The Peril of Valuing Celebrity Over History

As we entered the stately house in the tony suburb of New York, we commented on what an impressive place it was. Our host looked around with satisfaction. He had a lot of new money, and had only recently acquired the place. It had a slightly Moorish feel, more west coast than east.

"Yes, plus the house has history," he said. "It used to belong to Upton Sinclair." As his gaze moved across the high space of the foyer, he added absently, "Or Sinclair Lewis. One of them." His shrug said "What's the dif?"

Not even George Babbitt, out of the 1922 Sinclair Lewis novel that sent up petit bourgeois pretension, would have said such a thing. Understand that I, myself, am perfectly capable of confusing well-known authors, especially if they have an overlap of names. No one would mistake Joyce Kilmer for James Joyce, but I did once. So I do not write this smugly.

What my host was displaying, though, went beyond such thickheadedness. He loved his house precisely for its association with a generalized celebrity, not a particular authorial achievement. Fame, detached from what generates it, is its own value. An obsessive deference to such fame, and an all-consuming preoccupation with it, has become the defining mark of our culture. But why?

The difference between Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair matters. Both were acclaimed novelists, setting much of the literary style of American letters in the first half of the 20th century. Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," published in 1906 and exposing abuses in the meat packing industry, was the progenitor of muckraking, but as late as 1943 his "Dragon's Teeth" won the Pulitzer Prize. He was a socialist and frequently ran for political office.

Among the many people who were inspired by him was the young Sinclair Lewis, who joined a short-lived utopian community that Upton Sinclair founded in 1907. But Lewis became famous for "Main Street" and "Babbitt" in the early 1920s and, in 1930, became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize. Like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis was profoundly countercultural, but he was an omni-directional satirist, and his 1935 forecast of American fascism, "It Can't Happen Here," included a portrait of Upton Sinclair as a political nutcase.

It was my host's house that "had history," but not my host. The shallowness of contemporary public discourse, devoid of history, is everywhere visible -- from the "eternal now" of celebrity journalism to the absurdity of an "antiwar" rhetoric that assumes, in fact, a permanent US war machine in Iraq. In the emerging Democratic consensus, forged by Congressional leaders and presidential front-runners, supposedly in opposition to Bush's war, "out now" is becoming "out when conditions permit" -- which is, of course, Bush's exact position. Such conditions will never come; therefore -- Garrison Forever.

Yet, speaking of history, this conjuring of the appearance of opposition where none actually exists has been mandated by the American political system since the onset of the Cold War. The quadrennial political puppet show, highlighting not opposition but its appearance, is essential to keeping the captive-taking war machine running and to inoculating the American people from the viral knowledge that they themselves were first to be captured.

A minimal acquaintance with history, including dissections of American culture already performed by both Sinclairs, would undermine our national complacency. Upton Sinclair, for example, showed the rapaciousness of capitalism, the vampire-like appetite with which it feeds on the blood of human beings. Even with "reforms" ("The Jungle" led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration), the profit-worshipping economy to this day eludes controls that would protect majorities of citizens in this country and across the world. Sinclair Lewis, for his part, showed how the simultaneously banalizing methods of capitalist enterprise (false advertising, consumerism, pieties of affluence, amoral bureaucracy) are exactly what that enterprise created to keep from being criticized. Then inhale the crack cocaine of celebrity.

The US conflagration in the oil well of the globe was ignited without attention to history, which is why it flares out of control. But that war, fought by GIs, mercenaries, and proxies, will continue indefinitely, because, under the martial law that implicitly governs the United States, history can never be invoked except for its celebrity value -- not even history in the making. Therefore, it is certain that the staggering failures of Washington's current policy, so evident today, will be forgotten tomorrow, even as that policy is reaffirmed. Or, as they say, what's the dif?

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