“The person evolves into a persona, then a brand, then an empire, with the business imperative of grow or die — a process of expansion and commodification that transgresses boundaries by substituting celebrity for institutions. Instead of robust public education, we have Mr. Zuckerberg’s “rescue” of Newark’s schools. Instead of a vibrant literary culture, we have Oprah’s book club. Instead of investments in public health, we have the Gates Foundation. Celebrities either buy institutions, or “disrupt” them. […]
The obsession with celebrities goes far beyond supermarket tabloids, gossip Web sites and reality TV. It obliterates old distinctions between high and low culture, serious and trivial endeavors, profit making and philanthropy, leading to the phenomenon of being famous for being famous. […]
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. […]
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.”
-George Packer, The New York Times.
American society has long been obsessed with celebrities. Idol worship is not just limited to pop culture, many biographies of important historical figures are more like hagiographies rather than serious biographies. American society has always used celebrity worship as a means of illustrating and reinforcing the American dream. However, the success of the United States has never been dependent upon the few ultra-successful. The US became a prosperous nation because it had strong institutions both public and private. A robust education system, unions, various civic organizations, and ordinary families, provided the foundation of the middle class. All of these institutions are now being undermined by a philosophy of individuality, not the traditional ‘self-reliance’ form of individuality, but instead a form of hyper-individuality that disregards the value of community and collective institutions.
As this new hyper-individuality grows, so does the cult of celebrity. No longer is idol worship limited to athletes and actors, now we have celebrity bankers and journalists. The celebrity of these people is often placed before their crafts, as a result the institutions that they are supposed to uphold are degraded.
We, the ordinary people, are also guilty. As we engage in this idolatry we too diminish the institutions that we are supposed to uphold for future generations. The institutions that were once relied upon by millions to climb their way into the middle class are no longer valued and, as a result of neglect, have atrophied almost to a point of uselessness.
It is essential to recognize the importance of the individual, and protect our individual freedoms and liberties. However, it is equally important to be cognizant of the importance of the community. Our obsession with the über-successful celebrity has made us forget why community institutions are important, as a result, the middle class and America in general has suffered.
Most successful people are successful because they had good support systems in their lives (parents, teachers, community organizations etc.), the cult of celebrity makes us forget that in this day and age there is not really such a thing as a ‘self-made man.’