The Charisma of Fame: Lending Credibility to the Incredible

Self-help guru James Ray will serve about two years in prison for the death of three of his adherents. This insightful article by Amy Beth Arkawy points out that many well-educated, successful people followed Ray’s “teachings” while lining his pockets with tens of thousands of dollars. Arkawy points out, correctly, that Ray was part of “the billion dollar industry in which any scam artist with enough chutzpah and a whiff of charisma can flourish…” Ray was charismatic, but how did a man with virtually no credentials become such a sought after guru?

After he was featured in “The Secret“– another sham book and movie that titillates those in the market of quick fix salvation with a most basic understanding of the Law of Attraction. The idea that you can just visualize the job, spouse, house or career of your dreams and poof it will appear, became a bestseller that has ( big surprise) been debunked big time. But along the way, the featured shamsters, including Ray, made various media appearances, including the hallowed “Oprah” show.

I often wonder if wealth and fame is like an acid that eventually rubs off the real and replaces it with a strange kind of magical realism. That type of acid, though, isn’t purely self-injected. It spreads through a populace that sees being well-known as some kind of stamp of credibility, even if for the sake of amusement. There is no other reason that outrageous figures like Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter . . . Snooki, Tila Tequila, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian  . . . Louise Hay, Jimmy Swaggart, Rhonda Byrne, Byron Katie, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker   . . . and hundreds of other questionable but charismatic people become famous and rich (or richer) at the public’s expense.

Walk through any bookstore that’s still standing and you’ll see the tangible effect of a fame-driven, reality-television culture that’s become steeped in “platform” over substance. It’s unlikely that JD Salinger, John Irving or hundreds of other more private, iconic authors would be published today. The cult of personality is more favorable to peacocks than to doves. An F-List celebrity has a better chance of being published than a talented but unknown author. With ghostwriters at the ready, reality TV “stars” like Snooki can become published authors . . . of books they didn’t even write.

The perfume aisle, the clothing store, even the semi-sacred art world have all been inundated by the disingenuous but effective monster of crossover marketing. The problem as I see it isn’t that JLo’s name is on a perfume bottle or Jessica Simpson’s name is on a shirt label, it’s the false premise that celebrities actually contribute anything more to these products than their signatures on lucrative contracts. It’s that American corporations, once heralded for ingenuity and invention, now seem hesitant to invest so much as a nickel on new talent, but will spend millions to borrow a celebrity name. And the public is buying it — by the bottle, by the handbag, by the book.

Maybe it’s true that America likes its loud swaggering egos, train wrecks and false prophets (and there’s certainly sufficient proof of that), but the social effect goes beyond amusement and purchasing decisions. A recent study shows that Fox news television viewers are less informed than those who watch no news at all. Fox has a long history of courting the charismatic to its national pulpit, offering up dogmatic hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck while providing an open platform to colorfully ill-informed spectacles like Sarah Palin (I can see Russia from my porch!) and James Dobson (Tinky Winky is gay!).

Millions of people watch Fox news. Millions.

In 1987, in a soft economy that brought about Black Monday, famed television preacher Oral Roberts took to television to proclaim that God was going to hasten his death if Roberts didn’t raise $8 million dollars immediately. Roberts ultimately charmed his followers out of $9 million. Artfully disguised by the cloak of religion, Roberts denied in interviews that he was a wealthy man. Just a decade earlier, though, his ministry “partners” donated a record-breaking $38 million dollars to his tax-free ministry and they kept donating over the years in amounts that afforded Roberts and his family a lavish lifestyle, replete with private jets and multi-million dollar homes. It’s not as if Americans aren’t aware of televangelical shams and psychic shysters — James Randi has made a career of successfully exposing frauds like Peter Popoff, John Edward, Sylvia Browne and Benny Hinn, and we all watched as the 24K gold world of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker came crumbling down . . . and then there’s Miss Cleo, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton and many others — yet the disease of charismatic fame is that it seems to learn no lessons. When the attractiveness of one charming fraud wears off, another will take its place.

Joel Osteen, the benefactor of his father’s ministry, lives in a $10M dollar home because he preaches a feel-good gospel of prosperity and positive thinking to a predominately middle-class congregation. All one has to do, according to Osteen, is “Start calling yourself healed, happy, whole, blessed, and prosperous” and it will happen. It’s the old law-of-attraction snake oil that’s been around for generations, but Osteen’s got a smiling, silver tongued delivery that makes the oil gleam anew.

A few years ago, I was excited when I was invited to write for the popular Huffington Post. Sure, the former Republican Ariana Huffington paid writers nothing for their contributions, but it was an opportunity to share my work with thousands of readers. Then Alec Baldwin became a contributor. Then Jaime Lee Curtis. As more and more actors, film producers and sons and daughters of the rich and famous signed on as bloggers, articles by not-famous writers, even the most relevant and carefully researched ones, began getting buried or going straight to the archives. Today’s front page includes stories by Marlo Thomas, Jennifer Aniston, Rhea Perlman and Matthew Modine. All of these celebrities may have something of value to say — I’m not suggesting that everyone get in their primary career box and stay there — but in an entity that calls itself an “internet newspaper”, it should be the newsworthiness of what is being written, rather than the allure of celebrity, that determines the placement of articles. (I don’t write for the Huffington Post anymore.)

I have a sliver of faith that eventually a game-changer will come along. I don’t think it will stem from anything like rising public indignation, though. As a society, we have become so enmeshed in perpetuating unwarranted idolatry and public interest that we’re nearly blind to it, even when the hypocritical divide between our shared values and actions is miles wide. (Hard work pays. Hey, the Real Housewives are on. Talent should be rewarded. Let’s buy Kim Kardashian’s book. If we truly believed that intelligence was more important than beauty; logic was preferable to charismatic charm; and depth should be valued more than shallowness, our actions would fall in line. The fact is they don’t. We’ve kept our beloved aphorisms in the name of sentiment while abandoning the working principles behind them).

No, I think that if something is going to come along to realign our cultural priorities, it won’t stem from the complacent public. It’s unlikely too, especially in the current climate, that a revolution will spring from the pens of discontented writers. The Age of Reason ushered in by Paine and Jefferson . . . the Age of Realism that Frederick Douglass & Thoreau contributed to . . . the Modern Period of Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck . . . the Post-Modernism of Jack Kerouac, Maya Angelou and Kurt Vonnegut . . . I believe the glory days of writers as true cultural reflections and influences are gone. We are living In an era of well-franchised teen vampires and sorcerers, political jesters, snake oil self-help books and miraculous weight loss solutions. In literature, we are in the Age of Escapism. Socially, we are in an era that’s so devoid of real value, real beauty, real talent, real truth, real compassion — real anything — that on those rare occasions it comes along, we’re shocked. (The Susan Boyle effect.) Sometimes we’re even disgusted. (Who does that Michael Moore fellow think he is anyway?)

It’s going to take charisma to end the unfortunate rein of the charismatic. It’s going to take a strong leader with a considerable platform who inspires others in business and the arts to raise their voices, provoke truthful discussion, publish real books, make meaningful films and potentialize untapped talent. I don’t believe that such a leader will come in my lifetime anymore, but I hope future generations will look back on this one with all the disgust it so rightfully deserves and decide to give ingenuity and originality another era and more opportunities to thrive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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