Last week, in the midst of President Obama's efforts to push unprecedented expansions of federal regulatory authority through Congress, North Korea's bellicose threats of nuclear annihilation, and the Iranian regime's brutal campaign to suppress political dissent, the American public's attention was focused elsewhere.
On June 25th, 2009, the nation plunged into mourning upon learning of the tragic deaths of Michael Jackson—inimitable King of Pop—and Hollywood's original "angel" Farah Fawcett. In the time it took for a commercial break, the coverage of the Iranian protests, the debates about cap and trade and healthcare reform, and the diplomatic efforts to recover two American journalists being detained in a North Korean prison all but disappeared. It was eclipsed by footage of distraught fans, video montages, musical tributes, celebrity elegies, and speculation about how the Obama administration might respond.
This lopsided allocation of media attention and public focus is an ominous indicator of how shallow and superficial we've become as a nation, and calls into question whether a nation fixated on entertainment possesses the maturity, discipline, judgment, and civic virtue necessary to preserve freedom in an increasingly hostile world.
While the deaths of two pop-culture icons are certainly newsworthy, the amount of news coverage devoted to America's celebrity obsession is grossly out of proportion in light of the weighty issues confronting our country at this hour. Have we become so shallow, so superficial, SO celebrity-obsessed that Michael Jackson's death is more upsetting, more real to us, than images of democratic protesters bleeding in the streets—that participating in the shameful exploitation of Jon and Kate Gosselin's crumbling marriage on TLC is more important than watching congressional debates about the future of our health care system on C-SPAN?
In the introductory chapter of his book, The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk discusses the concept of order and how it relates to the success or failure of any society. According to Kirk, "[the civil social] order signifies the performance of certain duties and the enjoyment of certain rights in a community." He suggests that "a disordered existence is a confused and miserable existence. If a society falls into general disorder, many of its members will cease to exist at all. And if the members of a society are disordered in spirit, the outward order of the commonwealth cannot endure."
American society appears to be suffering from a disordered spirit of the kind Kirk describes. One can’t help but wonder if we have lost our capacity for serious engagement with the world around us, and thus our ability to engage with society in a dutiful and conscientious manner. We are increasingly drawn to digital or virtual venues that allow us to escape the humdrum realities of everyday life in exchange for a fantasy world that titillates our senses and tickles our funny bones. In the process, we are losing the ability to distinguish between the important and the inconsequential in our society. Who has time to follow the confirmation process of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor when the American public is busy keeping up with the Kardashians? Who wants to hear the depressing details of the starvation and poverty plaguing the Third World when we can watch wannabe celebrities starve themselves for money on the latest season of Survivor?
Is it any wonder that only 22% of people polled can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while 66% can name at least one celebrity judge on American Idol, or that more people can name all five of the Simpson family members than can name the five freedoms protected under the First Amendment?
This misdirection of energy and attention cannot be without negative consequences for the future of American society. Much as Rome's rejection of the fundamental social, spiritual, and cultural components that made her a mighty empire precipitated her downfall, America's preoccupation with "bread and circuses" to the exclusion of more important matters portends a bleak future for our republic.
Who is responsible for this unfortunate phenomenon? Many blame the media for our obsession with entertainment. After all, the media bigwigs—the proverbial wizards behind the curtain—decide what to broadcast and what to leave on the cutting room floor. Are these behemoth corporations, in their quest for ratings, feeding America's baser instincts? Are they exploiting our prurient nature in order to make a quick buck? Even if this is the case, the American people are still left holding the bag of responsibility. We choose what media to consume, which websites to visit, which books to read; we choose how to allocate our time and attention. We are the ones who find reality TV and celebrity culture more entertaining, more fun, less boring, and less hard, than the real world.
But reality TV is not reality, and the truth is that many celebrities' lives are plagued by drug abuse, domestic scandals, and professional failure. From Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, to Anna Nicole and Heath Ledger... the lifestyles of the rich and famous often end in desolation and despair. Yet our society has deified these individuals and glamorized the lives they portray, leading more and more Americans to feel that the only kind of life worth living is a life lived in front of the camera.
The price paid for this delusion is that our society is increasingly losing its ability to celebrate what English writer, philosopher, and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton called the really human things—those things required for a just society to endure. And as our spirits become more vacant, more disordered, and more obsessed with titillating drivel, we run the risk of suffering the same decline as our forebears in the Roman republic. As Kirk noted, "The late Roman world, then, was a culture spiritually impoverished and disordered, lacking a common core of belief. It has been called a dead world: a time in which the old Roman virtues had been lost by the mass of men.... It was a world spiritually and intellectually bored. Mankind can endure anything but boredom. Because men could not order their own despairing souls, the order of the commonwealth could not be saved."
We Americans must ask ourselves whether we are prepared to suffer the fate of our Roman forebears, or whether we are wise and disciplined enough to learn from their mistakes and make the changes necessary to get this great nation back on the right track.