And So Jesters Become Kings
So Lindsay Lohan has joined Kanye West in the ranks of celebrities who have announced they will run for President of the United States in 2020. West/Lohan 2020? Oh lord, please bring on Trump, Clinton and Sanders. The fact that both these vainglorious pronouncements have been met largely with amused disdain says something for the remaining sense of basic taste within our crumbling culture of postmodern nihilism, but the fact that these two feckless fools actually felt the confidence to even announce such a thing (as if there was even the chance such a decision would be met by anything but howls of hilarity and thrown rotten eggs) says something far more. What on earth could possess a crass purveyor of profanity laced odes to hooliganism and a talentless has-been actress, who in recent years has had her image grace the perp walk more often than the silver screen, to even contemplate such a thing? The sheer narcissism of the entertainment industry can be attributed to part of it, but it also stems from the fact that the idea is actually not as absurd as it seems on first reaction.
Indeed, if money is the new God of modernity (or at least the new golden calf), then entertainers are its new Kings. Celebrities have become the idols everyone bases themselves on. We hang off their every word. We mimic what they wear and how they eat. Their pet causes become our obsessions, and every minor inconvenience they experience becomes our own personal drama. And while the entertainers of yesteryear could at least claim some skill at singing or acting or telling a joke that made you laugh in this sad modern age we live in we are confronted increasingly by celebrities who are famous for no other reason than they are famous. The Kardashians and Hiltons and numerous other cheaper (though no less artificial) knockoffs cannot even boast of the meager talent that the famed thespians of old could point to. They do nothing, achieve nothing, and aspire to nothing yet our peers mindlessly absorb every last utterance they produce like a grotty old sponge.
Is it so surprising that in this atmosphere of adoration our dear Mr. West might actually talk himself into the idea that he could actually aspire to be President? Celebrities have already pulled off one impossible feat, by managing in an age that sees achievement and excellentce as a sin to be denounced to somehow become the one exception. When “the 1%” are chastised for their very existence out of base envy this label somehow never quite applies to the singers, actors, sports stars and generally talentless reality-tv icons who all cross that threshold of unimaginable wealth with ease. The excesses of the investment banker (whose indulgences are accessible only when he is not working eighty hours a week to earn his “ill gotten” gains) are decried by the mob in the streets of Wall Streets who occupy it for its perceived crimes, but the debaucherous degeneracy of Hollywood never rates so much as a minor mention in the local edition of the Daily Worker. As the democratization of society at large has fostered the preposterous idea that we are all equal not just before the law but also before one another, the resentment of those who are in fact above us has not settled upon this one privileged group of idlers, lechers, boozers and druggies whose comparative benefit to society as a whole is miniscule compared to the rewards they reap from it.
Now, before going further I would like to make clear that for all my rhetoric I do not despise the entertainment class as a whole or particularly resent their success. When Robin Williams met his untimely end I was among those who mourned a man who had made me laugh and brought moments of light to my darker days. While the NBA star gets paid far more than I, he can also achieve acts of sportsmanship with far more expertise than I can even contemplate. Even the Kardashians simply provide a service that people are willing to pay for, though the reason why baffles me. More than that, as you will glean from the numerous reviews of film and literature I have written here, I also recognize that the arts can provide a medium to spread messages and lessons to a far wider audience than otherwise would be possible. This has been the case from the first days of civilization when storytellers peddled the myths and legends that would form the foundation of the demos that would become the first nations. The importance of a central mythology (or as Leo Strauss called it “a noble lie”) to bring a people together cannot be underestimated. I begrudge no one for making a living by providing a service people are freely willing to pay for.
What I do find disturbing, however, is the vapid and mindless worship we heap at their feet, while simultaneously giving nothing but scorn on those who might actually be deserving of it. The CEO of Ford is accorded none of the deference we see casually thrown at the A-Listers of Hollywood, despite providing gainful employment and livelihood to hundreds of thousands of people across America. Emma Watson, who is best known for appearing in the Harry Potter movies and making a passé speech at the United Nations, is held up as a role model for women across the world. Caitlyn Jenner is lauded as a courageous hero of the transgender movement. I’m sorry, but I did not particularly like Bruce Jenner and I don’t particularly like Caitlyn Jenner now that she’s had her transformation (though the fact she considers herself both a Christian and a Republican does offer an interesting lesson to the left in the dangers of assumption). Holding her up as some kind of hero, when she’s essentially a rich celebrity in America, is honestly absurd. Do you know who’s really courageous? A transsexual in Iran or Saudi Arabia. There is something deeply troubling about this disconnect from reality that sees laurels awarded to the lacklustre and rotten eggs thrown at the truly aspirant.
And this is very much a creation of modernity. The court jesters of olden times ate at the noble lords’ table and enjoyed a standard of living above that of the humble peasant, but no man would tip his hat to him in passing as his place on the social order remained clearly on the bottom rung. The cast of the travelling circus always had a full belly, but they never aspired the deference shown to the knight. No peasant girl dreamed of growing up to marry the village fool. Yet somewhere along the way this reversed itself as court jesters became kings, while correspondingly kings became court jesters as monarchs were relegated to the role of hand-waving and ribbon-cutting, and became the front page darlings of fashion magazines and gossip columns.
So what does it say of us as a society when we praise to high heaven those whose role, ultimately, is to entertain us while scorning those who provide for us? Why is it we feel so comfortable worshipping actors and singers while to show such respect to the job creators and economic providers whose efforts make it all possible would invoke spiteful cries of hierarchy and neo-feudalism? The effects of this are worth pondering. When we lament the shedding of all obligation and responsibility of the upper classes it is worth remember that this has only come after we took from them all remnants of past privilege. The barons and dukes of old took the dutiful bows of their peasants as they passed as their due, but they also took as their duty the thankless task of protecting the land from brigands and raiders; to, as CS Lewis once perfectly put it, “be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land”. Today, the investment bankers and real estate developers are taken to task for their seeming lack of care for the betterment of others even as we berate them for the very position they hold that would enable them to do so. What does this say of us as a society? How great is the decline we have suffered to come to this point?