Celebrating Inequality

May 20th, 2013

THE Roaring ’20s was the decade when modern celebrity was invented in America. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” is full of magazine spreads of tennis players and socialites, popular song lyrics, movie stars, paparazzi, gangsters and sports scandals — machine-made by technology, advertising and public relations. Gatsby, a mysterious bootlegger who makes a meteoric ascent from Midwestern obscurity to the palatial splendor of West Egg, exemplifies one part of the celebrity code: it’s inherently illicit. Fitzgerald intuited that, with the old restraining deities of the 19th century dead and his generation’s faith in man shaken by World War I, celebrities were the new household gods.

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What are celebrities, after all? They dominate the landscape, like giant monuments to aspiration, fulfillment and overreach. They are as intimate as they are grand, and they offer themselves for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion. But in times of widespread opportunity, the distance between gods and mortals closes, the monuments shrink closer to human size and the centrality of celebrities in the culture recedes. They loom larger in times like now, when inequality is soaring and trust in institutions — governments, corporations, schools, the press — is falling.

The Depression that ended Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age yielded to a new order that might be called the Roosevelt Republic. In the quarter-century after World War II, the country established collective structures, not individual monuments, that channeled the aspirations of ordinary people: state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways, collective bargaining, health insurance for the elderly, credible news organizations.

One virtue of those hated things called bureaucracies is that they oblige everyone to follow a common set of rules, regardless of station or background; they are inherently equalizing. Books like William H. Whyte’s “Organization Man” and C. Wright Mills’s “White Collar” warned of the loss of individual identity, but those middle-class anxieties were possible only because of the great leveling. The “stars” continued to fascinate, especially with the arrival of TV, but they were not essential. Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Perry Como, Joe DiMaggio, Jack Paar, Doris Day and Dick Clark rose with Americans — not from them — and their successes and screw-ups were a sideshow, not the main event.

Our age is lousy with celebrities. They can be found in every sector of society, including ones that seem less than glamorous. We have celebrity bankers (Jamie Dimon), computer engineers (Sergey Brin), real estate developers/conspiracy theorists (Donald J. Trump), media executives (Arianna Huffington), journalists (Anderson Cooper), mayors (Cory A. Booker), economists (Jeffrey D. Sachs), biologists (J. Craig Venter) and chefs (Mario Batali).

There is a quality of self-invention to their rise: Mark Zuckerberg went from awkward geek to the subject of a Hollywood hit; Shawn Carter turned into Jay-Z; Martha Kostyra became Martha Stewart, and then Martha Stewart Living. The person evolves into a persona, then a brand, then an empire, with the business imperative of grow or die — a process of expansion and commodification that transgresses boundaries by substituting celebrity for institutions. Instead of robust public education, we have Mr. Zuckerberg’s “rescue” of Newark’s schools. Instead of a vibrant literary culture, we have Oprah’s book club. Instead of investments in public health, we have the Gates Foundation. Celebrities either buy institutions, or “disrupt” them.

After all, if you are the institution, you don’t need to play by its rules. Mr. Zuckerberg’s foundation myth begins with a disciplinary proceeding at Harvard, which leads him to drop out and found a company whose motto is “Move fast and break things.” Jay-Z’s history as a crack dealer isn’t just a hard-luck story — it’s celebrated by fans (and not least himself) as an early sign of hustle and smarts. Martha Stewart’s jail time for perjury merely proved that her will to win was indomitable. These new celebrities are all more or less start-up entrepreneurs, and they live by the hacker’s code: ask forgiveness, not permission.

George Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author, most recently, of “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.”

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