Seeing a celebrity in person is like seeing a ghost in reverse. Celebrities are all around us, but for most of the time it’s in the two-dimensional form of print and film imagery. They’re a facsimile, not truly alive. Like a ghost. But when you find yourself in the same room, same restaurant, passing on the same bit of sidewalk, this two-dimensional image comes alive, and not just because the celebrity has assumed three dimensions. It’s because you are sharing physical space and real time with them; a mysterious harmony, however self-conscious. Of course, you can go your whole life without seeing anyone famous. But most everyone has watched the Golden Globes—which unlike the Oscars is held in a dinner-party setting—and seen the famous check their cuff-links and touch their earrings and laugh at jokes and behave spontaneously. It’s an irresistible watch. Then there are talk-show appearances with “real” behavior to savor. Neither is as fascinating as being in their actual presence, but it still feels like seeing a ghost in reverse—of someone changing from illusory to genuine. There’s an additional tantalizing element: the sense of eavesdropping on America’s royalty. It’s a very compelling combination of media and message.
Europeans have had so many dictators because they became used to monarchies. If the king or queen was nice, then it was a benevolent dictatorship, but a dictatorship nonetheless. So that kind of power doesn’t automatically rankle their sensibilities or rub them the wrong way. Our country’s founders were chary of this. Well, most of them. George Washington presided over the first years of our government—1789 to 1797—and he scolded those who wanted a monarchy or an exalted presidency. Revisionist historians may reinterpret the past, but Washington’s actions give proof; he set the precedent for presidential limits by refusing a third term. So, even fresh off a war for independence from royalty and its trappings, there was still a willingness by some to go down that road again. Perhaps Washington’s recoil from royalty wasn’t just because he knew firsthand what unchecked power inflicts on people, but also because he intuited what breathless adoration of a superior class can turn people into, which is awe-struck children.
Living in a large and important city for many years, I’ve seen quite a few famous people in the flesh, and I have a heartbreaking gratitude for the ones who on occasion stumble blind drunk out of a taxicab and faceplant on the sidewalk. This isn’t schadenfreude. Indeed, having lived for many years in a large and important city chock-full of saloons, I’ve had a stumble or three myself. The point is we’re all sinners and all that, but, for me anyway, when our modern-day gods tumble off Mt. Olympus a spell is broken and balance restored, so thank you.
But back to the original point: Do we really appreciate the power that the famous have on the subconscious, and have we ever gotten past the appeal of royalty? Do we grasp how it holds and harms us? People were renowned before the camera was invented, but their fame was spread with ballads and statues, paintings and posters. Nowadays the magical verisimilitude of movies immerses us, making us more than mere spectators, and the most effective tool the storytellers have is one the audience provides—our willing suspension of disbelief. We open the door to opening our minds to suggestion, then a steady stream of publicity creates a false sense of familiarity, which is what it’s designed to do. And it’s fun! It’s enjoyable, so we embrace without caution. But perhaps we should have caution, particularly when these mesmerizing “ghosts” inject themselves so vigorously in politics.
Concern for the environment is great these days, and that’s as it should be. Earth is our home and we must take care of her in a sincere, holistic way that doesn’t turn the undertaking into a politically motivated, unassailable religion. But there’s another kind of environment to consider. It’s our independent-thinking ecosystem. Which means there’s another kind of pollution to fight. Our self-worth is corroded and our intellect polluted when blowhard famous actors use the influence that comes from a falsely familial, fictitious, and yet sometimes lifelong relationship to presume authority and cajole trust in a political stance they favor. It’s brain smog.
Of course the so called Super Stars have Freedom of Speech rights along with the rest of us. To even suggest that their rights should be curtailed in any way is not only un-American but a cure that is worse than the disease. The only fair tactic is for the curtailing to come from us, by us, and for us. To become more mindful and circumspect about this media and message juggernaut. Considering a home security system because Kojak recommends it may seem benign enough, and public-service-announcement admonishments by the rich and famous may seem altruistic enough, but where does the influencing stop? Is there an off switch? Perhaps this aspect of modern life should be taught early, in school, with focus put on nurturing our critical-thinking natural balance so as to help us avoid being awe-struck children in the presence of a superior class, enthralled with the trappings of a royalty whose words carry weight simply and only because of the famous mouths they are coming out of.