A ‘Follow Spree’ is just what it sounds like. A person will quite literally follow hundreds of people on some form of social network, to find out where a celebrity will appear, what he or she said, will be wearing, etc. Being a celebrity seems to define America in this age of social media. There was a time, however, when celebrities tried to use their influence to give voice to concerns and to step into the political arena, but today it is the other way around. Politicians now crowd social media networks. This includes the current U.S. President, who delivers his thoughts through Twitter, rather than press conferences.
Today, if you ask a kid whom they’d want to be when they grow up, they’re much more likely to say Justin Bieber instead of John F. Kennedy, or Lady Gaga instead of Lady Di. It feels so trivial, that one may wonder, does it really matter?
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Celebrity worship is not new. For millennia, people have rallied around war heroes and sports champions, embracing them as their demigods. But, there was a line that separated their fiction from real life. Today we have lost our ability to distinguish fact from fiction, so we rally around our celebrities instead.
It was the Roman historian Livy who wrote: “The Roman empire started to decay when cooks acquired celebrity status.”
Today’s celebrity culture started as early as 1900, when motion picture and recording technologies began to bolster an entertainment-based leisure market, and became symbols of shared cultural values and beliefs. Journalists catapulted entertainers to god-like status.Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Josephine Baker, Buster Keaton, and others, were in this category but they recognized their limits and didn’t pretend to know the cure for society’s ills. Theirs was a limited celebration of their fame.
However, unlike the celebrities before him, when Charles A. Lindbergh, the first person to solo across the Atlantic, flew from Long Island to France in 1927, he became an international celebrity. Lindbergh used his acquired fame to influence the nation and played a central role in the isolationist movement in the years leading up to the U.S. entry into World War II. While President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to intervene to help the British in the fight against Germany, Lindbergh, unashamedly pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic, hijacked the public’s discourse and championed the isolationist cause.
Superstars have always been useful for public relations and marketing. However, in recent years, they have eclipsed our institutions, becoming essential to the distribution of everything from consumer goods, to image-building and lifestyle, to providing content, and prescribing the ethics and ideals by which millions of young, and not so young, Americans live.
Certainly, there have been many who have channeled their fame to the betterment of mankind, (Oprah’s support for educational institutions in Africa or Lady Di’s drive to eradicate mines left in many post wars lands), but for the most part – this has been the exception.
Celebrities have been known to support one candidate or another, with examples such as Frank Sinatra, who recorded a special version of ‘High Hopes’ as a JFK campaign jingle or Clint Eastwood who delivered a speech at the Republican convention in front of an empty chair – representing Presidential incumbent Obama. But, gradually, over the past half a century, celebrities had begun to use their voices to overstep their mandate to simply entertain us, and began acting as our unelected representatives instead.
We all remember how Jane Fonda, in her 1972 Hanoi Jane stint, single-handedly compromised the stature of American soldiers who were fighting for our country. She called returning POWs “hypocrites and liars,” adding, “these were not men who had been tortured. These were not men who had been starved. These were not men who had been brainwashed …”
Aside from the pain inflicted on the soldiers, protests by radical political activists such as Fonda, Kerry and others, could not have been more pleasing to the North Vietnamese. In a 1995 interview published in The Wall Street Journal, Bui Tin, a ranking North Vietnamese colonel, stated that the media and people such as ‘Hanoi Jane’ and John Kerry, ” …were essential to our strategy.”
After visiting Baghdad in 2002 and meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein’s closest advisers, actor-director, Sean Penn paid more than $50,000 to fund a newspaper ad accusing President George W. Bush of promoting fear and stifling debate on Iraq. He proclaimed, “It is perfectly legitimate for entertainers to use their status to advance causes.” He later visited Iran during an election campaign as well as Cuba’s Raul Castro and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Today we have a former N.B.A. star, Dennis Rodman, repeatedly traveling to North Korea, and gaining rare access to its leadership, even as it now threatens the U.S. with nuclear ICBMs.
Regardless of whether the Iraq or Vietnam Wars were justified or necessary (which I doubt they were), or Mr. Rodman’s motives, it’s time to look closely at our stars’ foray and breach into the political sphere. Their interference on our national security, is an important issue that has not faced national debate. Quite frankly, the question begs to be asked – why should their opinion matter? Is there any demonstrated correlation between their sex-appeal and their political maturity?
Today’s celebrity worship has nothing to do with values or ideals. As a matter of fact, it is quite unpopular today to be an idealist.
We know the venues through which celebrities babble, but where in our times do we get our morals and principles? And, is there a difference between celebrities’ noise and the ethics or morals of our lives. In today’s world of the social media superhighway – overrun by politicians and celebrities alike, where do we get our morals and principles?
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Each of us has a special sensibility and I do not profess to be impartial or chaste from my own angle. As an American Jew, who was raised in Israel, I have critical knowledge of our history and the new messages with which some celebrities have disguised their Antisemitism. As such, I have cringed when I saw Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic comments getting him renewed publicity and became frustrated when Vanessa Redgrave, Penélope Cruz and her husband, Javier Barden transmuted their advocacy for the Palestinians into blaming Israel for all the ills of the world. Their words followed an orchestrated propaganda, filled with staged images of casualties and other disinformation, yet the media devoured these celebrities’ words and trumpeted their incendiary messages across the world. Many have dismissed their enmity, suggesting that these are just words, and that the public knows the truth. But, associating Palestinians’ conditions with Holocaust victims, and equating Israel with the monstrous Nazi state, has given voice to a new virulent form of inflammatory Antisemitism which has sparked a new generation of hatred.
The case of Roger Walters stands out following his obsession with, and his vicious attack on Israel. His comments fit into this new wave of Antisemitism, and his arguments need not make any sense for innocent, if often bigoted and ignorant followers, to get entrapped in his message. His calling Israelis Nazis and equating Israel with the apartheid regimes, have been means by which he’s tried to push his Boycott Divestment Sanctions message in trying to discourage entertainers from visiting or performing in Israel. Being a diehard fanatic had exposed him for what he truly is, and it has turned the public against him, but still, his virulent hateful message has helped to form a new backtrack to a millennia old message of hate, which we would do well to abandon.
My focus on this issue is personal, but the trend of celebrities hijacking the public sphere for their skewed intimations, or moguls – who push their agenda with their millions of Dollars, has done damage to us as citizens, consumers, parents and individuals. This trend will not stop, but we should not let such celebrities’ egos, or capital, dictate our ideology. In this time of almost instantaneous travel of tweets and social media messages we may need to add the disclaimer:
This message may be dangerous to your health.
Or, maybe we should just add Walt Whitman’s words:
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
not look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books.
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
you shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.