From Davos to Washington to Wall Street, too much sizzle, too little steak.
"Are we creating a society where celebrity itself is the primary measure of one's individual worth?"Daniel Boorstin, "The Image: A guide to pseudo-events in America"
This year's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum was held at Davos, Switzerland, in January. Davos, as it is now called, has become the world's foremost gathering of business executives, government leaders, media giants and NGO heads, some 2,500 men and women who gather annually to discuss the economic problems of the world and, it is hoped, to offer some solutions.
But since Klaus M. Schwab founded it in 1971, Davos has evolved from a gathering of economists, executives and government officials to also include movie stars, rock stars and other assorted entertainers. Some of the "celebs" have actually made attempts to take part in worthwhile projects (Bono comes to mind). But most strike me as wannabes who just like to be seen with the "real thing."
Even after the worst financial crises in modern times, many attendees came in their corporate-owned or government-owned private jets -- even the CEOs of Citibank and Bank of America, two of the bigger recipients of government bailout money. But often the proceedings took a back seat in the world media to what was happening with the celebrities, such as who attended with whom and who got the limited suites in the village hotels. In other words, the attention generated by the celebrities oftentimes detracted from the serious business at hand.
While the business world has produced its share of super egos whose inflated sense of self-worth seldom matches the actual performance of the companies they run, they nonetheless acquire their celebrity status from their CEO title, which includes access to corporate planes, chauffeured limos and star status.
These trappings help to create the "performance of personality" that replaces the "performance of reality." As historian and author Boorstin suggested, it becomes easier for people to be "well known for their well-knownness."
Locally, we have had recent had examples of "celebrity executives" who sacrificed the reputation of their company and the business community for their ego and status.
Minnesota role models
But, historically, Minnesota has had far more examples of local business leaders who knew what their jobs were and set about doing them without the fanfare of celebrity. Executives like Don Nyrop and Joe Lapensky of Northwest Airlines, Elmer and Tony Andersen of H.B. Fuller, Win Wallin of Medtronic, Chuck Denny of ADC Telecommunications, the Dayton brothers, and Carl Platou of Fairview Hospitals, to name just a few. These executives built companies, created jobs and developed a culture of success and innovation. They knew the difference between being a business executive and a rock star.
Having business executives who want to be celebrities is bad enough but when our elected officials want to get into the act, then things can really get scary.
As Boorstin cites, more and more of what passes for public life consists of "pseudo-events, staged and scripted happenings designed to create news and influence the perceptions of reality."
Bigger than their jobs
As a result of how the media, and in particular TV, use this material, they create more and more opportunities for politicians and the "talking heads" who make it their profession to foster the creation of celebrity-personalities, to promote them not for their achievement but simply because they are well known.
The last presidential election produced several examples of rather low-level politicians who, for one reason or another, got media exposure and became celebrities in their own right. People like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Joe "You Lie" Wilson, to cite a few of the many who have become bigger than their jobs.
In Minnesota we have generally been fortunate to have serious politicians who knew their jobs, like Walter Mondale, Arne Carlson, Dave Durenberger and Paul Wellstone. They represented the people of Minnesota first.
As Richard Schickel suggests in his book "Intimate Stranger: The Culture of Celebrity in America,'' one of the big dangers of political celebrity is that our obsession with it has given false standing to the "power of personality" over the power of ideas and the authentic issues of the day.