- Friday, September 14, 2007
While the aforementioned study focused on pop and rock stars, fame in general seems to exact a heavy toll. Recent news coverage has revealed the apparent suicide attempt of actor Owen Wilson, who, by every account, was at the pinnacle of his career. This past year alone has seen a parade of depressed, addicted, and reckless celebrities into “rehab,” which has become a burgeoning industry in its own right. In fact, VH1 is launching the latest in reality TV, Celebrity Rehab that “will follow a group of famous people as they battle substance abuse.” The media is dominated by the failures, scandals, and tragedies of the celebrity famous.
Yet despite the ample and never-ending evidence that fame, fortune, and beauty fail to bring lasting peace and satisfaction—in fact, often quite the contrary—Americans are more celebrity-obsessed than ever. I am not making light of real suffering on the part of those who happen to be famous. I am sad for those whose lives have come to ruin in such a public way. What caring human being cannot be troubled by the rash antics of Brittany Spears, the evident despair of Owen Wilson, or even Paris Hilton, who is as much a victim of irresponsible, over-indulgent parenting as anything else? Nonetheless, my concern is for a society that has elevated mere celebrity to hero status and for a Church that has been flaccid in asserting the true virtues of heroism.
Dick Keyes writes in his book, True Heroism in a World of Celebrity Counterfeits that “Throughout history, most generations have passed their values on to their children not by giving them lists of rules and laws to follow, but principally by telling them stories that embody the values of their culture.” These values were personified by the heroes in these stories who then served as an inspiration for our own higher aspirations. Consider the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. The truth of this story as an actual or mythical event matters little, what matters is the virtue of honesty, which the story sought to teach. It is only the cynic that obsesses over whether or not the story is true thus missing the point entirely. Regardless, this is what true heroes do; they inspire us on to higher aspirations of virtue and morality.
Keyes adds, “Our fascination with heroes comes from a hunger for excellence. Without heroes the whole source of imaginative motivation is disengaged from life. Without heroes, what will inspire us to go beyond mediocrity and cynicism? What will keep us from becoming bored and boring?” And what do bored people do? They seek after the idols of amusement, food, and “things” to assuage and/or medicate their boredom. This might account for the plethora of giant screen TVs, the epidemic of childhood obesity, and ravenous consumerism so rampant in our culture.
Jonathan Swift, the Irish cleric and author of Gulliver’s Travels wrote, “Whoe’er excels in what we prize, appears a hero in our eyes.” This might explain, in part, the cultural shift from true heroes to the celebrity-as-hero phenomenon. What we prize has changed! Whereas we once prized honor, integrity, virtue, courage and the like; we now prize fame, fortune, and beauty. The celebrity serves as the ideal “hero” in such a culture despite their apparent moral failures and lack of any real virtue, because even in their worst moments, they often still retain their fame, fortune, and beauty. With the jettisoning of real values and virtue, celebrities have become the default heroes of the age and these are the “stories”—along with their bankrupt values—to which our children are subtly encouraged to aspire.
MTV, that great creator and purveyor of false heroes, commissioned a study on youth from the research firm, Social Technologies. Researchers reported that “Youth, especially younger people, fantasize about fame...” Nearly one-third said they wanted to be famous. Being famous has become an occupational goal as a result of the celebrity-fixated culture. The tragedy is that these young people simply aspire to fame and not to any moral excellence characteristic of our culture’s historical heroes.
We have allowed the culture to redefine heroism and human excellence based on what the world values. Dick Keyes is here again helpful:
We are good at talking about excellence in sports, the corporate world, education, [and] music … Thinking about excellence in these areas is easy because the standards [are] … agreed upon and measurable, and those who excel are recognizable. … They are the visible winners of our society. But it is as if there is a taboo against enlarging the scale, daring to ask, what is excellence, not in playing the guitar or managing a corporation but in a whole human life? What is it to live a good life? These questions have to do with human greatness—or heroism.
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