The adage "life isn't fair" applies to many social inequities, but few are as glaringly apparent -- and totally preventable -- as celebrity.
According to Forbes magazine, Paris Hilton made over $15M dollars from 2003-2006. The nearly talent-free Tila Nguyen earned a reported $125,000 per episode for her MTV show, "A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila". Shock jock Howard Stern, famous for assailing guests with questions about anal sex, received a $500M contract with Sirius XM radio in 2006. On the other side of the spectrum, the ever-changeable Dr. Laura -- I support gays, now I don't, I'm an Orthodox Jew, now I'm not, I never posed nude, okay I did -- signed away the rights to her radio show for a cool $71M.
During this election season, there's been a lot of buzz about Sarah Palin's future as both a political candidate and a celebrity. Palin is riding into fame much the same way that George W. Bush rode into the Presidency, as a bumbling Clampett-like character with a minor record of accomplishments, an entrenched set of dogmatic beliefs, and plenty of supporters in the neo-con hierarchy.
While author Bob Cesca, among others, have urged Americans to reject Palin's politics of fear, there is another issue at stake, and that's allowing the Governor of Alaska to become America's next decadent media darling.
Whether defined either as a state of ethical decline, artistic decay, or self-indulgence, decadence experienced a boon while Bush was at America's helm. Besides a surge of corruption in Washington politics, and a swell of white-collar criminals, the media has inundated us with increasingly tasteless characters and lowbrow programming.
I don't find it entirely coincidental that the worst of reality television came to its zenith during Bush's reign. Money doesn't trickle down nearly as well or as quickly as cultural decadence does. In the late nineties, when the Jerry Springer Show traded social commentary for bare-breasted fistfights and toothless would-be daddies, it was shocking, but by 2000, 50 women were willing to appear on television and strut their stuff for the chance to marry a faceless millionaire. By 2001, contestants on the Fear Factor were eating boiled animal testicles for a few thousand dollars and the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. 2002 brought the slurring train wreck of Anna Nicole Smith into American living rooms, and on it went, with D-list celebrities like Ron Jeremy and Tammy Faye cohabiting for the cameras, a drunken Verne Troyer peeing in the corner of a living room, and seven-time father (by five different women) Flava-Flav being courted by girls half his age.
The early 2000's also gave birth to tabloid shows operating under the guise of objective legal analysis or news. The Nancy Grace Show and On the Road with Greta Van Susteren were just two of the more popular programs that trafficked in sensationalizing current events. Heads, like those belonging to the Duke University lacrosse players, were put on platters and guilt was loudly proclaimed or insinuated, as if CNN or Fox News had no responsibility to the tenets of journalism, their subjects, or their audiences. Ratings trumped all.
Investigative journalism itself took a nosedive during the Bush years, when his administration attempted to render the fourth estate impotent, including limiting press access to records, withholding information, and threatening reporters with jail for refusing to disclose conversations with sources that never even made their way into print. As Eric Alterman reported in The Nation, Bush's war on the press was aggressive, with the Administration refusing to recognize the constitutional role of journalists. Fueled by a vainglorious ideology that bordered on theocracy, the Bush administration sought to become an unimpeachable god, answerable to no news outlet except those they hand-picked due to their favorable treatment.
And now we've got Sarah Palin. Standing in line, waiting for her turn at either the pulpit of politics or the stage of celebrity. If she fails in politics, pundits and producers say, there's a place for her as a news personality or talk show host. Like Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who went from Survivor contestant to talk show host, there are people waiting in the wings to market Palin as a right-wing Ellie Mae of political news or social commentary.
There have always been people of little or dubious talent who make it into the rarefied life of the rich and famous by virtue of charisma, connections, plain dumb luck, or some other stroke of fortune. There has been no deficit of outrageous talk show hosts, silicone blonds, scandal-plagued starlets, or super-rich kids. The intrigue of the star-making machine is its utter fickleness. It can bring us the emotional depth of Meryl Streep, or the backside of Kim Kardashian. It can shine a light on the well-researched works of Naomi Wolff, or fill the airwaves with the hateful hyperbole of Ann Coulter.
Life truly isn't fair, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to make it fairer. In an era that is aching for positive change, common sense solutions, and social justice, one of the ways we can do this is by rejecting the decadence of over-hyped, over-paid, and under-talented celebrity. We can bid farewell to Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" concept and instead usher in a new age of media -- one that places substance above fluff, talent above spectacle, and integrity above sensationalism.
We can just say no to the continued celebrity of Tila Tequila and Sarah Palin, and in my opinion we should.