As the land of opportunity, America has always encouraged dreams of fame and generated weird celebrities — in the 1980s, people paid good money to watch a man smash watermelons with a sledgehammer — but it feels as if we’ve hit a new high, or low, with the incident at the Obamas’ first state dinner.
The incident generated its share of disturbing questions about security at the White House, but that focus glides over a more disturbing aspect of the whole thing: A couple that has had some degree of wealth and success deemed the legal and physical wrath of the Secret Service worth risking not merely for the thrill of meeting the president or the Indian prime minister, not merely to enjoy a glamorous event at the White House, but because they thought it would enhance their chances of being selected for a reality show.
We’ve seen Balloon Boy’s dad bring the state of Colorado to a shrieking halt with the false report that his son was in grave danger in a helium balloon thousands of feet above the ground; the use of a woman’s womb to produce a litter of eight babies when she already had six children and was living on public assistance; and the break-up of a marriage in slow motion on Jon and Kate Plus Eight (eight children desperately in need of state protective services, that is). Preceding them, MTV offered the spoiled brats of My Super Sweet 16, whose crass greed and ostentatious materialism could turn the most ardent free-marketeer into a Bolshevik revolutionary, and a contestant on CBS’s Big Brother held a knife to a housemate’s throat. It’s enough to make one yearn for the good old days when we watched people eat worms.
With depressing regularity, we hear of Americans who ought to know better behaving outrageously, obnoxiously, recklessly, and sometimes criminally in an effort to become famous. We’re increasingly besieged by narcissists. “Amen, James Wolcott,” are not words heard often in this jurisdiction, but as the acerbic lefty critic declares in Vanity Fair, “the ruinous effects of Reality TV have reached street level and invaded the behavioral bloodstream, goading attention junkies to act as if we’re all extras in their vanity production.”
Professional athletes have skill, singers and musicians have talent, actors can emote and change their identities, and comedians make us laugh. But reality television offers an avenue to fame for those who fail to develop any of those abilities. It is, arguably, our new religion; in The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America, Dr. Drew Pinsky — host of a VH1 television series about celebrities going through rehab — laments, “According to research by John Maltby and his colleagues, as the level of religious devotion decreases, the level of celebrity worship increases. The rich and famous are the most prominent, and exclusive, in-group we have. And the more we watch, and feel excluded from, such a desirable group, the more we’re unconsciously motivated to mimic their behavior.”
Perhaps with regular employment riskier and less stable than ever, it’s more acceptable to pursue wild and crazy dreams of fame and fortune. Or perhaps a culture that breathlessly gives the minute details of celebrities’ lives on an hourly basis is sending the not-so-subtle signal that the unfamous life is not worth living. Working hard, building a business, taking care of your kids — there’s nothing glamorous or noteworthy in that. But you must be informed of the latest bout of heavy drinking, public tantrums, and outrageous demands of the 800th diva brought to you by Bravo, MTV, CW, TLC, and the rest.
Whatever is driving it, the phenomenon is accelerating, and it seems we are long past due for some pushback. So why not pushback from President Obama?
To some eyes, Obama would be an ironic choice to speak out against this. The McCain campaign mocked him as “the celebrity candidate,” and the relentless, ubiquitous coverage of a presidential campaign that lasted two years felt like a reality show. Obama fits a celebrity-obsessed culture like a glove, appearing on the cover of fashion magazines and of Men’s Health (even though he still smokes), using gestures from Jay-Z videos, and trading e-mails with Scarlett Johansson. Undoubtedly, some would snicker at the man who has dominated magazine covers and the airwaves for the past three years telling Americans to aim for something more in their lives than celebrity.
But if we want a higher standard of public behavior, the messenger has to be able to reach the target audience, and Obama is one of the few figures who could break through to those who most need to hear the message. Miss Manners and other voices of tradition and decorum have made this argument for years with little success. Perhaps changing a cultural aspiration to celebrity requires a celebrity to tell the aspirants it’s not worth it.
Obama is indeed increasingly politically polarizing, but he’s still fairly respected, particularly among the apolitical, and his life before his political career represents a genuine rise from humble and even troubled beginnings. At his best, he has offered a much-needed message to Americans to grow up, as in his inaugural address, when he borrowed from St. Paul to say, “The time has come to set aside childish things.”
In fact, Obama touched on the values of reality television, briefly, in his address to schoolchildren in September: “I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things. But the truth is, being successful is hard.” In an interview with MTV, he gave Cosbyesque advice on dressing appropriately: “Brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on.”
Barring impeachment, a hard-to-imagine resignation, or tragedy, Barack Obama is president for the next three years. One of the rare areas where conservatives could applaud Obama was his repeated public call for individual responsibility and self-respect. A concern about the perception of opportunism is a valid one, but an increasingly toxic national culture is a nonpartisan issue that probably would generate a lot of praise for the president, in some corners currently dismissing him as an empty suit.
After Obama’s inauguration, the “right direction/wrong track” polling numbers improved slightly, but they are now getting worse again, as more and more Americans see hard work and diligence punished, and extravagance and foolishness rewarded. Moral hazard doesn’t occur only when we bail out reckless businessmen; giving reality shows to the reckless, dishonest, and egomaniacal creates its own perverse incentives.
– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.