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Hunger for Heroes, Villains Rooted in American Psyche : Media: In a society that venerates the individual over community, coverage often glorifies fame--and infamy.

Obsessed With Flash and Trash. SECOND OF TWO PARTS

February 17, 1994|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's an old American folk saying, dating back to the mid-19th Century:

"The wheel that squeaks the loudest is the one that gets the grease."

The Japanese don't see it that way. They have a saying that translates as "The nail that protrudes gets hammered down."

The difference in these aphorisms goes a long way toward explaining the strange fascination with personality and celebrity in American society and in the American media compared not only with Japan but with the rest of the world.

Americans have a unique "hunger to identify with personalities, larger-than-life personalities especially," says Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight." "No country in the world is so driven by personality as this one."

This infatuation with celebrity--real or synthetic, Madonna and Michael Jackson or Lorena Bobbitt and Amy Fisher--stems to a considerable degree from our indigenous emphasis on the individual, rather than the community.

Although historian Daniel J. Boorstin says that a sense of community is "a leitmotif in American history," he notes pointedly that several of his books--with titles like "The Americans," "The Creators" and "The Discoverers"--emphasize the role of the individual.

This is not surprising in a country based on the sacred notion that the rights of the individual are the bedrock of freedom, a country founded by individualists, "people who were trying to buck the system (and) get out of a place they didn't like," says John Tomlin, executive producer of the syndicated TV shows "Inside Edition" and "American Journal."

"We're fascinated by people who do different things . . . strange things . . . (who) break the mold," Tomlin says. "We're fascinated by ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances."

That may not seem to be a singularly American quality. Indeed, populist media in other countries, from England to Japan, are filled with gossipy, sensationalized tidbits about extraordinary happenings. But nowhere is the phenomenon as pervasive and as constant, throughout the media, as it is here. And nowhere does the phenomenon reflect the national character as much as it does here. Not only are we a country dedicated to the concept of individuality but we are a young country, without either royalty or an official church.

So, with the help of the mass media, we have created our own history and our own heroes and villains, our own everyday popes and princes--and our own rogues, rascals and reprobates.

In some countries, media preoccupation with personality and celebrity is beginning to resemble that in the United States. But that may simply be further testament to the influence of the American media and pop culture.

As a character in the German film "Kings of the Road" says, "The Americans have colonized our unconscious."

Until relatively recently, many Asian cultures traditionally taught people, almost by osmosis, to avoid being perceived as different or as breaking the mold, to know they shouldn't stand up or stand out. Some Americans also prefer being part of a crowd. But that is generally more a matter of individual or family or even community behavior than it is a national culture.

In Japan, despite some notable exceptions, "the culture . . . historically has tended to value the group more than the individual up until very recently," says Ellis Krauss, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who has studied Japan since 1965 and has written about Japanese media since 1983.

In the United States, the individual is not only valued, he is exalted.

Leo Braudy, a literature professor at USC and the author of "The Frenzy of Renown," notes that there's an academic term--"American exceptionalism"--for our tendency to imbue those who distinguish themselves with "an aura they don't have in Europe."

In his book, Braudy notes that Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher and writer, likened American society to a skyscraper such as the Empire State Building--"exactly the same floor to floor, until the top, where individuality with all its curlicues and baroque elaborations could flourish."

"European societies were more homogenous (than ours), up till recently," Braudy says. "The repression of the individual, of individuality, for the communal good was the European ideal." Indeed, in his book, he says individualism "has generally been considered antisocial" in Europe.

This is especially true in countries where the Roman Catholic Church has played a dominant cultural role. Historically, most people in those countries "don't value individualism the way Americans do," says Steven Englund, who is writing a book on the concept of nation in French history.

"Catholicism puts a very strong emphasis on what mainline American Protestants--and nonbelievers--would consider an almost claustrophobic sense of community," Englund says.

In non-Catholic Australia, there is a phrase for the notion that individuals shouldn't become too prominent--"the tall poppy syndrome."

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