THE CULT OF CELEBRITY is not new, but it is increasing in its scope and effect. At one time, people wanted simply to gawp at the famous, and possibly dress like them. Now, many take their moral and political opinions from them. For example, most young people's view of Africa, insofar as they have one at all, probably derives more from the pronouncements of Bono, U2's lead singer, than from any other source of knowledge about the Dark Continent.
As it happens, Bono has boned up on his subject, even if his conclusions about what should be done to help Africa are eminently disputable and deeply hypocritical. His authority arises from his celebrity, not from his knowledge. An equally knowledgeable but otherwise totally obscure person would not be able to hector the leaders of France, Germany and Italy for falling behind on their promises of aid, as Bono did last week. When Bono speaks, they have to listen -- he is more famous than they are.
Fame confers authority, and the principal way of acquiring great fame is via the entertainment industry. Entertainers are the popes of our age, with de facto -- though as yet not de jure -- powers to call down anathemas on or beatify whomever they choose.
Entertainment is important because it is all-pervasive. Many people nowadays are growing up as if it were a gas in the atmosphere. They walk into the streets and vast plasma screens flash fast-moving images before them; their ears are stopped with iPods; at home, the television, or some other electronic entertainer, is on most of the time. People now grow uncomfortable, and even agitated, if they are left to their own thoughts for any length of time. When I was still in medical practice, more than a few patients used to ask me for pills to prevent them from thinking.
So it is hardly surprising that many young people, in particular, derive their political opinions as much from news presented as comedy as from more straightforward presentations. During the 2000 election campaign, the Pew Research Center found that 21% of 18- to 19-year-olds got their political news and views from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." His quick-witted and laugh-a-minute approach deftly avoids the greatest vice known to youth -- squareness. Not to take anything too seriously is the highest form of sophistication, even if what is being presented is a partisan point of view. To say something and mean it is a sign that one is not of the exalted company of the hip.
Satire, of course, is one of the great resources of the human intellect -- though it often seems to me (perhaps because of my advancing age) that satire nowadays often turns out quickly to be prophecy. But when satire becomes the dominant, or only, mode of communication, the result is a frivolous archness that in the end destroys the capacity or willingness for serious thought.
As I have mentioned, celebrity is a source of moral authority, as if it were the case that no one could be famous who was not good. Celebrities also must be clever, for how could someone have ascended to great fame without some superiority of mind?
One of the curious things about modern celebrities, however, is that although they should be glamorous and unapproachable in some way, they also should be completely banal at the same time (that was the great appeal of Princess Diana). Nothing could illustrate this better than the website of Rosie O'Donnell, the comedian, lesbian activist and recent chief attraction on "The View," who pronounces on so many subjects and whose utterances appear to be taken seriously by many.
People e-mail her questions, to which she replies. Compared with the questions and answers on the site, the average barfly sounds like Socrates. "Do you answer the questions yourself?" inquired one person. "Yes," she replied. (I was reminded of the examination question for philosophy students at Oxford: "Is this a question?" The student who replied, "Yes, if this is an answer," received the highest marks.)
There is no plumbing the shallows of the questions asked. "Can you just say hi to me?" Reply: "Hi to u." This seems to be enough for the questioner to have felt she was in real contact with fame and fortune.
Here's another: "How come you do not receive e-mail on 'The View' website?"
Reply: " 'Cause I am here."
The most interesting, or revealing, question asked is, "What kind of anti-depressant medication do you use?"
The fact that she takes such medication means that O'Donnell, for all her fame and wealth, is just like us, which is to say full of misery and dissatisfaction. Moreover, the person asking it seems to be asking for a recommendation, for whatever O'Donnell takes must be good for you. For the questioner, then, O'Donnell is not only a moral but a medical authority.
The cult of celebrity trivializes everything it touches. But then I ask myself: Was there ever a time in human history when people judged serious matters by serious criteria? If so, when was it, and when did it change?