The fame game

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on how silly celebs have filled the gap where public life used to be.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Far away from the turbulent world of politics this week, public attention is focused on another, rather less significant, struggle for survival. The glamour model Jordan has been warned that her silicon-enhanced breasts could burst if bitten by admiring insects in the Australian outback, where she stars in the ‘reality’ television gameshow, I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here! The image of an over-inflated bubble fit to be popped by a gnat might seem a fitting metaphor for our empty celebrity culture. But don’t blame Jordan.

We get the celebrities we deserve. After all, our society is not exactly over-burdened with ‘real’ heroes lining up to replace the bubble-headed reality television stars.

Not unlike the carry-on in Westminster, I’m A Celebrity stars a somewhat motley assortment of media tarts, dubious characters, poseurs and has-beens. The line-up of contestants ranges from the former Sex Pistol Johnny ‘Rotten’ Lydon to the aristocratic jailbird Lord ‘Rotter’ Brocket, and you may well ask what these individuals have done to deserve such celebrity treatment. But that misses the point. They have done nothing, of course, which makes them worthy symbols of what fame has come to mean.

Contrary to the impression given by some miserabilists today, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be famous. John Milton called the desire for fame the ‘spur’ for creating great art. Our Prime Minister is far from the first obsessed with his place in history; the Tory statesman Benjamin Disraeli spoke for many when he reminded a parliamentary contemporary that ‘we came here for fame’. The difference is that fame was once seen as recognition for your accomplishments in the world. Now it just means being recognised in public.

Simply to be seen in the media has become the accomplishment, an end in itself. Some argue that it is a healthily egalitarian culture where almost anybody can have their 15 minutes of fame, rather than it being monopolised by the great and the good. It seems to me more like an unhealthy symptom of the lowering of society’s expectations. Instead of heroes who might inspire people to raise their sights and strive to be ‘just like them’, we have celebrities whose screaming ordinariness makes them ‘just like us’, so that they can be emulated without achieving anything except, well, celebrity.

Once there were public figures who made their mark on the world but also had private lives (which everybody wanted to know about, even then). Now there are celebrities famous only for publicly parading their private affairs. Once society felt certain of the difference between the famous and the infamous. Now footballers and fraudsters, pop singers and soft porn stars can all be lumped together and fêted as celebrities.

Since celebrity culture reflects the unattractive faces of society, it is little wonder that shows such as I’m A Celebrity receive so much stick, even from those who watch them. People complain that newspapers and television schedules are clogged up with ‘C-list’ celebrities of whom they have never heard. The question remains, however, who would we put in their place atop the fame pile? Publicly acclaimed heroes are in short supply. We seem to find it hard to agree not just on who our modern heroes might be but on what values and actions might qualify as heroic in the first place.

Which of today’s politicians would be considered fit for the Churchill treatment? War heroes seem in similarly short supply. Colonel Tim Collins, media star of the Iraq war, has discovered that one person’s military hero can now be another’s idea of a war criminal.

And who are the heroes of science, in an age when such a pioneer as Professor Colin Blakemore can be denied a knighthood for fear of upsetting the animal lobby? The only national hero most people appear comfortable acclaiming today is the rugby player Jonny ‘not rotten’ Wilkinson, who has done nothing to offend anybody (except those who think that going to bed early sets a poor example of how to celebrate winning a World Cup).

Our collective loss of faith in the prospects of great men and women achieving great things, and changing the world for the better, has left behind the void now being filled by an overblown celebrity culture. So we have ended up down in the jungle with Jordan and the rest. As a Liberal Democrat MP might say, we should understand why they do it, though we do not condone it (or have to watch it).

The prospect of watching creepy celebrities eat creepy-crawlies for the public’s delectation, while the RSPCA adds to the entertainment by warning programme-makers against maggot abuse, brings to mind some lines written a century ago by Austin Dobson:

‘Fame is a food that dead men eat, I have no stomach for such meat.’

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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