“It’s about the bling and how quickly you can get it without working.”

I was listening to an interview with Entourage star Adrian Grenier today about a documentary he’s completed that looks at the role of celebrity in our culture. It’s no secret that a lot of us have an unhealthy relationship with people we don’t even know (or, perhaps more accurately, people we think we know.) But it’s still surprising to me just how screwed up we’ve become.

Consider the shock and betrayal people felt when the truth about Tiger’s exploits hit the tabloids. Or how irate we became when Mel Gibson’s mouth opened and we learned just how deeply his odd hatred runs. For some reason, many felt these were personal affronts, as if Tiger wasn’t only cheating on his wife, he was cheating on the rest of us, too.

Why should we care? If we didn’t put them up on their false pedestals to begin with, would it matter to us? Every day, people are doing depraved things to people that they are supposed to love, honor, and cherish; yet few of us even know of their transgressions. It’s only with celebrity that we feel that they owe us something. And maybe they do, in some respects, since we have given them the celebrity they craved and the financial success that sometimes comes with it. Maybe the covenant that they made with us is that they will respect us as much as we respect them. (Personally, I don’t think that’s how it works. I think we should be all looking a little closer to home for our heroes… parents, teachers, service members, firemen, policemen, etc. all do more for us everyday than Paris Hilton has done in 20 years. If you have any doubt, consider Mr. Stroup.)

It’s bad enough that we (and ‘we’ in this sense could be read as ‘people who should know better’) give too much credit and too much influence to people who likely don’t deserve it. What’s more disturbing is how our children feel. In Grenier’s documentary, he references an eye-opening study that looked at how teenagers view the celebrity world and how it affects their goals. Cited in Jake Halpern‘s book Fame Junkies, it “asked middle school and high school students whether they’d rather be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a president of a college, a Navy Seal, or an assistant to a celebrity,” Grenier recalls.

The result? Forty-two percent said they’d want to be a celebrity’s personal assistant. As Halpern says, in the film’s voice-over: “That was twice as [the percentage who wanted to be] president of Harvard or Yale, three times as much as a U.S. Senator, four times as much as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” These kids, Halpern continues, “put such a premium on fame that they’re willing to give up some of the most coveted jobs in America just to be a bag-carrier to the celebrity.”

Grenier agrees. “For a long time in our culture,” he says, “there was an emphasis put on working hard and contributing to your society. Now it’s not about that anymore. It’s about the bling and how quickly you can get it without working.”

If that’s not a searing indictment of our culture, I don’t know what is. There’s a great Kurt Vonnegut quote that says “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” That may well be true, but at the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I’ll be truly terrified when people more concerned about fame than hard work or service are running the country.

I wonder if we’re already there.

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