Tom and Nicole are getting married again; Michael Jackson fends off child abuse allegations and we are regularly regaled with reality TV programs that scrutinize the behavior of minor celebrities in jungles and kitchens.
For many, these events are of more immediate interest than the catastrophically unfolding drama in Iraq. Is this simply harmless fun, a light-hearted diversion from the grim headlines? Or does it reveal a serious flaw in our culture?
Celebrity has political importance in the West. With immense pomp and pageantry, the US has just mourned former president Ronald Reagan, a B-movie actor who became the most powerful man in the world. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose film career exalted the values of brawn over brains, has become governor of California.
ILLUSTRATION: MEIYU CHOU
The upward political mobility of the popular hero of stage and screen is an interesting, if slightly disturbing democratic development. Increasingly, politicians have to display the kind of charisma that we associate with show business if they want to be successful in the polls. Senator John Kerry is likely to be more impeded by his lack of star quality in his race to the White House than by his political program.
The fact that we call people "stars" is itself significant. A star sheds light in darkness. Travelers once used constellations to help them to find the right path. We have always looked to exemplary human beings for guidance and inspiration. Throughout history, heroes and sages have become paradigmatic figures. They show us what humanity can be, they define our values and fill us with profound emotion, because they touch an inchoate but powerful yearning for human excellence.
Thus Socrates, who taught his pupils to question everything until they became dizzy with confusion and who was finally able to look death in the face with loving equanimity, evoked a kind of rapture in his contemporaries.
His disciple Alcibiades spoke of the "extraordinary effect his words have had on me ... For the moment I hear him speak I am smitten with a kind of sacred frenzy ... and my heart jumps into my mouth and the tears start into my eyes -- oh, and not only me, but lots of other ecstasy of fans today who weep, shriek and swoon in the presence of their idols."
But there is a crucial difference. Alcibiades continued: "[Socrates] has often left me in such a state of mind that I've felt that I simply couldn't go on living the way I did ... He makes me admit that while I'm spending my time on politics, I am neglecting all the things that are crying out for attention in myself."
A celebrity like Socrates demanded that his pupils fundamentally transform their lives for the better. It is unlikely that current pop idols will do the same.
Hero worship is one of the world's oldest enthusiasms, probably dating back to the Paleolithic period, when the hunters left their tribe, went out into the forest, and risked their lives to bring food back to the community. The myth of the hero has followed the same basic pattern in many cultures, and expresses a common ideal. The hero is motivated by a disinterested desire to fill a lack that he sees in his society; he turns his back on the familiar and sets forth on a lonely, frightening quest. But eventually he brings something of value back to the people.
Stories about Prometheus, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all conform to this paradigm. They were essentially callers to action, designed to show followers how to awaken the heroic potential within themselves.
People have emulated recent heroes, such as Martin Luther King Jr, or Nelson Mandela, in this way. But our modern cult of celebrity is different because it degenerates frequently into self-indulgent adulation that is an end in itself. Few of the thousands who mourned Princess Diana so extravagantly felt compelled to visit AIDS patients or to give to her landmine-victims charities.
We no longer require celebrities to go out into the wilderness to bring benefit to others. The arduous quest of the hero is alien to those who seek immediate fame with minimum effort on Pop Idol. You can become a star, a luminary of our time, simply by appearing in a soap opera. We do not expect our celebrities to challenge us, as Socrates did, or, like Buddha, to shock us out of our habitual selfishness by making us aware of the ubiquity of human suffering. We want our stars to distract us from these uncomfortable realities.
Notoriety has become an end in itself. An increasing number of people simply want to be famous. A questionnaire recently circulated in a New York high school asked its students: "What do you hope to be?" Two-thirds replied: "A celebrity." Instead of excellence we worship excess, of brawn, breasts or any personal characteristic that can effectively become one's trademark. But this blatantly sterile narcissism, especially when fanned by massive and intrusive media coverage, is psychologically damaging to the celebrities themselves.
The heroic myth was not popular simply because it sounded good, but because experience showed that this was the best way for human beings to live. Anthropologists have also argued that human society is impossible without a measure of altruism. Celebrities such as Bob Geldof and Bono appear to have learned this, and have taken up good works. The difficult ordeal of modern celebrity may have taught them the validity of the ancient ideal of the hero who heals himself by giving something back to society.
It is easy to blame the media for our unhealthy obsession with celebrity, but we get the kind of heroes we deserve. Our celebrities reflect our values and desires. The photographers would not have chased Diana down that Parisian tunnel if the public had not been avid for pictures of the princess. Our cult of fame that is not accompanied
by the requirement of heroic altruism may symbolize a chronic selfishness and triviality that are symptomatic of cultural decline and also politically dangerous.
The lifestyle of celebrities, proudly flaunted on Web sites and in celebrity-driven magazines, must seem cruel and insulting in countries where people lack the basic necessities of life. And the cult of celebrity will not help the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East. The West's pop singers and film stars are among its most visible exports, and the sordid scandals of their personal lives may well convince Muslims who are already suspicious that liberal democracy is indeed spiritually bankrupt.
Our elected politicians, who reflect the mores of society, sometimes behave like celebrities, and some of them have actually been celebrities. They should recall the myth of the hero.
In this time of unprecedented danger, heroic leadership must question old certainties and chauvinisms. Instead of pursuing cold-war policies, governments must find new solutions. Like celebrity, national prosperity cannot be an end in itself. In a global world, our best security lies in a creative and courageous altruism, in excellence and not mere excess.
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