"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Andy Warhol, Greta Thunberg, The Dalai Lama, And Fantasyland–The Irresistible Allure Of Celebrity

A few years ago Billy Graham was everywhere – on television, kneeling alongside Presidents (his account of praying with a tearful Richard Nixon made headlines), lecturing, and preaching at tent revivals.  He was America’s evangelist, the public face of our deep Christian spirituality.  We looked to him for moral and ethical guidance.

Or not.  To many he was a charlatan, one more publicity-seeking, Bible-thumping huckster in the long tradition of American revivalists, snake-oil salesman, and get-rich-quick carny con men. Burt Lancaster played a perfect Billy Graham in Elmer Gantry, the Sinclair Lewis itinerant preacher out to make a buck, get in Sister Ruth’s pants, and take every rural rube in the country for a ride. Lancaster could have been portraying Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, or a hundred other evangelists who have barnstormed the country since the wagons went west.

There was no escaping Billy Graham for almost fifty years. He was everywhere and with everyone. He was America’s go-to good person. Being seen with Billy Graham had no downside whatsoever. 

Those few who thought him a sanctimonious publicity hound were too few to matter. Politicians and political wannabees trotted him out even when he was doddering and never sure who had invited him.

It was a win-win game.  Politicos used Graham to pander to their fundamentalist voters, to show the Christian flag, and to stand publicly for morality and righteousness.  And Graham basked in the reflected glory of public figures.  He didn’t seem to care who they were or what they stood for.  He was uninterested in the straightness of their moral spine, the cut of their ethical jib, or the purpose in their hearts.  He would stand, kneel, and sing with anybody.

Then came the Dalai Lama, a Billy Graham clone.  He is as sanctimonious, as hungry for the spotlight, and as self-serving and ambitious as the old Bible-thumper himself.  There isn’t a politician in America who doesn’t want a photo op with him. He loves to schmooze with rock stars and Hollywood greats. He and Russell Brand, below, enjoy audience applause after some shtick.

Now comes Greta Thunberg, manipulated and co-opted by media-hungry environmentalists who love any free press they can hook; who jump on the young ingénue's wagon but are ready to jump off as soon as the engine goes balky and the wheels wobble, and when Greta herself, unsure from the beginning of where she was headed, hits a bad bump, is thrown into the bushes, and is lost forever. 

Disney has recently announced that they will be making a documentary about Greta, and if there was any corporate bandwagon-jumping, this is it.  Disney is sure to get the cohort crowd – youngsters, always Disney’s prime target audience, who want to be famous (first) for espousing a (good) cause – young adults who are proud to have such an idealistic, hopeful person in their midst, and all the movie investors who hope to make a bundle before the fifteen minutes are up.  The Federalist had an even better idea. Why should Disney be so humdrum and make a documentary?

Disney and Hulu should launch Greta as a full-blown princess, a perfect role for her. Driven by anger, her greatest love is for the cause, there are no men to steer her off course, she depends on the kindness of strangers, and she’s got long braids and a boat. The musical numbers practically write themselves. There could be Climate March ballet with a woke teen choir carrying banners and singing about how having children is irresponsible, a duet between Greta and a giant, ugly Trump puppet who spews gas, and a lovely little number where she communes with sea creatures while en route across the Atlantic who thank her for saving the world from corporate polluters.

Andy Warhol was as right as rain when he said that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.  Everyone in America wants to be famous, and thanks to the culture of fame, celebrity and  Hollywood glamour, the endless news cycle and the popularity of social media, everyone can be famous. It just takes some quirk of personality or looks, some hot media-ready coincidence (as in the case of Greta, catastrophe, cuteness, and idealism), commercial interest, political venality, and an ambitious mother to actually be famous.

It’s too bad that Greta will find out later rather than sooner that nobody really, deep down, cares about her, her ideas, her passion or her idealism.  There are enough people, far more attractive, smart, and and media-savvy already hogging the spotlight for attention to any number of causes.  The Oscars and Golden Globes alone have become little more than a stage for grandstanding the obvious, and every day someone from Hollywood is crying foul and mouthing off about Trump, the climate, capitalism, homophobia, and the Bay.   Greta is up against a mighty celebrity machine which turns out new stars all the time.  The difference is that Richard Gere, Robert De Niro, and Sasha Baron Cohen among others have lucrative studio contracts – they and their agents have successfully parlayed their initial fifteen minutes of fame into years.  Colin Kaepernick, another fifteen-minute star banked on his athletic skill and the currency of his righteous appeal to get him real fame and fortune.  He misjudged everything, however, underestimating American patriotism, and although for a while everybody stood up, sat down, and knelt for one cause or another; corporate money and consumer demand won the day as they always do.  Kaepernick is a football wannabe, a side show curiosity, a supernumerary, and totally forgotten.

The Dalai Lama has staying power, and he has been one of the most savvy showman of recent years.  He has image (bald head, purple robes, sandals, and a big smile), gravitas (a leader of an important Buddhist sect), political visibility (standing up to the Chinese) and incredible media awareness.  He has large groupie following and young people put stickers with his aphorisms up on cubicle walls and send each other Dalai Lama greeting cards. Older people like his secularism and his Tony Robbins upbeat enthusiasm.  What’s not to like? He is likely to go on forever, and have a great old time.

Greta will undoubtedly end up like Colin Kaepernick.  Although she has offended no one, she is simply a popular, but temporary shill for others’ political issues.  Since she is neither an environmental ecologist nor an economist with charts, nor a politician with electoral cards on the table; and has only innocence (i.e. not tangled up in complexity) and sweetness (she has no obvious commercial reasons for her actions) in her favor, she will toddle along for a while until she is gobbled up and forgotten.

Yet this is no cautionary tale about the greed of capitalistic enterprise, progressive coattail morality, or the dumbed-down electorate.  It is simply descriptive – it always helps to have great examples of populism – and sad.  When Greta is left on the curb, she will have no idea why.  Poor Colin Kaepernick is still trying to get back to football, and a hundred other sprung-up fifteen minute celebrities wonder what the hell happened.  Nor is this a dump-on-Greta story.  No one should be criticizing her.  She just won the fifteen-minute lottery, is spending like a drunken sailor, and will soon be out of cash – this is the way the world works, and she least of all can be blamed.  If anyone or anything is to be held up to scrutiny it is our ceaseless, voracious appetite for fame and celebrity.  Yet, the world likes Hollywood and the feel-good fantasies it spins and exports, so they are not the culprits, just the purveyors of true, down-to-earth, idealistic, American culture.

Andy Warhol had no idea what he was predicting as is the case of most prophets and seers. Alexander Hamilton warned 250 years ago about popular democracy and mob rule, but still would be very, very surprised at how universal and unchecked mob rule has become; and so Andy Warhol, if he were alive in this age of instant socially mediated celebrity, he would be just as surprised as Hamilton.  Who woulda thunk it?

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