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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


Although not strictly an American phenomenon, the elevation of famous people to cultish levels of worship has moved well beyond strictly cultural bounds. While celebrities, even those with no apparent talents or accomplishments beyond celebrity itself are entitled to give voice to their opinions on any subject, the past several decades have witnessed an increasing tendency to endow famous people with nearly messianic authority. Not content with the lionization they receive along with disproportionate rewards of wealth and status, an increasing number of genuinely famous and wannabe individuals have found the realm of political pundit a fertile ground for self-promotion. Indeed, the lines have become so blurred that it is hard to say which is the more odious, but the blame for this elevation of celebrity to sagacity lies with us, for it is we who desire the bread and circus.

That phrase dates to the age of the Roman poet Juvenal, writing around 100 AD, who observed that the masses no longer venerated their heroes but were content with handouts of food and spectacles. Anyone who has observed a large-scale political rally in the past few years can attest to the manufactured emotion whipped up by dog whistle baiting, and performance art. This is, of course, nothing new but the amplification of both traditional broadcast media and the echo chambers of social media have vastly increased the speed and reach with which the mob can be incited. They have also enabled the elevation of individuals whose sole qualifications for public office are celebrity and a keen ear for the sullen dissatisfactions that flow freely in our society.

It is quite bad enough that we elevate those lacking experience, demonstrated competence or knowledge to positions of power and influence; the satisfaction of an unquenchable thirst to remain in the public spotlight inevitably leads those who have tasted it to ever more outrageous behavior. The former spouse of one such celebrity recently observed that her ex husband was at first amused by the approbation of the public but began to believe that what he had once ridiculed was in fact prophecy. In short, he was transformed and began to believe in his own infallibility.

Such a loss of objectivity is not only dangerous to the individual, but far more so to those who have entered into self-imposed slavish adoration. Those that live by the sword of denigration, by demeaning and rabid defamation of others will ultimately find themselves dying by those same means when inevitably, they cross a line that even the masses can no longer explain away or cross themselves. But over whatever passage of time they remain at the center of things they do lasting damage to the public psyche, leaving a smoldering resentment burning in the hearts of those who cannot admit to their own misguided worship.

What weapon can we possibly wield to stem this cycle? Geert Lovink, a professor at the Amerstdam University of Applied Sciences, has predicted that social media will eventually cause its own demise. He believes that the increasing consequences of ceaseless exposure and loss of what little privacy we have today will reach a point of saturation causing social media, indeed the Internet itself as a medium for social discourse to collapse. We can only hope that he is right. But until such time as this might prove true, we do have one weapon which has proven a sharp foil that pierces the overblown; satire.

The daring extremes of those who cannot be sated in their thirst for celebrity must and eventually will go beyond the bounds of not only reason but public sentiment. They cannot stop themselves short of passing this boundary –the circuses must get bigger and more entertaining or deflate out of sheer boredom. As they inflate, they are open to ridicule—not broad stroke buffoonery, but wit, satire, a focused campaign of mockery. Hatred in reply to hatred yields only escalation, but the end is in sight whenever a once famous person has become the topic of relentless-even gentle humor. It drags them down to the level where others can feel safe poking fun at their pomposity, and their descent from the promethean heights inflames in them such pain that they will become ever more the very embodiment of the ridicule to which they are increasingly subject. As Nietzsche said, "Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed." Fame they say is fleeting. Next circus.

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