I WAS GOING TO WRITE about the grisly death of the Senate immigration bill, but there was other news that was just as senseless and inane: Paris mania.
If there's one thing more annoying than our all-pervasive cult of celebrity, it's the righteous handwringing over what it means for the soul — let alone the brain — of our nation. In the last few weeks, a bevy of commentators, television journalists and intellectuals have launched a mini-revolt against the tyranny of infotainment.
Wednesday night, even as he dedicated half his show to coverage of Paris Hilton's interview with Larry King, CNN's Anderson Cooper appeared ashamed of Paris mania. "Sadly, this is part of American culture," he intoned. On Thursday morning, an MSNBC anchor made a show of trying to light her script on fire after refusing to read more Paris news. A week before, in a commencement speech at Stanford, poet and National Endowment for the Arts chief Dana Gioia lamented our national fixation with fame and its deleterious effects on American culture.
But is our national obsession with the likes of Paris Hilton really the problem? Or is it just a symptom of — and maybe even a cure for — a deeper malaise?
A few years ago, two British researchers concluded that celebrity-watching — if it doesn't become an all-out obsession — can be a healthy part of adolescent development and bonding. A survey of English schoolchildren revealed that "celebrity attachments" serve as "pseudo-friends" who become the subject of gossip and discussion among their real friends. The kids' fascination with celebs not only helps them bond with classmates but to become more autonomous from their parents. Meantime, those children who do develop unhealthy fixations on the lives of stars were likely to be lonely and lacking strong bonds with family and friends. I suspect that the same elements driving adolescent fandom in Britain — bonding, socialization — also explain why so many grown-ups like to keep up on Brangelina and Britney. Sure, the handful of fanatics who literally worship Michael Jackson or Madonna are maladjusted, but there are millions of others for whom celebrity gossip serves a useful function, especially in societies no longer characterized by tightknit communities.
Study after study has tracked our eroding commitment to community, as more Americans spend time with their computers, or at work, instead of in bowling leagues or with their loved ones. Following the trials and tribulations of the rich and famous can be a way for us to connect to others and even to make sense of our lives. No, I don't mean that we actually think that Angelina Jolie is our friend, but that the chatter she inspires can sometimes link us to strangers.
Think of how sports talk breaks the ice between men. As a male who doesn't much care for sports, I envy the kind of bonding that sports lovers share. Celebrity gossip may be more associated with women, but it crosses gender lines more readily than sports. And it provides the juicy stories and personal dilemmas that people love to chat about and analyze together.
Whispering about the lives of others always has served as a finely tuned social warning system that helps people avoid the inevitable pitfalls of life. Did you hear who she hooked up with? Can you believe he did that? How could they have fallen for the Nigerian e-mail scam? Plenty of not-so-idle gossip warns us about bad guys, the consequences of certain types of behavior and iffy practices of all types.
If you watched the extraordinarily boring Larry King interview with Paris Hilton, you realize that Paris herself isn't anywhere near as interesting as what we all think about her. That's the point. The long arm of electronic media has allowed us to include an ever-expanding world of complete strangers in our social circle. And just as we would a neighbor or classmate, we judge and dissect her life as a means to justify our own, reinforce our life choices, sort out and share our opinions with others.
"She's an idiot." "I feel sorry for her." "She got what she deserved." However we talk about Paris, it says a lot more about us than it does about her.
Paris mania feeds an admittedly flimsy form of community, but don't blame her, the media or the unwashed masses for that.
Everyone from Tocqueville to Wim Wenders has commented upon the dangers of anomie in American life. Over the last half a century, patterns of suburbanization have intensified that sense of alienation and rootlessness. Since the 1970s, a growing disenchantment with politics has further loosened our links to community. We don't like the political process because we feel that we have no effect on it, and we suspect that it's dominated by narrow, powerful forces that don't have our best interests at heart.
Which brings me back to the dead immigration bill. Last week, a minority of well-organized extremists killed compromise legislation whose essential component 52% of Americans supported. It makes you want to wash your hands of the whole damn process.
Hmm. I wonder how Lindsay Lohan is doing in rehab?