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Back to the Beginning

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Well, you know.  Sort of.

Back to the writing of Cheating at Solitaire, anyway.

I writer I like, who writes under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, once defnied the “cult of celebrity” as the “marriage of glamor and banality.”  I wish I’d seen that definition before I started writing the book, because it encapsulates one of the things that was bothering the hell out of me when I started.

Certainly part of my fascination with the subject matter, part of the reason why I wanted to write about these people, had to do with the way other people see them.  It’s an odd fact that in a country where just getting a degree from a decent university will get you labelled an ‘elitist,” hordes of ridiculously rivh people dedicated to almost relentless conspicuous consumption are not only not resented, they’re positively adored.

I don’t mean that we think well of them exactly.  The people I know–students, mostly–who spend great swaths of time keeping up with the doings of Britney, Paris, Jessica, Lindsay and their clones know that the women whose lives they’re following are shallow, and often stupid.  But it’s like we’ve erected some kind of national version of the American public high school.  Here they are, the Cool Crowd, the Popular People, and like the Popular People at John F. Kennedy High, they don’t seem to do much but look good and act like snots.  And yet the very people they insult, ignore and look down on respond to the abuse by wanting nothing so much as to be their friends.

One of the first things I noticed when I started paying attention to these people, instead of just flippnig by them on the way to the nearest cable news station, was that they mostly comprised the least talented members of their celebrity cohort.  Britney Spears’s voice is so weak, ithas to be teched up until it’s damned near unrecognizable on any video she does.  Paris Hilton has the acting talent of a sea slug.  Jessica Simpson seems to be take “deer in the headlights” as a philosophy of life.  They’re all over the tabloids and the music stations and the entertainment news shows.   Cristina Aguilera, whose voice is a force of nature, seems to stay home unless she needs to be out promoting something.

Part of me thinks that the public popularity of these people is a kind of Lottery Syndrome–the tenor of mind that truly admires and envies somebody who hits the Powerball jackpot, but resents the hell out of somebody who works his ass off, gets into a first-class college in spite of a poor background, and ends up winning the Nobel Prize for medicine by discovering a vaccine for some form of cancer.

One of the things I discovered when I was researching Somebody Else’s Music–yes, I do research, a lot of it; sometime I’m going to have to do a post about that–what I discovered was that if you’re the downtrodden high school dweeb who grows up and makes good, the people you grew up with will not admire you for it.  In fact, they’ll hate you for it. 

I think that what’s happening here is this: winning the lottery, being born looking like Angela Jolie, is just a matter of luck.  Nothing any of us can do can get us there.  It happens, or it doesn’t.

The things we have to work for, however, are sometimes frightening to the people around us, because they imply that if those people did not also achieve, then they are themselves at fault for not achieving. 

It’s one thing to tell yourself that nobody from your neighborhood does any better in life than you’re doing.  It’s another to tell yourself that when the girl you sat next to in algebra just graduated top of her class from Harvard Law and took a job at a top Manhattan law firm for $150,000 a year to start.  Her parents were no richer than yours.  Her family’s house was no bigger.  She didn’t have “advantages.”  Why did she succeed when you didn’t?

A lot of us resent, I think, the implication that we have an obligation to be the best human beings we can make ourselves, that we are somehow required to do the work to make something of ourselves.

Stupid celiebrities are popular precisely because they don’t seem to have done that.  What has happened to them looks like luck, and they ratify that assumption by having tastes in things like clothes and music that are completely, utterly and unquestionably “normal.”  It takes work and time to learn to understand Mozart’s operas or even Fellini’s movies, but anybody can buy a Prada bag,  All it takes is money.

Part of the populism that has swept this country in the last twenty years, is just this, Lottery Syndrome:  a deep seated resentment of anything that reminds us that we should be doing better than we are.  I don’t mean making more money, but being more accomplished, more intelligent, better educated, better read, more morally upright. 

The marriage of glamor and banality–really pretty people with really expensive possessions who are the moral and intellectual equivalents of the captain of the varsity cheerleading squad at some small town high school that spends more money on its football team than on its science program.

Maybe the simple fact is that we get used to that kind of hierarchy in high school, and for many of us, it’s the only hierarchy we’re willing to accept.

That’s why the worst thing anybody can say about a politician is that he’s an “elitist”–you know, that he’s smart, did all the hard work to get a first class education, and (the kiss of death) actually expects us to be smart, too.

Sorry.  I’m doing something worse than blithering.  I think Sarah Palin has popped my corks, finally.

I don’t mind the ignorance, all that much.  Anybody can be ignorant and learn.

I mind the celebration of the ignorance.

You know,  the only “real Americans” are badly educated hicks who don’t know and are proud of it.

I’m going to go teach something now.

Written by janeh

October 22nd, 2008 at 10:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Back to the Beginning'

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  1. Lottery Syndrome is about right. You might take a look at C. Northcote Parkinson’s EAST AND WEST (1963.) As I recall, his observation was that as bureaucracy and taxation closed out an ambition based on frugality and hard work, the status of gambling and superstition–especially astrology–rose. Of course, that was a general historical observation on declining societies. When he wrote it, gambling in America was small-time and largely illegal. Heinlein in EXPANDED UNIVERSE commented on the rise in astrology in his lifetime. The cult of the mediocre celebrity seems to fit the pattern nicely.

    As for elitism, in my book an elitist is not some one who attended a particular range of schools, but a graduate of such schools who thinks that all knowlege and wisdom reside in his own circle. There seems to be no shortage of them in government and business from Robert MacNamara on. “You can always tell a Harvard man–but you cannot tell him much.”


    22 Oct 08 at 6:29 pm

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