Celebrities in the Attic

04/16/2007 10:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After the Don Imus imbroglio, one question left hanging in the air, like so much burning cordite, has less to do with race and public speech than with the role celebrities play in our national subconscious. Are celebrities like Imus becoming the crazy aunts in our national attic - embarrassing figures whom we'd prefer to keep out of sight, even as they thump away on the door, acting out on our deepest fears?

Look at the one metaphor writers most frequently used to frame our contemporary discussion of celebrity.

They think it is a disease.

Celebrity, Joseph Epstein wrote in 2005, "is epidemic, and it's spreading fast, sometime seeming as if nearly everyone has got it." And here is Carol Brooks, reporting in 2004 that one-third of Americans suffer "from celebrity worship syndrome" and that "most of the rest of us are at risk [my emphasis] of developing the condition, which in its most benign form manifests itself as a sense of emptiness." In scientific use, the word "culture" itself describes a place where biologists examine micro-organisms in a Petri dish - as if micro-celebrities cultured among us are multiplying and infecting us, quietly and deadly, like anthrax.

Many head editors at national magazines have fled this unhealthy environment to write about great men at a safer remove in our history. Walter Isaacson of Time and CNN left his news jobs to write first-rate biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. Evan Thomas, who still writes many of Newsweek's political covers, published a biography of John Paul Jones and, just last year a naval history of World War II in the Pacific. Another recovering celebrity journalist, Jim Gaines of Time and Life, wrote an interesting book on an encounter in 1747 between Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great.

Unfortunately, it is not so easy to escape the celebrity and publicity complex by retreating into the past. The idea of fame has existed and been cultivated as early as the time of Alexander the Great. Of course, what made you famous then were legendary feats. Through great accomplishment you could become famous and in so doing acquire a type of immortality as people talked about you long after your death. Indeed, the roots of the word "celebrity" rise in its link with divine inspiration. It is the "celebrant" in a Christian service who administers communion, the link between the mortal and the immortal.

The modern definition of celebrity flowered early in the 20th century when the introduction of reproducible images in newspapers and magazines created our first national and international celebrities - and blurred the distinction between fame and achievement. One way to define the modern celebrity is that you become one when the media is as much interested in your private life as in your professional role. This was first and best described by Daniel Boorstin in his prescient 1962 book, The Image. Boorstin wrote that the celebrity is "the human pseudo-event ... a person who is known for his well-knownness." Ironically, Boorstin himself may now be most famous as the person who engendered a phrase he never said" "famous for being famous." Just a few years later, in 1968, Andy Warhol hit a similar nerve about the impermanence of contemporary celebrity in his famous but often-misquoted phrase, "In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

The current era of celebrity culture began with, of all people, Betty Ford, in the 1970s. When the then-First Lady freely discussed intimate details of her private problems -- drug and alcohol abuse, cancer, and depression - she acted in the cause of de-stigmatizing various public taboos. But the unintended consequence was that that the media's previous reluctance to delve into the private lives of all manner of public figures evaporated.

Today the snarkiest tone in the press is directed not at the most powerful celebrities but rather at the least talented -- the famous-for-being-famous para-celeblets like Britney, K-Fed, and Nicole and Paris. In this 24/7 Celebrity News Cycle, there is not time for any kind of compelling narrative to build up. Public fascination is ripped out of the ground before it flowers. If we wanted to see the stars having orderly, tidy lives in the 1950s, now we want to see - even provoke - chaos in their lives. Not that the celebs lack incentives to cooperate. Paris Hilton, Rob Lowe, and Hugh Grant have all been involved in what would once have been career-wrecking incidents but have seen their greatest success since then.

There may be a redeeming message here, though. In his new book The Redemptive Self, Northwestern professor Dan McAdams argues that the content of celebrity magazines demonstrates "how potent and pervasive the redemption narrative is in contemporary American society." According to McAdams, one-half of all the stories People publishes share the common theme of reporting on individuals moving from some "suffering to an enhanced state or situation."

In this sense, the contemporary celebrity narrative captures the issues, values, and themes that are at the heart of Americans' self-image: We think we have special gifts; we see and are moved by suffering in the world; we believe our destiny is to have a positive impact on others; we will never abandon these core beliefs; we struggle to reconcile our individual strengths and ambitions with our need for love and community; bad things happen to us, but good outcomes follow; our suffering is then redeemed, and we expect things we have generated to grow and flourish.

The only thing that makes this redemptive narrative different for celebrities is that it is writ large, under the klieg light of intense observation, as with the Ordeal of Don Imus. The celebrity-industrial complex is here to deliver redemption stories to readers who demand them. To paraphrase George Orwell's remark about his face at 50, every culture may have the celebrities it deserves.