Tuesday, July 31, 2007

US addiction to fame: worse than EUrope?

In a breathless and damning op-ed today, James Carroll argues that “An obsessive deference to [such] fame, and an all-consuming preoccupation with it, has become the defining mark of American culture.”

Carroll argues that the American adoration of fame is either worsened or caused by (I’m not sure which) our lack of historical background. This seems to me at once partly correct and complete bullshit. I’m a bit sick of facile arguments chronicling our “crack cocaine” addiction to fame and celebrity, as if other nations didn't share the same weaknesses--which, once a pop culture sets in, are universal. Though I haven’t measured it, Europeans seem to have just as many idiotic gossip magazines, fashion magazines, become-famous TV contests, reality shows, etc, as we do. And they can have just as selective a memory of history as we Americans, or anyone else.

Carroll makes some useful observations about the destructiveness of our capitalist (and profit-obsessed) mentality, and there is no doubting our obsession with celebrity. He also remarks that the “conjuring of the appearance of opposition where none actually exists has been mandated by the American political system since the onset of the Cold War.” I would agree with the driving idea behind both claims, but I’m still not sure about the connection to celebrity and fame here. The column also rests, bizarrely, on a comparison between Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, a difference which “matters,” though I’m not sure why.  Thus, when he concludes—without mentioning other countries’ stances on celebrity culture—that “under the martial law that implicitly governs the United States, history can never be invoked except for its celebrity value - not even history in the making,” Wait— what?

I may have had too long a weekend in the sun (it’s finally hot in Bcn), but what am I missing here? In a globalized world, Europeans seem to exhibit more and more of these “American” traits. In Why the Rest Hates the West, Meic Pearse observed that people around the world see Western societies as being ones that "derogate religion, exalt triviality (sports, entertainment, fashion), endorse sexual shamelessness, deprecate family, and discard honor." Europeans are implicated in the shameful behavior.

And if some countries tend not to need to find enemies, my immediate reactions are either that they are too small or weak to create enemies or take action against them; or they weren’t looking hard enough when enemies were there (WWII neutrals like Switzerland and Sweden; the EU during the breakup of Yugoslavia).

In short, Carroll does a disservice to his fellow liberals by writing a sloppy (uhh...Marxist?) critique of the American culture of celebrity that would be more appropriate of an upstart Masters candidate (or undergrad).

I leave the question to you, diligent readers, astute observers, sagacious thinkers: do Americans really value celebrity over history to the extent that Carroll implies, and more than others? Is he making a mostly good point that I am missing? Or is he full of hot air?