Last July the world's media went into a crazy obsession over the birth of Prince George to Prince William and Kate Middleton; along with the usual celebrity watching organizations following each step of the birth with a microscope, even more legitimate news providers like CNN had camera crews staked outside the hospital to report to the world that, yes, a healthy young woman just gave birth to a baby that looks a lot like the thousands of other babies born that day all around the world. Why do so many people care about the lives of the rich and famous? Why are there so many magazines and websites dedicated to describing their lives in such minutiae? What is it about them that fascinates us?
We often compare celebrities to gods, and with the worship and adulation they receive, along with the bubble of wealth and privilege they live in, the comparison seems apt. They seem to reside in a world outside of ours, a world the vast majority of us will never get to see.
Now the adulation of certain exalted members of society (leaders, artists and athletes) seems to be something that stretches back thousands of years to the earliest human tribal societies, but I also think the roots of that adulation have another component: paganism. With the exception of Hinduism, the world religions of today are monotheistic, but the majority of religions humans have practiced since our beginning have been polytheistic. Is it possible that we have substituted our worship and attention of those many gods to our modern celebrities?
Here's an interesting example: in the ancient Greek myths, Zeus was the most powerful of all the gods, and yet what's the subject of most of the stories about him? His womanizing! Zeus was forever portrayed as sneaking out from under the watchful eye of his wife Hera to have sex with mortals. Weren't those tales of a powerful god cheating on his wife the celebrity gossip stories of their day? And just like today, these tales both exalted the gods while also pulling them down to our level, in much the same way we laugh at celebrity scandals but usually still wind up rewarding them with money and fame. I imagine that the ancient Greeks were probably amused by the stories of Zeus's philandering but they still worshipped him anyway.
Nowadays, of course, most people in America worship the Christian Judeo God, but that god is very different from the pagan gods of old, who were usually just more powerful versions of humans. The Christian Judeo God is believed to be all powerful and perfect, so perhaps our fascination with celebrities provides a fix for that part of our brain that misses those ancient pagan gods with their more human foibles.
This may explain just why so much media is devoted to celebrity stories, (just as it also may explain why I, as an atheist, find celebrity gossip so dull!) and for the most part, the obsession some people have about the private lives of the famous is a fun way to spend one's free time. Sleazy tabloids are a guilty pleasure, but a harmless one, for the most part.
|Ah, read this or eat cotton candy, same thing.|
But there is a darker side to this, and that comes in the way people often give more credence to an argument that comes out of the mouth of a celebrity than the would if it came from a normal person. For example, in 2006 Rhonda Byrne wrote a ludicrous new agey book called THE SECRET that posited that somehow, thinking positive thoughts could bring health and wealth to your door. Byrne admitted that she got the idea from an earlier book, THE SCIENCE OF GETTING RICH (written by Walter Wattles in 1910), but she promoted it as something new and made a short promotional video to accompany the book. It was her two appearances on the Oprah Winfrey show that really pushed the book into the stratosphere, making it an enormous best seller world wide as Winfrey gave her seal of approval to this pile of nonsense. (In an ironic bit of timing, the book came out just two years before the American economy suffered a terrible crash; apparently millions of more people knowing the secret didn't help!)
I have a friend, a smart, college educated woman, who is a follower of Winfrey, and who once tried to defend THE SECRET to me. I pointed out that, like all good scams, the book started with something uncontroversial (its good to have a positive view of life) and then extended that into the ridiculous (nothing in life is chance). I quickly showed that there is no way that THE SECRET could explain terrible events like the Holocaust, or horrible natural disasters. Every time I almost convinced her, she would fall back on her unshakeable belief that because Oprah Winfrey said, it must be right; like a creationist denying evolution, she refused to accept what seemed to me to be the logical truth. Even a smart person like her was so in thrall to Winfrey's celebrity that she countenanced no argument against it, a perfect example of celebrity worship gone overboard, in my opinion.
|The pretty face of crazy.|
An even more frightening example arises when one considers Jenny McCarthy; once just another minor celebrity, in 2007 she announced that her son was diagnosed with autism two years earlier, and added that she believed that her son's vaccination shots were responsible for his autism. She noted a scientific study written by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 that made such a claim about vaccinations, ignoring the fact that his findings could never be duplicated by other researchers (in 2010 THE LANCET, the paper that he first published his findings in, officially retracted his study after discovering conflicts of interest in his research and outright falsehoods in his writing; not surprisingly, McCarthy still defended him.)
Now normally, a woman with no scientific education or training would be consigned to the far ends of the internet with the moon landing hoaxers when she started spouting off on something like this, but, just because of her celebrity, people listened as she gave more and more interviews and became the spokesperson for the anti science, anti reason, anti vaccination movement. Sadly, there are now thousands, perhaps millions of people in this country who believe her. In doing so, they're reject all reliable research that shows no connection between vaccines and autism, even worse, they're refuting one of the great health stories of the modern age, with sicknesses like whooping cough and measles eliminated from children's lives. And the real world consequences of her beliefs are frightening, with a possible resurgence in such illnesses threatening children's health. Perhaps worst of all, her speaking out has made her more famous than she was before, winning her a coveted spot on the afternoon talk show THE VIEW, where, sadly, she'll be sure to spew her crazy theories even more. Really, is there anything more depressing than people giving more weight to an argument made by a know nothing celebrity than the counter argument made by scientists and researchers backed up with years of study? Especially when that argument concerns the health and well being of children? I don't think so.