Fantasy rules in cult of celebrity

June 8, 2007

Maria Misra complains of a criticalmass failure to understand that celebrity does not necessarily equal skill, talent and virtue

Would Carol Vorderman or Sir Richard Branson spring to mind if you were asked to name modern national exemplars of "love of learning"? Would Sir Trevor McDonald or Sir Winston Churchill suggest themselves as icons of open-mindedness, or Lord Lloyd-Webber if the issue were high artistic creativity? These are not the judgements of the gullible or Hello -addled masses; they come from a Warwick University survey in which nearly half the respondents were university graduates.

While McDonald may indeed be the very acme of intellectual flexibility, the rest of these perceptions seem bizarre. Churchill's merits may have been many, but "open-mindedness" would not number among them, while Vorderman's love of learning is eclipsed by a love of dieting and attendant product endorsements.

By far the oddest iconisation is that of the founder of the Virgin empire as a great scholar. Branson, since leaving school at 16, has single-mindedly pursued not learning but profit. His rebranding as a seeker after knowledge can surely be attributable only to his 1970s Open University lecturer-style ginger beard and permanent expression of bemused bafflement.

What is slightly worrying about this survey is its implication that education - even university education, which is supposed to inculcate critical thinking - is having very little effect in the face of the mass weaponry of the modern media and PR industry. The Warwick survey confirms my own experience of student attitudes and assumptions. Their firm conviction that celebrity emanates from outstanding talent remains blissfully undented by acquaintance with Max Weber's theorisation of charisma or later sociological dissections of the fame-cash-PR nexus.

Marshall McLuhan's insights on the confounding of media with message cut little ice.

The credulity of students must be forgiven on account of their youth and inexperience. But this alarming tendency to project fantasies of skill, talent and virtue on to essentially empty canvases now clearly persists into maturity and affects also modern politics. The rise of the film-star celebrity politician has been much remarked on and laughed at in such supposedly "uncivilised" and poorly educated societies as India and the Philippines. The powers and proclivities of the film, and increasingly TV, star politician are routinely conflated with the roles they have played:"protector of the poor", "avenger of evil" and even "war hero". In reality, of course, thesepeople are actors, chameleons and, in many cases, skilled practitioners of the art of the confidence trick.

Although Gordon Brown says there is no place for celebrity in politics, even in the no-nonsense UK the phenomenon of worshipping the empty vessel thrives. What else can account for the likes of Max Hastings - a mature, well-educated and supposedly intelligent person - claiming to be puzzled at the egregious failures of Tony Blair? Blair, according to a Guardian piece by Hastings, being blessed with the highest gifts, "seems an infinitely more substantial figure than his predecessor". Hastings reminds me of the credulous "believer" running into a hail of gunfire, assured by a charlatan "charismatic" leader that he is bullet-immune. As the Warwick survey and the evidence of our own eyes confirms, even the most brilliant minds are not protected from neo-medieval cults of modern celebrity.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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