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Obama the Great & Powerful

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In a culture like ours that’s busy banishing God, there exists a correlative need to find His replacement. It is no coincidence that the modern American cult of celebrity exploded around the time the “death of God” movement gained traction. When God is cast out, man takes His place, and so our national fancy is now fixed firmly on an expanding and contracting conglomeration of celebrities, the broad pantheon of which can be divided into three general categories: entertainers, athletes, and politicians. For a few subcategories we have even established modern-day Valhallas — the various “halls of fame” where devotees can pay obeisance at the shrines of those who have been immortalized therein.

A distinction must be made between celebrity and fame: the former denotes a “celebrated person,” the latter a person’s “public estimation” or “reputation.” Christopher Lasch, in his epochal work The Culture of Narcissism (1979), wrote that “a narcissistic society worships celebrity rather than fame” — i.e., the person rather than the achievement. Moreover, a narcissistic society “substitutes spectacle for the older forms of theater, which…carefully preserved a certain distance between the audience and the actors, the hero worshipper and the hero.” Lasch urged us to “note the close connection between a surfeit of spectacles” and “the resulting indifference to the distinction between illusion and reality.”

The careful, deliberate blurring of this distinction is fundamental to the reification of celebrity: entertainers as emissaries of grace, athletes as noble warriors, politicians as problem-solvers. In short, we need heroes, and if none are to be found, they must be manufactured. Our media-saturated society provides us with precious few real heroes but with plentiful celebrity stand-ins.

Roughly a decade and a half later, when the presence of media in our culture was significantly greater than when Lasch was writing, Jill Neimark noted a further development. “Celebrities,” she wrote in Psychology Today (May 1995), “are our myth bearers; carriers of the divine forces of good, evil, lust, and redemption…. Increasingly, our national passions, cultural watersheds, sexual mores, gender and racial battles, and political climate are viewed through the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of stories about people. As a result, our whole culture has come to be defined in terms of the personal, as seen through the celebrities of the week or month.” Our fascination with celebrity has so narrowed our focus that, she writes, “the scope of world events is reduced to individuals.”

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