Overreaching for the Stars
Will Rogers famously said, "We can't all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud as they go by." But Will Rogers is dead, and no one remembers him, because he never had his own TV show or won "Survivor" or "Project Runway" or -- let me double-check before I go to press with this -- "Dancing With the Stars."
The new rule is: Everyone can be a hero, and if you're just sitting on the curb, clapping, you might as well be a para-mecium. An intestinal parasite. A virus buried in a bacterium. If you have a shred of self-respect, you must be a star, a beacon of glory, a supernova shining from the cosmic firmament, particularly during the November and May sweeps.
America has become a land where modesty is considered slightly pathological, and potentially curable with medication. We're a society in which delusions of grandeur are actively encouraged by parents and teachers who fear that a child's self-esteem cannot endure the torment of being merely somewhat above average. (How do I know? Because I'm one of America's leading arbiters of truth. On my business card it says, "Arbiter of Truth, Raconteur, Sensualist.") The most popular show in the country, and the best indication that we are a nation gone insane, is "American Idol," which is full of people who believe they have singing talent even as they sound like cats trying to hawk up hairballs.
Almost all the contestants seem to think the program is seeking the loudest singer in America. They routinely combine wall-paint-peeling volume with warbles, trills, moans and various other pneumatic calisthenics. The judges inform them that not only are they detestable losers, but their singing also violates the torture provisions of the Geneva Conventions. The contestant receives the official stamp of putridity. Go away now, the judges say: Return to your sad, hopeless, anonymous life. The viewer feels like a rubber-necker passing a car crash. The program leaves bodies strewn everywhere in the talent-show equivalent of a snuff film.
Rosie O'Donnell, the noted defender of good taste, argues that "AI" exploits "mentally unstable" people. But if we stopped delusional people and dimwits and freakazoids from making spectacles of themselves in public, we'd have no presidential campaign -- the original reality TV show.
Hubris has become as essential to our culture as fossil fuel. We do everything bigger, louder, faster. Zeal has replaced equanimity. The passionate outburst is the new behavioral baseline. Shame is as old-fashioned as marmalade.
What's strange is that the tendency for excess to backfire does not seem to have the same inhibitory quality that it once did. People fail upward.
Bode Miller somehow remains our most famous Olympic-class skier despite getting skunked at the Olympics. Lindsay Lohan can commute to rehab all she wants without any evaporation of her celebrity. Barry Bonds may be up to his thyroid in rumors about performance-enhancing drugs, but he still briefly got his own reality show on ESPN. O.J. Simpson's "confession" book finally pushed shamelessness too far even for our indulgent society. But just before that, he managed to produce a pay-per-view TV show, "Juiced," in which he played pranks on people, like trying to sell a white Bronco at a used car lot. I can't wait for Charles Manson to have a talk show.
Celebrity culture has led to a collapse of the healthy neurosis known as the "impostor complex." It used to be that people suspected that their successes were undeserved; now they're more likely to think it's their lack of fame that's bizarre. Many people apparently think they can be president of the United States, even when they might barely qualify to be commissioner of baseball.
Am I saying that people should never aspire to greatness? No. It just means we should accept that greatness is not an entitlement, nor a requirement for being an excellent person. Exceptionalism, if it became too common, would cease to have any meaning.
Once in a while, dare not to dream. The common and the ordinary are not so bad. There's another great quote from Will Rogers: "Heroing is one of the shortest-lived professions there is."
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.