Baby You Can Drive My Car

Posted: November 8, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

A perhaps well known line–my dear dear Turtlettes–and more importantly, a favorite (of mine) Beatles song line about getting famous. Baby you can drive my car, yes you’re goin’ be a star, baby you can drive my car–and baby I love you. Well forget the last phrase about the love thing. It’s really all about fame, or what used to be called fame, or being famous, and thus in case you don’t quite make it, almost being famous.



But I mention fame and even the Beatles because the question I’d like to explore and briefly digress upon (after all brevity is the soul of wit) is whether our society today is significantly different from past societies with respect to the way it accords respect, or recognition or old fashioned fame. Thus I propose we meditate for a few moments on the term most frequently used in today’s world for well know people who gain recognition namely, star, super star, or celebrity.

To my way of thinking, we live in a celebrity besotted society. Our public life or our concerns about what gets most public attention centers around celebritydom or the weather. I’m going to push the weather to the back burner and simply concentrate on celebritydomitis.

Let’s start by defining our terms and the first term to define is celebrity. How should we define it? Well let’s say a celebrity is a very well known person who has achieved notoriety by doing something unusual. Usually the special achievement is related to the world of sports or entertainment but it can also come about by creating a breakthrough achievement in the fields of business or technology or even politics. Thus names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are reasonably well known even in worlds outside their own area of expertise. Politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton are also easily identified and probably known by more people than Mr. Gates or Mr. Jobs. Obviously this holds for President Obama as well.

Celebrityhood however isn’t simply a function of achievement though achievement of a distinctive kind is often a key element in achieving celebrity status. Along with achievement, the term implies a mysterious element of glamour that fascinates the mind and leads people into the world of fantasy where they can wonder and indeed fantasize about their favorite celebrity’s life. Celebritydom requires the full investment of a person’s id, ego, and superego and celebrity status almost implies a kind of obsessional interest. Not that one must constantly obsess about the celebrity, but rather that the celebrity is capable of eliciting this kind of response.

Now as a human being, but more importantly, as a political observer and student of politics, what I find most remarkable about the development of celebrityhood is that it emerges in probably the most egalitarian society the world has ever seen. And also the most upwardly mobile. I’m reminded of the famous distinction first coined by Ferdinand Tonnies, a well known German sociologist writing at the beginning of the 20th century. He claimed history showed the development of two kinds of societies: the first he called gemeinschaft meaning that a person’s status was primarily determined by family or birth and society was organized hierarchically; he called the second gesellschaft which defined people on the basis of their individual achievement which created a far more egalitarian structured society. In the first type of society, upward mobility was relatively infrequent, while in the second type, upward mobility was built into the system and occurred routinely.

Our egalitarian, and we should add, very democratically based society clearly falls under the heading of a gesellschaft type of social system. Here, everyone is assumed to be created equal though since people’s levels of achievement could differ they could enjoy unequal degrees of social status. But again, the key point is that the justification for difference was tied to individual achievement. Thus in a radically egalitarian society difference can gain recognition, but the principle upon which it’s based on is equality. You earn it or you don’t deserve it. The theoretical default position remains egalitarian. Society’s bedrock principle is the acknowledgement that we’re all created equal whether we’re president of the United States or living in a homeless shelter.

To me, the phenomenon of the celebrity takes on a special status today because in a radically egalitarian society like the one we now live in it suggests that the principle of equality isn’t sufficiently strong to hold society together. Equality may be politically correct, but from psychological standpoint, it can’t work. Why not? Because it’s too boring. It hath no relish of salvation in it. A standard uniformity leaves the average individual exhausted and flat and dispirited. The soul needs some excitement, and adventure. Even feeding it some mindless entertainment such as we see on reality TV beats a state of simple equality. Or to borrow a thought from Mr. Dostoevsky, an old fashioned Russian traditional modernist who wrote among a great many other works, Notes from the Underground, for people to be happy, they need magic, miracles, and authority.


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