The Corrosive Influence of Celebrity

In a blog post on the bicyclist site The Spoke and Word, blogger JHCIACB writes, “I’ll say from the get-go that I think the idea of celebrity is among the most corrosive and destructive conditions in western culture.”  I have had this feeling for some time.  We have always had celebrity—think of the movie stars of the thirties and forties—but now, with the internet and social media, a pop performer or web influencer can have a following of tens of millions or more, much more.  When the Youtube video “Gangnam Style” by Korean pop star Psy hit the webwaves a while back, it was the first video to quickly garner a billion views. A billion! I can’t even conceive of what that means.  I watched it, it was a good video with great production values, but a billion? Maybe I’m just too old to tune in properly to the way the world is now, but I don’t think so.  I think there is something deeper at work.

Until fairly recently in human history and culture, most people lived in small communities or towns.  Their circle of acquaintance was small.  Each community had a leader—a chief, mayor, or medicine man—and everyone knew that figure and related to him (it was nearly always a “him”).  The billion people who watched “Gangnam Style” didn’t relate to Psy as anyone they knew.  They didn’t relate to any human being, but rather to the elaborate dance and song fantasy in the video.  The production values were colorful and complex—I can’t imagine how much they cost, but K-Pop, Korean popular music, is huge these days.  I’m sure the producers got rich. Celebrity makes you rich.

I’m at the other end of the spectrum.  I’m the author of five books, and I have a substantial readership, perhaps of 75,000 or 100,000 people.  My books, on Buddhist themes, are in the category of “spiritual self-help,” and I am pleased that I have been able to reach, and hopefully help, that number of people.  I did the usual things to publicize my books, including blogging, podcasts, online classes, and one-day seminars. But I don’t have a robust social media presence. Some would say I am an anachronism, out of touch with the zeitgeist of today, and maybe they are right.  I have no interest in being famous per se, and certainly not in being an influencer or celebrity.  To me being a celebrity is like cotton candy—sweet for a moment, but ultimately ephemeral—and friends of mine who have been legitimately famous agree.  It doesn’t satisfy, not like real personal, face-to-face relationships. There was a time when I was young when, as a Buddhist teacher, I lectured to reasonably large audiences, 100 or 200 people.  I sensed the projection people beamed at me in the questions they asked and the way they approached me afterwards, and I didn’t like the feeling.  They didn’t seem to be relating to me as I really was, but as a cardboard cutout of what they imagined a wise Buddhist teacher would be. It wasn’t real.

I’m concerned that celebrity is now being pursued as an end in itself, and otherwise talented and creative artistic people, and even politicians, are bending all their activity to celebrity’s siren song.  I think this creates an inverse relationship between celebrity and integrity.  You can tell, when you read or hear of statements from people in the public eye, which way they lean.  There is a levelness and pitch to expressions of integrity that are lost when celebrity enters the picture. 

Celebrity is not exactly the same as charisma, though the two are related.  Charisma is a mysterious characteristic that can’t easily be quantified or defined, but people know it when they see it or feel it.  Some of the greatest tyrants and evildoers of history had great charisma, and with it they were able to move millions.  I once had a friend who was a newspaper reporter in the 1930s, assigned to cover the rise of Hitler in Germany.  He personally abhorred Hitler and everything he stood for.  But standing in the central square of Berlin, in a crowd of a million people, all making the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil, Hitler” at the top of their lungs, my friend told me it was all he could do to keep his hand at his side.  Such is the power of charisma. There seems to be a deep tribal, primal circuit in our human brains that hypnotizes us in the presence of such power.

We live in the age of celebrity and charisma, when social media and virtual reality can act as a potent magnifier of both.  I don’t know where that is taking us.  As Bob Dylan once sang, “Can you tell us where we’re headin’, Lincoln County Road or Armageddon.”  I live a quiet life now, as befits a writer.  If Armageddon comes so be it.  I’ll meet it if it comes, but I won’t contribute to it.


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