Celebrities in Unequal Times


Posted by Bob Lord

If you write for a local blog, the best you can hope for is to have our views echoed by those with larger platforms. So it was gratifying to read George Packer's op-ed in today's NY Times, Celebrating Inequality. Packer picked up on two themes I've mentioned in previous posts. But he drew a connection between them that I had not noticed. And that connection is quite significant. It may explain why his work is on the opinion pages of the NY Times and mine is posted here. 

A few months ago, in a post entitled Trillionaires, I noted how we foolishly celebrate the achievements of the super rich as we do the accomplishments of athletes on steroids:

Remarkably, as we pass the milestones, $10 Billion, $50 Billion, soon $100 Billion, no alarm bells ring. Instead, we celebrate the expanding fortunes of the super-rich as we do athletes breaking sports records. Reaching $1 Trillion will be treated like hitting 73 home runs was before we knew Barry cheated to get there. With any luck, our first Trillion Dollar fortune also will be tainted by misdeeds of the achiever. Perhaps that will wake us from our slumber.

Packer focuses on this phenomenon, how we worship celebrities as demi-gods in times of inequality:

What are celebrities, after all? They dominate the landscape, like giant monuments to aspiration, fulfillment and overreach. They are as intimate as they are grand, and they offer themselves for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion. But in times of widespread opportunity, the distance between gods and mortals closes, the monuments shrink closer to human size and the centrality of celebrities in the culture recedes. They loom larger in times like now, when inequality is soaring and trust in institutions — governments, corporations, schools, the press — is falling.

Packer connects this phenomenon to what I've referred to as the bastardization of the American dream. In A Numbers Guys View of The American Dream, I wrote:

I've contended in prior posts that conservatives have bastardized the concept of the American Dream, and progressives largely have let them get away with it. According to today's conservative dogma, the American Dream represents the chance in America to go from humble beginnings to vast fame and fortune through hard work. To conservatives, Steve Jobs represents the American Dream. In my mind, the real American Dream is entirely different. It is simply the ability of any American who works hard — a teacher, a cop, an auto worker — to enjoy a good life.

In his op-ed, Packer concludes:

This new kind of celebrity is the ultimate costume ball, far more exclusive and decadent than even the most potent magnates of Hollywood’s studio era could have dreamed up. Their superficial diversity dangles before us the myth that in America, anything is possible — even as the American dream quietly dies, a victim of the calcification of a class system that is nearly hereditary.

As mindless diversions from a sluggish economy and chronic malaise, the new aristocrats play a useful role. But their advent suggests that, after decades of widening income gaps, unequal distributions of opportunity and reward, and corroding public institutions, we have gone back to Gatsby’s time — or something far more perverse. The celebrity monuments of our age have grown so huge that they dwarf the aspirations of ordinary people, who are asked to yield their dreams to the gods: to flash their favorite singer’s corporate logo at concerts, to pour open their lives (and data) on Facebook, to adopt Apple as a lifestyle. We know our stars aren’t inviting us to think we can be just like them. Their success is based on leaving the rest of us behind.

So, Packer connects the dots in a way I'd not noticed. The glorification of celebrities and the re-definition of the American dream are very closely related. And both are outgrowths of the obscenely unequal society we've allowed to develop in America.