Entry from October 19, 2009

You just knew that it was all about fame, as soon as that poor little boy — already saddled by his parents with the ridiculous name, “Falcon” — said to his father on national television, “You guys said we did this for the show.” Sure enough, Robert Thomas, a former collaborator of the boy’s father, Richard Heene on a proposal for a TV “reality” show, soon told Gawker.com that the man was “obsessed with becoming famous.” Mr Heene and his wife, Mayumi, had already appeared on the reality TV show “Wife Swap,” and he was said to have had in development with Mr Thomas a new show that he thought of as being “MythBusters-meets-mad scientist — except that he was no kind of scientist, mad or otherwise.” The idea was to test scientific theories for the cameras, but Mr Heene, whose education stopped at high school, appears to have no scientific qualifications.

Still, he wanted to be famous and, heck, who doesn’t these days? A recent survey in Britain confirms an informal and unscientific one that I took there over 20 years ago when I was a school-teacher. How many of you, I asked a class of 16- and 17-year olds, think you will one day be famous? All but two or three hands went up. The celebrity culture even at that early date seems to have taught young people that their lives are failures if they’re not talked about and pointed out in the street by strangers. The Polanski case has recently reminded us of one of the more dire social consequences of celebrity worship, which is the creation of a class of people who think, and who have persuaded others to think, that they are not bound by the ordinary rules governing humanity. Maybe some such idea as that was in the back of Mr Heene’s mind. In any case, we now learn that you have to be very young indeed to have escaped the contagion.

The British survey, according to India Knight of The Sunday Times, showed that

there has been a “seismic shift” in children’s ambitions over the space of a single generation. Becoming a sports star. . . is in top spot, becoming a pop star is at number two and the third slot is occupied by being a famous actor (teaching, finance and medicine held the top three slots 25 years ago). Regarding the last two, the combination of reality television talent shows and the abundance of drama or other “performing arts” courses means everyone thinks they can have a go. This is basically insane — a mathematical impossibility. There are many, many more drama students and actor wannabes than there are acting jobs in the entire western hemisphere.

Oddly, however, Ms. Knight finds that the fault lies in having an optimistic outlook on life. Citing Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, she joins her in giving

both barrels to, among others, evangelical churches that preach that you have only to ask for something to get it because God wants to “prosper you”; and academia, which includes departments of “positive psychology” and examinations of “the science of happiness”. She suggests the whole fixed-grin, everything-is-going-to- be-fine approach is also behind the current financial crisis, which she sees as fuelled by the refusal even to entertain the possibility of negative outcomes, such as mortgage defaults.

Even leaving aside the dubiousness of Ms Ehrenreich’s argument, there is a certain illogic in applying it to kids with the wrong values. If they still wanted to be nurses or teachers but retained their sunny outlook and confidence of success, would that also be wrong? Or right? The confidence is not the problem; the problem is the unrealistic nature of the ambition to start with. Confidence is only wrong when it is misplaced. And I doubt that even the Joel Osteens of the world are promising their parishioners that if they ask God to be rock stars they will be rock stars. Besides, the kids are not wrong to think that you can become a celebrity without anything much in the way of brains or guts or talent. They merely overestimate the odds of their doing so — I think because they have never been taught that there is anything better than fame or wealth, or that good is more important than being a star. And now a child is to have his life torn apart. I wonder what comfort it will be to him to know that, at least, he is famous?

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