Why separating celebrity from merit is good for merit
what does it mean that the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 attracted so much more media attention than did the funeral, the same week, of Mother Teresa? What significance should we give the appearance of such figures as Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley on recent U.S. postage stamps?
Fame, it is often argued, used to reflect merit; now it reflects commercializing forces. The commercial generation of fame, according to many critics, leads
to a society weak in virtue. Are such critics right?
Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, argued in his 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America that the concept of transient celebrity is replacing the concept of the true hero, who serves as a role model and exhibits moral leadership. Pondering what he perceived to be the lack of giants in modern society, Winston Churchill asked in 1932, "Can modern communities do without great men? Can they dispense with hero-worship? Can they provide a larger wisdom, a nobler sentiment, a more vigorous action, by collective processes, than were ever got from Titans? Can nations remain healthy [ldots] in a world whose brightest stars are film stars?"
If these worries are valid, then the separation of fame and merit is indeed problematic. We risk the danger that commercially successful heroes may invite dangerous forms of imitation by their fans, and fail to help their societies organize around noble ideals. Plutarch wrote nearly 20 centuries ago of great men as a kind of looking glass, in which we see how to "adjust and adorn" our own lives. The contemporary question is whether today's heroes provide a foundation for a desirable moral discourse.
The Changing Nature of Fame
Over time, entertainers and sports figures have displaced politicians, military leaders, and moral preachers as the most famous individuals in society, and in some cases, as the most admired.
An 1898 survey of 1,440 12- through 14-year-olds asked them the following question: "What person of whom you have ever heard or read would you most like to resemble?" Forty percent chose either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Clara Barton, Annie Sullivan (Helen Keller's teacher), Julius Caesar, and Christopher Columbus also received prominent mention. One bicycle racer and one boxer were mentioned, but otherwise sports figures accounted for few of the answers. Seventy-eight percent of the selections came from history, both contemporaneous and past, including politicians, moral leaders, and generals. No entertainers were picked (though 12 percent were characters from literature).
Another poll was conducted a half-century later, in 1948, with a comparable number of schoolchildren of similar age. The children were asked, "Which one of all these persons that you know or have read about do you want most to be like 10 years from now?" This time, only a third of the respondents chose historical figures; Franklin Delano Roosevelt topped the list for boys and Clara Barton topped the list for girls. Sports figures accounted for 23 percent, with baseball players Ted Williams and Babe Ruth heading that category. Entertainers accounted for 14 percent, with boys picking radio and movie heroes like Gene Autry and girls preferring movie figures such as Betty Grable. Characters from literature were completely absent. Religious figures fell from 5 percent in 1898 to less than 1 percent in 1948. Figures from comic strips, such as Joe Palooka, were selected much more often than Jesus Christ.
In 1986, The World Almanac listed the 10 figures most admired by American teenagers that year, all of whom (except Ronald Reagan, a former actor) were entertainers:
1. Bill Cosby
2. Sylvester Stallone
3. Eddie Murphy
4. Ronald Reagan
5. Molly Ringwald
6. Chuck Norris
7. Clint Eastwood