It was interesting to find both Frank Richand George Will criticizing Time Magazine's decision to name "you" person of the year. And it was a silly decision, no question--there was something craven about it, an air of desperation, a whiff of envy. Which points the way to deeper understanding.
Everybody's missing the big picture here. This goes beyond trend-mongering, escapism, narcissism and trashy posts. Time Magazine's choice was a symptom of a massive social phenomenon--call it the centralization of self in a mediated environment. I've been writing about this specific topic since the mid 90's--long before MySpace or YouTube. Here are some excerpts from a recent book that may serve to outline the whole analysis.
Twilight of the Heroes
Ask yourself this, if you are under 40--who have your heroes been? No, not counting people you knew personally, we'll get to them later, I mean public figures? And if you are too old for that test, if you can honestly answer Malcolm X or Barry Goldwater or Winston Churchill or Bobby Kennedy or Ludwig Wittgenstein or Virginia Woolf, then try this one--who do the kids idolize, if anyone?
....The key to understanding lies in this fact: the essence of real heroes in the old days--Newton and Napoleon and Goethe, say--was that they were, as heroes, essentially unreal. They were not known as people at all. They were their works and deeds, they were their myths. Nelson and Byron and Lincoln were basically fictional constructs, even in their own lifetimes. They were the inventions of the people who idolized them, on the basis of a few stories and images--so very few, and so infrequent. That is what must be understood: the whole dynamic is a function of representational quantity and quality.
...As recently as Einstein and Lindbergh, Churchill and FDR, the essential representational conditions held--though such figures have suffered a loss of mystique recently because of the way they have been representationally resurrected in personal biographies, with the echo chamber publicity and the psychosexual exposure.
Just think how utterly impossible it would be now for a President to be paralyzed from the waist down, as Franklin Roosevelt was--and the public in ignorance of it. Take that as a measure.
...Heroes we do have, however, of a kind, and plenty of them--in venues where performance is the raison d'être to begin with.
...Pop music stars can be heroes because their performances fuse the real and representational on a new plane. They are leading us into a new reality--the reality of being mediated.
And this applies to Barbara Streisand and Luther Van Dross, to Beck and Garth Brooks and 50 cent--to the whole range of types we know so well. And others we don't know so well. There are so many now.
All these types have one thing in common: they represent the selves their fans have chosen to be...
....In concert, these new heroes provide fans with the only experiences of transcendent social existence they will ever know. Hence, the undeniably religious quality of these events, when they go well, when the heroes meet the awesome expectations. Then they offer, in song and persona, the only cultural vehicle we have that can make people feel publicly recognized and acknowledged in their irreducible individual complexity, acknowledged and somehow redeemed. These heroes discover us, tell us who we are, and who we aspire to be--which is exactly what real heroes used to do.
But consider what that means. it means that, in the end, these new heroes, these performer/heroes, are all about us. There is no greater cause they are summoning you to serve--there is only the cause of being your self...
The stars may be on the stage, being adored, being pursued, they may be--they are--the ones most obviously at the center of it all while we, the fans, are individually invisible. But there's another side to this relation, the ironic dialectic of mediation is at work.
Is it not ultimately we, in our very hiddenness, who have the last word? Great power attaches to the anonymous spectator, passing sentence upon the celebrated, the mighty and the fallen.. And celebrities, competing for the judge's attention and approval, are inviting the treatment they get. They are so needy--dressing up, dieting, touring, posing, exposing privacies, cavorting desperately, endlessly, before us. In a way, celebrities are pathetic, undignified, utterly dependent.
So, as the status of hero was usurped by performers, the focus of the limelight began to shift--or, better, it was as if another limelight (infrared, off the spectrum) began to shine invisibly upon those to whom all performances are addressed.
Which implanted a sense of entitlement, a desire for public significance commensurate with our unconscious sense of centrality. Celebrities held a monopoly on the most precious scarce resource in a fully mediated society. Attention. They were gorging on it. For spectators, the most basic of specifically human needs--the need for acknowledgment, for significance--was left unsatisfied. Unlike premodern monarchs, openly flattered when minstrels and jesters postured before them, postmodern fans, implicitly flattered, had to take action if they were going to make their covert centrality apparent--as only seems fair.
All that was lacking were the means.
Coached by performer heroes, once passive spectators pushed themselves forward as the new technological venues opened up--and not only in what are called "reality shows." Other reality shows, under other names, sprang up everywhere. What they all have in common is the celebration of people refusing just to be spectators, all the mini-celebrities, for example, who dominate chat rooms and game sites, hundreds of them, thousands of them--and the blogs, the life journals, illustrated with digitized photos--and every would-be band in the world can burn a CD and produce cool cover art and posters. There are so many platforms now, so many performers.
Alexander the Great? Napoleon? Douglas McArthur? Really! Who did they think they were? I mean, there's a limit to how much self-esteem we want to encourage, right? Sometimes it's hard to believe that people were supposed to admire those egomaniacs.
This goes beyond the military and political. Take the Big Thinkers. Aristotle? Augustine? Descartes? Kant? It suddenly hits you. The sheer brass of those guys, pontificating about the ultimate nature of reality, and the purpose of our lives. I mean, who did they think they were?
The old-style heroes just weren't empowering, that's the point. They had an intimidating kind of greatness that could make you feel like not bothering to develop your own average greatness....
Again, this isn't about burning books or paintings or anything drastic. By all means, lavish attention on the heroes of the past, transform them into celebrities, because that's where we want them, up there in La-La land with Britney and Becks and Gandalf. Drape those gigantic banners on the museum facades--the more gigantic the better--and celebrate their centennials, and all their other ennials as well, the more often the better, because the more of that we do, the more proportionality we get, that's the irony, and that's what this is all about. Keep treating the greats of yore like the Stars of the Hour and they will all melt into each other, into a pudding of indistinguishable greatness.
It's the same with inserting Ben Stein's face into the Mona Lisa, using snatches of the Ninth Symphony in margarine commercials, putting Einstein and Picasso on Apple/Mac billboards--stuff like that, over and over and over again, until everything gets absorbed and takes its place among the options, like everything else.
That's fair, right?
But, who knows, reality TV could turn out to be a fad. The shift in focus, however, the shift to spectators will not. What is likely to last, for example, is the rage for the memoir--and for all the fiction that mimics the memoir, the whole Bridget Jones Diary genre...
So it's not just autobiographies of the famous anymore. We are inundated with stories of ordinary folk--shattered by drugs, stricken by disease, worried about the size of their thighs, stranded in the wild, captured by the mullahs, spending Tuesdays with Morrie, giving kidneys to their sisters, awakened from comas, being dumped by clueless boyfriends, on and on. What is it with these stories?
And the aim of all these therapeutic missions, the grail? A particular sensation, cherished by all the participants in this ritual of self-overcoming. It's that feeling that wells up, reaching for release, wells up and overflows when at last it finds expression in words and sobs, blessed self-expression and the liberation that follows the unburdening. Free at last from the weight of repression and self-loathing and self-doubt, admitted, at last, into the light of self-acceptance made public, welcomed, acknowledged, recognized--and, yes, celebrated.
Just for being you.
Mr. Rogers would approve...