Do we Love the Famous… or the Infamous?
By: Warner Todd Huston
Recently, a poll of school children in England sparked a question over role models and what children there think should be the most desirable goals in life to strive for. In the poll, children under 10 viewed being a celebrity as the “very best thing in the world”, though they seem not to think as highly about God.
In the 2006 top ten list such figures as Madonna and TV stars Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne appear. In the past, sports stars David Beckham and Wayne Rooney made it into the top ten, as well. But, many of these “celebrities” are famous as much for their ill-tempered comportment and the many offhanded remarks uttered in public and reported by a fawning tabloid media as they are for the extraordinary abilities that brought them to the top of their professions.
This raises an intriguing question: What has become of “fame”?
America’s Founding Fathers are so revered today, for instance, because they didn’t imagine they were striving to achieve mere fame as we define it today. To the Founderâ€™s contemporaries celebrity status meant little but what was important to them was fame as defined by the ancients. Being well known for their deeds of import, moral gravity and worth bestowed true fame, as fame is properly defined.
England’s great conservative, Edmund Burke, once said of someone, “He had no failings which were not owing to a noble cause; to an ardent, generous, perhaps an immoderate passion for fame; a passion which is the instinct of all great souls”. By equating “fame” to “greatness” and “a noble cause” he equates fame to actions of a good and positive nature.
Founding Father and second President, John Adams, once quoted a few lines from Alexander Popeâ€™s “Essay on Man” in his diary while pondering the sort of fame that he and his fellows hoped to win from the verdict of history and their countrymen:
Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake,
As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake;
The centre movâ€™d, a circle straight succeeds,
Another still, and still another spreads;
Friend, parent, neighbor, first it will embrace;
His country next; and next all human race
Pope here explained the effects of fame in the allegory of ripples in the lake, ripples that one’s actions will cause for community, country, and, ultimately, humanity. And that is the reason that fame was thought to connote positive moral stature because positive “ripples” are the only ripples worth celebrating.
On the other hand, being known for bad behavior, ill temper and venality wins infamy, not fame in the proper definition of such actions. Unfortunately, today we confuse and conflate fame with the lesser category of infamy.
People who make a name for themselves by over the top behavior, immorality and general surliness, like Madonna and Sharon Osbourne, have more correctly achieved infamy, not fame or celebrity. Yet it is the Madonnas and Sharon Osbournes of the world that kids think of as famous.
This cannot be a good thing and shows that we have lost reverence for respectability and cast aside the positive, proper definition for fame. We have degraded the word to simply mean well known and gutted the moral meaning. This does not raise up the well known to heights of fame, but lowers the well meaning to the depths of infamy.
Worse than the results of who the children thought were “famous”, the top ten things that these kids thought were “very best things” reveals almost a complete lack of substantive goals in the ghastly choices given by the youngsters.
1. Being a Celebrity
2. Good Looks
3. Being Rich
4. Being Healthy
5. Pop Music
8. Nice Food
9. Watching Films
Granted this is a list of the interests of 10-year-olds, but can anyone doubt that the outcome of a poll of kids into their early teens would be much different? For that matter, could the list be much different than the responses of the general public at any age?
Still, that speculation aside, it is obvious that western society is not teaching its children what is good and right in society if Britainâ€™s tykes grant admiration for such characters as Madonna. It is a sad commentary on our society that fame has been degraded to the same low status as infamy. (And I have to admit here, that my country, the U.S.A., is certainly no better and has contributed far too much to the degradation of fame.)