Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Oh, look, it's Kate. "Squee."

I am puzzled by people who are attracted by celebrities.  Now, don't get me wrong; I can appreciate a fine singer or actor, and enjoy his or her work greatly, but I can't really imagine jumping up and down and saying "squee" if (s)he walked into the room.  (Those of my readers who know me well would, I suspect, have a hard time imagining my saying "squee" about anything.)

And yet, this seems to be a common reaction.  Witness the current furor over the marriage of Prince William of England and Kate Middleton, an event about which I frankly don't give a flying... um, well, let's just leave it at "I don't care much."  And yet, every time some earthshattering news release comes from the happy couple ("Kate reveals that on the morning of the wedding, she will breakfast on a cheese-and-onion omelet") it results in multiple orgasms among the members of the press.  And before you say "well, that's just because the press is made up of a bunch of sensation-seeking paparazzi," remember that someone's got to be reading this stuff.  If no one had an appetite for what the press was serving, they'd pretty quickly find something else to serve.

Then, just yesterday, we get the announcement that Levi Johnston has written a tell-all book about his relationship with his erstwhile future mother-in-law Sarah Palin, called A Deer in the Headlights: My Life in Sarah Palin's Crosshairs.  Well, "written" may be inaccurate -- I suspect this one will have a cover that will say,

BY LEVI JOHNSTON with a little bit of help from Reginald Hockinblatt

Levi Johnston, you will recall, is the young man who knocked up Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol, and then became even more notorious when he displayed the equipment he'd used in the escapade in Playgirl magazine.   Now, he has announced that he is publishing this book to tell the true story of his dealings with the Palin family, and that he is doing it for "his son... and his country."

This claim is, of course, absurd.  Levi's son (whose name is Tripp, following the naming tradition for boys in the Palin family of starting with "t" and having one syllable; the others are Track, Trig, Tink, Toot, and Thud) is still a baby, and presumably cares even less than I do about his father's exposé.  As far as his doing it for his country, I suppose that this is partially true; he's doing it so that his country will buy the book and give him money.

Once again, I'm not faulting Levi, nor even the press, for this; I more wonder who on earth will be willing to spend twenty bucks to buy this book.  Our appetite for celebrities, even when the celebrity appears (as is the case with Levi Johnston) to have no particular skill at anything, is boundless, and to me, boundlessly perplexing.

Whatever drives this desire, it seems to be very strong in many people.  As far as why the fixation on celebrities exists in the first place, I can only speculate that it may have something to do with our need to have heroes.  I don't mean this in the all-powerful superhero sense; more, people who are somehow larger than life, who make us yearn for more than we have (even if that "something more" is merely money or fame).  People care about what happens to famous figures because they represent our aspirations, our failed dreams about what we could have accomplished if we'd only had that big break.

I think it's only been in the past fifty years or so that the concept of "hero" has coalesced with the concept of "celebrity."  Before the Age of Television, I think most people who had heroes looked up to someone smart, strong, courageous -- a leader, a historical or religious figure who inspired.  Some people still have heroes of the older type, but many more people today look up to famous actors, musicians, or sports stars.  And when they fall from grace -- witness the ongoing slow-motion train wreck that is Charlie Sheen -- people are dismayed, as if somehow being an actor also by necessity came along with being a decent person.

I've never been much of a hero worshiper.  My heroes, such as they are, are people of simple and straightforward intellectual courage -- people like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Richard Dawkins.  But even with the people I admire, I have never expected them to be perfect.  As an example, Sagan was a brilliant exponent of the importance of making science attractive to non-scientists, but by all accounts was personally an arrogant and aloof man.  Why is this surprising?  Aren't all people combinations of positive and negative personality traits?  Does his arrogance devalue his contributions in other regards?  Why would I even need him to be some kind of superhuman?

There is a deep human need -- stronger in some people than in others -- to have larger-than-life figures to follow.  If they're rich, famous, and handsome or beautiful, then so much the better.  We need them to be what we're not, I suppose.  We're distressed when it comes out that they have faults,  but no worries -- the media will provide others, hundreds of others, for us to read about and dream about and lust after.  And if today we find out that Kate has decided that the Wedding Day Breakfast will include grapefruit juice, it will be sure to make a great many people say "squee."

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