In Intimate Strangers, you called celebrity “a—possibly the—most vital shaping (that is to say, distorting) force in our society.” Do you agree with yourself now, twenty years later?
I continue to agree with myself. No issue or idea in our culture can gain any traction with the general population unless it has celebrity names attached to it—the more the merrier. However, there are differences between the way things once worked and the way they now do.
What are some of those differences?
I did not anticipate the rise of programs like Crossfire (now blessedly cancelled) and The Capitol Gang, which are all shouted sloganeering—all heat, no light—the only real function of which is to greatly enhance the lecture fees—the celebrityhood—of the screamers. I did not anticipate the rise of talk radio and the way it grants fame to right-wing ranters like Rush Limbaugh.
Another thing I did not anticipate, naturally, is the rise of the Internet and characters like Matt Drudge. These are hugely careless figures, braying and spraying their noxious beliefs, without anything but a few dubious facts and rumors to support them. But they are listened to; they are “celebrities.” They do, of course, have their liberal opposite numbers, but they are few and comparatively weak. In our present culture
Are there other changes that have occurred in the last twenty years that are related to celebrity culture?
When I wrote Intimate Strangers, I did not anticipate the worldwide rise of fundamentalism. One way of defining that set of extraordinarily dangerous attitudes is as a passionate desire for over-simplification—in religion, of course, but also in genocidal racism—blame all your troubles on “the others” and try to exterminate them. It is, of course, a response to the complexity of the modern world. In some ways this vast, volatile movement does relate to the celebrity culture. The function of celebrities is to oversimplify things, to reduce complexity to “I can read” imagery. I’m not saying that every fundamentalist preacher we find lurking in the shadows of off-hour cable is a full-scale celebrity. Nor do I think the spokesmen for the infinite varieties of third world radicalism are either. But they are all getting screen time; they are all, as it were, in the game.
And this says nothing about the tragic representatives of life’s unfairness who appear on Oprah. They’re not celebrities, either. They’d just like to be; they’d like to have their book deals like everyone else. All of these folks are simpletons as well as simplifiers. And they all lower the tone of democratic discourse to dangerous levels of incomprehension.