Lately, it has become fashionable to compare America to the Roman Empire. Like that great civilization, the theory goes, we flowered as if on steroids. Now, along with professional wrestling, we should make out a will.
I'm not enough of a trend-dowser to know whether we are experiencing our final days. Yet clearly--to quote both my chiropractor and the auto-body repair industry--the Republic needs to come in for realignment. Because here we are, living in a time when Warren Beatty's wedding, Oprah Winfrey's weight fluctuations and Sharon Stone's political pronouncements are bigger news than the fact that thousands of people continue to live in cardboard boxes.
"Did you hear that 'The Dennis Miller Show' might be canceled?" "I hear that you can approach Dana Carvey in restaurants." "Ed McMahon might take over the telethon." These are not comments culled from so-called newsmagazines. Nor are they comments overheard in a studio commissary. Rather, this is the national mantra, comments made to me over the past few months by people of wildly varying annual incomes and ZIP codes, comments stated as if chapter and verse in the Bible, gold coins tossed into the wishing well of daily American currency.
"I am somebody--NOT!" America seems to be saying these days, a weird multiple personality composed of Jesse Jackson, "Wayne's World" and the self-esteem movement. "But I possess news of somebody who is somebody, and therefore I must be important."
Which is why America is not like ancient Rome at all. It is exactly like ancient Egypt. In ancient Egypt, individual empowerment was derived through worship of dead Pharaohs. These god-kings lived forever in the afterlife. And for their followers, there was immortality by association. To be buried near a Pharaoh, to work for someone who would be buried near a Pharaoh, to work for someone who worked for someone who would be buried near a Pharaoh--all of these social rankings conferred status in the beyond.
In modern America, a land based on the separation of church and state, a land that promises immortality only if you are famous, the famous are worshiped because they live forever in the media netherworld of the here and now. To work for someone famous, to work for someone who works for someone famous, to work for someone who works for someone who works for someone famous--there are so many variations on this theme that even the immigrant with the gold tooth who parks his wrecked Datsun near the gates of Bel-Air and peddles "star maps" can earn a few dollars in America's temple. The flip side of this is stalking someone famous, last refuge of the identity-free (read: "hard-core") unemployed. All of which proves that Ronald Reagan was onto something with the trickle-down theory; his mistake was applying it to economics, not religion.
It is no accident that Hollywood, mirage-maker to the world and home of the national religion, is in the desert. Just as embalmed kings and queens dwell inside the pyramids of Cairo, so too do the most revered inhabitants of America dwell in the desert civilization of Los Angeles.
They glide through the night in hearse-like fleets of limousines; they gather at shrines and implant strange palm-like glyphs in cement. Like the ancients of Egypt, they look forever young, embalmed. Their priests open their mail. Their devotees pay $7 to "see" them in the dark. Their clerics prepare them for the mummification of fame--they file their nails, groom their manes, extract ooze from their pores. And then, the modern quarry workers take over. Clad in the togas of the press, they scribble bit by bit, holding candles to the altar, constructing the pyramids of mythology.
So the next time somebody tells you that America's days are numbered, ask them which America. The one in full flower today is about the creation, maintenance and export of fame. It gives us a reason to get up in the morning and has caused the rest of the world to drop its borders and say, "Hey, Hollywood, come on in! We want to rent your videos! We want to syndicate your culture! We want to be near famous people!" It's not what the Founding Fathers had in mind, but then the Egyptians didn't plan on Cleopatra living forever outside of a tomb, on screen, in the form of Elizabeth Taylor.