinguish Huntley from Brinkley. Today it would be hard even to count the talking heads on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, never mind picking them out of a police lineup. But unless the viewer can sort out Keith Olbermann from Bill O’Reilly, what celebrity-journalist feud are all of the other heads talking about?

The situation keeps deteriorating. The center will not hold. This is a society in which the most notable effect of New Orleans’ destruction by a hurricane was the genesis of yet another crop of politico/journalistic celebrities whose subsequent doings must be monitored: CNN’s Anderson Cooper, FEMA’s Michael Brown, New Orleans Mayor ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco ...

The task is impossible. Yet keeping tabs on these people is what we do. It is the thing that makes us Americans. If runaway inflation of the monetary sort destroyed the Weimar Republic and brought Adolf Hitler to power, what can we expect in America come the day that a dump truck full of celebrities cannot be exchanged for a loaf of bread?

One may well ask how long the republic can stand while we slog chest-high through a vast, viscous sludge of the semi-notorious, trying in vain to perform our civic duty.

Jack Gordon is a writer and editor in Eden Prairie.
Star Tribune, October 27, 2006, Opinion page, p. A21

(Note: This humorous article does make the point that we are living in an entertainment-centered culture focused on well-known personalities. It is the culture of Civilization IV.)

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