Amid the hoo-hah surrounding the clash between Donald Trump and the NFL, perhaps the most important question does not concern the righteousness of the two sides’ positions. Rather, it concerns why any of us should allot special importance to the political views of a group of men whose sole claim to fame is the ability to play a schoolyard game with exceptional competence. And why is Jimmy Kimmel, a late-night comedian, suddenly a national authority on the philosophy of healthcare? The absurdity of these phenomena should be obvious. If it is not, then that is a sign of the absurdity of contemporary society.
Of course, we live in a culture convinced of the vital importance of show business and celebrities. Money is a crude but reliable indicator of what we as a society consider important, and a comparison of the president’s annual salary with that of the average professional footballer is instructive in this regard. How should we understand this? Why is entertainment so vital today?
A Pascalian approach would suggest that the vast amount of time, money, and authority we accord the entertainment industry is a function of the importance we accord distraction. We are comfortable and secure, and we therefore need to be diverted from thinking about the only real worry we have left: the reality of our own mortality. This is an interpretation with much to commend it.
We might also regard the cult of the celebrity as a symptom—perhaps the symptom—of the near-total collapse of the ethical into the aesthetic. The red carpet at the Oscars is surely the greatest evidence for this. All those stunningly attractive people, all those designer dresses—that’s what catches the popular imagination. But how many abortions are represented in that parade of the bold and the beautiful? How many sordid affairs? How many broken marriages and consequently children? The image of happiness and success is one to which we all aspire. The fact is that the designer gowns are merely the glitzy packaging of ways of life that are sustainable, if at all, only by the wealthiest in society. Money can protect the wealthy from some of the consequences of their delinquency. What of those of more modest means, who look on in admiration?
The importance we ascribe to these celebrities is also indicative of a quest for some kind of significance beyond the humdrum routine of our daily lives. Human beings require meaning, and meaning is increasingly hard to come by, or so it seems. For those who have abandoned belief in God, the quest for meaning has proved as chimerical as it has continual.
In light of the loss of that transcendence provided by religion, some philosophers, from Schiller to Scruton, have sought to reconstitute meaning by focusing on the aesthetic. The idea is that contemplating beauty can ennoble humanity’s moral sensibilities. By contrast, a materialist like Marx locates meaning in the teleology of class struggle, whereby present evils will ultimately be overcome in the outworking of the historical process. Both schools seek in their different ways to give the present a significance beyond itself.
But the quest for transcendence seems to be dying before our eyes. As the revolutionary left and the conservative right have both discovered, people today can be rather disappointing. Pornography, with its promise of instantly available gratification, appears to have trumped beauty, and consumerism, the welfare state, and easy credit have defused class struggle. Lives without intrinsically meaningful narratives seem to find such narratives elsewhere: in video games, in movies, in sports, and in those who provide them. We might say that we live in an era of vicarious meaning, where people find their personal significance by consuming the significant performances of others. Thus, the professional players of schoolyard sports become people of great social and political importance. Which is, quite frankly, embarrassing.
Jimmy Kimmel and the NFL knee-benders clearly have a right to express their opinions. That freedom is one of the beauties of living in the USA rather than China or North Korea. What is sad is that the sound-bite opinions and cheap gestures of these entertainers seem to carry a cultural and political weight that belies the intrinsic triviality of their earthly callings. If freedom made the American public square great, entertainment appears to be in danger of making it rather ridiculous.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.