SOLOMON: The Triumph of Celebrity Culture

Fascination with fame is nothing new. Long ago, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus observed that "the desire for fame is the last infirmity cast off even by the wise." But celebrity mania is at new heights as this millennium nears its end.Now more than ever, media glitz is much admired. In theory, a person becomes a celebrity as a result of achievements. In practice, being a celebrity is widely seen as a great achievement in itself.Being famous may (or may not) bring gratification. But what about the rest of us?Fixating on the stars in the media skies is a process that tends to be immobilizing. The more awed we are by their wondrous activities, the more inert we're likely to become. They make news, and we consume it -- as if the really noteworthy humans ascend to the heavens while us earthbound common folks just keep trudging along.Yet history has been changed most by "ordinary" people with names unmentioned in the news. Media spotlights rarely settled on the large numbers of individuals whose choices and energies made crucial differences in this century, sustaining movements for unionization, civil rights, peace, gender equality, environmental protection and other key social advances.Today's media script often features celebrities -- from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Wall Street and Washington -- glorifying a few rich and powerful Americans. The rest of us are mostly cast as incessant consumers, occasional voters and quiescent citizens.In a spectator mode, looking up to movers and shakers, we're not likely to rock a lot of boats. While history-to-be transpires in the present day, patterns of passivity are apt to keep us watching and listening more than thinking, debating or taking action.With the year 2000 just months off, a media rush is underway to characterize the importance of a decade -- and even an entire century. No news outlet is ahead of the world's biggest media conglomerate, Time Warner, which owns more than 200 subsidiaries across the globe.Time magazine is now trying to sum up the past 100 years by conducting an Internet poll to identify the "Person of the Century." The absurdity of the stunt is enhanced when you consider that the poll is just advisory: The guys who run Time will determine the Person of the Century. "Your submissions will be considered by the editors, who will make the final choice," Time's website tells readers.But it turns out that some savants will have the inside track on the momentous decision by the magazine's ultimate wise men. (Yes, the top half-dozen editors on the Time masthead are all male.) Time's site explains: "Who should be chosen Person of the Century? Time is getting advice from a select group including Andy Grove, Gerald Ford, Benjamin Netanyahu and more." Now there's a select group for you.It is interesting that Time highlighted the names of a computer-chip magnate, one of the least notable presidents in American history and a former Israeli prime minister with a solid record of brutal contempt for basic human rights. The other names on the full list of the "select group" are in the same groove -- the prime minister of Japan, two mainstream academics, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs and Richard Holbrooke, designated to be the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.The question that Time says it seeks to answer -- "Who has had the greatest impact on the 20th century?" -- begs a deeper question. Who is to judge? The nation's largest news weekly has already nailed down its answer to that question.Some earnest souls associated with a Florida-based environmental group called Lovearth (www.lovearth.net) are attempting to utilize the hype for positive ends. "We're trying to get like-minded people together to use Time magazine for our own good," the organization's director, Mark Elsis, told me. A mass-distributed Internet message from Lovearth urges: "Vote for John Lennon in Time's Person of the Century poll."How's John Lennon doing in the most-influential-of-the-century sweepstakes brought to us by Time Warner? In early July, Lovearth reported that "John passed Henry Ford and has moved up from 11th to 10th place. Next week, he should overtake Ronald Reagan and move up to 9th place."But somehow, I doubt that the best of John Lennon's spirit has anything to do with becoming Time magazine's Person of the Century.Imagine there are no celebrities. It's easy if you try."Above us only sky."Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

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