Addicted to Nonsense

Will Tiger Woods finally talk to the police? Who will replace Oprah? (Not that Oprah can ever
be replaced, of course.) And will Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the couple
who crashed President Barack Obama's first state dinner, command the
hundreds of thousands of dollars they want for an exclusive television
interview? Can Levi Johnston, father of former Alaska Gov. Sarah
Palin's grandson, get his wish to be a contestant on "Dancing With the
Stars"?

The chatter that passes for news, the
gossip that is peddled by the windbags on the airwaves, the noise that
drowns out rational discourse, and the timidity and cowardice of what
is left of the newspaper industry reflect our flight into collective
insanity. We stand on the cusp of one of the most seismic and
disturbing dislocations in human history, one that is radically
reconfiguring our economy as it is the environment, and our obsessions
revolve around the trivial and the absurd.

What really matters in our lives-the wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan, the steady deterioration of the dollar, the
mounting foreclosures, the climbing unemployment, the melting of the
polar ice caps and the awful reality that once the billions in stimulus
money run out next year we will be bereft and broke-doesn't fit into
the cheerful happy talk that we mainline into our brains. We are
enraptured by the revels of a dying civilization. Once reality shatters
the airy edifice, we will scream and yell like petulant children to be
rescued, saved and restored to comfort and complacency. There will be
no shortage of demagogues, including buffoons like Sarah Palin, who
will oblige. We will either wake up to face our stark new limitations,
to retreat from imperial projects and discover a new simplicity, as
well as a new humility, or we will stumble blindly toward catastrophe
and neofeudalism.

Celebrity worship has banished the real
from public discourse. And the adulation of celebrity is pervasive. The
frenzy around political messiahs, or the devotion of millions of
viewers to Oprah, is all part of the yearning to see ourselves in those
we worship. We seek to be like them. We seek to make them like us. If
Jesus and "The Purpose Driven Life" won't make us a celebrity, then
Tony Robbins or positive psychologists or reality television will. We
are waiting for our cue to walk onstage and be admired and envied, to
become known and celebrated. Nothing else in life counts.

We yearn to stand before the camera, to be
noticed and admired. We build pages on social networking sites devoted
to presenting our image to the world. We seek to control how others
think of us. We define our worth solely by our visibility. We live in a
world where not to be seen, in some sense, is to not exist. We pay
lifestyle advisers to help us look and feel like celebrities, to build
around us the set for the movie of our own life. Martha Stewart
constructed her financial empire, when she wasn't engaged in insider
trading, telling women how to create a set design for the perfect home.
The realities within the home, the actual family relationships, are
never addressed. Appearances make everything whole. Plastic surgeons,
fitness gurus, diet doctors, therapists, life coaches, interior
designers and fashion consultants all, in essence, promise to make us
happy, to make us celebrities. And happiness comes, we are assured,
with how we look, with the acquisition of wealth and power, or at least
the appearance of it. Glossy magazines like Town & Country cater to
the absurd pretensions of the very rich to be celebrities. They are
photographed in expensive designer clothing inside the lavishly
decorated set pieces that are their homes. The route to happiness is
bound up in how skillfully we present ourselves to the world. We not
only have to conform to the dictates of this manufactured vision, but
we also have to project an unrelenting optimism and happiness. Hedonism
and wealth are openly worshiped on Wall Street as well as on shows such
as "The Hills," "Gossip Girl," "Sex and the City," "My Super Sweet 16"
and "The Real Housewives of (whatever bourgeois burg happens to be in
vogue)."

The American oligarchy-1 percent of whom control more wealth than the
bottom 90 percent combined-are the characters we most envy and watch on
television. They live and play in multimillion-dollar mansions. They
marry models or professional athletes. They are chauffeured in stretch
limos. They rush from fashion shows to movie premieres to fabulous
resorts. They have surgically enhanced, perfect bodies and are draped
in designer clothes that cost more than some people make in a year.
This glittering life is held before us like a beacon. This life, we are
told, is the most desirable, the most gratifying. And this is the life
we want. Greed is good, we believe, because one day through our
acquisitions we will become the elite. So let the rest of the bastards
suffer.

The working class, comprising tens of
millions of struggling Americans, are locked out of television's gated
community. They are mocked, even as they are tantalized, by the lives
of excess they watch on the screen in their living rooms. Almost none
of us will ever attain these lives of wealth and power. Yet we are told
that if we want it badly enough, if we believe sufficiently in
ourselves, we too can have everything. We are left, when we cannot
adopt these impossible lifestyles as our own, with feelings of
inferiority and worthlessness. We have failed where others have
succeeded.

We consume these countless lies daily. We
believe the false promises that if we spend more money, if we buy this
brand or that product, if we vote for this candidate, we will be
respected, envied, powerful, loved and protected. The flamboyant lives
of celebrities and the outrageous characters on television, movies,
professional wrestling and sensational talk shows are peddled to us,
promising to fill up the emptiness in our own lives. Celebrity culture
encourages everyone to think of themselves as potential celebrities, as
possessing unique if unacknowledged gifts. Faith in ourselves, in a
world of make-believe, is more important than reality. Reality, in
fact, is dismissed and shunned as an impediment to success, a form of
negativity. The New Age mysticism and pop psychology of television
personalities and evangelical pastors, along with the array of
self-help best-sellers penned by motivational speakers, psychiatrists
and business tycoons, peddle this fantasy. Reality is condemned in
these popular belief systems as the work of Satan, as defeatist, as
negativity or as inhibiting our inner essence and power. Those who
question, those who doubt, those who are critical, those who are able
to confront reality, along with those who grasp the hollowness and
danger of celebrity culture, are condemned for their pessimism or
intellectualism.

The illusionists who shape our culture, and who profit from our incredulity, hold up the gilded cult of Us.
Popular expressions of religious belief, personal empowerment,
corporatism, political participation and self-definition argue that all
of us are special, entitled and unique. All of us, by tapping into our
inner reserves of personal will and undiscovered talent, by visualizing
what we want, can achieve, and deserve to achieve, happiness, fame and
success. This relentless message cuts across ideological lines. This
mantra has seeped into every aspect of our lives. We are all entitled
to everything. And because of this self-absorption, and deep
self-delusion, we have become a country of child-like adults who speak
and think in the inane gibberish of popular culture.

Celebrities who come from humble
backgrounds are held up as proof that anyone can be adored by the
world. These celebrities, like saints, are examples that the impossible
is always possible. Our fantasies of belonging, of fame, of success and
of fulfillment are projected onto celebrities. These fantasies are
stoked by the legions of those who amplify the culture of illusion, who
persuade us that the shadows are real. The juxtaposition of the
impossible illusions inspired by celebrity culture and our
"insignificant" individual achievements, however, is leading to an
explosive frustration, anger, insecurity and invalidation. It is
fostering a self-perpetuating cycle that drives the frustrated,
alienated individual with even greater desperation and hunger away from
reality, back toward the empty promises of those who seduce us, who
tell us what we want to hear. The worse things get, the more we beg for
fantasy. We ingest these lies until our faith and our money run out.
And when we fall into despair we medicate ourselves, as if the
happiness we have failed to find in the hollow game is our deficiency.
And, of course, we are told it is.

I spent two years traveling the country to
write a book on the Christian right called "American Fascists: The
Christian Right and the War on America." I visited former manufacturing
towns where for many the end of the world is no longer an abstraction.
Many have lost hope. Fear and instability have plunged the working
class into profound personal and economic despair, and, not
surprisingly, into the arms of demagogues and charlatans of the radical
Christian right who offer a belief in magic, miracles and the fiction
of a utopian Christian nation. Unless we rapidly re-enfranchise these
dispossessed workers, insert them back into the economy, unless we give
them hope, these demagogues will rise up to take power. Time is running
out. The poor can dine out only so long on illusions. Once they grasp
that they have been betrayed, once they match the bleak reality of
their future with the fantasies they are fed, once their homes are
foreclosed and they realize that the jobs they lost are never coming
back, they will react with a fury and vengeance that will snuff out the
remains of our anemic democracy and usher in a new dark age.