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Arguably, the biggest problem in American culture today is the fact that mere entertainers are its heroes. There is no precedent in any civilization in the history of the world for entertainers – actors, singers, dancers and directors – to be elevated to the highest positions of prominence in the culture. That’s why none of us can name actors and actresses from ancient Greece or Rome. They weren’t important enough to be remembered.
Sure, we can name the playwrights and we can name the satirists. We can name the politicians, the philosophers and the generals. Because literary, academic, political and military figures were always the personalities who dominated the cultural landscape. Whatever you thought of these pursuits – and many of the ancient conquerors were highly immoral men – their pursuits were at least consequential.
But entertainment? Lighthearted merriment? That’s what you did in your spare time, when you needed a break from the serious things. Prior to the rise of American popular culture, entertainers could never even dream of being the most important members of a society, engaged as they were in a frivolous past-time that helped the folks escape their solemn responsibilities for a short time.
In our time, however, the incredible has happened. The court jester has become the king. Those who play the heroes have become the culture’s actual heroes. Those who direct fantasy movies are directing the direction of our youth. And with entertainers as the principal people we look up to, so much of our society has become silly and trivial.
This is exactly what was going through my mind as I watched the narcissism of the Academy Awards. In America today, there exists not a single mainstream televised awards ceremony for anything other than movies, television, acting and music. Even when brave soldiers are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry, it is not broadcast on television.
When the president awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to our leading thinkers, writers and civil servants, it is watched by 10 people on C-SPAN. But the awards for best actor and best actress are followed closely by hundreds of millions who take such nonsense quite seriously. That’s a major change for a country whose only actor to become an historical figure, prior to the age of Hollywood, was John Wilkes Booth.
The consequences for the elevation of people who perform inconsequential tasks to the center of national attention are enormous. Even if our Hollywood celebrities were not the most damaged people in our society – drugged up, divorced, with even their kids in rehab – the results would still be tragic. By making fashion models our role models, Hollywood heroines our heroes, and singers into saints, we have created a shallow and vain society, distinguished not by sacrifice, but by indulgence. We have created a culture known not for virtue, but for vanity. And our country is becoming not more dedicated, but decadent.
American kids today, for the most part, don’t want to be doctors. They want to be directors. They don’t want to be rabbis, but rock stars. They don’t wish to be soldiers, but superstars. And then we wonder why American kids are so messed up.
To gauge the effect of entertainers being at the epicenter of a national consciousness, just imagine if it were to happen in the life of a single individual. What if entertainment, rather than scholarship, were the foremost preoccupation of a medical student. Instead of working at a library and attending lectures for eights hours each day, our student watched eight hours of television and DVDs each day. Would you trust him with your kidney?
And now you begin to understand why so many people around the world think we Americans are so stupid and shallow. It’s not because of Bush. It’s because of Hollywood. The very nature of entertainment is that it is something you do in your spare time. Entertainment is designed to be on the periphery, never at the center of national endeavor. Performers dare not replace professors, cinematographers dare not replace soldiers, and comedians dare not supplant cardiologists as a country’s most lionized citizens.
The future of the United States is not threatened by any existing foreign power. Less so is it threatened by any terrorist. Terrorists can harm us, but they can never defeat us. The only thing that can threaten the continuity of this great country is if it collapses from the inside. If its foundations become so eroded, its pillars so brittle, that its national edifice falls victim to the forces of historical inevitability.
If our nation is built of the marvelous marble of the Greek Parthenon or the Roman Pantheon, or the solid stone of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, it will last for many centuries, and perhaps millennia, to come. But if it is built of the flimflam material of a mere Hollywood soundstage, a movie set facade that is all glitz with no substance, it will, God forbid, crumble before our very eyes.