Americans don’t just enjoy stories about the rise and fall of celebrities — they need them.
- By James PoulosJames Poulos is a writer in Los Angeles.
In a world reeling from big, unnerving news, what has stopped the United States in its tracks? Angela Merkel’s migrant misgivings? Trouble brewing in the South China Sea? Claims of chemical warfare waged by Islamic State die-hards? No, not even the latest Donald Trump indignity or awkward Hillary Clinton video has managed to fully capture Americans’ anxious imaginations. But the breakup of Hollywood golden couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Now that’s news.
We’re on the edge of our seats over the split, the custody battle, the allegations of “abuse,” the rumored FBI investigation. What’s going on here? These people aren’t demigods or royals getting divorced. They’re celebrities. And there’s no shortage of actual misery and genuine threats to our well-being in the world. Yet the public’s emotional involvement in Brangelina’s demise seems to sum up all the misplaced obsession that makes the United States such a mercurial, unreliable global leader. One can almost see the rest of the world sidling up gingerly, touching America’s arm with a pained but wary look. Are you feeling OK, America? I know a good shrink.
But if Americans are interested in making sense of why a Hollywood breakup has put them in such a strange mood, it’s not a psychotherapist they should consult. Their country’s most reliable social psychologist — Alexis de Tocqueville, the bemused Frenchman who traveled the United States in the early 19th century in preparation for writing the classic Democracy in America — is ready to diagnose what ails them.
You might think a 20-something nobleman born in Napoleonic France would offer only a limited perspective on everything that modern and postmodern pop culture has become since. Indeed, most of what we hear about Tocqueville today has a lot more to do with salvaging civics and preserving self-government than just what it is that makes us Americans tick. In reality, however, Democracy in America is like an eminently binge-watchable documentary series, loaded with brilliant voiceovers that capture both the American predicament and the patterns of crazy-yet-predictable reactions still on repeat in the United States today. And, in a way, there’s no better proof of how Tocqueville had us Americans nailed than the way he explains our relationship with Brangelina — or would have, if he had gotten the chance.
It all starts with the fact that Americans are people in a historically weird time and place. Unlike peoples with collective memories that stretch back millennia, living in an Old World enchanted and haunted by an aristocratic past, we New Worlders are persecuted by the randomness and evanescence of the present. “Remembrance of the shortness of life continually goads” the American on, Tocqueville wrote. “Apart from the goods he has, he thinks of a thousand others which death will prevent him from tasting if he does not hurry. This thought fills him with distress, fear, and regret and keeps his mind continually in agitation, so that he is always changing his plans and his abode.” In a single thought, Tocqueville draws out the two big feelings defining our national character: We want it all, and we know that even if we get it, it’ll never last. In fact, you could almost say we want it all because we know nothing lasts.
There’s just one problem, which Tocqueville identified: Our society invites big dreams, only to crush them for the vast majority. It’s not that we’re as doomed to fail as we’d be if we had to compete against aristocrats booted and strapped to rule. It’s that our shared ordinariness forces us to compete with everyone like us for attention, status, and prizes, posing what Tocqueville called a “multitude of little intermediate obstacles, all of which have to be negotiated slowly.” Think of the gantlet of chores, tests, and credentials reaching from the competitive preschool scene to the college admissions process and well, well beyond. We Americans, according to Tocqueville, “therefore discard such distant and doubtful hopes, preferring to seek delights less lofty but easier to reach.” Delights like that midcentury modern floor lamp “everyone” wants this year or that ultimate dog-mom pampering package or that life-size Call of Duty: Black Ops III specialist replica for the man cave. So far, so mediocre. If only there were some heroes we could still look up to!
Well, there are — of a sort. Although public opinion and public culture increasingly shape who we are, nature still breaks up that uniformity by throwing in a monkey wrench of human biological diversity. That’s right: Some of us are just, by our nature, way more talented and ambitious than the rest. And since so many of us are fighting to get a nose above the same level, even those who are just barely above are, relatively speaking, titans. They’re the ones who get all the attention. They’re the ones who get the breakout success. And, on some unconscious level, they’re the ones who we sense deserve it. As Tocqueville put it: “Men find their level,” and as we learn to accept it, “democratic society is finally firmly established.”
When those heroic all-stars get snobby, or when we’re in a really rotten mood, we want to see them crash and burn. But when they signal they’re ultimately just our fellow humans, and let us see them live out the lofty delights we long for but know we can’t have, on balance, we love it; we can’t get enough. Old Worlders, by contrast, have a hard time pouring energy into this conceptual middle ground. Stuck with shared, inherited memories of the worst and best of life ruled by a caste apart, they tend to focus their social fantasies on either the heroism of the past or the utopianism of the future — or, as Tocqueville feared even the Americans would ultimately do, they give up on visions of greatness altogether and embrace the petty charms of life at its most mundane. Since celebrities don’t return us to the golden age of heroes or advance us to the golden age of perfect justice, Tocqueville would suggest, they can never really seize the Old World imagination the way they do in America.
Some of the people making up America’s vaguely godlike quasi-royalty are sports stars, heroes of the body. Fewer are geniuses (usually business geniuses), heroes of the mind. Far more are artist-entertainers, especially actors, those geniuses at taking on many roles — heroes, we feel, of the soul. Where we are limited, they are expansive. Where our lack of a steady core makes us weak, theirs makes them strong. Where we struggle to look good in just one way, they can inhabit and show off beauty as democratic Americans experience it to be in full — diverse, ever-changing, even sometimes self-contradictory. Celebrities: They’re just like us! Only charmed, infinitely charmed.
Until, that is, there’s a problem. The car crash. The overdose. The hospital check-in for “exhaustion.” And, inevitably, almost, the divorce: the fight over the kids, the plea for privacy and respect, the moment of weakness, the piercing humanity. Nothing lasts forever, even charisma. But even in their failures, our celebrity heroes still radiate a captivating magnetism.
But there’s a twist. The only reason that humbled celebrities still seem such worthy objects of our admiration and attention is our own strange stoicism. Tocqueville discussed how Americans, because they combine a fervent desire to have it all with a repressed knowledge that it’s all fleeting, are “often less afraid of death than of enduring effort toward one goal.” In a perverse but potent way, the spectacle of collapsing celebrity marriages reinforces that quintessentially American view of life. Sad as they are, they’re proof positive that long labors are the riskiest, most futile of all — and, here’s the kicker, that’s OK.
We know how anxious it makes us feel when our own strongest feelings force us to commit to enduring, all-consuming projects that will leave us a wreck if and when they fail. When celebrities are wrecked in this way too, we understand that — just as in their case the culprit was more bad fortune than moral fault, so it is in ours. Just because we helplessly risk failure and actually fail doesn’t mean we’re bad people. That craziness is constitutive of American life. Deep down, we think, it’s baked into the true reality of being human. And that’s why, even when the world at large appears close to crashing down, we care so much about the tribulations of our favorite celebrities.
People in other parts of the world, where cultural resources are more geared toward processing history and tradition, tend to have a different perspective on Americans’ manic democratic stoicism. Because they are forced to deal with its political implications, they often dismiss it as a perversely moralistic flightiness — a lack of resolve elevated to a virtue. It’s no accident that Americans, like our celebrities, tend to leap into geopolitical marriages with the best of intentions and a sort of recklessly romantic ego — only to crumble in a fatalistic funk the minute the going gets tough and pierces the illusion.
It’s worth noting that American favor for celebrities can be so fervent as to almost make the most magical of them immortal. (Think of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jackson.) But as a rule, Tocqueville whispers, our manic American fixture on fame is bigger than any one idol. “With everything on the move in the realm of the mind,” not even the most ambitious, talented, and beloved of celebs is safe from eventual obscurity. Of course, the same is true for even the most ambitious, talented, and beloved of countries.