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The Way We Live Now
IN THE INTRODUCTION, I INTRODUCED the concept of the horizontal society. I made a few general points about where it came from. It is not easy to say much about origins; and I will not try to fill in details or provide an elaborate theory to explain the world we live in. That would be quite beyond my powers, or maybe anybody's powers. Clearly, whatever produced modern society—the Industrial Revolution, surely, and whatever created it—is the motor force behind the developments we are discussing. Once the process got going, it fed on itself, fueled by the astonishing growth of science and technology. Something in the history of the West somehow unleashed forces that burst open the cages of ignorance and set science and technology free. Science and technology in turn unleashed powerful forces of their own. These transformed the world. In the process, they created what we have called the horizontal society.
It is science and technology, and what they mean to society, that make our lives so different from the lives of our distant great-great-great grandparents. These tools, machines, techniques, and products have revolutionized every aspect of life. Their importance culturally, socially, and economically is beyond calculation. Just imagine what computers, jets, air conditioners, antibiotics, and television have done to, for, with, or against the human species in a short space of time—a mere moment of history. And these recent advances have occurred on top of earlier, equally revolutionary inventions and discoveries: automobiles, trains, the telegraph and telephone; vaccinations and the germ theory of disease; evolution and the descent of man.
Above all, then, the modern world is the world of science and high technology. Technology and science have turned the world upside down and inside out. Technology and science have made and remade social structures—transformed them totally. After all, an automobile is not just a faster horse that runs on gasoline instead of hay; a computer is not just a rapid, foolproof adding machine or typewriter. The medium not only changes the message; it also reconstructs the context of the message. The television world, the world of visual images, is profoundly different from the print culture it replaces, as Neil Postman has argued. Images replace written language "as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality"; these images undermine "traditional definitions of information, or news, and, to a large exxtent, of reality itself." Postman points out the way television structures reality; it emphasizes images rather than ideas. Television, he feels, creates "the illusion of knowing something," while in fact it leads the viewer "away from knowing."
It is important, too, to emphasize the sheer intrusiveness of television—coming on top of the telgraph, telephone, radio, and movies—as the king of modern communication. Television has completed the process of breaking down the barriers of time and space that separate people. It is a prime instrument of horizontal communication. Television can (and does) broadcast in many languages and in many styles; but there is a deep, subtle, underlying sameness to its message. It can, of course, be boring, but overall it is vivid, engaging, full of color. Its universal message stresses fun, image, entertainment, buying, selling, and consuming. Its powerful beam spreads an ideology of individual wants, desires, and fulfillments, an ideology of choice—the ideology of a horizontal world. Electronic mail and the Internet—new means of instant communication—also break down borders. They accelerate what Peter Berger has called the "urbanization of consciousness"; in the modern world, the individual is "bombarded with a multiplicity of information and communication." We probably have only the dimmest sense, right now, of what the ultimate impact will be. But the Internet can only heighten the tendencies that make society more horizontal. The Internet makes it possible to send and receive messages across great distances and to communicate with strangers—that is, to form and cement horizontal groups.
All this technology, in turn, has revolutionized culture—and perhaps, in the process, has even affected personality. In this chapter, I want to look at a few of the cultural changes that make up a horizontal society and relate them to changes in authority, governance, and social structure. I discuss four basic aspects of culture in contemporary society, and refer briefly to their echo in the world of public affairs.
First, and perhaps most basic, is the perception of change itself. People today are aware of the fact of change and of the lightning speed at which change takes place. People see technology changing the world before their eyes. Nothing seems impossible any more—walking on the moon, scooping rocks from the surface of Mars, curing AIDS, even balancing the budget. Change does not happen magically, but through human agency. Despite all the grumbling about government, people expect government to perform. Authorities are expected to have programs—ideas about what to do and how to make meaningful change. Nobody expected a program from Louis XIV or from the emperors of China and Japan.
Second, technology creates a global culture—high and low. MacDonald's and Disney Productions circle the world. In a high-tech, horizontal society, real communities decline and virtual communities arise—bound together by norms, images, and ideas peddled through the airwaves. In our societies today, old bonds of trust and reciprocity—what some have called "social capital"—are under siege; newer electronic bonds promote the rise of interest groups and pressure groups (local, national, and global), which need not be, and often are not, based on face-to-face contact. Politics gets transformed in the process.
Third, the global culture, in its vividness and immediacy, promotes what has come to be known as celebrity culture. Leaders are no longer distant and remote. They are as close (we think) as the dial on our television sets. The voices of the stars penetrate our living rooms; their images flicker in our bedrooms. Authority itself gets converted into celebrity status. The president is a kind of national rock star; citizens are more likely to recognize the face of the prince of Wales or the president of France than, say, their own first cousins once removed or, perhaps, their next-door neighbors in an apartment complex. Celebrity culture gives rise to what we might call the public-opinion state: a polity where spin doctors are constantly taking the public pulse. Image, short-term popularity, and communication skills become of sublime importance to politics.
Fourth, the ubiquitous camera creates the need for boundaries—for protection of the self against ultimate intrusions. Celebrities may be as familiar to us as family, but they also feel the need to hire bodyguards and hide themselves behind iron fences and burglar alarms. A horizontal, celebrity society gives birth to the concept of privacy; for the first time in history perhaps, there is serious discussion of a right of privacy. People worry about, and debate, ways to protect and preserve zones of intimacy and seclusion in a world with satellite eyes. Privacy is a major problem for big and small people alike.
Finally, in this chapter, I discuss how pervasive these phenomena are. Are they mostly American or the product of American influence? Are they exclusively Western, and thus a poor fit in Asia, African, and other cultures? Or are they (as I think) modern rather than Western. If I am correct, then the real differences between, say, societies in Japan and Spain are less than they seem. They are like dialects of a common language rather than totally foreign tongues.
I take up each oft these themes now in turn.
Change and More Change
One of the most obvious things about the world we live in is the sheer speed of change. Our world is not the same as the world of our grandparents, or even the world of our parents. Theirs seems a quaint, antique, and slow-motion existence. Today, the ground is constantly shifting underfoot. There is no fixity; nothing stays the same.
Change is cumulative. The further back we go in time, the less we recognize the landscape and the more exotic and foreign life seems. Think of a medieval or ancienty city—Rome or Nineveh, for example—cities without cars, skyscrapers, television antennae, airports. The social landscape was equally foreign—maybe more so. How many of us would feel at home in the Middle Ages—in what William Manchester has called a "world lit only by fire?" But if we were projected backward in time, at least our sense of strangeness would be cushioned by what we learned in school about history. But an ancient Roman or a Chinese of the age of Confucius who slipped through a time warp into New York or Beijing today would be utterly baffled. Perhaps this would be almost as true of Thomas Jefferson or Catherine the Great.
Compared to older, traditional societies, we live in a period where change is constant, unremitting, and the pace of change seems to be accelerating. Of course, other societies—ancient kingdoms or feudal states or the societies of "primitive" tribes—were not really completely static and tradition-bound; they only seem that way, to us and perhaps to them as well. No society is or can be truly changeless, however; it is simply a question of degree. The Old World suffered through wars, plagues, and vast nomadic movements. But these events took place within a mind-set, a mental framework, of greater fixity and stability than would be true today.
It would be too pat, perhaps, to say that modern people, men and women, expect the unexpected. But they certainly expect, or are inured to, constant change. People's ideas or perceptions of what is changing, and how it changes, and the speed of change, can be seriously distorted; change can even be, at times, a figment of the imagination. Most of us are like passengers on a ship at sea, in the middle of a raging storm; we see a little bit behind and a little bit sideways or ahead, but we cannot grasp the total dimensions of the storm, or of the ocean itself. Each of us experiences only a small part of reality. Another part of reality we read about or watch on television. Unquestionably, people sense constant movement, change, alteration, and "progress." Even clothes are supposed to change from year to year: there is this year's fashion, and last year's fashion, and the fashions of the year before.
Then there is the idea of "news," that is, of something novel happening every day, something worth reporting. Millions of people wake up in the morning and watch the news on television; they may also listen to radio news throughout the day and later catch the evening television news. It would be unthinkable to read in the newspapers or to hear on television that "nothing much happened today." There is always news, always something going on, always change. Some days bring major headlines; other days are quieter. But there is never no news: the message we get every day is that things are never exactly the same.
Many of the changes in life are not man-made: floods, earthquakes, droughts, hurricanes, forest fires, and other natural disasters. But all these do have a human dimension: they affect some community, some country, some wedge of the economic system. And they bring about or imply a demand on government (or somebody) to do something—provide disaster relief, help in the rebuilding process, or improve regulations—something. This is, in part, because we conceive of change as largely under human control. The average citizen, who has no idea how (for example) a refrigerator works, still feels that scientists, if they worked hard enough, could cure AIDS or the common cold, or get electric power out of turnip juice, or send a satellite zooming off to Pluto.
The average citizen, too, who may have trouble balancing a checkbook, may also feel that economists, and other mysterious persons working on the payroll of the government, should be able to do something about unemployment, the adverse balance of trade, high rents, or the price of cheese. Or, for that matter, crime rates or sex discrimination. A world of rapid change is a world of high expectations—public and private. This is why every government or regime, no matter how conservative, is supposed to have an agenda, a scheme for improving the world. It is supposed to improve the public business. It is supposed to fix the economy and tinker with the law. Doing nothing is not a conceivable option. Some of us might think of this or that public program as a step backward; but this is only a metaphor. There is no going backward. There is only one direction to go, and that is full steam ahead into the future. To govern at all is to commit oneself to change.
The Global Culture
The new technology—especially technology that lets us communicate with each other—has incredible power and immediacy. Of course, it is not easy to measure the effect of television or E-mail. But whatever the effect is, it is clearly global in scale. A single world culture—the culture of modernity—has sprung into existence, and technology is largely responsible, first, for creating it and, second, for spreading it wherever its long arm can reach. Nowadays, that means absolutely everywhere.
This culture has not, however, totally displaced the older print culture or the even older forms of narrative and learning. Books and magazines are still hanging on. Nor has television gotten rid of local cultures—human differences remain and will remain. The Irish are not the same as the Chileans or Japanese. But the culture of modernity has modified all existing ways of life; it coexists with all of them, and none have been able to resist its influence. What is distinctively Irish or Japanese or Chilean is distinctively modern Irish or Japanese or Chilean. The global culture "is what gives the local culture its medium, its audience, and its aspirations."
What does this global culture consist of? Very striking is the dominance of popular culture. All over the world, there is a shared interest in professional sports; in rock and roll and other forms of contemporary music; in ways of eating and dressing, and in things to eat and wear. The audience of the Olympic games or for the World Cup in soccer can run into the billions. I hardly need mention that in the days before television, no such vast audience was possible. There was radio, of course, for a few decades, but radio, for all its power, never had the vividness and strength of television images. And it was local. Before the age of satellites, short-wave radio was feeble and squawky and hardly made a dent on the world.
Television and movies, however, changed the type, the scope, and the scale of entertainment. These really do replace the local experience in the realm of information and fun. On television, entertainment can come from far away, and it can resonate all over the world. A popular singer can be popular wherever there are antennae. Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley become familiar names and voices in India or Venezuela. Pop music respects no borders. Meanwhile, Russians can watch soap operas made in Brazil. There is no practical limit to the number of people who can watch a television show—especially if it is dubbed and subtitled and transmitted around the world. At the same time, nearly everybody seems to be watching the same movies. And they are, it so happens, mostly American—and usually fast, explosive, and macho. What is clear, though, is that entertainment has become much more global and much more horizontal.
In short, technology more and more turned the world into a single, linked system of culture. Local cultures never leave the stage entirely, but they have to share it with the common culture of pop music, movies, and television. TV, in particular, spreads the common culture to the far corners of the world; it is a kind of global pandemic, but it spreads at a speed that makes the old plagues and pandemics unbearably slow.
World culture is primarily a culture of leisure and entertainment: it is soccer, movies, rock and roll. It is also a culture of fast food; McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or pizza. There is an astonishing uniformity of clothing worldwide, especially among young people. Fashion is notoriously fickle and hard to reduce to a science; but clothing is not randomly chosen. There is always an underlying message in the way people dress. Take, for example, blue jeans: once they were humble work clothes; now they are a symbol of youth, informality, and American values. The clothes people wear today express comfort, casual freedom, leisure, and youth. They are universal—the very opposite of native dress. They are emblems of choice. They have become the official costume of a horizontal society.
There is a lot to deplore in global mass culture, if we feel in the mood to deplore: vulgarity, mindlessness, empty conformity, sometimes sheer ugliness. We should remember, however, that this culture is a mark of relative affluence. People close to the edge of starvation do not play video games; they squat in their huts over a bowl of rice or a handful of grain, not over a bottle of Coca-Cola and a pizza. We live in a world where, in a large club of countries, an enormous middle-class mass has come into being. Yet even in countries mired in desperate poverty—and the poor, after all, still number in the billions—mass culture finds a way to reach much of the population. This mass culture—global, immediate, accessible, buoyant, with shared heroes, models, and goals—is immensely intoxicating. Ayatollahs fulminate against it; dictators censor it; mandarins try to slam the door on it. Yet this culture, like an odorless, colorless gas, manages to seep through every screen or barrier put up against it. No Great Wall can keep out these northern barbarians.
In some ways, the worldwide craze for professional sports represents both the local and the global. There is nothing quite so tribal, for example, as the World Cup matches. Fans go wild over their teams: whether Brazil or Italy wins or loses can set off riots or celebrations and affect political and economic life. The team embodies the very soul of the country; the games are ritualized war, without the buckets of blood. Yet the sport is truly global. The whole world gets to watch it on TV. A single sports culture binds all the listeners. In addition, there is a single hierarchy of authority: the rules of the game are the same all over the world. Audience and players know the same regulations and conventions. They "understand their application in the same way." In a sense, then, spectators at the games, and the audience of millions watching on television, "have come to share a common language." The sports world is a portable, transnational, and profoundly horizontal culture.
High culture, too, has shown its power to encircle the globe. Orchestras in Tokyo play Bach and Mahler; Korean violinists are as much at home in the classical repertory as their colleagues in London and Prague; museums in the United States eagerly build collections of Japanese and African art. On a more visceral level, you can find sushi bars and Indian restaurants in Paris and London, "`Mexican' cantinas in Copenhagen, `Italian' trattorias in Amsterdam ... and `Spanish' tapas bars in Berlin." Somewhat more subtly, there is also a convergence in governmental cultulres—in politics and modes of campaigning; these too have been "Americanized." This is true of systems of law aned legal cultures.
This convergence, of course, is most obvious in countries that are more or less democratic. And, once again, we can point a finger at TV as the power that pulls these political traditions together. All politicians have to reach their voters, and the voters are sitting at home in semidarkness, watching the tube. Television is both vivid and expensive; and the medium definitely affects the message. In the legal realm, the global economy is a world of transnational deals and deal makers. The lawyers and businesspeople who are part of this world have developed or learned a common culture. Otherwise, they would find it hard even to talk to each other. But this common culture puts pressure on the legal order, which would otherwise be quite parochial.
The players in the world of international trade are genuine jet-setters: their marketplace is the whole world. These players are multinational corporations and transnational law firms with a base in New York or London and branches in every continent. These are elites who develop a strong, cohesive horizontal culture. They tend to speak the same language (usually English) and, like soccer fans, abide by the same rules and conventions, even though their aims and habits may remain intensely local. The global village is a reality both at the top, among these legal and economic jet-setters, and at the bottom, at the level of fans of basketball, rock and roll, Disneyland, and Jurassic Park.
When we say that the main global culture is a mass culture, we must be careful not to confuse two meanings of the word mass: mass refers to ordinary citizens but can also imply a large group of people physically assembled in one place. Mass culture in the first sense does not necessarily imply mass culture in the second sense. Of course, popular rock groups and soccer teams can draw tens of thousands of screaming fans into the world's biggest stadiums. But mass culture is in some senses lonely and individualistic. The reasons for this can be summed up, as usual, in a single word: television. More and more, entertainment is about observing and absorbing, not about participation. It is a matter of millions of atomized individuals, each on a solitary couch, clutching a solitary beer, with the set turned on and the zoom lenses beamed at the singers or players or stars.
What does this kind of isolation do to a society? Robert Putnam, for one, sees a drastic decline in the United States of what he calls "social capital." He defines, this to mean "features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinating actions." According to Putnam, membership in all sorts of social and leisure-time groups has declined. People are "bowling alone"—that is, they are no longer joining leagues, clubs, and associations the way they used to do. Presumably, this atomization sends ripples up and down the river of social life. Putnam is not sure what has caused the decline in social capital; but he is tempted to pin the blame on television, for the reasons we have already mentioned: television is profoundly individualizing, profoundly antigroup.
Putnam's article on "bowling alone" concerned the United States, but Putnam has done extensive research on social capital in Italy as well. If there is, in fact, a decline in social capital, and if television is to blame, then such a decline must be taking place everywhere in the Western world, if not globally. Putnam's facts and figures can be (and have been) questioned; but I feel he has nonetheless put his finger on a real phenomenon. Whether it is a problem—a source of social malaise—is another story.
What Putnam calls the decline of social capital is clearly connected to the horizontal society. To be sure, people still form attachments; they still join clubs, leagues, organizations, and informal networks. But many or most of these are "groups" in a very different sense. In a bowling league, people meet each other face-to-face. It is a physical community. In a horizontal society, there is a proliferation of virtual communities. People communicate less through word of mouth than through other means. Many lobbies, interest groups, and associations gain their power through mass memberships; but the "members" are mostly people who fill out a form and mail in a check in a stamped, self-addressed envelope. The National Rifle Association, the American Association of Retired Persons, and many other pressure groups, including most environmental organizations, are horizontal entities.
Of course, interest groups and pressure groups existed long before the invention of television. America has apparently always been a nation oaf joiners. As de Tocqueville pointed out in the nineteenth century, Americans "of all ages, all stations in life ... are forever forming associations"; these were "of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute." At the time de Tocqueville wrote, America was already at least quasi-horizontal; one expects interest-group politics in a mobile society with free elections. The new ways to communicate simply make it easier to put associations together. The latest toys—E-mail and the Internet—will only accentuate the trend. Virtual groups multiply like rabbits. Whatever "cyberspace" may mean, and wherever it is (in a sense it is everywhere and nowhere), it constitutes a forum where people talk to each other across great distances, in other words, horizontally. They can get to know (or virtually know) other people, whether in Montana or Turkey or Saigon, who share their interests, their doctrines, and their goals. The process is wonderful for people with hobbies—owners of pet salamanders who want to reach other people with pet salamanders. But cyberspace is also a powerful tool of politics, a simple, costless way of reaching like-minded people.
The Celebrity Culture
Popular culture is also celebrity culture. At the core, it revolves around celebrities. Some are local figures who are unknown outside Russia or Japan or the United States. But an increasing number are truly global personalities, people known in the most remote village as well as in the great urban centers. Many American rock stars are as famous abroad as they are at home. Two cities in Germany both claim to be the second home of Elvis Presley (he served in the army in Germany); one of the towns, Bad Nauheim, has erected a black marble monument to its hero. The "Elvis Association of Germany, Austria and Switzerland" proudly claims to be "the largest Elvis fan club in the world outside of the United States." Movie and TV stars and a number of sports heroes, many of them American, are also known throughout the so-called civilized world. For whatever reason, the United States seems to be particularly good at creating, and marketing, trash with a global appeal.
Celebrity culture, as we will argue, is more than a matter of idolizing popular singers, soccer players, and movie stars; it affects authority and the structure of politics itself. In this day and age, presidents and prime ministers are or become celebrities themselves; celebrity worship, its habits, and its frame of mind have penetrated deeply into the marrow of public life. In Putnam's world of declining social capital, men and women focus less on their immediate surroundings, their face-to-face groups, and more on horizontal groups; they focus also on the physically distant figures they see on TV—in other words, on celebrities.
What is a celebrity? A celebrity is, of course, someone who is famous, but not everyone who is famous is a celebrity. According to one (cynical?) definition, a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous—who is "well-known for his well-knownness," a "human pseudo-event." The essence of celebrity is "high visibility." Ordinary people—that is, noncelebrities—are basically invisible. They have a small network of people who know them—family, friends, people at work; and that is that. When they walk on the street, stroll in the park, or drive down the highway, nobody pays attention, no heads turn, no one takes their picture. The celebrity, however, is dazzlingly visible, a shooting star flashing across the sky. The celebrity transforms every occasion; she sets off vibrations in any room or locale she enters. The celebrity commands attention. A celebrity is defined as a person "whose name has attention-getting, interest-riveting, profit-generating value."
This description is incomplete, but it makes an important point. The difference between fame and celebrity is clear-cut. There are famous people who are not highly visible: they are never in the newspapers, never in the gossip columns, never on talk shows. They are never seen; they project no familiar images; they have no fan magazines and are never written up in People. No one in Japan is better knwon than the emperor, yet the emperor of Japan is not a true celebrity. He is (or was) distant, mysterious, godlike, unseen. The present queen of England, on the other hand, is a celebrity of the first order. Her face is familiar to all—it appears on millions of coins and postage stamps—and her picture is everywhere. Her voice is familiar, too; in fact, everything she does, every move, every occasion, finds its way into the media. I hardly need add that the members of her family are even more famous. Tabloids and celebrity magazines all over the world feed hungrily on news about the goings-on of Prince Charles and the rest of the royal crew. The celebrity of celebrities was Diana, princess of Wales; her death touched the hearts of millions of people precisely because they felt they knew her, that she was almost a member of their family, even though she was rich and royal and lived behind closed doors in a palace.
The English sovereign, in fact, was once a distant and remote presence. Henry VIII never appeared on TV. Most of his subjects never laid eyes on him. Authority for the ordinary peasant was far-off and magical. Its nature was reflected in popular literature and mythology. The princes and princesses of fairy tales were not drawn from the stuff of daily life; they were miraculous, otherworldly. The touch of the king cured scrofula. Cinderella could be transformed into a princess, but only through magic. A true princess was different in kind from the ordinary run of humanity.
The princes and princesses of the late twentieth century continue to live fairy-tale lives (the cliché lingers on), but the tales told about them are dramatically different. Instead of magic coaches, they drive expensive cars—which, of course, any of us could drive, provided we had the money. The lives of royalty, and of the stars, illustrate a heightened form of the everyday—the proverbial "life styles of the rich and famous" of television and magazines. The vast audience has the illusion of a peep show: what goes on behind the scenes is revealed before their very eyes. Instead of fairy tales, we have tabloids and soap operas (including the "telenovelas" of Spanish-language television), in which the characters are rich but ordinary, leading lives drenched in romance and scandal yet almost obsessively mundane.
Indeed, a celebrity is never remote and mysterious—the essence of celebrity status is familiarity. This is why the age of television is also par excellence the age of the celebrity. A celebrity is not the Wizard of Oz behind a screen; a celebrity is someone who can be watched, whose face can be instantly recognized, someone who is as close as the nearest TV set.
Of course, this familiarity is, for the most part, a deception, an optical illusion. People on the street do not really know the queen of England, and they did not really know the princess of Wales; they do not really know the president of the United States, his wife, his daughter, and his pets, any more than they know the real life of rock stars and basketball players. They think they know these people because they watch them walk, talk, and express themselves; because they see the insides of their houses, what they wear, and how they live. It is precisely the illusion of familiarity—the images, the show, the projection on public screens—that makes a celebrity what she is. Celebrities are, to be sure, glittering and magical; they have an aura; talent or luck or tragedy or chance has anointed them. Yet at the base, there is something amazingly ordinary about them.
The emperor of Japan was a god until he renounced his godhood after World War II. The queen of England is not a god and never was; instead, she is an ordinary person—a hausfrau (though a very rich one, to be sure, and with royal blood), a mother of four, and a lover of horses and dogs. But she happened to be the oldest daughter of a king of England who had no sons, and because of this accident of fate she became queen of England when her father died. The greats of sport and popular music are also, in most regards, completely mundane, just like you and me—except, of course, for the way they twang a guitar, shoot baskets, hit a ball, or sing a song. All of these are perfectly ordinary activities. The average person can easily picture himself in their position; and, in fact, most people have tried their hand at some of these popular skills.
Great scientists and great industrialists, however, are usually not celebrities, and partly because their work is remote and hard to understand. There are a few exceptions. Albert Einstein, in his day, was a deviant case—famous in part because his work was so remote and obscure. His theories were said to be so complex that only a handful of geniuses could figure them out. Still, much of the Einstein folklore stressed how much he was like everybody else—for example, he played the fiddle, got married, produced children. In addition, people loved the idea that this genius did badly at school. He was, in short, an ordinary person with one freakish talent. That, indeed, is another form of celebrity: an ordinary human being who has been born with two heads, has given birth to quintuplets, or has won a twenty-million-dollar lottery. The one thing a celebrity is not, however, is austere, private, far-off, godlike, or arcane.
At least celebrities who play basketball or singers are supposed to have talent. But many celebrities have no obvious gift—talk show hosts, for example, who make millions of dollars and are among the most famous people in the United States. Others have tiny talents, blown up out of all proportion by gurus of public relations and marketing. Still others, as we have seen, become celebrities by accidents of fate.
Criminals can be celebrities in their own right: if all else fails, one can become a celebrity by committing some unspeakable crime. Whatever appears on TV in prime time is, after all, potentially the stuff of celebrity. In the notorious trial of O. J. Simpson (1994-95), everybody involved in any way with the case turned into a star, indeed, a celebrity among celebrities. The judge, Lance Ito, was surely better known than any member of the Supreme Court of the United States (who are themselves minor celebrities). Obscure forensic technicians, people who were walking their dogs at the right time of night, a limousine driver, a maid at a neighbor's house—all these bit players and spear carriers of the Simpson trial became famous beyond their wildest dreams. Indeed, anyone who plays a part in a sensational trial is likely to end up at least a transient celebrity.
It is also possible to manufacture a celebrity out of whole cloth, just by spending enough money on publicity. Celebrity feeds on itself. When this spiraling process occurs, it becomes literally true that a celebrity is a person who is famous for being famous. The accidentally famous, like the witnesses in the Simpson case, may write books, appear on talk shows, and, in so doing, attract even greater public attention. This type of celebrity status, of course, is brittle and evanescent.
The true celebrity, however, embodies a paradox. She is different, yet she is just like us. Jib Fowles, in his study of American stars, tells a story about Mae West, a famous (or, more accurately, notorious) movie star during Hollywood's glory days. During an interview in a restaurant, a man came up to West and "interrupted and spoke to her familiarly"; when the man left, the interviewer asked "who he was and was told she had no idea. `He sounded as if he knew you,' the interviewer persisted. `They all do, dear,' she responded."
This story captures the essence of celebrity status: the sense of familiarity that comes from seeing the face and hearing the voice, from feeling as if one could reach out to the screen and actually touch a star. Of course, celebrities, `often enough, make this sense of the familiar come about, through publicity and public relations gimmicks. The public is bombarded with information about the lives of the rich and the famous. Much of this "information" is a tissue of lies, but it is vivid and concrete. The familiarity, oddly enough, is part of the magic. The celebrity is knowable, yet just beyond our reach. The look, the sound, the habits, the way of life, we know them intimately. We watch these personalities as they come and go; we can buy a list of their addresses and gawk at the iron gates around their mansions. Stars, then, are both familiar and inaccessible, at once.
The familiarity breeds a sense of entitlement: we have a right to know celebrities and a right to gain access to their lives. Candidates for president are supposed to reveal everything—their income tax returns, their private lives, even what underwear they wear. Stars have no apparent right to privacy at all. Thousands of print pages and thousands of images, each week, purport to tell us everything we want to know, and more, about their most intimate secrets. The zoom lens and the loose tongues of friends and employees make it possible to peek into their very bedrooms. In the United States—perhaps the most advanced case of celebrity culture—the greedy stare of the television camera has even invaded the criminal courtroom, reaching a kind of hysterical climax in the O. J. Simpson trial.
At one time, the Supreme Court was quite dubious about letting TV invade the halls of justice. In 1965, the court reversed the conviction of Billie Sol Estes, a notorious swindler, because his trial had become a media carnival—part of it was even carried live on radio and TV. In the Simpson case, tried during a less bashful era, the camera was under no inhibitions. Millions of people absorbed "gavel to gavel" coverage—until boredom set in. In fact, the TV audience saw more than the jury did. The jury was censored and sequestered. At critical times the jurors were shooed out of the room, like children, while the lawyers wrangled with each other. The cameras, of course, kept right on rolling.
Because celebrity status is so personal, it is also infectious. It rubs off on those around it. There are second-hand celebrities and even third-hand celebrities. Anybody who knows a celebrity intimately—the president's first cousin, Princess Diana's nanny, former dates of Elvis Presley, or hairdressers, dentists, or plumbers to the stars—becomes a satellite celebrity. Such people bask in reflected glory. Once again, it would be hard to find a clearer example than the O. J. Simpson case. According to one report, Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Clinton and one of the most powerful women in the country, finding herself at a party attended by Karo Kaelin, asked him for his autograph. And who was he? A Hollywood wanna-be whose sole distinction was that he lived at the Simpson place and was around on the fateful night of the murder, when he heard a strange thumping noise. That thump was enough to make him an object of frantic media coverage.
Since celebrity status is infectious, like the flu, fans collect autographs, hang out at the stage door, cluster at the entrance to the hotels, wait outside the church at celebrity weddings, file past the body at celebrity funerals, and heap flowers on celebrity graves. The public is eager to express a kind of solidarity; they want to feel part of the family of stars, so to speak. They aim to catch a spark or two of the magic fire that celebrities emit all around themselves—sometimes even after death. When the estate of Jacqueline Onassis went up for auction in April 1996, a wild buying frenzy ensued. Bidders paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthless gewgaws—fake pearls, ashtrays, golf clubs—merely, one supposes, because they were touched by the hand of this celebrity of celebrities. And the death of Diana, princess of Wales—the celebrity event of 1997—touched off a volcanic eruption of mourning and grief.
The Simpson case, which rocketed into the headlines in 1994, represents the celebrity culture at its highest (or perhaps its lowest) form. Simpson was a star athlete, familiar to millions for that reason and also because of TV commercials and movie roles. He may have been the greatest showbusiness figure ever charged with murder; the comedian Fatty Arbuckle, charged with killing a girl in 1921, is a distant runner-up. In an atmosphere of unbelievable ballyhoo, Simpson went on trial for the murder of his wife, Nicole, and a friend of his wife's, Ronald Goldman. The prosecution had what seemed to be a powerful case, complete with blood and DNA; yet many people (especially black Americans) refused to believe Simpson could possibly be guilty. He was, after all, a "hall of famer"—a great celebrity, in short. It was simply too discordant with his image to think of him as a double murderer. Perhaps some people simply didn't care; a celebrity like O. J. Simpson was, in some Sense, above the law. Although a mountain of evidence seemed to point to Simpson's guilt, the jury acquitted him with almost flippant speed.
|1||The Way We Live Now||16|
|2||A Revolution of Rights||53|
|3||A Wealth of Nations||80|
|4||Big Fish and Little Fish: Nation Against Nation||120|
|5||Insiders and Outsiders||135|
|6||Citizens and Strangers: Legal and Social Definitions||153|
|7||Immigration and Its Discontents||188|
|9||Some Concluding Remarks||239|