Friday, January 06, 2006

The Shame of Undeserved Success

"But there came a new development, something that even a Tocqueville or a Burckhardt did not and perhaps even could not consider. This was the rising and eventually overwhelming influence of publicity, of its manipulations and of its ever more pervasive presence. This was not a simple matter--indeed, often a new kind of danger to democracy, less direct but perhaps even more insidious than that of the tyranny of a majority, since it is more than often the decisive influence of certain insistent and powerful minorities. James Fenimore Cooper recognized this early, in 1838, in The American Democrat. The efforts "to create publick opinion," he wrote, "is to simulate the existence of a general feeling in favor, or against, any particular man, ,or measure; so great being the deference paid to publick opinion, in a country like this, that men actually yield their own sentiments to that which they believe to be the sentiment of the majority." So this sensitive early American writer was worried less by the prospect of a tyranny of the majority or even with the deference paid to public opinion than with its simulation: something different from direct populism.


This near-absolute preoccupation with publicity involved, at least indirectly, an underestimation of the intellectual qualities of a president; but it involved, too, an underestimation of that of the American people. One symptom of this mutation from a popularity contest to a publicity contest was that, latest by 1980, the very word "popular" was fading in political usage, whereas "image" and "publicity" became more and more frequent. This devolution involved something lamentable and insidious: the cult of celebrity. Movie actors, actresses, athletes were no longer only useful instruments to enhance the electoral prospects of a president or senator. In more and more instances (the ridiculous example of Arnold Schwarzenegger being only one example) their very celebrity made them potential and successful candidates for high public offices. This development, or devolution, went of course well beyond elections. It involved the transformation of society. The older American patriciandom, perhaps especially in the older cities of Eastern America, attempted to avoid celebrity while preserving privacy; but, latest after 1950, "Society" had more and more to do with "Celebrity." After all, celebrity means to be publicly known: the bridge between Society and Celebrity consists of publicity; and publicity will have an inevitable effect on people whose discriminating manners are not matched by discriminating mental interests of their own.

-John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism

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